Late-round draft picks in fantasy football drafts are like lottery tickets: you invest a minimal amount with the expectation of minimal returns, but with a chance at a big payout. The big payouts are the deep sleeper candidates we search for every year, and no draft strategy is complete without those types of players. Obviously, you have better odds of striking it big in fantasy football playing ADP roulette than you do playing Mega Millions, but the principle of "low risk, high reward" is the same.
With that in mind, there is a way to improve your late-round lottery odds, and this season, it comes in the form of picking a rookie wide receiver. This rookie WR class is very talented, and taking a late-round flier on Kelvin Benjamin or Brandin Cooks is a solid bet that could land big returns. That said, there are rookie wideout to avoid as potential busts, even in the late rounds. While Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans were the first two wide receivers taken in this year’s draft, I would avoid both. As tempting as Watkins’s talent is, he comes off the board much too early, and while Evans is built similarly to Benjamin, he must compete with an established star. Let's dig in a little further.
Wide Receiver Rookies to Target Late in Drafts
Kelvin Benjamin - Carolina Panthers
We start on a positive note in Carolina, where Kelvin Benjamin is poised to break out. Benjamin is without a doubt the most talented red zone receiving threat that Cam Newton has ever had. In fact, this was Benjamin's first NFL catch, and he made it after tripping over Stephon Gilmore. There's a lot to like in that clip, and it should help silence some of the critics who say that Benjamin's hands are unreliable. I was high on Benjamin before his first preseason game, and now I'm even higher. That is clear-cut WR1 play.
Nevertheless, it's irresponsible to suggest drafting a player based on a highlight reel (said the sad man who drafted CJ Spiller in the first last year), so let's break it down a little further. Benjamin plays on a team for which the descriptor of "WR starved" didn't really do justice. The team's leading receiver last year was Greg Olsen, and he couldn't break 1,000 yards on the season. While Carolina is a run-first team, Benjamin will get his touches, especially in the red zone, where his 6'5'' frame invites Cam Newton to lob an end zone fade and see what happens. The least you'll get out of Benjamin if you make the draft-day investment is a depth guy whom you can plug in on a bye week and maybe earn a TD. However, if the youngster keeps proving he can make plays, I think he can end up a solid contributor to a winning fantasy team as a flex or maybe even a WR2.
Brandin Cooks - New Orleans Saints
Next we move on to Brandin Cooks, who landed in what may be the perfect situation for a speedy wide receiver. The Oregon State standout was drafted 20th overall by the New Orleans Saints, who like to throw the football. And while the Saints are notorious for spreading the ball around, they've simply not had a scoring threat like Cooks in their WR arsenal.
In his final season at Oregon State, Cooks set PAC-12 records with 128 receptions and an astonishing 1,730 receiving yards in 13 games. And as a nice little cherry on top of a delicious record-breaking sundae, he added 16 receiving touchdowns, better than one per game. He also ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “Combine stats are pointless, and college is a different game! It doesn’t translate to the NFL!” This is absolutely true-- you can’t just pull someone’s college stats out of a book and paste them into their rookie year statline. However, Cooks has proven that his skill translates at least a little bit into the NFL with this. Right there, Cooks manages to run past the entire New Orleans Saints defense as though everyone in a black jersey were standing still. He’s got NFL-level talent.
Cooks represents what Tavon Austin could have been last year, if the Rams knew at all how to use him. The Saints will know how to use Cooks, and he has the potential to devastate defenses. Cooks has a higher ceiling than Benjamin, but also a lower floor: at 5'11'', Cooks doesn't represent the end zone threat that Benjamin does, so he will be more reliant on receiving yards to generate points. However, if he gets going, he will absolutely swing matchups for you if you have him in your starting lineup. Cooks is electric, and the Saints know offense.
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Wide Receiver Rookies to Avoid at their Current ADPs
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Third in our review of rookie receivers is Mike Evans. While Evans is a big target like Benjamin (both stand 6'5''), Evans plays with an established star receiver in Vincent Jackson, who is also a big, physical wideout. Evans must contend with Jackson for end zone touches, as well as rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. While Carolina has only one player with Benjamin’s size and athleticism, Tampa Bay has three. And while the Bucs' offense might look similar to the Chicago offense in which Josh McCown thrived, the presence of Lovie Smith as head coach signals a commitment to the run that further devalues Evans.
Benjamin can get by in a run-heavy offense because he is the only receiver on the Panthers with his level of talent. Evans is not, and the touches that will already be limited in a power running offense will have to be split between Evans and Jackson. Again, this is not to say that Evans won’t develop into a fine player, but his potential in 2014 is limited, and if you’re in a redraft league, I wouldn’t target him.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Finally, Sammy Watkins. Look, I am an Ohio State guy, and I know exactly what Sammy Watkins is capable of (much to my dismay). There is no doubt that Watkins is the total package, and he's the member of this wide receiver class most likely to get a bust in Canton. But Watkins ended up in the offensive no man’s land that is Buffalo. Whereas Cooks and Benjamin have proven stars throwing to them, Watkins has EJ Manuel, and no one is really sure where Manuel will land on the quarterbacking greatness spectrum. If Manuel struggles like he did last season, Watkins’s numbers will suffer along with him.
The reality is that Watkins isn’t a late-round pick, he’s a mid-round pick, and there is just too much uncertainty in Buffalo for my taste. If you had to guess which rookie all of the other owners in your league want to draft, it’d probably be Watkins. Hell, I want to draft Watkins. I just believe that the demand will push his ADP too high for me to conscionably recommend picking him.
Bringing it Home
Remember, the late rounds of the draft are where you pick players based on their upside. You could play it safe and try to get 12th-round value out of your 12th-round pick, but 12th-round value doesn’t represent a huge amount of points. Swing for the fences with high upside sleepers - that 12th-rounder could end up being the $1 lottery ticket that pays out $500. And that’s how you maximize value.