We’ve all pored over the top of the 2016 WR class, but for dynasty owners, there’s work to be done. Mid- and late-round receivers don’t succeed often, but when they do, they make a rookie draft extremely productive. There aren’t many Victor Cruzes or Wes Welkers, but there are enough that we should take a tour of 2016’s most intriguing options from beyond the top rookie tiers.
Pharoh Cooper, Rams
Many were higher on Cooper before the draft than I was, but this was a pretty cherry landing spot. As the Rams look to rebuild around rookie passer Jared Goff, it’s likely they’ll seek new surrounding talent than the status quo – Rams WRs caught just 136 passes in 2015, fewest in the league. With Tavon Austin locked into a less-than-dominant No. 1 role and only Kenny Britt as proven talent on the outside, a slot technician like Cooper could easily bond with Goff and deliver PPR value out of the gate.
There are indeed warts on the prospect. Cooper is an unremarkable athlete who flunked the combine – his explosiveness numbers were poor, especially for his size (5’11”, 203 pounds) – before running a weak 4.61 40-yard dash at his pro day. But his remarkable college productivity shouldn’t go ignored. It was exceptional and versatile, boasting a studly 34.2% share of South Carolina receiving yards over his three-year career. (His yardage and touchdown shares in his final year, by the way, were outstanding as well.) That’s the profile of a rookie who could step into a barren depth chart and immediately attain value, even with mediocre athleticism and little utility outside the slot; think Jarvis Landry.
Best case: Like Landry in Miami, Cooper “slots” in immediately on the inside and becomes Goff’s security blanket. His extensive route-running experience has him prepared to beat NFL slot cornerbacks, and he claims as much as 25% of Rams targets off the bat. That spits out a solid WR4 rookie year of 55-60 catches, and Cooper moves forward as an integral part of the offense.
Worst case: Cooper is not Landry; he struggles in and out of his breaks and is easily neutralized on the NFL level. He fades into the class of high-hustle, low-athleticism college slotmen who fail to make a dent. He spends a few seasons fighting for targets as the No. 3 or 4 and doesn’t reach his second contract in Hollywood.
Dynasty value: Round 2 of rookie drafts, Rounds 11-13 of startups
Malcolm Mitchell, Patriots
Mitchell’s slide to the 112th pick makes sense on paper. He’s 23, he never posted special numbers at Georgia, he failed to separate from his WR competition until his final season, and he lost 18 games to a 2013 ACL tear and complications. But there are some bright, shining points of light flowing through Mitchell’s dynasty value. His landing spot was strong and timely, and he showed very well at the combine, which capped a season that saw Mitchell emerge as Georgia’s top receiver.
The Patriots certainly haven’t drafted NFL talent at the WR spot over the years, but that’s actually good news for Mitchell – he’s competing with very little. The team lacks incumbent options on the outside, and Mitchell enters camp battling two veteran castoffs (Chris Hogan and Nate Washington) and nothing else of note. Hogan is an intriguing talent in his own right, but the team has nearly as much invested in Mitchell, who could garner notable snaps and targets on the other side in four-wide sets. Or, he could claim the full-time job outright; this is one of the more wide-open starting spots leaguewide.
I’m not concerned over Mitchell’s ACL tear. We’re three years removed, and Mitchell was team-dominant in his full-blown 2015 return. The raw numbers weren’t much, but they accounted for a fine 35.9% of Georgia yardage. It’s also encouraging that Mitchell managed a 4.45 40-yard dash and elite jump numbers at the combine, which itself came 19 months after his last knee surgery. Knees are tricky, but we’ve been given no reason to doubt Mitchell’s comeback is up to par. As an older prospect with uneven college production, Mitchell likely would’ve slid much further in the draft if NFL teams had poor opinions of his recovery.
Best case: Mitchell’s experience and athleticism set him up to catch eyes in the preseason, and he’s immediately given heavy snaps on the outside. Big volume may not come – this is an offense that works from the inside out – but Mitchell spends 2016 establishing himself as the top outside talent going forward. By 2017, he’s absorbed Brandon LaFell’s old role and is catching 60 balls and 6-8 touchdowns a year.
Worst case: Mitchell lags behind Hogan or another comer and winds up with the small piece of the outside pie. The Patriots relentlessly continue to work their proven targets between the hashes, and Mitchell fades into the background in the Patriots Receivers cemetery.
Dynasty value: Round 2 of rookie drafts, Rounds 15-17 of startups
Keyarris Garrett, Panthers
This was a head-scratcher for me, Garrett going undrafted. His production profile in school was very strong – he led the nation in receiving in 2015, accounting for a studly 36.7% of Tulsa’s receiving yardage in the process. His combine was generally stellar, with an Adjusted Exposiveness Index of 101.43 on the backs of great 40-yard dash and jump numbers. (He boasts the longest arms of the 2016 WR class, too.)
But two factors really worked against Garrett during the draft: his age (he’ll be 24 when the season starts), and a horrid three-cone drill time (7.30) that hints at poor change-of-direction ability. Make no mistake, that time is very weak. Since 2010, only seven WRs have clocked a slower time than Garrett’s 7.30, and only one of them has even been drafted. But it’s encouraging that the one who was, Kelvin Benjamin, was the only one to even approach Garrett’s AEI number. So, I’m not overly worried about Garrett’s short-area athleticism. He’s proven explosive and dynamic in every other measurable, and I’m generally more interested in his body of collegiate work, which was impressive.
