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NFL Fantasy Rookie Rundown: Barkley, Freeman spearhead dynamite class

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  • Saquon Barkley
    Saquon Barkley
  • Leonard Fournette
    Leonard Fournette
    American football running back

Whether in the game of life or Fantasy Football, failure is never an option.

This is why the idea of “safety” is a step on famed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To satisfy our internal drive for security, every day we buckle seatbelts, lock doors and, when it won’t stop beeping at you in the middle of the night, finally change the batteries in the smoke detector.

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Maslow’s groundbreaking work also applies to virtual pigskin. After all, instant gratification pushes us all. In order to reach the top of the pyramid and experience a feeling of true self-actualization and accomplishment we often avoid risks, like sinking an early round pick in a rookie regardless how promising the situation, and instead invest in the perceived surer bet.

Sometimes implementing a cautious approach proves effective. Other times, you miss the boat on greenhorn juggernauts like Cam Newton, Odell Beckham or Ezekiel Elliot.

That, my friends, is total #TeamRaisins.

Due to several factors including advanced player development, increased inclusion of college concepts into NFL playbooks, organizational pressure exerted on coaches, favorable offensive rule changes and sheer individual talent, just to name a few, first-year players have left indelible marks more frequently in recent seasons. Take last year for example. Six different rookies – Deshaun Watson (QB1), Kareem Hunt (RB4), Leonard Fournette (RB5), Alvin Kamara (RB6), JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR6) and Evan Engram (TE5) – finished inside the top-six at their respective positions in fantasy points per game. Meanwhile, others like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Cooper Kupp proved quite useful in stretches, especially in PPR formats.

Every Draft class is different and no two years typically mirror one another, but a number of wonderfully skilled players are about to take the league by storm. Play it too safe, and you could fall short in your championship quest.

With the NFL draft officially in the books, Casa Bonita pool plunges included, here are my projected top-five instant impact fantasy rookies (.5 PPR):

Saquon Barkley, NYG, RB (Initial ADP: 9.34, RB1) – Buying Barkley as the frontrunner to set the pace among fantasy rookies is basic arithmetic. He’s arguably THE most complete rusher in a deep first-year RB group, a multifaceted contributor who, as Kanye would say, has that “dragon energy” pumping through the veins. Draftnik comps to David Johnson are fair and warranted. Though occasionally timid on inside runs, the Penn St. phenom owns the wiggle, off-edge burst (4.40 40-yard dash), hands, prototype size (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) and athletic profile (99th SPARQ percentile) to slide immediately into a three-down workload. Last season in Happy Valley, he racked 3.54 YAC per attempt and finished top-three among all FBS running backs in breakaway percentage. Watch his tape from the Iowa game and it’s hard not to fall head over heels. Yes, the Giants have major questions along the offensive line. They ranked No. 29 in power run-blocking last fall according to Football Outsiders. However, the addition of established left tackle Nate Solder is a significant upgrade and could push the group forward. Even if New York performs averagely up front, Barkley is dynamic enough to overcome obstacles. And, no, I’m not worried about Jonathan Stewart. Sandwiched between Melvin Gordon (RB7) and Leonard Fournette (RB9) in my initial RB ranks, the presumed rookie sensation is worth entertaining in the back half of Round 1 in 12-team drafts, especially formats that favor pass-catching RBs.

Fearless Forecast: 267 attempts, 1,116 rushing yards, 54 receptions, 424 receiving yards, 10 total touchdowns

Royce Freeman, Den, RB (113.1, RB36) – Paxton Lynch, Montee Ball, Cody Latimer … when it comes to drafting offensive talent, Denver GM John Elway has struck out with the frequency of this writer’s ultra-hyped sleeper picks (Terrelle Pryor, never forget). Hey, I can admire his consistency. Determined to make up for prior missteps, the embattled drafter climbed back on the horse and invested in WR Courtland Sutton, WR DaeSean Hamilton and Freeman. At first blush, all are tremendous selections, particularly the latter. The former Duck is about to take flight in the Mile High City. Different from the undersized, scat type backs Oregon produced in recent years, he’s big bodied (5-foot-11, 235 pounds), bruising between the tackles (3.39 YAC/att in ’17) and surprisingly fast (4.54 40-yard). His vision, patience, footwork and hands are also pluses. Over his decorated college career, he routinely ripped through arm tackles and shook defenders in the open field (No. 11 in elusive rating last fall). Freeman’s odometer reading is already high which limits his longevity, but he’s the clear-cut favorite to eclipse 250 touches right away. Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson are not the answer. Suffice it to say, he’s the franchise’s new C.J. Anderson, a rusher capable of finishing inside the position’s top-15 Year 1. Keep in mind, Case Keenum is a massive upgrade at QB and the Broncos’ supposed rickety offensive line ranked No. 9 in run-blocking efficiency last year. Don’t underestimate the potential.

