NFL football returns in less than two weeks as the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs take on one of the teams they vanquished along their playoff path, the Houston Texans, to kick off the 2020 regular season. These next two weekends will be filled with fantasy football drafts, so it’s a great time to re-evaluate the incoming class of rookies, powered by Panini.
Rookie rankings typically drop in late April or early May, directly following the conclusion of the NFL draft and then are sprinkled in with all the other rankings throughout the summer. But it’s now late August and it’s time to take another look at rookies specifically. I evaluated and ranked my top 10 rookies earlier this week, but let’s uncover five sleepers that weren’t on that list—for the purposes of this article, a sleeper is ranked outside the top 200 in current ADP for PPR leagues.
Anthony McFarland Jr. (RB - PIT)
Given James Conner’s injury history—he’s missed nine games over the last two seasons—fantasy managers should be paying very close attention to the glut of backs the Pittsburgh Steelers have behind him. After Pittsburgh spent a fourth-round pick on the former Maryland Terp, McFarland is pretty much a lock to make the team. Those in a battle to stay on the active roster include Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds, Wendell Smallwood, and Kerrith Whyte. Of those five, at most two will make the top-53—the Steelers usually carry three running backs in addition to a fullback (Derek Watt), but it’s not unreasonable to expect them to keep four running backs this season. Snell is probably a semi-lock as well, so Samuels, Edmunds, Smallwood, and Whyte will be fighting for the last spot on the active roster and/or to be on Pittsburgh’s practice squad.
That’s a very long-winded way to say that McFarland isn’t too far away from a significant workload given Conner’s injury history and the competition behind him. My guess is that if (when) Conner goes down, Snell and McFarland are used in tandem. If Samuels gets cut, then McFarland may quickly have to learn how to pass protect enough to be on the field for passing downs right away. In the scenario where either Samuels gets cut and/or Pittsburgh only keeps three running backs, I absolutely want to take a flier on McFarland with my last pick.
Tee Higgins (WR - CIN)
The cream rises to the top, and the tremendously talented Higgins is already impressing at Cincinnati Bengals camp. He’s physical, has a large catch-radius, and has enough speed to be successful at the NFL level. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow has as much chemistry with him as he does with any other receiver on the roster because it’s his first year. A.J. Green is already battling injuries and John Ross has to prove he can not only stay healthy, but be productive over a significant window of time. By mid-season, Higgins may find himself in a starting role for a team that will be losing a lot and throwing even more. He’s absolutely worth a flier in redraft leagues and should be a late target in best ball formats.
Joshua Kelley (RB - LAC)
If you read the linked article above in the intro about my top 10 fantasy rookies, you know how I feel about the potential second-half value of running backs Jonathan Taylor and D’Andre Swift. It’s possible you get a poor man’s version of that here with Kelley. There’s no doubt Austin Ekeler is the guy in Los Angeles, but the Chargers are known for using multiple backs effectively and Ekeler has been plenty productive in games where both he and former starter Melvin Gordon were active. My money’s on Justin Jackson taking over a Gordon-light role early in the season, but that spot could go to Kelley later in the season. If it does, you’ve got a player who could be in flex territory on a weekly basis and an RB2 if something happens to Ekeler. Given that this will truly be the first full season of Ekeler in the lead back role, injury risk is absolutely a factor that must be considered.
Bryan Edwards (WR - LV)
Honestly, I didn’t think much of Edwards heading into this season before all the hype coming out of Las Vegas Raiders camp. I’m still a little skittish because of all the other weapons they have there and the fact that the Raiders won’t air it out like Cincinnati likely will (when compared to Higgins’ evaluation above), but opportunity is just as important as any other factor/trait/intangible. Plus, the labrum injury to Tyrell Williams should only open up more opportunities for Edwards. I’m very curious to see who plays in the slot in three-receiver sets for the Raiders, because if it’s Henry Ruggs III and not Hunter Renfrow, then it’s more likely Edwards is on the field regardless of Williams’ status.
Edwards has had a very strong camp by all accounts and that may be enough to get him a significant snap count this season. However, he doesn’t project as an immediate difference-maker. He’s physical but doesn’t have great separation and would probably be more productive as a big slot instead of an X receiver. That being said, if he’s on the field enough he could be worthy of a bench spot.
Van Jefferson (WR - LAR)
Jefferson is having an amazing camp according to everybody and anybody around the team. He’s a phenomenal route-runner for his age and maintains possession through contact. Despite not being drafted among the top-tier wide receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft, Jefferson was considered a pretty pro-ready player. If he starts getting snaps over Josh Reynolds—another overall deep sleeper I’m intrigued by—then there may be some fantasy value to be had. From my research, here’s what Reynolds has done when either Cooper Kupp or Brandin Cooks has missed time since 2018:
Reynolds is averaging 3.2 catches, 49.3 receiving yards, and .55 touchdowns on 6.0 targets per game. While that may not look like much, that averages out to 11.4 PPR fantasy points—Adam Thielen and Preston Williams both averaged 11.4 PPR points last season. That output would’ve been good enough to finish as the WR42 on a per-game basis in 2019, above players like Curtis Samuel, D.K. Metcalf, and Mike Williams.
Cooks is obviously gone, but what if Jefferson and not Reynolds wins the WR3 job in Los Angeles? Could he replicate those numbers?