These 2017 draft gems could pay off handsomely for fantasy owners this season
Last year’s rookie class was one of the best ever from a fantasy football standpoint. We had instant fantasy studs such as Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, Deshaun Watson and JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as a rookie tight end standout in Evan Engram. However, there were a few rookies who were supposed to make significant fantasy contributions but for a variety of reasons didn’t produce. Now that it’s their sophomore season, which of these 2017 rookies are ready to break out and should be on your draft radar?
1. Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings
Cook probably wouldn’t have made this list if he hadn’t torn his ACL in Week 4. Prior to the injury, he had run for 354 yards and two touchdowns on 74 carries (4.8 ypc) to go along with 11 receptions for another 90 yards. He was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season and had already shown that he could be valuable as a receiver out of the backfield as well. Provided he’s fully recovered from the knee injury, Cook is poised to be a RB1 this season, especially with Jerick McKinnon in San Francisco. If he somehow falls into the second round, make sure to get him if you can.
2. Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
Mixon’s 3.5 yards per carry from last season leaves plenty of room for improvement, but some of that can be blamed on an inconsistent offensive line. The appeal with Mixon comes in that he still amassed nearly 1,000 total yards and four rushing touchdowns while making just seven starts. He also will be used more in the passing game after hauling in 30 of his 34 targets in 2017. Giovani Bernard is still in the picture, but Mixon is in line for a bigger workload following the departure of Jeremy Hill and the Bengals have a much improved offensive line. Mixon is a safe RB2 with RB1 upside, especially in PPR leagues.
3. Tarik Cohen, RB, Bears
Cohen was a must-add, waiver-wire pickup in the first three weeks of last season after busting out of the gate with two games of more than 100 total yards. He didn’t maintain that pace, but there’s no denying the talent and ability. With offensive-minded Matt Nagy taking over as Chicago’s head coach, Cohen figures to be a huge part of the game plan. Even with Jordan Howard in the backfield, Cohen can do plenty of damage as either a runner or receiver, and there are reports that Nagy wants to use Cohen like he used Tyreek Hill in Kansas City.
4. Corey Davis, WR, Titans
Davis was a disappointment after being the fifth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, although he did miss five games because of a nagging hamstring injury. When he did play, he struggled with hauling in his targets (52.3 percent success rate), and he didn’t score a regular-season touchdown either. The hope is that a year of experience and a clean bill of health to start the season will lead to better production. The Titans new coaching staff has made it a goal to help improve Marcus Mariota, and Davis should be the primary beneficiary of an improved passing game.
5. Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams
It didn’t take long for Kupp and Jared Goff to develop chemistry. The third-round pick out of Eastern Washington ended up leading the Rams in targets (94) and receiving yards (869). His 62 catches were good for second on the team, and he caught five TD passes. That said, there’s no reason to believe that Kupp can’t produce even better numbers this season now that he has a year under his belt. He’s an excellent WR3/flex option to start the season with WR2 potential.
6. Marlon Mack, RB, Colts
With Frank Gore no longer on the roster, the Colts need a new No. 1 running back. Mack deserved more touches behind Gore in 2017, even if his statistics didn’t jump off of the page. He averaged less than four yards per carry but showed his playmaking ability as a receiver (10.7 yards per catch, TD). Frank Reich is taking over as the coach, so Mack is starting over with a clean slate. He could be in for a heavy workload in 2018 and end up being a valuable flex option, especially in PPR leagues. Just watch Mack's health as he is dealing with a hamstring injury that will keep him out of action for a couple weeks.
7. Aaron Jones, RB, Packers
Both Jones and fellow rookie Jamaal Williams had success running the ball last season, but it was Jones who made the most of his opportunities. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored four rushing touchdowns in 12 games while also battling knee injuries. Jones will need to show he’s healthy and he's set to miss the first two games because of a suspension, but he figures to get his shot at claiming the lead back role for the Packers, making him an intriguing RB3 option.
8. D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texans
Foreman went out with a bang in 2017, rushing for 65 yards and two touchdowns in Week 11 before rupturing his Achilles tendon. Lamar Miller has struggled as the Texans’ lead back, so the potential is there for Foreman to take on a bigger workload in 2018. He first must show he is recovered from his injury, but the 2016 Doak Walker Award winner has the talent to be a star in the NFL. The Texans are being cautious with Foreman so far this preseason, make sure to monitor his health and be sure he doesn't start the season on the PUP list.
9. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Mahomes has just one NFL start under his belt, but he’s the reason the Chiefs traded three-time Pro Bowler Alex Smith to Washington in the offseason. Smith finished fourth in fantasy points at the position, and Mahomes inherits an offense that features Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and has added Sammy Watkins. If you subscribe to the late-round-QB draft mentality, Mahomes might be your guy.
10. George Kittle, TE, 49ers
Kittle (right) was a pleasant surprise for the 49ers last season. He ended his rookie year with 43 catches for 515 yards and two touchdowns. He ranked second in receptions and yards among tight ends in his draft class. More important, he caught 11 passes for 194 yards and a score in the final three games of the season with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Kittle is set to miss the rest of the preseason with a shoulder injury, but the 49ers say he will be good to go, which is good news as this duo could be quite productive in 2018, so don’t forget about Kittle in your fantasy drafts.
11. David Njoku, TE, Browns
Njoku didn’t necessarily fill up the stat sheet last season. The Browns’ 2017 first-round pick finished with 32 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns, but some of that lackluster production was due to a lack of use. Cleveland’s offense underwent a massive overhaul in the offseason, and Njoku could end up being one of the biggest beneficiaries. He’s a late-round pick who could end up paying off handsomely.
12. O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers
Howard put up decent numbers as a rookie, including six touchdown catches. Even though he’s joined by Cameron Brate at tight end, expectations remain high for Howard in 2018. Jameis Winston doesn’t lack for options to throw to, but Howard has plenty of talent to make the most of his opportunities. Howard may fly a little more under the radar in fantasy drafts, but don’t let him sit too long once you get past the middle rounds.
13. Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears
Trubisky made his first start in Week 5 and finished 2017 with 2,193 passing yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Two things happened this offseason that give Trubisky hope for a Jared Goff-like turnaround: The Bears hired offensive-minded Matt Nagy as head coach, and they added multiple weapons to the roster through free agency.
14. Dede Westbrook, WR, Jaguars
Westbrook missed the first nine games of his rookie season with a core muscle injury. When he did make his debut in Week 11, he provided an immediate boost to the Jaguars’ passing game. In just seven games, Westbrook recorded 27 catches (on 51 targets) for 339 yards and a touchdown. Westbrook has the potential to emerge as Jacksonville’s No. 1 receiver this season, a development that would certainly enhance his fantasy appeal. Especially considering he is currently being drafted as the WR66.
15. Mike Williams, WR, Chargers
Williams injured his back shortly after being taken seventh overall last year, ultimately missing all of training camp and the first five weeks of the regular season. He finished his rookie campaign with 11 catches for 95 yards on 23 targets in limited snaps. The hope is that Williams will push one of the veterans for a regular spot in three-wide formations and ideally emerge as the No. 2 option behind Keenan Allen. Williams is worth consideration as a WR3.
And don’t forget to pick up your copy of Athlon Sports’ 2018 Fantasy Football magazine, available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.
-- Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.