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NFL Rookie Wide Receivers Set Up For Immediate Fantasy Football Success

Drake London fantasy football rankings rookies draft sleepers NFL draft

In recent seasons, rookie receivers have been on the rise and are giving fantasy managers instant starters and not only that but impact players. It would be best to not get sucked into that dream and accept that should not be the expectation. The seasons Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase, and Jaylen Waddle have given us recently are not the norm. In fact, their seasons have somewhat minimized just how well rookies like DeVonta Smith, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, and yes, even Jerry Jeudy played in Year One.

We can only assume that the transition from college to the pros is not easy. While there are a decent number of players who come in and play well as rookies, there aren't very many that are consistent fantasy starters. Take DeVonta Smith for instance. He had 64 receptions, 916 yards, and five touchdowns. For a first-year player, that's really good! Any NFL team would be thrilled to draft a first-round receiver who puts up that kind of stat line as a rookie. Unfortunately for fantasy managers, it amounted to just nine half-PPR points per game.

It's a similar story with Tee Higgins. 67 receptions, 908 yards, and six touchdowns – a 10.1 half-PPR PPG average, which ranked 39th among receivers. Some of you may be thinking, but wait! He didn't even play the first two weeks. That's true but even in the last seven weeks of the season, he scored in double-digits just twice and never broke 16. In the other five games, he didn't even score six points – not once. All of this is to say, keep your expectations realistic. No matter how much you love a rookie receiver, chances are they're unlikely going to be good enough in Year One to move the needle. Still, breakouts and exceptions happen every year and so we're going to be identifying four of the receivers that are set up for immediate fantasy success.

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Drake London, Atlanta Falcons

There's really no other receiver set up for as much success early as Drake London. The depth chart at receiver in Atlanta is severely lacking and it's going to leave the USC standout in a position where he's almost all but guaranteed 120 targets. Let's break it down.

Last season, the Falcons attempted 573 passes. This ranked 19th in the NFL, so already on the lower side of things. Matt Ryan was the quarterback then and the team has since replaced him with Marcus Mariota or rookie Desmond Ridder. There's no way around it, that's a significant downgrade. The expectation is likely that they're going to pass less. It's a reasonable expectation and it's most likely what head coach Arthur Smith would like to do. The question becomes will he be able to?

The Falcons' defense gave up just over 364 yards per game, the seventh-worst in the NFL. Maybe bend, but don't break? No, sorry – this defense broke. They allowed 27 points per game last season, the fourth-worst in the NFL. They've made some additions on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, but fantasy managers should still be expecting this unit to be below-average, which will likely leave the offense needing to score points more often than not.

Moving onto the ground – this may have been more ugly than their defense. They averaged just 85 rushing yards per game, the 31st in the NFL. Their 3.7 yards per carry average was just as bad – 30th. The goal may be to slow the game down and lean on the running game, but I also have a goal of riding my Peloton six nights a week, and let me tell you – it does not happen.

If the ground game was something they wanted to lean on, they sure did a funny way of showing that. They haven't made any significant additions to their offensive line and their starting running back is still just Cordarrelle Patterson. They've since added Damien Williams in free agency and drafted Tyler Allgeier in the fifth round of this year's NFL Draft.

Fantasy managers should be expecting this offense to throw the ball around 540–550 times. That's roughly 32 attempts per game, which would have ranked around 23rd last season. Now that we have a reasonable team total to work from, we can ask ourselves how those 545 targets are going to be distributed.

Player Targets Target Share
Kyle Pitts 140 25.70%
Drake London 120 22%
Cordarrelle Patterson 85 15.60%
Auden Tate 70 12.80%
Olamide Zaccheaus 70 12.80%
Others 60 11%

He has the opportunity to step in and be that dude opposite Pitts and based on the competition behind him and the season he just had at USC, there's very little reason not to expect that to happen. If there's a concern with London's immediate fantasy impact, it sure doesn't look like it will be his fault. The dreadful-looking Falcons offense and having Marcus Mariota behind center certainly lowers the overall ceiling.

