Winning a fantasy football draft requires more than simply picking the best NFL players in the first couple of rounds. Finding depth and value throughout the draft is critical, as it only takes one injury to remove a No. 1 pick from the equation.
To borrow from a more traditional idiom, don’t put all of your fantasy hope into the first-round basket.
When looking for premium fantasy value, rookies are a great place to start. There is some inherent risk with first-year players, as they are completely unproven at the pro level. However, they can typically be grabbed much later in the draft than their veteran counterparts because, well, they’re unproven at the pro level.
However, not every rookie is a pure sleeper. Some are heading into opportune situations and should be valued as mid-tier starters with upside. Here, we’ll examine some of the 2020 rookies who should be targeted relatively early and why.
First, though, an updated look at PPR Rankings.
2020 Fantasy Football Rankings, PPR
1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
2. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
3. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
5. Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
6. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals
7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
8. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
9. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
10. Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns
11. Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
13. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
14. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
15. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
16. Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders
17. Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
18. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
19. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
20. Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
21. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
22. Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys
23. DJ Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers
24. Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals
25. Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns
26. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
27. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
28. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
29. Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
30. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
31. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Cleveland Browns
32. Todd Gurley, RB, Atlanta Falcons
33. DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
34. A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
35. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
36. Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings
37. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
38. Chris Carson, RB, Seattle Seahawks
39. Courtland Sutton, WR, Denver Broncos
40. Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills
41. Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
42. D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
43. Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
44. DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks
45. Darren Waller, TE, Las Vegas Raiders
46. Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
47. Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
48. Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks
49. David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears
50. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Bill Sikes/Associated Press
Opportunity is the biggest factor to consider when examining rookies and their starting potential. Talent is obviously what will allow them to produce, but if they can’t get on to the field, then talent is largely irrelevant.
This is why Los Angeles Rams rookie running back Cam Akers is worth targeting earlier than most rookies. He’ll be running behind an inconsistent offensive line—L.A. averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season—but he should have the inside track toward the starting job.
When the Rams released Todd Gurley earlier this offseason, it opened the door for backs like Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson. However, Akers has more upside than either of these veterans, and he is the best-built of the three to be an every-down back.
The 5’10”, 217-pound back racked up 1,144 rushing yards, 226 receiving yards and 18 total touchdowns for Florida State last season. These aren’t wholly unrealistic numbers for Akers as a rookie—provided the line can perform better than it did a year ago.
According to FantasyPros, Akers currently has an average draft position (ADP) of 88th overall. It’s worth taking a flier on Akers a couple of rounds higher than that ADP would suggest.
D’Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions
Like Akers, Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift is worth targeting because of his opportunity. Unlike rookie runners Clyde Edwards-Helaire, J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor—who will split time with Damian Williams, Mark Ingram and Marlon Mack, respectively—Swift might already be penciled in as the starter.
The Georgia product will compete with the oft-injured Kerryon Johnson for the starting role in Detroit, and given Johnson history—he’s missed 14 games in two seasons—the Lions could be quick to lean on Swift as their primary ball-carrier.
The 5’9″, 215-pound Swift well-suited for a prominent role.
“Tempo and decisiveness are his calling cards, making him a highly talented inside/outside zone runner,” NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein wrote before the draft. “He’s a cerebral runner who understands block timing and uses quick-cut agility and rare spatial awareness to read and react to defenses beyond the second level.”
Last season, Swift amassed 1,049 rushing yards, 297 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns for the Bulldogs. His ADP of 75—per FantasyPros—is also a bit low, and it should be safe to target Swift in the fifth or sixth round in most formats.
Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Last year, we saw rookie wide receivers make an immediate impact on the NFL and in fantasy. Guys like Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf made the transition from college to the pros look easy, and if all goes well, Viking wideout Justin Jefferson will do the same.
Now, Jefferson isn’t as safe a bet as Akers and Swift, but he does have a prime opportunity to be a big-time player in PPR formats. The Vikings traded away Stefon Diggs, leaving Adam Thielen, Tajae Sharpe and Olabisi Johnson as the only real challengers to Jefferson for playing time.
Johnson and Sharpe combined for just 623 receiving yards last season (Sharpe with the Tennessee Titans). Thielen dealt with a hamstring injury and finished with just 418 receiving yards.
While Thielen will likely be Kirk Cousins’ No. 1 target if healthy, Jefferson could quickly claim the No 2 role. That could lead to plenty of targets, even in a run-heavy offense, and Jefferson has proved that he can turn targets into big plays.
Last season, Jefferson caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The LSU product currently has an ADP of 138, according to FantayPros. It’s worth taking a chance on him before Round 10.