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Fantasy Football Rookies to Watch in Week 18: DeVonta Smith, Pat Freiermuth, and more

Devonta Smith - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

Every week, this column will spotlight the first-year players who are ripe for a breakout performance. Oftentimes, rookies can provide some of the most value as under-the-radar options.

With the regular season coming to a close this weekend, most fantasy champions have already been crowned. However, the grind never stops for the most committed fantasy enthusiasts. Even for those whose seasons are over, Week 18 will provide some important insight into players' stocks entering the 2022 offseason. An early opportunity for research is on the horizon, and some of the most crucial players to watch will be this year's rookies. Your peers will be using the upcoming slate of games to identify which players will dominate their sophomore seasons. Will you?

For dynasty leagues, this column should help identify ideal trade targets and prized stashes. For redraft managers, this column will provide early information on options for your fantasy drafts next season. This week's article is focused on prominent players who figure to factor into managers' plans for next year and beyond.

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The Young Padawan

Mac Jones (QB, NE)

A first-round pick in the 2021 draft, Mac Jones has been better for the Patriots this season than for fantasy managers. While he has led New England to a solid 10-6 record as a rookie, Jones has averaged just the 24th-most fantasy points per game among QBs and 23rd-most per dropback. The Alabama product hasn't produced enough to be worth starting in fantasy, partially due to his lack of rushing upside. Jones has run for just 125 yards in 16 games, and he has yet to score on the ground.

However, Jones has displayed the skills required to put up excellent passing numbers in the future. His accuracy rating is the 11th-best in the league, and other statistics tell an even more impressive story. Indeed, his pressured completion percentage is the best in the NFL, and his play-action completion percentage is ninth. Moreover, this accuracy isn't just on short passes; Jones averages 8.2 air yards per attempt, the ninth-highest figure in the league. The rookie had his best fantasy performance to date last week against Jacksonville. Another stellar outing would do wonders for his outlook in 2022.


The Diamond in the Rough

Elijah Mitchell (RB, SF)

Most NFL observers expected third-rounder Trey Sermon to be the San Francisco rookie running back to watch in 2021. Instead, sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell came out of nowhere to take over the backfield in the wake of Raheem Mostert's Week 1 season-ending injury. Mitchell has dealt with injuries himself, missing six games as a result. In the 10 weeks he has played, though, he has averaged a superb 87.8 rushing yards per game. Additionally, his 15.7 PPR points per game is the 12th-best mark among RBs. Mitchell's 21 fantasy points last week resulted in an RB9 finish.

Mitchell's efficiency has been good, but he has also benefited from San Francisco's offense. The 49ers have run the fifth-most rushing plays in the league this year, and the Louisiana product has seen a large share of those. Indeed, Mitchell's 80.5 percent opportunity share is the fourth-highest among all tailbacks this year. His numbers are impressive, but will they be enough for him to remain the Niners' top option for years to come? Every week counts, and his output against the Rams on Sunday will be a factor in answering that question.


The Impactful Runner

Rhamondre Stevenson (RB, NE)

Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson spent the early stages of 2021 in the doghouse after fumbling in the season opener. Fortunately, he has since heated up. Stevenson, a fourth-rounder out of Oklahoma, has five top-20 RB finishes to his name since Week 6. That number includes two top-5 finishes, one of which was last game against the Jaguars. The rookie has also begun to make a name for himself with his powerful running style. His ferocity at the conclusion of his runs often results in a few extra yards.

The Patriots' starting tailback, Damien Harris, has been hampered for several weeks now with a hamstring injury. While Harris has been playing through this ailment, Stevenson has garnered an increased workload as a result. That should continue this week versus Miami. Stevenson put up 107 yards with 5.6 yards per carry last week; another high-output game with efficiency would go a long way in helping him establish himself in the backfield for next year and beyond.


The Go-To Target

Jaylen Waddle (WR, MIA)

Miami's Jaylen Waddle has had himself quite a productive rookie season. Before last week, Waddle had at least seven catches in seven of the previous nine games he'd played. This incredible volume has resulted in Waddle being just two catches shy of tying the rookie record for receptions in a season. The first-year player from Alabama will also have the opportunity on Sunday to clear the 1,000-yard receiving threshold in addition to breaking Anquan Boldin's record. Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase is having a ridiculous rookie season with 1,429 receiving yards already, but he should not overshadow Waddle's achievements.

Waddle had a disappointing game last week with just three receptions, but for the most part, Miami has done a great job utilizing their young weapon. Waddle was most known for his blistering speed on deep routes in college, but the Dolphins have primarily used him on short patterns. He has the 19th-most receiving yards among wideouts this season, but just the 32nd-most completed air yards. His diverse skillset bodes quite well for his future in the league. Expect a bounce-back game from Waddle against New England.


The Decorated Dominator

DeVonta Smith (WR, PHI)

While Waddle may be having the better rookie season, Philadelphia's DeVonta Smith was actually the more accomplished of the two at Alabama. As a freshman, Smith caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the CFP Championship, and as a senior he won the Heisman, Walter Camp, Maxwell, and Biletnikoff awards in another championship season for the Crimson Tide. Smith's first year in the NFL has been marred by inconsistency, however. He has four weeks in which he has finished as the WR20 or better, but he also has four where he's finished outside the top-70. 

One key factor that has suppressed Smith's output is that the Eagles have thrown the ball the fewest times in the league. As Jalen Hurts continues to develop as a passer, that should change in the coming seasons. Still, Smith has shown flashes; he's got two 100-yard days to his credit, and he's had four more games with at least five catches. Philadelphia has already clinched a playoff berth, so Smith may not see his normal usage on Saturday. Regardless, it will be important to see how well he performs as this season concludes.


The Reliable Receiver

Pat Freiermuth (TE, PIT)

Tight end Pat Freiermuth has been a surprisingly consistent fantasy option this season. In his last 10 games, Freiermuth has had fewer than four receptions just twice. Moreover, he also has six touchdowns in that span. Since Week 6, Freiermuth has been the TE7 in PPR. While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's arm isn't what it used to be, that actually helps the Penn State product, who has emerged as a reliable short-yardage target. Big Ben had just 123 yards on 24 completions last week, but Freiermuth still made five catches and managed to finish as the TE16 in PPR.

Pittsburgh is widely expected to have a new quarterback under center in 2022. This means that Freiermuth, who is already averaging the eighth-most fantasy points per route run among tight ends, could have a QB who is more of a vertical passing threat. Keep an eye on how Freiermuth is used this week versus Baltimore, as he has a good shot to be in the top tier of fantasy tight ends in the near future.


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