May 9 (UPI) -- Even if you aren't in a dynasty league, studying rookies is an invaluable asset for your fantasy football acumen. Here are our Top 5 from the class of 2017.
The first round of the actual 2017 NFL Draft included some big names who are locks to be taken in your make-believe-league. Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey and Minnesota Vikings' Dalvin Cook will grab most of the headlines, but keep an eye out for less-heralded prospects to snag in the middle and later rounds of your draft.
Top 5 Fantasy Football Rookies
3. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
My top-ranked rookie for next season is Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon. No, Mixon isn't the only guy in the Bengals' backfield, but he is sure to add a jolt behind Andy Dalton after a subpar showing from Bengals running backs in 2016. Mixon's off-the-field resume was the main reason for his slide into the second round and the Bengals took full advantage of the drop, trading with the Vikings to grab the Oklahoma Sooners star at an even later spot than its original draft position. The Vikings snagged Cook with the Bengals' No. 41 pick as the result of that transaction.
Losing Rex Burkhead to the New England Patriots in free agency was a huge blow for the Bengals' running backs room. Last year, Burkhead led the stable with 4.6 yards per carry. Former workhorse Jeremy Hill continues to see a significant regression in production and Giovani Bernard will always likely be a guy you can move into multiple positions as a weapon and use as a reliable third-down option. I fully expect Mixon to win the job over Hill at Bengals minicamp. Hill could even be relegated to a goal-line back, as witnessed by his 29 rushing scores in his three NFL seasons.
Hill is also playing on the final year of his rookie contract while Bernard received a four-year deal last June.
"I can't wait," Mixon told the team's website. "I know whoever can control the line of scrimmage is most likely to win in a lot of football games and we're looking to set the tone right off the bat," Mixon said. "I try to model it a little bit but at the same time, I just try to do what I do. I try to do a little bit of everything -- try to make people miss, try to create a little bit of space, try to run past people -- [I] try to do everything."
There will be plenty of running room for whoever wins this job, but Mixon's fresh legs and sturdy frame might be best suited to take best advantage of it. With John Ross and A.J. Green burning outside defenders and demanding attention, and Tyler Eifert causing problems for linebackers and safeties, I expect big things from this offense in 2017.
Mixon will be a great value pick in your fantasy football draft and you should definitely target him anytime past the fourth round. If he is able to take the job from Hill early, I expect Mixon to eclipse 1,000 yards in his first season, have somewhere north of 30 receptions and have about eight total scores. He has the ceiling of an RB1 in good matchups this season, but will likely claim RB2 status heading into his rookie campaign.
Corey Davis is another player in a great situation heading into the 2017 season. The Tennessee Titans used the No. 5 overall pick in the draft to snag the Western Michigan prospect, making him the first wide receiver off of the board. Marcus Mariota is making large strides in nearly every category as a passer and adding a talent with great speed and size certainly wont hurt. Keeping defenses honest with tight end Delanie Walker and a terrific running game should also give the rookie plenty of winnable matchups in his first season.
I expect Davis, who had three consecutive 1,400-yard seasons and 46 receiving scores in that time at Western Michigan, to produce immediately. Davis left Western Michigan as the NCAA's all-time leader in receiving yards (5,278) and finished No. 4 all-time in receptions (331) and No. 2 all-time in receiving scores (52).
Look to draft the field-stretcher in the sixth round or later and consider him a WR3 candidate at some point this season. Davis could also provide WR2 value, in good matchups for your fantasy squad, and would serve as excellent injury depth or a great bye-week replacement.
"I've heard [Davis] was a faster guy, and I think that will be good for our group, bringing in fast guys," fellow Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews told the team website. "I've seen highlights on NFL Network and he looks like an explosive player, he looks like his run after catch ability is really good. I think that is one of the reasons why we picked him. Hopefully he can come in and make an impact right away."
At the draft, Davis said he was excited to work with Mariota.
"That is my favorite quarterback,'' Davis told TitansOnline.com. "He is smart, he is very accurate and I told you before I like the swagger he has going on. He is very poised, and he is a great leader. Catching passes from him, it is going to be right. He is on his way to being one of the greatest, that's for sure. Anything I can do to help the team out, that's what I'm going to do."
Many experts will look at Leonard Fournette's opportunity and assume he will be the best fantasy football asset in this rookie class. While I believe Fournette will see plenty of work and decent production, I'm not so sure what the carries will equate consistently, especially in spots where the Jacksonville Jaguars are forced to throw.
Fournette has great size and strength, but has never been a shifty guy at the second level. If he isn't sprung by the Jaguars' line, he could struggle. The No. 4 pick in the NFL Draft will enter the league with huge expectations, in the wake of Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott's terrific season, but can't be counted on to come close to that production.
