Entering last season, the two rookies that were widely projected to have the biggest fantasy impact in 2013 were running back Montee Ball and wide receiver Tavon Austin. Their electric debuts didn’t exactly materialize, for different reasons, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any first-year fantasy standouts either.
Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy all finished among the top 20 running backs in fantasy points, while San Diego’s Keenan Allen put up better numbers than the likes of Pro Bowl wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Victor Cruz, among many others.
So which members of the 2014 NFL Draft class are the ones to target for your fantasy team this season?
1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo
No one was really surprised when the Bills traded up to grab Watkins at No. 4 overall. And based on the steep price (two first-round picks, one fourth) the team paid to do so, it’s pretty clear the former Clemson star will be a huge part of the offensive game plan from the start. Watkins was a threat to break off a big play whenever he touched the ball in college, and his all-purpose skills only add to his appeal. The Bills traded away No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson during the draft, so the opportunity is there for Watkins to step in and immediately become quarterback EJ Manuel’s favorite target.
2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee
The first running back off of the board, Sankey (above, right) is the beneficiary of an unsettled Titans backfield with Chris Johnson now on the Jets and Shonn Greene coming off of knee surgery, along with the fact the team has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt. A workhorse at Washington, Sankey figures to see plenty of touches this fall and should be the first rookie running back drafted.
3. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans
The nation’s best wide receiver lands on a team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It could be a match made in fantasy heaven for Cooks, who caught 128 passes last season. While it wouldn’t shock me to see Cooks post the best numbers of any rookie wideout when all is said and done, there’s still the matter of grasping the Saints’ complex passing game and the fact that Drew Brees doesn’t lack for targets with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas around.
4. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina
The Panthers’ top four wide receivers from last season are gone, so opportunity should not be an issue for Benjamin. A big (6-5, 241) target, Cam Newton should have little trouble finding Benjamin, provided the rookie learns the ins and outs of being an NFL wide receiver.
5. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati
Giovani Bernard is the Bengals’ top backfield option, but he’s also more of the change-of-pace guy, not the bruising, between-the-tackles rusher. Right now that job belongs to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Hill could quickly supplant him. To that end, even though BJGE averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry last season, he did have seven rushing touchdowns.
6. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Hakeem Nicks is now in Indianapolis, so that certainly helps Beckham’s chances of getting on the field early. However, the Giants already have Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan at the position, and with a grizzly old veteran like Tom Coughlin as head coach, Beckham will have to earn his playing time. Still, with no established tight end on the roster and Eli Manning at quarterback, there’s much to like about Beckham’s fantasy potential.
7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay
The jury seems to be out on Evans, but there’s no disputing his production (1,394 yards, 12 TDs at Texas A&M last season) or the fact he’s a large (6-5) target capable of making big plays down the field. In addition, the Buccaneers traded Mike Williams to Buffalo, so the No. 2 job opposite Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is available.
8. Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco
The thinking is that Hyde is the heir apparent to Frank Gore, who has nearly 2,200 carries in his career. However, Gore is only 31 years old and the 49ers have other options in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore (see below). The 49ers love to run the ball, but don’t lack for mouths to feed either.
9. Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville
A first-round talent according to many scouts, Lee fell in the Jaguars’ lap early in the second. With Justin Blackmon’s future with the team uncertain at best, the only sure thing Jacksonville has at wide receiver is Cecil Shorts. If not for the quarterback situation, Lee would be higher on this list.
10. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland
The No. 1 attraction in the entire draft class, Manziel won’t be handed the starting job by rookie head coach Mike Pettine. However, considering Brian Hoyer has four total career starts under his belt, it may just be a matter of time before Manziel is running the show. His dual-threat ability is obviously appealing, but don’t push Manziel too high up your draft board, unless it’s a keeper/dynasty league.
11. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit
Although he didn’t play basketball, Ebron fits the Jimmy Graham mold pretty well and he landed with a team that’s fairly pass-happy in its own right. Ebron’s shortcomings as a blocker may actually bolster his fantasy value, especially if the Lions line him up out wide (See: Jimmy Graham).
12. Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis
The Heisman finalist finds himself behind Zac Stacy, another SEC alumnus, in the Rams’ backfield pecking order. Head coach Jeff Fisher seems committed to Stacy, last year’s fifth-round pick who emerged from nowhere to seize the starting job. However, that doesn’t mean history can’t repeat itself this season with Mason. At worst, Mason figures to be a potential flex play or bye week fill-in down the road.
13. Terrance West, RB, Cleveland
The Browns signed Ben Tate as a free agent, but his production has dipped in the past few seasons and he has struggled to stay healthy. Coming from FBS member Towson, West may be somewhat unknown and unheralded, but that could change if he gets enough touches this season.
14. Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets
Amaro was a pass-catching magnet at Texas Tech, which is something the Jets haven’t had at tight end since Dustin Keller. The question is can Geno Smith find and, more importantly, connect with Amaro?
15. Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia
Plenty to like about the SEC’s all-time leading wide receiver, but it remains to be seen how Chip Kelly will use him in an offense that attempted the sixth-fewest passes last season. Also don’t forget about the additions of Jeremy Maclin (missed last season with torn ACL) and Darren Sproles (via trade with New Orleans).
16. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville
Like Marqise Lee, Robinson immediately bolsters a receiving corps that lacked playmakers. But Robinson is probably behind Lee and Cecil Shorts on the depth chart for a team that finished near the bottom in pass offense last season. A hamstring injury suffered during OTAs only adds to the uncertainty surrounding Robinson’s fantasy potential.
17. Charles Sims, RB, Tampa Bay
Doug Martin should be 100 percent recovered from a torn labrum, which probably limits Sims’ chances. However, new Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith probably sees some Matt Forté in Sims, who could carve out a role as a receiver out of the backfield.
18. Jerick McKinnon, RB, Minnesota
Toby Gerhart is now in Jacksonville, so the backup job is there for the taking. Just remember who holds the No. 1 job in Minnesota, which is the main reason Gerhart is now a Jaguar.
19. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Kansas City
Can Thomas be Andy Reid’s new Dexter McCluster? If so, the former Oregon all-purpose dynamo could develop into a fantasy sleeper.
20. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay
Like teammate Mike Evans, Seferian-Jenkins was very productive in college. Unfortunately, Seferian-Jenkins’ path to the Buccaneers’ starting lineup doesn’t seem as clear as Evans’, not with last year’s pleasant surprise, 2013 undrafted free agent Timothy Wright, and a couple of veteran tight ends on the roster.
Others to Watch (alphabetical order):
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay – Great quarterback, crowded receiving corps.
Dri Archer, RB, Pittsburgh – Special teams weapon could see role as change-of-pace back.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota – May be most pro-ready rookie QB, but Vikings in no rush to throw him out there.
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Chicago – Open competition to be Matt Forté’s backup.
Shaq Evans, WR, New York Jets – After Eric Decker Jets’ receiving corps is unsettled.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta – Steven Jackson is not getting any younger.
Nate Freese, K, Detroit – Kickers score points too, especially for an offense like Detroit’s.
T.J. Jones, WR, Detroit – Plenty of targets available for another Lion wide receiver to emerge behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami – Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace weren’t exactly on the same page last season.
Cody Latimer, WR, Denver – Any Denver wide receiver deserves to be mentioned, but Latimer may be more of a 2015 option.
Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle – Golden Tate is gone, while Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice are no strangers to the injury report.
Devin Street, WR, Dallas – Miles Austin’s departure presents an opportunity for a new No. 3 wide receiver to emerge.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, RB, Baltimore – Ravens running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season.
(Bishop Sankey photo courtesy of Tennessee Titans' Web site, www.titansonline.com; Odell Beckham Jr. photo courtesy of New York Giants' Web site, newyorkgiants.com; Jace Amaro photo courtesy of New York Jets' Web site, www.newyorkjets.com; Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)