Underclassmen worth tracking for 2018 fantasy drafts

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Penn State running back <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/256698/" data-ylk="slk:Saquon Barkley">Saquon Barkley</a> could be a rookie fantasy sensation. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley could be a rookie fantasy sensation. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

January 15 marked the deadline for underclassmen to enter the NFL draft, and with that, a new group of potential rookie stars is forming. The quarterbacks are getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so: There are plenty of teams who need signal-callers and there are plenty of guys to be had.

But quarterback isn’t the only spot where there’s a lot of talent. And as preparations begin for next year, you may be looking for the next Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara or Leonard Fournette. A breakout rookie star can propel your team to the top, as 2017 showed, and the scouting for those guys begins now.

1. The quarterbacks

There’s so much uncertainty regarding this group that it’s hard to separate any one of them. Part of that is because there are simply so many first-round prospects. Josh Allen has the prototypical franchise QB stature and skill, but he struggled last year at Wyoming. The same can be said for Sam Darnold at USC. Josh Rosen is a terrific prospect as well, but the prospect of him going to the Browns almost made him return for a final year at UCLA. There’s also uber-athletic 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, who reminds a lot of people of Michael Vick but will certainly need a lot of polish on his fundamentals.

These four underclassmen could all be first-rounders, and early first-rounders at that. And there are a wide range of landing spots that could determine their value. Does one land in Denver, where Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have been aching for some quarterback stability? What about both of the New York teams? Does Kirk Cousins move on from Washington D.C., opening a spot there? All of these prospects are worth monitoring, and they all have questions to be answered during the draft process. Rookie quarterbacks often fail to even make a blip on the radar, but given the right situation (see: Deshaun Watson, 2017) they can thrive immediately.

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2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Barkley is one of the best — if not the best — running back prospects in recent memory. He’s scored 47 total touchdowns, ran for nearly 2,800 yards and caught nearly 100 passes in his past two years combined. He finished his career off with a bang, recording 175 offensive yards and two touchdowns in Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl win over Washington.

Barkley has all the physical skills and then some. He runs in in the 4.3-4.4 range at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds. He has an incredibly strong lower body. He’s been injury-free despite a huge workload. He checks all the boxes for a running back, and he also turned into one of the nation’s most feared kickoff returners his junior year. He should do very well throughout the draft process.

Could Barkley end up being a bust like Trent Richardson? Could he get hurt and never be the same like Ki-Jana Carter? Sure. That’s always possible, especially at running back. But given his production and versatility, there’s no reason to believe that.

3. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

If you don’t know the name Courtland Sutton right now, that’s fair. He didn’t play in a Power Five conference and didn’t win any national awards. But if everything goes right during the draft process, he could turn into one of the hottest rookie commodities heading into the 2018 season.

Sutton stands 6-foot-4, weighs a muscular 218 pounds and uses that frame very well to box out defenders and win 50-50 balls in the air. He doesn’t have the breakaway speed of an elite No. 1 wide receiver like Julio Jones, but his ability to go up and win in one-on-one matchups has drawn comparisons to Buccaneers star Mike Evans. For teams in need of a big outside receiver — the Panthers could fit the bill nicely here — Sutton is an enticing prospect and thus an enticing possible fantasy contributor, too.

4. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

Guice reminds me a bit of Kareem Hunt. He runs really hard, is shifty in between the tackles and is a flat-out playmaker. He battled through injuries as a junior but still topped 1,250 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns for the second year in a row. Despite a balky knee, he was also remarkably consistent, finishing with at least 100 total yards in nine of LSU’s 13 contests. He finished his career in Baton Rouge averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Guice might not be a first-round pick in April, but given the right situation, he could be an immediate contributor in a big way.

[Early position previews for 2018: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

5. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

Another stud No. 1 receiver headed to the NFL from Alabama? That’s the case again in 2018. Ridley is the top wide receiver prospect after three years in which he caught 224 balls for nearly 2,800 yards for the Crimson Tide. Those numbers came despite the inconsistency of Jalen Hurts at quarterback.

