It’s graduation day, everyone. Sort of. As this season has progressed, the Rookie Report has been here to serve our faithful readers on a weekly deep dive into a litany of first-year players finding their footing in the NFL.
Occasionally, there have been players who, because of their early prowess, have “graduated” to every-week starter status. Puka Nacua got there first, with 39 receptions in his first four games as a professional. If you have him, you’re not taking him out of your lineup. By the way, keep a good thought for Matthew Stafford’s recovery from his thumb injury so that he keeps feeding Nacua and Cooper Kupp and filling our fantasy stat sheets.
We have two more players ready to leave this space because they’ve moved into a different stratosphere. C.J. Stroud and Jahmyr Gibbs, you both have arrived as set-it-it-and-forget-it fantasy stars.
Stroud, on the heels of a magnificent 356-yard road performance where he picked apart the Cincinnati defense like a 10-year vet, no longer needs to be discussed as a "maybe" starter. He’s second in the NFL with 2,626 passing yards, a 15-2 TD-INT ratio and is the QB9 on the season. Faithful fantasy managers, if you picked him up off waivers or grabbed him as a second quarterback in Superflex leagues, you’re feeling very smart right now and not even thinking of sitting Stroud.
Gibbs has been the RB3, RB2 and RB1 — in that order — the last three games, with an electrifying blend of rare speed, burst and enough pass-catching chops to make fantasy points roll up like a Vegas slot machine. With one of the best offensive lines blowing open holes for him, and a schedule where he’s playing indoors for all but one game (Week 14 in Chicago) through the end of the fantasy playoffs, let’s just say that fantasy managers are salivating like they would be for a Thanksgiving feast coming off a three-day fast. Gibbs is the RB15, and he’ll be knocking on the door of the top-10 running backs any week now.
Thankfully, we still have plenty of other rookies to talk about for the rest of the season. And we’re going to start with someone who may be ready to graduate.
Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons
It all looked so perfect. Robinson was getting more work in the passing game and looked to be on the verge of becoming a true dual-threat running back with special skills. In Week 6, Robinson was on the field for 60 snaps, rushed the ball 13 times and ran 35 routes. The latter figure was second on the team. Even though he had 80 yards, it looked like he was building toward a big finish.
Then came the “headache” game in Week 7 – one total rush attempt – and since then it’s been a major headache for fantasy managers. Week 10 was more soothing, as he rushed the ball 22 times and totaled 106 yards. He even scored his fourth touchdown of the season.
With the bye week coming, we’re spared a weekend of fantasy managers scrutinizing every word that head coach Arthur Smith says to justify why Robinson and other highly drafted Falcons are not seeing more opportunities.
Robinson will have a string of tough defenses he’ll face coming out of the bye in the Saints, Jets and Buccaneers. Fantasy playoff weeks he'll take on Carolina, Indianapolis and Chicago. The first two are beatable, while the Bears have been better against the run of late. They have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. It could be a grind to get yards with Soldier Field likely in frigid temperatures, but before then Robinson should perform. Ready to graduate.
Keaton Mitchell, Baltimore Ravens
Boy, Mitchell sure is fun, isn’t he? The 34-yard touchdown run against the Browns looked so effortless, it’s easy to forget that he was doing it against a defense that has been wrecking opponents all season. Still, just four total touches for 66 yards, though Lamar Jackson did hit Mitchell in the chest on what would have been a long touchdown reception in that game.
With 11 and 13 snaps in back-to-back weeks, Mitchell seemingly can only go up, and head coach John Harbaugh has intimated that. We have also seen Justice Hill's workload dramatically fall. In Week 9, Hill was on the field for 47 snaps, and that fell to 13 in Week 10. If Hill’s opportunities stay where they are, Mitchell may see his touches rise. Then, in Week 11, Mitchell earned nine total touches (eight carries, one catch), second among members of the backfield (not including Lamar Jackson) and produced 41 total yards. He did show off his trademark big-play ability on a 21-yard rush, but was ultimately bottled up. Gus Edwards, though, had 70 yards on 14 touches and two goal-line touchdowns, hinting that the only thing that will change in the status quo is Justice Hill being the odd man out.