Based on Mariota's career average for yards per attempt and his touchdown rate, using our 545 attempts total, Mariota would finish the season with around 3,925 yards and 23 touchdowns. Those kinds of team total passing numbers will make it difficult for London to be anything more than a WR2, but right now he's being drafted as the WR33 on Underdog.

Based on his projected 120 targets above, fantasy managers should expect him to finish with 65–75 receptions. Depending on how Atlanta deploys and chooses to use London, he could surpass 1,000 yards as a rookie. A more reasonable expectation is the rookie finishing with around 950 yards.

With the likelihood of Atlanta having a bottom-tier offense, it's doubtful he finishes with more than 5–6 touchdowns. A rookie season of 70 receptions, 950 yards, and five touchdowns would result in 160 half-PPR points. Last year, that would have resulted in a WR29 finish, just ahead of DeVonta Smith.

While that's a realistic expectation for London, there's the possibility he could command an even bigger target share with the lack of talent in Atlanta. Touchdowns are almost always impossible to predict, but five touchdowns on 120 targets would result in just a 4.2% TD rate. There's plenty of room for that number to be higher.

While London certainly has the pedigree, talent, and opportunity to make noise in Year One, his likely subpar quarterback play and bottom-tier offense will make it difficult for him to be a difference-maker in his rookie season.

 

Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints

Chris Olave may just check off the majority of those requirements for immediate Year One success. He has the talent, pedigree, and opportunity, but he'll also receive decent quarterback play and the offense should also be league average.

There's no reason to expect Jameis Winston to be an elite-level quarterback, but the reality is that he doesn't need to be. He's been a very fantasy-friendly quarterback since his rookie season. Maybe not so much for the fantasy managers that wanted to start him, but he's certainly helped guys like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans became very good options.

With Michael Thomas working the slant and the short to intermediate routes, Olave will be tasked with beating defenses over the top. He excelled at this role in college. At Ohio State – in four seasons – he never had a season with a yards per reception average lower than 14.4. He entered the NFL Draft with a career 15.4 YPR average. His career average depth of target was just a smidge higher at 15.5 yards.

From Winston's rookie season in 2015–2018, he has never had a season where he did not finish in the top-12 in air yards per game. In 2019, he led the NFL in air yards per game. Winston has always been someone who is not afraid of throwing the deep ball.

In 2015, he was fourth in average depth of target, third in 2016 and 2017, and second in 2018 and 2019. Even in 2021, his first season as the starter in New Orleans, he ranked fourth. If there's one thing fantasy managers can count on, it's Jameis Winston slinging the ball down the field.

Outside of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, this offense is severely lacking additional play-makers and Olave will have an opportunity to step in on Day One and fill that void. While the offense will undoubtedly run through Thomas and Kamara, Olave has a chance to carve out a very useful role as the deep ball threat. This type of role may come with some weekly inconsistencies, but also will have the possibility for some "boom" weeks, as well.

Olave has a fairly easy pathway to 110–115 targets as a rookie. He's likely someone better in standard and half-PPR leagues because if he operates in that deep-ball role, he's unlikely to have a high catch percentage. If he's able to catch around 57–67 of those targets with a YPR average of 15, he'll be flirting with 950 yards. This should be the expectation for Olave, which leaves him more in that low-end WR3 range for half-PPR scoring.

However, with his role as the deep ball threat, just 1–2 extra deep passes would be all that stands in his way from WR2 status. With his current Underdog ADP of just WR44, he's certainly someone worth taking a shot on earlier than that because of his likely role as the primary deep ball threat in an offense that features Winston behind center.

 

Christian Watson, Green Bay Packers

Unlike Drake London where fantasy managers need to worry about the quarterback play and offensive output, there are no such concerns here at Lambeau. Watson was drafted into quite possibly the most fantasy-friendly situation since Ezekiel Elliott was drafted by the Cowboys. Seriously, it's not that good.

Davante Adams was traded to Las Vegas and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown both left in free agency. Between the three of them, they left behind 241 targets, 158 receptions, 2,081 yards, and 14 touchdowns. He'll be catching passes from a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the back-to-back MVP. It really does not get any better than that and yet, there are still some concerns.

