It’s the exception, not the norm, when rookies make a substantial impact in their first NFL season. There’s too much adjusting to be done, from the speed of the game to the intricacy of a playbook to even just learning to live as a professional athlete, for first-year players to consistently stand out during the first 16 games of their career.
Yet there are always a handful of young guys who outplay or live up to their draft position. This is never more important to your average fan than how it impacts fantasy football. Each year, first-year guys who nobody expected to contribute, much less rack up counting stats, suddenly find themselves as the focal point of an offense as a result of injury or unforeseen levels of production. Patrick Mahomes is the shining example from last year that may not be replicated again, but Philip Lindsay and Calvin Ridley both put up far bigger fantasy numbers than originally projected. It’s hard to spot those players early on, but for you, reader, I will give it my best shot. Here are five rookies who could start strong and churn out fantasy points in 2019.
Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Yes, this is an obvious one, but it’s still worth looking at how he might end up with that production. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense will feature plenty of four-WR sets to spread out the defense, and probably a chunk of designed QB runs and read-option plays, although my guess is there won’t be nearly as many of those as one might expect. Murray hasn’t looked great in two preseason games so far, but with this offense and the team around him, that may not matter as much as we think. The defense wasn’t great last year and will be without its best player for the first six games after Patrick Peterson’s suspension. They’ll be throwing the ball, and they’ll be throwing it a lot.
The turnovers will be many. But from all indications, Kingsbury seems more than happy to let Murray work through his mistakes. There will be some dud weeks, but for a QB2 or a backup, you may as well take a flier for when Murray has his good weeks.
Justice Hill, RB, Baltimore Ravens
I mentioned Hill as someone who’s boosted their fantasy stock through two weeks of preseason, and barring injury, he looks like he’s primed to get far more touches than your average fourth-round draft pick. He has the look of your typical scat back out of the backfield who can make professional athletes look silly in the open field. In an effort to simplify the game for Lamar Jackson, it’s easy to envision John Harbaugh running a lot of quick screens and passes to guys who can make space against man coverage quickly, and so far Hill has proved he can do that.
The reason to be excited about his fantasy potential comes in the form of Baltimore’s personnel. They signed Mark Ingram over the offseason to be their bell cow, but they need only look to his last season in New Orleans to see how effective he can be paired with a change-of-pace back. The Ravens’ mid-season offensive identity shift proved there are smart guys in charge of their unit who know exactly how to utilize Hill. He may be nothing more than a flex option to start the season, but from what we’ve seen so far he’s definitely worth taking a chance on.
David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears
Montgomery started the summer as a “sleeper” of sorts. That has changed. The Bears absolutely love Montgomery, and from all indications he’ll be the main man in the backfield in 2019. The team believes he can be a three-down back and want to lessen backfield mate Tarik Cohen’s touches, so all signs point to Montgomery shouldering a big load early on.
His presence as the main running back on an offense that can be as prolific as the Bears can is enough to believe in his fantasy potential. The news that he’ll be a featured part of the offense gives the idea even more weight. Chicago might be locked into some ground-and-pound battles with their high-end defense and the various deficiencies of Mitch Trubisky. Montgomery averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his last year at Iowa State and exhibited the skills required to become at least an adequate pass-catcher in the NFL. Matt Nagy is a smart dude who loves Montgomery, and he will be getting his touches.
Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers
Whether or not you’re high on Jimmy Garoppolo, Samuel seems primed to pump out fantasy production simply by virtue of those around him. More appropriately, who isn’t around him; the Niners have one battle-tested wideout in Marquise Goodwin, and other than that receptions are completely up for grabs. It’s been a down few years in San Fran, but Kyle Shanahan still knows how to scheme a good offense.
Samuel was productive and explosive in his final year of college, putting up 882 yards with 11 TDs at an average of 14.2 yards per catch. Despite his shorter stature, he’s sturdy and a true danger to defenders in the open field. Best-case scenario is Samuel putting up big numbers in a prolific offense as its most explosive player. Worst-case? He’s putting up solid numbers in an okay offense as one of two legitimate pass-catching options.
Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Hardman went under the radar during this year’s draft, and it was a mild surprise he ended up going in the second round. So far, it looks like Kansas City knew what they were doing. In limited action, Hardman has looked significantly faster than anyone else on the field; speed was a clear priority for the Chiefs during the draft while Tyreek Hill’s situation remained unresolved. Now that it is, Hardman isn’t as valuable as he would’ve been.
Nonetheless, a receiver with that kind of skillset is like putty in Andy Reid’s hands. The mad genius of the Gateway of the Midwest will no doubt engineer many a playcall to ensure Hardman’s 15.5 yards per catch average from college carries over to the pros. He won’t be a featured part of an offense with so many deadly weapons, but in a system like Reid’s, there’s more than enough to go around. He may not end up more than a flex option this year, but an explosive player like that in KC’s offense is worth a close look.