Last year’s rookie class was all about Ezekiel Elliott and how he become one of the top fantasy performers. While some were worried about taking him as early as the first round, those who took the risk were rewarded handsomely.
There were other major surprises as well. Dak Prescott, Michael Thomas and Jordan Howard all made significant fantasy contributions as rookies. However, while some rookies struggled (hello Jared Goff), a bunch of others just couldn’t get it going due to injury, including Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Prosise. So now heading into their sophomore seasons, which players are ready to break out and work their way onto your draft radar?
1. Paul Perkins, RB, Giants
Perkins was a late-round flier in many drafts last season even with Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen ahead of him on the depth chart. But as the season progressed, Perkins made the most of his opportunities and enters 2017 with a strong claim to the No. 1 job. With the possibility for 200-plus touches, Perkins could become a valuable asset, especially if he gets involved in the passing game.
2. Corey Coleman, WR, Browns
Coleman looked like fantasy gold after Week 2 last season when he caught five passes for 104 yards and two TDs. Then he broke his hand in practice, missed the next six games and didn’t do much upon his return. Over his last eight games, he averaged a little more than three catches and exactly 30 yards per game with a single TD. But with Terrelle Pryor now in Washington, Coleman should be the Browns’ No. 1 target, over Kenny Britt. Even with some questions at quarterback, Coleman should put up similar if not better numbers than Pryor had last season — 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns.
3. Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles
Wentz started the season on fire but went through the expected growing pains as defenses got better looks. He ended up with 3,782 passing yards, 16 TDs and 14 interceptions. Philadelphia signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency to give Wentz more weapons. If everyone can get on the same page, 4,000 yards and at least 25 TDs are reasonable expectations for the second-year signal-caller.
4. Hunter Henry, TE, Chargers
Even though he played second fiddle to Antonio Gates, Henry managed to catch 36 passes for 478 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. Gates is still around, but Henry is expected to serve as the featured tight end in the Chargers’ passing attack. If that’s the case, he’s worth consideration as a back-end TE1 in all formats.
5. Austin Hooper, TE, Falcons
Hooper’s playing time increased as the season progressed, and he actually led the Falcons in targets (six) in Super Bowl LI. Atlanta’s three tight ends were productive last year, combining for 57 catches, 787 yards and nine touchdowns in 16 games. Jacob Tamme has moved on, leaving Levine Toilolo as Hooper’s main competition for targets. Expect Hooper to not only be the starter in a high-powered offense but also a focal point in the red zone.
6. Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
There was some thought that Henry might actually beat out DeMarco Murray as the Titans’ No. 1 running back, or at least share half of the load as a rookie. That didn’t materialize, however, as Murray had a great fantasy season. Henry did average 4.5 yards per carry, scored five touchdowns and showed good hands (catching 13 of 15 targets), but Tennessee is committed to Murray as the lead back. The Titans love to run the ball, making Henry a must-have handcuff, a potential RB2 and solid flex option. Remember, he’s just one injury away from an RB1-worthy workload.
7. DeAndre Washington, RB, Raiders
Washington was part of a three-headed rushing attack last season along with Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard. The only thing that has changed for this season is that you can swap out Murray for Marshawn Lynch. While Lynch has big-name value, he was a shell of his former self the last time he played way back in January 2016. If Washington can earn the backup job, he might be one of the most valuable handcuffs, because no one knows what the Raiders are going to get out of Lynch, and their offensive line is one of the best in the league.
8. Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants
Shepard played just about as well as everyone had hoped he would in his debut season. The Giants’ No. 2 WR quickly became one of Eli Manning’s favorite red-zone targets, finishing with eight touchdowns, to go along with 65 receptions and 683 yards. While Brandon Marshall’s arrival will have a direct impact on Shepard’s role in 2017, it won’t make him completely irrelevant. Figuring out where to draft Shepard could be tricky, but as long as it’s not too early, the value should be there considering his potential in a pass-happy offense.
9. Wendell Smallwood, RB, Eagles
As a rookie, Smallwood was a fantasy afterthought for much of the 2016 season. His best game came in Week 10 when he ran the ball 13 times for 70 yards, but he didn’t score a touchdown in the game, or all season for that matter. However, opportunity is knocking for Smallwood this season with head coach Doug Pederson saying the second-year ball carrier is “in the mix” for the starting job. Then again, LeGarrette Blount was signed in May, and Darren Sproles is still around. So while Smallwood may be nothing more than an RB4, he could end up being a steal on draft day if he gets enough touches.
10. Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals
Boyd had a quiet yet productive rookie season, catching 54 balls for 603 yards and one touchdown, but there were stretches of ineffectiveness. In nearly half (seven) of the games he played, he reeled in two or fewer catches. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert remain the Bengals’ top two targets, but even with the arrival of first-round pick John Ross, Boyd should have ample opportunity to expand his role this season, especially if any injuries happen.
11. Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos
The Broncos did everything they could to make Booker their featured running back last season, and all he did was disappoint. Taking over as the starter after C.J. Anderson was lost for the season, Booker managed just 3.5 yards per carry behind a suspect offensive line. Denver will be running a different offense under new head coach Vance Joseph, but Anderson is back and former Chief Jamaal Charles has been added to the mix. Both have had their history of injuries, so Booker should still see a fair amount of carries and have a chance to show he can be a lead horse if called upon. He may get off to a slow start because of a broken wrist suffered early in training camp that will cause him to miss as many as six weeks, a time frame that could have him miss the first few games of the season. But there should still be plenty of time for him to have an impact if given the opportunity.
12. Jared Goff, QB, Rams
As last year showed, Goff still has a long way to go before he’s a reliable starter in the NFL. But perhaps a coaching change and some new weapons will get him going in the right direction. He spent the offseason working with QB guru Greg Olson and new head coach Sean McVay, and the Rams overhauled their receiving corps, so it might not be too shocking to see Goff take a big step forward as a sophomore.
13. Paxton Lynch, QB, Broncos
Lynch was a surprise first-round selection by the Broncos last year and wound up making two starts. His stats weren’t overly impressive (497-2-1 in three total games), but he did show enough that he’ll get a chance in training camp to beat out Trevor Siemian for the starting job. Lynch has the higher ceiling, and great weapons to throw to in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, so if he does get the nod, he might be worth a flier as your QB2.
14. Will Fuller, WR, Texans
Fuller started the 2016 season looking like the next Odell Beckham Jr., going off for 107 yards and a TD in his first game and 104 yards in his second. Unfortunately, injuries and terrible quarterback play prevented him from having another 100-yard game the rest of the way. His explosiveness and big-play ability were evident based on his 11 catches of 20-plus yards. Unfortunately, Fuller broke his collarbone early in training camp and is expected to miss two to three months. That obviously will impact his breakout potential, but he still could prove to be valuable pickup late in the season. Don’t draft him, but don’t completely forget about him once the season gets going either.
— 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.