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Fantasy Football Rookies to Watch - Diontae Johnson, Mecole Hardman, Preston Williams


It's Week 8 of the 2019 fantasy football season, Rotoballers. And what a ride it's been. We've watched some rookies blossom right before our very eyes, while others have remained trapped in their cocoons. And that's okay. Some players catch on and adjust to NFL game speed faster than others. Just because they haven't broken out yet, that doesn't mean they're doomed to be busts. That said, today we're going to focus on the rookies that have already emerged from their cocoons or are on the verge of transforming into the triumphant fantasy butterflies we know they can be.

In case you are new to this column, each week we highlight a few first-year players who are worth keeping your eye on. Not all of the players listed below are must-starts, but all of them are in a position to be viable fantasy options.

If any of these names are sitting out on your waiver wire, you should keep a close watch on them. Ideally, some of these names will help fantasy players get some roster depth which can minimize the negative impact of injuries and bye weeks.

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The Quarterback Boost

Diontae Johnson (WR, PIT)

Mason Rudolph will be returning to the fold after suffering a brutal concussion in Week 5 against the Ravens. That's great news for Diontae Johnson, who thrived with the sophomore quarterback under center. It's a small sample size, but in the two games Rudolph both started and finished, Johnson finished with a combined stat line of 9-of-12 for 129 yards and two touchdowns. It's worth noting one of those contests was against San Francisco, who are allowing the fewest passing yards and third-fewest passing touchdowns on the season.

And now he gets to face a defense on the exact opposite end of the spectrum in the Miami Dolphins. They're allowing the second-most touchdowns and are middle of the pack in terms of yards allowed, but only because teams have been blowing them out in the first half and reverting to the run game in the second half. I expect Johnson to continue seeing a good chunk of targets, which automatically equates to fantasy points against Miami.

 

The Positional Advantage

Miles Sanders (RB, PHI)

If there's one thing we know about the Bills Defense thus far, it's that they don't get beat through the air very often. Carson Wentz should figure to have tough sledding against Bufallo's hyper-stingy pass defense, and will likely be required to lean on his running backs early and often. While this primarily projects to be a Jordan Howard game, there should be no doubt Sanders will be utilized frequently.

Sanders hit a fantasy speed bump against Dallas last week, carrying the ball fewer than 10 times for the third straight week. His involvement as a pass-catcher has been refreshing to see, however, as the rookie has seen 11 targets over that same three-week stretch. Howard has seen just two in that period. Even if Philadelphia's corners can't manage to keep this game somewhat close -- because, well, that's not exactly their forte -- Sanders may be game script-proof enough to put together a nice game.

 

The Big Play Question Mark

Mecole Hardman (WR, KC)

With Tyreek Hill sidelined, Kansas City called upon their rookie Hill clone to step up and deliver his best impersonation. And he performed well. In Weeks 2-5, he amassed 22 targets and delivered 12 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdowns. But with the real Hill back on the field, Hardman's target share has dipped along with his fantasy production, as we all expected it would.

This week's matchup with Green Bay is interesting because the Packers' defense has been incredibly susceptible to giving up big plays to wide receivers. They'll likely put their fastest corner Jaire Alexander on Hill in hopes of limiting his home run receptions, perhaps leaving Hardman to sneak a couple of chunk gains. This should be the type of game where having two similarly explosive players really pays off for the Chiefs, particularly since they won't have Patrick Mahomes to make magic out of thin air.

 

The Late Bloomer

Noah Fant (TE, DEN)

Things haven't worked out for Fant in his rookie season the way many expected. While most people understand that rookie tight ends rarely produce for fantasy purposes in their first year, Fant seemed like he had an opportunity to break the mold. Fant profiled as more of an outright receiving tight end than fellow Hawkeye alum T.J. Hockenson, and he was going to an offense led by Joe Flacco, who notoriously hyper-targets his tight ends. That's relatively simple math that suggested Fant would be worth rostering even in redraft leagues.

So far, he simply hasn't produced. Fant's exceeded 35 yards just once all season, which is the same number of times he's found the end zone. And yet, there's now a glimmer of hope for the rookie tight end. Emmanuel Sanders was just traded to the 49ers, and while Daesean Hamilton is the most obvious beneficiary, this could also open up more opportunities for Fant. Keep an eye on him this week against Indianapolis, who is allowing the third-most fantasy points to the tight end position.

 

The Model of Consistency

Preston Williams (WR, MIA)

Despite being a part of such a historically terrible offense, Williams has managed to keep his head above water and put together consistently respectable stat lines. No matter which quarterback has been under center for the Dolphins, Williams has seen no fewer than five targets, has averaged 13.7 yards per reception, and leads the team in catches and receiving yards. It hasn't really mattered how strong the opposing defense is either, as he put up four receptions for 63 yards against the dominant Patriots. So a matchup with Pittsburgh should have little bearing on Williams' production. The guy just finds a way.

Of course, all of that still only makes him the WR55 on the season because there's only so much you can do when you're stuck wearing orange and teal.

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