The expectations are so high that Jaguars assistant director of college scouting Paul Roell has already compared Fournette to Elliott and Peterson.
"When you have a guy like Leonard Fournette -- Ezekiel Elliot was a guy last year -- when you have a special talent like that, when that kid hit LSU campus he was a star from day one," Roell told reporters after the draft. "Adrian Peterson was another one from my past from Oklahoma. Those guys are special. I think you push some of that out of the way when you start talking about -- we just want special play makers. A game changer. That is what Leonard Fournette is. You don't wait to take those guys."
Another reason to avoid Fournette is that he will likely be over-drafted. He is projected as a late fourth-round pick in early overall fantasy rankings and will see his stock rise as fantasy football drafts draw closer.
With a gun-slinging and mistake-prone Blake Bortles at quarterback and two explosive receivers outside, as well as some apt pass catchers already in its backfield, I don't see the Jaguars having the patience to let Fournette grind out the necessary carries in this new NFL passing era.
Fournette admitted himself that the Jaguars' offensive line will set the tone for his play.
"You say physical -- that starts with the offensive line first," Fournette told reporters after being drafted. "Everything goes through them. They block for me. They block for the quarterback. Everything starts with them. When those guys are right and I know they are ready, then mentally and physically, they will get me ready."
The Jaguars are also putting two new pieces on its offensive line in rookie Cam Robinson and veteran Branden Albert, whom the franchise acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. The other side of its line was bitten by the injury bug last season and didn't have much time to mesh.
I would not recommend drafting Fournette in the first four rounds, but I do expect him to provide decent RB2 value during the season. He would be a good addition to a wide receiver-heavy fantasy team with a few plug-and-play RB2 candidates on its roster.
Florida State's all-time leading rusher Dalvin Cook also fell into the second round because of injury concerns and off-field incidents. Landing in Minnesota could prove favorable over time, but I don't see Cook developing into more than a low-end RB2 and inconsistent flex play this season. He'll have to contend with offseason free agent signing Latavius Murray and several Vikings backs who are more familiar with the system. The team has yet to commit to a No. 1 back so far as rookie minicamp comes to an end.
"Well, yeah," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer recently told reporters. "It'll always be an open competition, but with the veteran guys we have, we've been doing Phase II. And he hasn't been working yet, Latavius hasn't. So, we've got a long, long way to go before we make any determinations on any of that."
Cook has been a bit cryptic already in his comments, saying that his "ultimate goal is to find my role."
With those words uttered, it appears the Vikings are eyeing a running back by committee approach in its quest to replace Peterson. In Peterson's last full season with the Vikings, the team had 474 rushing attempts. Last season, the Vikings had 380 carries. With that breakdown, I can see Cook carving out a role for 10-15 touches per game, with a chance for those numbers to increase as the season goes on. He is worth a late-round flier, but shouldn't be depended on.
Christian McCaffrey was the first first-round rookie to sign his contract when the Carolina Panthers inked the Stanford product last week to his four-year deal. He should also be a priority in Mike Shula's offense after the team used its No. 8 overall pick to snag the elusive running back in the 2017 NFL Draft. I expect Shula to find a big role for McAffrey, even if doesn't appear to be a workhorse-type runner. He could provide RB2 value in the form of the Bengals' Bernard and morph into a flex play in deeper leagues.
But don't be completely sold on the Panthers not attempting to try out McCaffrey in an early down role. After all, general manager Dave Gettleman compared the first-rounder to Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin after the draft.
McCaffrey, as electric as he is, shouldn't be considered before the seventh round in your fantasy drafts.
Many analysts and fans were shocked when the Green Bay Packers didn't use one of its early round picks on a running back, especially after watching Cook and Mixon fall into the second round. But the Packers might have gotten their man in Jamaal Williams. The Brigham Young University product was banged up and suspended mostly during his final two seasons in Utah. But he could fill in behind Ty Montgomery as a tough and punishing runner. It is possible for Williams to carve out a role here as the Packers simply don't have a ton of depth at the position. With fellow rookies Aaron Jones and Devante Mays at his back, and equipped with different styles, he should be able to snag around eight carries per game for the Packers. Keep an eye on Williams this preseason to see how he is used and what he does with the opportunity. He could be worth a look in a keeper league in the last few rounds of your draft.
Jones could quietly be the most dependable wide receiver of the 2017 class. He left East Carolina as the FBS record holder for career receptions (337) and the American Athletic Conference's all-time leader in receiving yards (3,675). Obviously if Sammy Watkins gets hurt, like he has in his last two seasons, Jones is a must-have. But he could also provide steady PPR value for a later-round selection. I expect him to quickly earn a rapport with quarterback Tyrod Taylor as a trustworthy option, following a season when the Bills had a glaring lack of talent at wide receiver.