It’s that time of year, when we take a deep look at how rookies have been performing in both the NFL and for fantasy. It’s the point when we take more than a single-week look-back to focus on how certain rookies have been developing, and to see if there’s a chance they could become fantasy darlings during the most important part of the season.
First off, we need to pay homage to a few special performances from Week 8 that were, in some cases, unexpected, and one in particular that is becoming more common.
Will Levis: The Titans had the chance to see how the 33rd pick in the draft would perform with Ryan Tannehill out with an ankle injury. Well, 238 passing yards, four touchdowns and a QB6 finish are going to get Levis at least another start. His deep ball was a thing of beauty. Steelers, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Panthers and Colts are coming up, and all are No. 14 or lower in fantasy points allowed to the quarterback. T.J. Watt could make things tough on Levis during Thursday Night Football, but could Levis have another blowup game in the coming weeks if he keeps the job?
Jahmyr Gibbs: That leap into the crowd after his Monday Night Football touchdown was a part of his 189-scrimmage-yard, national-audience coming-out party. It’s his second game with heavy usage. Will that continue once David Montgomery returns?
Sam LaPorta: The Iowa product’s splendid 10-8-57-1 line has become so commonplace, it almost feels like he’s not a rookie anymore.
Some of these players will appear in the rest of this article, as we look into the second-half crystal ball and see who are some of the players who could break out and some who might let the fantasy community down.
Rookie QB who will do the best Justin Herbert 2020 imitation: C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans
Remember how Herbert was an emergency start in the second game of his rookie season and then became the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year? If anyone is going to come close to that finish, it’s C.J. Stroud, Houston’s new franchise QB who has already thrown for 300 yards twice and multiple touchdowns in four games. He’s also making Nico Collins and Tank Dell viable weekly fantasy options.
Levis’ string of solid QB matchups is tempting to put him in the same category, but as long as Ryan Tannehill is on the roster and Mike Vrabel is the head coach, there is the chance the veteran retakes the starting quarterback slot if the team has a chance at the playoffs.
With the Colts playing in near-weekly shootouts, we’re left to wonder what might have been with Anthony Richardson. Heal up soon, amigo. Bryce Young, we just need to see some more improvement, though his work with Adam Thielen (57-581-4 — WR9) is a good sign for the future. But the pick here is Stroud.
Rookie ready for more after their bye: Rashee Rice, Kansas City Chiefs
Rashee Rice has been gaining more time on the field, with routes-run percentages of 55.6% and 59.1% the past two weeks. He has four receptions in each of the past four games, with a high of 72 yards in Week 6 against the Broncos. Rice is gaining the trust of Patrick Mahomes, and has his bye week conveniently in Week 10 after this week’s trip to Germany.
So many times over the years, rookie skill players use the bye week to reset, the game slows down for them and they blow up afterward. Rice is the call here. Tied to Mahomes and gaining more target share, he could become a good secondary option to Travis Kelce in this aerial attack. With potential shootouts coming against the Eagles, Bills and Bengals (Championship Week!), as well as two games against the reeling Raiders, Rice is going to help a lot of fantasy lineups after the bye week.
Rookie who could go off explode in championship week: De'Von Achane, Miami Dolphins
Remember De’Von Achane? The kid was the modern-day football version of Roy Hobbs from “The Natural.” He’s rehabbing his injured knee with an eye toward coming back for the stretch run on the Dolphins’ playoff push — and our fantasy playoffs. The matchup in Baltimore in Week 17 may not look favorable on paper, but remember, these teams played to a 42-38 fireworks show last year.
Also, the Ravens have relented to running backs of late. Gibbs put up 126 total yards and a score two weeks ago. A week prior Derrick Henry plowed through them for 97 yards and a score on 12 carries. Imagine what a fresh Achane can do in Championship Week.
Honorable Mention: Yes, Bijan Robinson had impossible expectations before the season, and has been good, but not Ezekiel-Elliott-2016 good. Yet.
The Week 17 trip to Chicago could be chilly, but that’s when Robinson could use his dual-threat skills to blow through the Bears. That game is preceded by a trip to Carolina and at home against the Colts. A playoff run against three defenses that are currently in the top six most inviting for running backs.
Rookie who could bust in playoffs: Jordan Addison, Minnesota Vikings
He’s been so good the past two weeks, but through no fault of his own, the rookie who could let you down during the fantasy playoffs is Jordan Addison. If Kirk Cousins were healthy, this might be a different story. But with Joshua Dobbs likely under center in the near future, it’s questionable how many pass catchers the well-traveled quarterback can support, even by the Week 15 game at Cincinnati’s No. 9 defense in fantasy points allowed to the wide receiver.
If Justin Jefferson has returned from IR by then, he’s going to command an alpha role. The No. 2 pass catcher would be between Addison and T.J. Hockenson. Looking at how much work the tight ends got with Dobbs in Arizona, it could be concerning for Addison. Between Zach Ertz and Trey McBride, the Cardinals tight ends put up three games of 10+ targets. Last week McBride was peppered with 14 looks. This has me thinking Hockenson will be the clear second target in the offense, leaving scraps for Addison. The Vikings also have fairly beatable secondaries in Weeks 16 and 17 — home games against the Lions and Packers — but the offensive environment might not be able to support the rookie.
Rookie to have a December to remember: Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions
Fantasy managers who scooped up Amon-Ra St. Brown before he went on his silly run through the 2021 fantasy playoffs know that first-year players coming into their own can mean titles. St. Brown’s current teammate Gibbs may be set up for an epic closing kick to the season.
The Lions and Jared Goff are so much better indoors and especially at Ford Field than outdoors. Goff has eight touchdowns and a 106.5 passer rating at home, compared to four touchdowns and an 88.0 passer rating away. He’s also famous for wilting in the elements. Weeks 10-17, the Lions play just one outdoor game — Week 14 against Chicago’s porous defense.
With Gibbs becoming a bigger part of the passing game — catching 14 of 15 targets the past two games — the Monday Night Football breakout might be a launching point. Weeks 15-17 the Lions host the Broncos, then travel to play the Vikings and Cowboys. The first two could be big games for Gibbs and the Dallas game could be a Championship Week shootout. Keep Gibbs in the lineup and enjoy.
Honorable mention: Jaxon Smith-Njigba has home games against the Eagles and Steelers sandwiched around a trip to Tennessee during Weeks 15-17. All three teams are among the top seven matchups for wide receivers. With JSN’s role growing in Seattle, he could be a sneaky WR3 or flex play during those important weeks.
Rookie you keep waiting for but never comes: Marvin Mims Jr., Denver Broncos
This is a tie between Marvin Mims and Tyjae Spears. Mims is a player with second-round pedigree, big-play ability but unfortunately, he resides in a crowded wide receiver corps with the Broncos. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton stayed put during the trade deadline, and Denver just ran the ball 40 times and passed it 19 times against the Chiefs. Mims’ games with 2-2-113-1 and 5-3-73-0 are getting further and further away in the memory bank.
Spears had the fantasy community in so much anticipation of a possible Derrick Henry trade that people started snapping up the rookie to the point he is rostered in 49% of Yahoo leagues.
Henry is finishing out the season in Tennessee, and Spears will probably still be on the field a nearly equal amount of snaps as him, but probably won’t get more than the season-high 11 snaps he drew in Week 5 against the Colts.