Being the slowest time of the NFL off-season, I’ve started handing out awards. There isn’t a lot going on besides an escalating rumor mill that, at times, feels a lot like misinformation campaigns to create markets for some players or downplay interest in others. My next award is for the 2016 Fantasy Football All-Rookie Team.
QB: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Everything that could be said has already been said about Dak Prescott, but I’ll try to add a bit of a different take.
Prescott finished sixth in overall scoring at the quarterback position and just outside of the top-10 in points-per-game. However, if you take away his first and last games (which he barely played) from his season totals, he would have finished with a per-game-average of 20.15 points in standard formats.
The thing I really like about Dak Prescott’s game is that he has the ability to run the ball, but uses it only in spurts, much like an Andrew Luck. Prescott is a passer first, but will also use his running ability when nothing is available in the passing game. He isn’t as reliant on his rushing totals like quarterbacks Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, or Russell Wilson have been.
Speaking of Mr. Luck, he was outscored by Mr. Prescott six times during the 2016 season. That is saying a lot about Prescott and the ability he showed in his rookie season.
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Quarterback 8
RB 1: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott is my RB1 and likely my number one choice going into the 2017 season. Why him and not David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell? His touch-total is more easily reproducible in my opinion. Elliott was the only running back with more than 300 carries and one of only seven backs with more than 300 touches.
If the Arizona Cardinals or the Pittsburgh Steelers get anything more from their receivers in 2017 than they got in 2016, the passing game targets for Johnson and Bell should see a decline. It might not be a sharp decline, but it will be a decline, nonetheless.
Dallas has proven their preference over the years to give the ball to one back and let him work. Whether it was Elliott in 2016, Darren McFadden in 2015, or DeMarco Murray in 2014; Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff prefers a workhorse running back.
The things he has going for him are continuity along the offensive line, further progression from fellow rookie, quarterback Dak Prescott, and he’s likely to see 300 carries again. I think we will see his passing game targets see an uptick as well.
Ezekiel Elliott is the safest pick to meet RB1 numbers in the 2017 season.
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Running Back 1
RB 2: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Had it not been for Elliott’s impressive rookie season in which he led the league in rushing, Jordan Howard would be the talked about man from the rookie running back class. Howard finished second in the league in rushing despite seeing very little work until the third game of the season (the game in which Jeremy Langford was injured).
In standard formats, Jordan Howard averaged 13.5 fantasy points per game. And that includes the second game of the season where he only saw five touches and scored 3.1 fantasy points.
If you remove that game (he didn’t play in the first game of the season), Howard would have averaged 14.42 fantasy points per game in 2016. That would put him right at Devonta Freeman numbers.
That’s pretty awesome work in an offense that was led by bad Jay Cutler (he’s been known to have some good times) and Matt Barkley for his rookie campaign.
What I like about Howard’s outlook for 2017 is that the coaching staff gave him the ball despite game flow. They were committed to getting Howard involved even when they were down.
For example, the Chicago Bears were put in an early hole by the Green Bay Packers in week 15 as Green Bay was still working to get into the playoffs. Howard carried the ball 17 times and caught four passes to finish with 100 total yards and a touchdown in a game that Chicago turned a blowout into a three-point loss.
I like Howard for 2017 and think many people will undervalue him going into drafts. It’s likely you can get Howard — who I have well inside the top-10 — in the second or third round in 2017.
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Running Back 7
WR 1: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
If you’ve read much of my work this year, you know that I have quite the sports affection for Michael Thomas. There wasn’t a better landing spot for the former Ohio State Buckeye to make an immediate impact, and make an impact he did. After a slow start to the season in which he managed just over five fantasy points in weeks one and two, Thomas was a force the rest of the way.
From weeks three to 17 (14 games), Thomas scored nine+ fantasy points nine times. He also went for 19+ three times. Thomas recorded either 90 yards or a touchdown reception nine times throughout the season. For a rookie wide receiver in an offense with a lot of weapons, that is pretty remarkable.
I like Thomas just as much in 2017. The quarterback is the same. The offense is the same. He plays the role Marques Colston made his money in years ago. It isn’t by accident that the rookie led the New Orleans Saints in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He’s really that good.
He’s likely going to cost you a top 20 pick in 2017 redraft leagues, but to me it’s worth it. He’ll continue to be a PPR and standard league monster.
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Wide Receiver 8
WR 2: Sterling Shepard, New York Giants
One of my favorite receivers in the 2017 draft (because I’ve watched a lot of University of Oklahoma football), Sterling Shepard went to a very favorable spot in the second round when selected by the New York Giants.
As the second option in a high volume, quick hitting passing game, Sterling Shepard was able to contribute eight 10+ standard fantasy point outings in his rookie year and finished with eight touchdowns.
He was a bit more boom or bust than fellow rookie Michael Thomas, but he was the next best rookie, finishing second in catches, yards, and touchdowns.
Going into his second year, and with Victor Cruz now off the roster, I would expect Shepard to slide into the slot a lot more often. He is a really good receiver in the short to intermediate passing game, and especially over the middle where his toughness helps him make contested catches in dangerous areas.
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Wide Receiver 37
TE: Hunter Henry, San Diego Chargers
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Tight End 8
Rookie tight ends rarely find a way to contribute on the stat sheets in their first year. Typically they’re figuring out blocking assignments, taking away from their ability to understand how to get open in the NFL. This was not the case for Hunter Henry.
Henry didn’t get full reps as a lead tight end in San Diego, but when Antonio Gates was out with an injury, Henry became an important piece of the Chargers’ offense. Despite mostly part-time work, Henry finished as the eleventh best TE in standard scoring leagues. Henry finished eighth in rookie receptions and receiving yards. His eight touchdown catches tied him with Shepard for second most touchdowns among rookies, and tied him with Cameron Brate for the lead among tight ends in touchdowns.
A lot of this success occurred while fellow tight end Antonio Gates started most games and they shared snaps. In 2017, Gates is a bit older and I fully expect Henry to begin taking the majority of the snaps.
My Early 2017 Fantasy Ranking: Tight End 8
Who do you think should have made it?
Be Sure to Follow me on Twitter @john9williams for more 2016 Fantasy Football Recaps and for 2017 Outlooks.