Whereas the talent London possesses is undeniable, there are questions as to how NFL-ready Christian Watson truly is. He was at North Dakota State from 2017–2021 and red-shirted his 2017 season. In four seasons of playing time, Watson amassed just 2,140 yards, an average of just 535 yards per season.

However, there was a reason for that. North Dakota State ran the ball at an insanely high amount. In fact, through four seasons at NDSU, Watson ran just 726 routes. Jameson Williams ran 729 routes in his three-year college career and he didn't play full-time during his freshman and sophomore seasons.

It's unwise to expect Watson to command a large target share in Year One. While the target competition is weak, the jump in competition is enormous and the most likely scenario is that it'll take Watson a year or even two to fully acclimate to the NFL game.

With so few routes run at NDSU, it limited his ability to hone his craft in-game situations and at the level he was playing at, Watson could depend entirely on his elite athleticism to beat his opponent. While his 9.96 Relative Athletic Score (RAS) likely means he'll continue being one of the most gifted athletes on the field even in the NFL, the difference will undoubtedly shrink.

If Watson is able to fill a more glorified Marquez Valdes-Scantling role, in which he's targeted more than the 62 targets per season MVS averaged, Watson could be a useful player in Year One. Matt LaFleur will likely put Watson in positions to be successful and will attempt to get him the ball in space so that he can use his speed and athleticism to make plays after the catch.

While the depth chart in Green Bay is wide open, the most likely scenario is a receiver-by-committee approach. Watson is likely to settle in as a rookie with 100–110 targets. This type of target share puts him in that WR4 range and not someone fantasy managers will be able to depend on consistently. Remember, it's fairly rare to find immediate WR2 starters who are rookies. Just two did it in 2021, three in 2020, one in 2019, and one in 2018.

However, if Watson is able to handle the jump in competition sooner than expected, Watson could end up making noise in 2022 due to the amazing situation in which he finds himself.

 

Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans

Treylon Burks was often comped to A.J. Brown during the predraft process. Their body builds are similar and they ran the majority of their college routes from the slot position. It was an easy comparison, one that came with an uncanny connection on draft day. The Titans traded Brown away and promptly drafted his replacement – a player many called his clone. They'll be uniquely tied to each other because of that trade and how it played out.

A.J. Brown is an easy player to love; however, that simply hasn't translated into as much fantasy success based on how he's typically ranked.

Fantasy managers would likely agree that Brown is one of the most talented receivers in the NFL, but because of the lack of volume in Tennessee, he was rarely able to put his skill set on full display. In fact, he's never had a season with more than 110 targets in his first three seasons.

Still, there's no denying Burks' talent. Even his team's offensive output sets him up for a successful Year One. Since Brown was drafted in 2018, the Titans have ranked in the top-10 in points scored two out of three seasons and top-15 every single year. With Derrick Henry ready for Week One, this will once again be a better offense than most give it credit for.

The addition of Robert Woods and Austin Hooper will give this passing offense more depth than it's had in recent seasons, as well. While Ryan Tannehill is not a great quarterback by any means, he's a fairly solid one and is certainly capable of delivering above-average play in 2022. Burks really checks off most of the boxes fantasy managers are looking for when they inspect which rookies will be able to provide real, tangible fantasy value in Year One.

The one concern is opportunity. There's no denying that Burks could – and most likely will – lead the Titans' passing game, but there are questions as to what that will mean. Fantasy managers would be unwise to dismiss Woods and Hooper as irrelevant. These are veteran players who are going to be involved.

With an offense that has ranked 26th in 2021, 30th in 2020, 32nd in 2019, 31st in 2018, and 28th in 2017 in pass attempts, there are legitimate concerns as to whether or not Burks will get the number of targets he needs to be a consistent WR2 producer as a rookie.

If he's able to get into that 120-target range, Burks will be a solid WR2 and someone fantasy managers can put into their lineup on a weekly basis. If it's lower than that, he might settle in as more of a WR3 player as a rookie. That certainly has value, but someone who is unlikely going to impact lineups in a way that even Jaylen Waddle was able to do last season.

A big component to this may be Woods' injury status as he recovers from a torn ACL in 2021. Fantasy managers should stay keep themselves up-to-date on his recovery time. If he's not going to be ready for Week One, Burks may be required to handle a sizable target share.



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