Best case: Garrett impresses over the summer, seizes his opportunity to climb an anemic Carolina depth chart, and works his way into the rotation a la Allen Hurns or Doug Baldwin. By 2017, he’s firmly in the running for the team’s No. 2 or 3 role and threatening 60 catches.
Worst case: Garrett was indeed a product of the Tulsa system; he peaked in college, and we see that over the course of an unremarkable camp in which he makes no impression. He fails to latch onto Carolina’s (or any) roster and bounces around practice squads before fading away.
Dynasty value: Round 2 or 3 of rookie drafts, Rounds 20-22 of startups
Ricardo Louis, Browns
Here’s a guy who obliterated the Combine:
…but still carries the reputation of a mere workout warrior. Maybe that’s fair, as we’ve all been burned by our favorite blow-up-the-stopwatch sleepers. But I don’t think that fits Louis, at least not that neatly. As low-volume, big-play dynamos go, I peg him closer to Martavis Bryant than, say, Cody Latimer.
Auburn isn’t much of a passing team, but Louis was clearly their dominant target from 2014-15. In fact, he posted a similar usage share as the likes of Tavon Austin and Michael Floyd did in their final seasons. Throw in Louis’ 68 career rushes, and it’s clear he was a major focus in Auburn’s offense, a threat designed to take the ball early and often. You can call Louis low-volume, but certainly not low-usage.
Louis is definitely a project – he never ran much of a route tree in Auburn’s big-play system, and he drops more than his share of passes. But this Browns depth chart thoroughly lacks playmaking ability without Josh Gordon or Travis Benjamin in the fold, and it needs Louis (and Corey Coleman, of course) to provide some.
Best case: Louis and Coleman spark a WR revolution in Cleveland, chasing fringe talents Brian Hartline and Taylor Gabriel off the field and co-dominating three-wide sets by late 2016. Louis eventually assumes the Marvin Jones rule for Hue Jackson’s Browns, creating splash plays and catching 50+ high-impact balls a year.
Worst case: Louis fails to become a full-timer, continues to cough up throws and reveals he’s not capable of anything beyond preseason electricity. He never plays more than 200-300 meaningful snaps.
Dynasty value: Round 3 of rookie drafts, Rounds 23-25 of startups
Roger Lewis, Giants
Lewis was an Ohio State commit out of high school, but a rape charge and subsequent conviction for falsification landed him at Bowling Green. For his part, Lewis responded beautifully on the field, catching 158 balls and 23 touchdowns over his two years. That dominated the Falcons’ passing game, at a clip of 30% of yardage and 35.9% of TDs. Yowser.
It seems pretty clear that Lewis slid out of the draft due to his off-field concerns and a mediocre combine. I have no insight on the former, of course, but I really don’t mind his combine considering he was limited by a hamstring strain. I don’t put much stock into pro day numbers, but I pay some attention when a prospect didn’t have a true combine, and Lewis aced his second chance. His 4.46 40-yard dash and 125” broad jump would’ve registered as near-elite in Indianapolis. Lewis isn’t a transcendent athlete, nor an imposing beast at 6’0” and 201 pounds, but those marks are definitely good enough to make me consider his excellent production relevant.
And he landed in a fine spot to make an impression. The Giants opted not to bring back Rueben Randle, and Lewis doesn’t have much competition to make preseason splash plays on the outside. Victor Cruz’s career is at a crossroads, and fellow rookie Sterling Shepard looks destined for the slot. If he hits the ground running in Ben McAdoo’s offense, Lewis may already be the team’s second-most capable outside option.
Best case: Lewis impresses over the summer, eventually earning the No. 4 or 5 job entering the season. He contributes a handful of noteworthy plays as a rookie, catching 15-20 balls and proving more high-impact than Cruz, Shepard, or his low-roster peers on the outside. He enters 2017 in the mix to start alongside Odell Beckham Jr.
Worst case: For whatever reason, Lewis quickly flames out in a crowded WR shuffle. He never sniffs an NFL field in uniform.
Dynasty value: Round 3 or 4 of rookie drafts, Rounds 23-25 of startups
Devon Cajuste, 49ers
Like Garrett, Cajuste shocked us by falling completely out of the draft despite a truly sexy combine:
Unlike Garrett, Cajuste didn’t see much usage in college, and his path to the field is more nebulous. He claimed a ho-hum 23.2% of Stanford’s yardage over his career, and his share decreased each year, which is a troubling sign. He’s speed-deficient, though not really for his outstanding size; a move to tight end could be in the cards if he sticks around. (That’d only boost his fantasy value, of course.) Simply put, Cajuste needed to land on a talent-starved, wide-open 49ers depth chart.
As undrafted bargains go, he’s not a comparable prospect to Garrett, but he’ll be taking real NFL tools into the minicamp of an anemic WR group. And he’ll come to you nearly free of charge, which is the sexiest aspect of all – rookie drafts are typically made through lottery tickets like Cajuste.
Best case: With little size or red zone talent on the roster, Cajuste steps into an intriguing sub-package role and makes his presence felt as a rookie. He rivals the team’s bevy of mediocre TEs for targets underneath and near the goal line, catching 20 balls and a few TDs. His emergence makes Vance McDonald & Co. expendable in 2017.
Worst case: Cajuste flounders between positions and fails to make in impression during camp. He’s cut before the season and languishes on practice squads.
Dynasty value: Round 4-5 of rookie drafts, Rounds 28-30 of startups