Rookies have never been more important in fantasy football. With the evolution of offenses in the NFL, first-year skill players face greater expectations to perform than they have at any point in league history. This rings particularly true at wide receiver, where since 2014 we’ve seen six of the top 10 all-time fantasy seasons by a rookie at the position. The question for fantasy managers is: How can you take advantage of this?
This season, the running back class looks relatively weak—but it should be another strong year at receiver. The position accounted for six of the first 18 picks in last week’s draft, an NFL record. Members of this year’s group may not rival the historical first-year production of Ja’Marr Chase or Justin Jefferson, but rest assured there will be tons of rookie pass-catching talent available in the mid and late rounds of fantasy drafts come September.
To help you navigate the rookie fantasy landscape, we’ve ranked the top 10 fantasy rookies based on projected impact in year one. Last year’s top trio was historically great; here’s hoping more fantasy stars arrive in 2022.
Tier 1: Week 1 Fantasy Starters
1. WR Drake London, Falcons: For the second year in a row, the Falcons used a top-10 pick on a unicorn pass catcher. Kyle Pitts broke out for 1,026 yards during his rookie campaign and ranked among the top tight ends in PPR points, targets, and yards per route run in one of the best seasons by a rookie tight end in league history. London could easily clear 120 targets in his rookie year, and he has the catch radius (his 19 contested catches led the nation in 2021) to be one of the league’s best scoring threats in the red zone. The USC product is Atlanta’s clear no. 1 wideout on a depth chart that includes Olamide Zaccheaus, Damiere Byrd, and Auden Tate, none of whom have ever topped more than 80 targets or 700 receiving yards in a season. While being paired with Marcus Mariota slightly lowers London’s ceiling, he should see enough volume to be a consistent WR3, and he has WR1 potential should everything break right for the Falcons offense this year.
Tier 2: Mid-Round Picks With Upside
2. WR Treylon Burks, Titans: Burks is a tricky evaluation from a fantasy standpoint. On one hand, he was compared to A.J. Brown throughout the predraft process, and the Titans drafted him to replace Brown, which is good news for the former Razorback’s fantasy prospects. He could have 100-plus targets and significant yards-after-the-catch opportunity. On the other hand, the Titans offense is built around Derrick Henry and the run game and has boasted by far the lowest early-down pass rate of any team through the past three seasons. With the arrival of Robert Woods—arguably the best run-blocking receiver in football—it’s possible Burks won’t be used in one- and two-wide receiver sets, which would lower his target share and receiving volume in an already volatile passing offense.
3. RB Breece Hall, Jets: Michael Carter finished fourth among rookie running backs in PPR scoring last season, and looked the part of the Jets’ future feature back after starting 11 of his 14 games and leading the team with 183 touches. With a new season comes new competition, though, and Hall figures to push for starting duties early in the 2022 campaign. Hall led the Power Five through the past two seasons with 531 carries and led all of college football with 41 scores, and he projects as an elite pass-catching back at the next level. He may not see the early-season volume of players below him on this list, but Hall’s elite skill set and potential to be a checkdown magnet makes him a high-floor, mid-round fantasy draft target. It’s possible that offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur will prefer a committee approach much like his former boss Kyle Shanahan, but if the Jets hand Hall a consistent 15 to 20 touches per game, we could be looking at a high-end RB2. A more likely scenario is that he becomes this year’s Javonte Williams: the most talented rusher in his class, but without the reliable usage needed to trust him in fantasy lineups on a weekly basis.
4. WR Garrett Wilson, Jets: Wilson was Danny Kelly’s top-ranked receiver heading into the draft, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove himself on a Jets offense that’s brimming with young talent but lacks an established go-to skill player. The former Ohio State wide receiver has the body control, agility, and speed to tilt the defense on every play, and he should see significant volume for the Jets, who are expected to be playing from behind in most of their contests this season. If Zach Wilson takes a major leap in year two and develops good chemistry with his young receiver early in the season, we could be looking at one of the league’s most exciting new QB-WR duos. A more likely scenario is that the Wilson Brothers show flashes of brilliance in 2022 but finish just outside the starting fantasy ranks at their respective positions.
5. WR Chris Olave, Saints: New Orleans’s draft approach was confusing, to put it mildly. Still, the fact the Saints maneuvered as much as they did to acquire the polished, well-rounded Olave bodes well for his prospects in 2022. Olave should be the team’s clear no. 2 receiver behind fellow Buckeye Michael Thomas. (Thomas excelled in that same role as a rookie alongside Brandin Cooks in 2016.) Jameis Winston is expected to return as the team’s starter after suffering an ACL tear that ended what was on pace to be his best year as a professional, and while Sean Payton has moved on, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael’s return will offer some continuity for what’s been one of the league’s best passing attacks in the past decade. Olave is about as pro-ready as any wide receiver in this draft; if the Saints give him significant playing time right away, he could have a WR2 ceiling.