Ridley is 6-foot-1 and 188 pounds of speed, precise route-running and pure athleticism. He could certainly add on a little bit of weight, but he draws comparisons to his former teammate, Amari Cooper, for his physical skills and his ability after the catch. He could be the first wide receiver off the board and possibly a top-10 pick.

6. Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn

Johnson racked up 125 total yards and a score in the Iron Bowl, a performance that had NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremih comparing him to Le’Veon Bell. That’s high, high praise, especially in the fantasy world. At 6-foot and 212 pounds, Johnson has great size and strength that should translate to the next level. He finishes runs with authority and had the production (nearly 1,400 rushing yards, 20 total touchdowns) in his junior year that finally matched his skills. For his efforts, he won SEC Offensive Player of the Year.

Johnson has a bit of an injury history, but if he shows he’s 100 percent (or close to it) in the events leading up to the draft and performs well at them, he’ll be an early Day 2 selection. Given his production and well-rounded skill set, he could factor into most offenses immediately.

7. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

NFL executives will love Kirk’s explosiveness, quickness, speed and versatility. He was one of college football’s most productive receivers over the past three years, and on top of that he had seven return touchdowns.

At 5-foot-11, Kirk doesn’t have the length that Sutton and Ridley do, but he can still project as an outside receiver at the next level thanks to his off-the-charts speed. And he could certainly be moved into the slot for a team looking for a playmaker there. A threat to score any time he has the ball in his hands, Kirk capped off his college career with a 13-catch, 189-yard, three-touchdown performance against Wake Forest. Given his big-play ability and special teams contributions, Kirk is most definitely a guy worth watching.

8. Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma

Led by Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, the Oklahoma offense was a big-play machine in 2017. But when the Sooners needed a key play or when the deep stuff wasn’t there, Andrews was the go-to option. And he excelled in that role.

With Dede Westbrook and Joe Mixon gone, Andrews took a major step up from his sophomore year to his junior year, doubling his catches (31 to 62) and nearly doubling his yards (489 to 958). And potential fantasy owners will love his red-zone production: 22 scores in his three years in Norman. He has great size at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, and he’s a very good athlete. For any teams in need of a tight end, Andrews could provide great value on the second day of the draft, or he could sneak into the first round.

9. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama

Fitzpatrick’s junior year couldn’t have gone much better. He won a national championship, was named first-team All-SEC and All-America for the second year in a row and also won the Jim Thorpe (best defensive back) and Chuck Bednarik (best defensive player) awards.

Though it may seem strange to have a defensive player on this list, recent history has shown an elite young shutdown corner can be a huge part of a defensive rebuild. Just look at what Marshon Lattimore did for a Saints defense that finished eighth in points this year after finishing 29th in 2016. Fitzpatrick is a potential shutdown guy who could do wonders for whatever team selects him.

10. Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

You won’t find Callaway on any early-round mock drafts, just like you didn’t find him on a college football field this past fall. He, along with eight other Gators, were involved in a credit card fraud case before the 2017 campaign kicked off. The crime is classified as a felony, but Callaway and six others received pre-trial intervention effectively resulting in probation. Still, Callaway was suspended for the entirety of what would have been his junior season.

That’s not the only trouble Callaway has had. He was suspended for the school’s 2016 spring semester during a Title IX investigation and then cited for marijuana possession in May 2017.

On the field, Callaway is a special, if undersized, talent at wide receiver. He racked up nearly 1,400 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns — a combination of receiving, rushing and return scores — in his first two years with the Gators.

Recently, Callaway moved to Atlanta to work with a trainer and declared for the draft. There is no individual with more riding on the draft process than Callaway. He’ll have to answer tons of questions about his off-field decisions, and that’s before he’ll have to show talent evaluators he still has the on-field skills following a year away from organized football.

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