We are nearly at the midway point of the season, which is an appropriate time for reflection on our collective fantasy football process over the past months. Given the difficult circumstances brought about by COVID-19, the NFL was unable to play any preseason games and earlier offseason activities like OTAs and rookie mini-camps were held virtually. This led fantasy players to the reasonable conclusion that rookies would face a greater challenge than usual in their quest to adapt and transition to the NFL. With a couple of exceptions, the rookie class of 2020 was largely ignored in seasonal drafts this year. Even dynasty leaguers were trading away their rookie picks due to similar concerns about slow starts.
The actual results, through seven weeks, have been the complete opposite, with multiple impact performances from rookies at all positions. Let’s review some of the top names from this year’s draft class with a look ahead for the remainder of the season.
Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals
There was little doubt that Burrow would claim the Bengals’ starting job from day one and fantasy players were chasing him as a high upside QB2 based on his surrounding cast. While his teammates have slightly disappointed, Burrow has come through for fantasy managers. He’s currently the QB12 on the season, leading the league in pass attempts and ranking third in passing yards. Playing from behind in most games, we can count on that volume to prop up his fantasy production. Burrow has the fifth-most fantasy points ever for a rookie quarterback through the first seven games.
Justin Herbert, QB, Chargers
Entering the season, there were reports that the Chargers planned to sit their rookie Herbert for the entire season, relying on veteran QB Tyrod Taylor to start. Through a fluke circumstance, that idea lasted just one week. After a medical procedure resulted in a punctured lung for the veteran, Herbert was thrust into the starting job, and he hasn’t looked back. Herbert has averaged over 29 fantasy points per game, making him the QB4 on the year. He’s a locked-in weekly starter moving forward.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Dolphins
The final one of the big three rookie signal-callers to get the starting nod, Tagovailoa will make his starting debut in Week 8 against the Rams. Despite playing well through the team’s first six games, veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was benched and the move to the rookie was announced early in the team’s bye week. Tagovailoa lacks the high-level of playmakers that both Burrow and Herbert see in their respective huddles.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Chiefs
After a slow start, given the sky-high expectations, Edwards-Helaire is finally starting to show the Chiefs (and fantasy players) a solid return on their investment. Considering he was the Chiefs’ first-round pick, fantasy players were already targeting CEH, but that chase got out of hand after veteran RB Damien Williams opted out for the season. Suddenly, some were taking the rookie as the top overall player in seasonal leagues. With a slow start for Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs jumped at the chance to sign Le’Veon Bell, making the Chiefs a backfield committee for the remainder of the season. In their first game together, Edwards-Helaire out-touched Bell 9-6 and finished as the RB19 for the week.
James Robinson, RB, Jaguars
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season from the rookie class has been the undrafted free agent Robinson. After reportedly impressing in training camp, the Jaguars dumped veteran RB Leonard Fournette and handed the job to Robinson. Now, seven weeks later, he’s the RB2 in PPR fantasy leagues. Robinson owns one of the most dominating snap shares in the league and has shown the ability to be the pass-catching back as well as successfully handling red zone work. Few runners in the league have that monopoly. While you might doubt his long-term viability, he’s among the safest options in the league for the rest of this season.
Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington
Another surprise from this class is Gibson, the athletic freak who did big things with limited opportunities in college. Like Robinson, Gibson quickly ascended the depth chart as Washington moved on from both Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson. That left Gibson as the starter and while he has shared the backfield with veteran J.D. McKissic, Gibson is the player with the highest upside and it’s not even close. Gibson could be limited by his offense for the remainder of the season, but he’s finished as a top-28 fantasy back in six of seven games this year, making him a solid RB3 or flex play.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Colts
An unfortunate injury to veteran RB Marlon Mack in Week 1 signaled the Taylor takeover in the backfield. At least that’s what we thought. Instead, Taylor has shared the work with lesser talents Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, limiting his weekly work and fantasy production. Even as a rookie, Taylor was quickly tabbed as one of the most talented runners in the league though he hasn’t really had a chance to show it. Taylor is coming off his best overall game of the year prior to the Colts’ Week 7 bye when he totaled 115 yards against the Bengals, so perhaps the takeover will start this week.
D’Andre Swift, RB, Lions
It appeared as if only the disappointing Kerryon Johnson would stand in the way of former Georgia RB claiming the lead role as a rookie for the Lions. That changed when Detroit added veteran RB Adrian Peterson to the fold just before the season began. The three-man backfield has limited Swift’s role. He didn’t even earn more than five carries in a game until Week 6. The past two games have been the most productive for Swift though as he slowly claims the lead role from Peterson.
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J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ravens and Cam Akers, RB, Rams
Both Dobbins and Akers were being projected as useful fantasy options despite landing in crowded situations. Their paths have been similar through the first seven weeks with neither claiming the lead role, or even coming close. Dobbins’ Week 1 RB19 performance is the best game from either of the talented backs. While both could still become starters for their respective teams, it doesn’t look likely to happen this season.
Justin Jefferson, WR, Vikings
Training camp reports suggested that first-round WR Jefferson had flopped and he failed to beat out WR Bisi Johnson for the WR2 job in Minnesota. Jefferson was almost invisible in the first two games of the season, totaling five receptions. He then exploded in Week 3 with a 7/175/1 line and then bettered that two weeks later, catching nine balls for 166 yards and two scores. Since Week 3, Jefferson has averaged nearly 22 fantasy points per game, good for fifth-most in the league.
CeeDee Lamb, WR, Cowboys
Everything was clicking for a rookie breakout season for Lamb and the Cowboys, until QB Dak Prescott went down with an injury. In the first five weeks of the season with Prescott, Lamb was the WR11, averaging almost 17 points per game. In the two games since, Lamb has totaled just 13.4 fantasy points. Unfortunately, we are all learning just how important Prescott really is to this offense and Lamb is no longer a reliable fantasy option.
Chase Claypool, WR, Steelers
With WR Diontae Johnson in and out of the lineup, Claypool stepped up. He became a household name after his four-touchdown effort in Week 5, and followed that up with a solid performance in the next game. Week 7 brought Johnson’s return and confusion about Claypool’s role in the offense. Along with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have multiple options and the entire trio is simply not going to put up big numbers every week. Claypool’s performance was not a fluke, though it may be difficult to predict when to use him, or the other talented wideouts in Pittsburgh.
Best of the rest at WR
With a rookie receiver class being compared to the great 2017 group, there are many other wideouts who have made an impact, including Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins, Laviska Shenault of the Jaguars and Brandon Aiyuk of the 49ers. Denver WR Jerry Jeudy had the chance to claim the WR1 role for his team after Courtland Sutton went down with an ACL injury, but that simply hasn’t happened yet. To be fair though, the entire Broncos Offense has disappointed, so it is too early to give up on the former Alabama star.