6. RB Dameon Pierce, Texans: In some ways, Pierce landed in the best situation of any rookie running back. His main backfield competition includes Rex Burkhead and Marlon Mack, and Mack has played just seven games in the past two seasons. However, while the fourth-rounder out of Florida is the likeliest of all backs in his class to be a three-down starter in Week 1, his fantasy ceiling is limited. In the past four years, Houston’s backfield has been one of the league’s worst, with David Johnson’s RB21 campaign in 2020 ranking as the team’s best fantasy finish during that span. Last season, the Texans finished last in ESPN’s run-block win rate and Football Outsiders’s rush DVOA, and outside of drafting Kenyon Green—who many pundits thought was a reach in the first round—they haven’t done much to significantly improve the offense. A bet on Pierce is a bet on volume, and even that may be misguided, as the team will likely trail many games in 2022 and regularly employ a pass- and therefore Burkhead-heavy script. He’s worth a mid-round pick, but Pierce’s ceiling is no more than an RB3.
RD 2 | PK 34 – Packers: Christian Watson WR, NDSU
At 6’4 1/8″, Watson ran a 4.36-second 40-yd dash & 38.5 inches in the vertical at the Scouting Combine. Watson was 1 of 5 prospects in this year’s class to earn a 99 athleticism score based on his elite combine performance. pic.twitter.com/34pwtZU1Qz
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) April 29, 2022
7. WR Christian Watson, Packers: Watson may not be the most seasoned route runner, but his raw athleticism coupled with ample opportunity in Green Bay gives him one of the highest ceilings of any receiver from the 2022 draft. The Packers traded up to select the former North Dakota State standout in the second round, and the expectation is for him to fill some of the crater-sized void left after Davante Adams was traded to the Raiders in March. Adams averaged 16 touchdowns, 135 receptions, and 1,659 receiving yards per 17 games through the past two seasons with the Packers. If Watson can pick up even 50 percent of Adams’s production, the rookie could finish as a viable WR3. I’m not buying a mid-career breakout from Sammy Watkins or Allen Lazard.
8. RB Kenneth Walker III, Seahawks: With Russell Wilson now in Denver, Seattle’s offense is expected to take a big step back under the tutelage of the talented but inconsistent Drew Lock. There are so many questions facing this offense: Is Rashaad Penny’s 2021 breakout for real? Will DK Metcalf be traded? Could they acquire Baker Mayfield? What’s the deal with Chris Carson? Why does Pete Carroll pass the ball only when no one wants him to? Seattle is arguably the most difficult offense to project in 2022. Michigan State rarely used Walker as a receiver, but he led the NCAA in yards after contact and missed tackles forced last season. As of now, it’s expected Walker will compete with Penny for early-down carries in 2022 while DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer maintain their pass-catching roles. This will most likely be a hot-hand situation, which makes Walker a late-round dart throw with RB3 upside.
9. RB James Cook, Bills: Devin Singletary improved considerably last season and looked like he was finally turning into Buffalo’s go-to back, securing career highs in touches, yards, and rushing touchdowns. He finished the year as the PPR RB18, another career best. But then the Bills brass went out and drafted Dalvin Cook’s little brother in the second round, making an already confounding backfield that much more difficult to project. Cook is a speedy (4.42 40-yard dash) back with serious receiving chops, but he lacks the size required to be a reliable pass blocker in year one with Buffalo. This is still likely Singletary’s backfield, but Cook adds a new dimension that new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey would be wise to explore. Buffalo has one of the best offenses in football and there should be plenty of scoring opportunities to go around. Even with Josh Allen sniping goal-line carries, Cook could vault into the RB3 conversation if he can pass Singletary on the running back depth chart at some point this season.
10. WR Jameson Williams, Lions: Williams could miss the early part of the season while recovering from his ACL injury, so his inclusion in this list is more about long-term upside than immediate impact. Once thought to be a surefire top-five selection, the former Ohio State and Alabama receiver slid to the 12th pick before the Lions grabbed him in a trade up with the Vikings. Last year at Alabama, Williams totaled 79 receptions for 1,572 yards and 15 touchdowns while ranking fourth among all receivers in yards after catch per reception and fifth in total deep yards, per PFF. With top-shelf deep speed and the ability to take any screen pass to the house, Williams has more upside than any receiver in this draft. The question is whether his health (and quarterback) will allow him to excel as a rookie working across from Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Honorable Mentions: Skyy Moore, John Metchie III, Jahan Dotson, George Pickens, Tyler Allgeier, Alec Pierce, Trey McBride, Tyquan Thornton, Jelani Woods.