A Week 17 carnival game between the Ravens and Dolphins awaits, with De’Von Achane and Mitchell potentially on opposite sides of a track meet.
Michael Wilson, Arizona Cardinals
What a welcome sight it was to see Kyler Murray’s whirling-dervish feet moving as if on fast forward. It breathed new life into the Cardinals offense, and makes players like Wilson a target to pick up. Currently, he’s rostered in just 13% of Yahoo leagues.
In Week 10, Wilson ran 32 routes, which was just behind the 35 that Marquise Brown ran. He’s the big-body receiver who is the complement to Brown’s speedy deep threat. Wilson may be the cheap way to get a piece of this offense, which will put a lot on Murray because this defense is giving up lots of yardage in the running and passing games.
This week the Cardinals go to Houston, so there could be some fireworks and some passes could be headed Wilson’s way. There is also a tasty Week 17 matchup against the Eagles and their bottom-ranked defense against wide receivers.
Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans
It’s getting to the point that Spears is no longer just a backup plan in case Derrick Henry gets hurt. The last two weeks, Spears has out-snapped Henry 36-24 and 41-33, respectively. With him running 16 routes to seven for Henry, the rookie is getting the type of involvement that should garner him double-digit touches weekly. That enters him at least into flex consideration.
Jacksonville is No. 15 defending running backs, and just got gashed for 142 scrimmage yards by Christian McCaffrey last week. Spears is several levels down from CMC, but the Tulane product could see a fair number of touches, especially targets, in a game where the Titans will likely have to go toe-to-toe with a Jaguars team looking to right the ship after being trounced by the 49ers.
Jayden Reed, Green Bay Packers
So why not Reed? It’s looking more and more that Christian Watson is not a No. 1 wide receiver, which should mean more of a sharing of the wealth when it comes to targets. Reed's topped 80 receiving yards twice in the last three games, and scored this past week.
He was fourth on the Packers with 22 routes run last week, so he may still not be fully integrated into the offense. But Watson has battled injuries most of the season, so that could mean more snaps for the rookie. The Chargers are coming to Lambeau Field, fresh off that 41-38 track meet that saw Amon-Ra St. Brown blow through the defense for 8-156-1. The Chargers are still 29th against wide receivers, so it’s not completely loco to take a chance on Reed this week.
A.T. Perry, New Orleans Saints
It’s hard to think of what was more remarkable, the cross-field throw from Jameis Winston or the contested catch-turned-wrestling-match by Perry that was ruled his first NFL touchdown. It was Perry’s first game even seeing a target, and it could be one of the signs of more opportunities coming his way.
Perry ran 38 routes in a game where Michael Thomas left with an injury after running two routes himself. Perry’s route number was just one behind Chris Olave for the team lead, so the rookie was thrown into the deep end in his first game seeing real NFL action — he was inactive the first seven games of the season.
The Saints are on a bye this week and face the Falcons in Week 12. With Thomas’ status up in the air — some reports said the injury was significant and that he would miss time — there could be some targets opening up for Perry. Olave is still the lead dog, and Rashid Shaheed is still going to have his splash games, so the slice of pie might be small come Thanksgiving weekend in Atlanta for Perry.
He’s basically a free play though, as he’s rostered in 0% of Yahoo leagues, so look at him as at best a stash for now.
Michael Mayer, Las Vegas Raiders
There was so much hope for Mayer when he caught five balls for 75 against the Patriots in Week 6. Then what followed was a string of four games where he topped out at 19 receiving yards. Even as rough as the landscape has been at tight end, that still keeps Mayer on the outside looking in for fantasy starting lineups.
He ran 18 routes in the Sunday night game against the Jets, which was 10 behind team leader Davante Adams. The Raiders ran the ball 32 times in that game to 27 pass attempts for Aidan O’Connell. They have established Josh Jacobs, and my prediction is that Adams begins to get fed a steady diet of 10-plus targets per game. With Jakobi Meyers next in line for targets, that’s only going to leave scraps for Mayer. Unless fantasy managers are in desperate need at the tight end position, I’d suggest leaving Mayer on the waiver wire, where he’s available in 90% of Yahoo leagues.