Fearless Forecast: 266 carries, 1,123 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 301 receiving yards, 8 total touchdowns

Rashaad Penny, Sea, RB (80.8, RB27) – Many in Fantasyland were thunderstruck when Penny, and not Derrius Guice, had his name called by Seattle at pick No. 27. However, this nincompoop, who’s talked up the rusher incessantly since last year, was not at all floored. Penny is a budding fantasy star. Though many draft pundits pegged the rusher to tumble into the second or possibly third rounds, GM John Schneider’s bold investment will likely lead to instant dividends. The former Aztec isn’t Marshall Faulk or far worse, Ronnie Hillman, revisited, but he does possess some supernatural talents. He’s a devastating multi-dimensional producer who last year tallied an unreal 4.47 YAC per attempt, No. 1 among all FBS backs according to Pro Football Focus. Penny also ranked No. 1 in elusive rating, No. 7 in breakaway percentage and forced a defender whiff on 29.7 percent of his rush attempts. His power/speed combo, fast-churning wheels (4.46 40-yard) and ideal frame (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) signal an immediate hefty workload. Though glowing in several areas, he isn’t without faults. His upright running style exposes lower extremities and his struggles in pass pro must be remedied. Seattle’s permeable offensive line, which ranked No. 31 last season in run blocking according to Football Outsiders, only raises concern. Still, without much competition on roster outside Chris Carson, playing alongside Russell Wilson and given his balanced skill set, he’s a strong candidate to crack the RB top-20 in Year 1. In the middle rounds, sink a nickel in the Penny Arcade.

Fearless Forecast: 248 carries, 1,029 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 285 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns

Ronald Jones, TB, RB (76.9, RB25) – Fantasy mouthpieces ceaselessly stress the importance of landing spot for a player to tap into his full potential. For Jones, Tampa is a likely statistical paradise. The former USC standout doesn’t possess world-class speed (4.56 40-yard), but he’s a legit swashbuckler, a rusher who owns the vision and open-field wiggle to knife through the competition. Yes, “Pac-12” and “defense” are not congruent, but his per touch efficiency shouldn’t be downplayed. Last season with the Trojans, Jones tallied 3.50 yards after contact per attempt, ranked No. 12 nationally in elusive rating and No. 13 in breakaway percentage. He also forced a missed tackle on 22.2 percent of his rushes. To be fair, Jones isn’t without flags. He’s rather slender at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, a slight build that raises questions whether he can handle the rigors of 15-plus touches per game. But with only Peyton Barber and Charles Sims as competition, it seems very plausible Dirk Koetter awards him with 15-16 touches per contest. Placed in a respectable scheme – Tampa features several 12-personnel sets which he thrived in at USC – presented with an admirable line (TB ranked No. 12 in power blocking last year) and surrounded by superb weapons, Jones is sure to turn a profit wherever his ADP climbs, provided the injury imp remains at bay. Confidently follow the anticipated volume, gamer.

Fearless Forecast: 222 carries, 967 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 240 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns

Derrius Guice, Was, RB (34.1, RB14) – Every draft someone for some reason whether medical or off-the-field related becomes a human anchor. Tossed into a blue abyss, Guice was that guy this year. Widely projected to sneak into the latter half of Round 1, the former LSU rusher plummeted to Washington at No. 59 overall, a true steal. Now a member of a franchise desperately seeking a pile mover, the passed over rookie should immediately make waves. A mixture of power, speed and balance, Guice is arguably the most aggressive rusher in this year’s loaded RB class. He’s patient, equipped with ideal size (5-foot-10, 212 pounds) and finishes runs angrily at the second level. During his collegiate days it was rare for him to be felled on initial contact. His advanced data didn’t necessarily match the tape – he totaled a fair 3.19 YAC per attempt, ranked No. 56 in breakaway percentage and forced a missed tackle on just 18.1 percent of his rushes in 2017 – but Guice exhibits the necessary juice to flatten tacklers on early downs. With only Samaje Perine to supplant, he’s sure to step into a 14-16 touch per game workload in short order functioning as a two-down truck and primary goal-line option. Chris Thompson does cap his receiving potential and given his assertive downhill running style staving off team trainers increases risk, but he’s yet another first-year pounder capable of amassing RB2-level numbers this fall.

Fearless Forecast: 232 carries, 993 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 124 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns

Want to bull rush Brad? Follow him on Twitter @YahooNoise. Also, check out his nationally syndicated television show, “The Fantasy Football Hour,” returning August 22 on regional sports networks coast to coast, and his highly-rated podcast “The Fantasy Record.

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