Cooper Kupp, Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, and Thomas Rawls are examples of rookies in 2017, 2016, and 2015 who weren't considered draftable before training camp, but often snuck into the second half of drafts during the final weeks of the preseason. Here are five players — three wide receivers and two running backs ranked in order of projected 2018 value — who could follow suit this August.
1. Keke Coutee: Fantasy football has to collectively adjust to the NFL embracing the college game with its offenses. The two teams that have done this the most in recent years have been the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. Deshaun Watson leads a unit that has incorporated much of Clemson's offense into its scheme, and one of the focal points of the Tigers passing attack has been the slot receiver.
Even if the Texans didn't use Clemson as an influence, spread offenses often highlight the slot receiver as much or more than the split end — the subcategory of wide receivers who we think of at the top of NFL Drafts because they are big, tall, and fast. As offenses become more adept at beating base nickel packages, a slot receiver who can also do work in the vertical game and/or the perimeter has become an asset. Coutee is this type of player.
More than a speedster with return skills, Coutee's prowess for manipulating safeties with his deep routes is an asset that will carry over to the NFL. He also beat cornerbacks as a perimeter deep threat and often earned tight-window targets in the red zone.
This was especially true when he worked with Patrick Mahomes. A creative quarterback with a daring mentality, Mahomes often targeted his receivers in the middle of the field from angles many pro quarterbacks wouldn't dare and Coutee earned many of them.
Coutee developed a rapport with Mahomes because he was ready for the ball at any time. He didn't give up on routes and he didn't presume that a zone was too crowded for Mahomes to find him. Coutee is a smaller option but like Antonio Brown, he has a feel for making plays and avoiding contact even in the tightest of quarters.
Most writers are touting Braxton Miller as Coutee's main competition for the job, but Miller has always been an athlete who earned separation with schoolyard routes that impressed onlookers at practices but didn't display any refined skill necessary for a precision passing game. This competition exists in name only and it would be smarter to be more concerned about Bruce Ellington than Miller.
2. Deon Cain: If you're a target share believer, Cain won't be on your list because he didn't earn great production at Clemson. That's what happens when you get in trouble and miss the best timeframe to work with Watson and wind up with Kelly Bryant during your first year as a full-time starter.
On the field, Cain displays skills that are reminiscent of Davante Adams. He wins the ball on fades and deep routes, makes the first man miss in the open field, and tracks the ball well in the air.
Although Nyheim Hines is earning a lot of pre-training camp notoriety (and he'd be on this list if he wasn't already the subject of so much buzz that inflated is ADP), Cain has been one of the most impressive rookies for the Colts.
The organization has praised Cain for his advanced route running skills and ability to absorb the offense and perform like a professional. Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant are more experienced options ahead of Cain on the depth chart but neither offers the big-play ability of Cain or the size on the perimeter.
Expect Cain to earn time in the rotation as the fourth receiver who works his way into the starting rotation by season's end. In terms of production, think of him as this year's potential Kenny Golladay.
3. Justin Jackson: Alfredo Roberts, the Chargers running back coach, gave a run-down of his depth chart in early July to Chargers.com. The statements he made regarding Austin Ekeler and Jackson — the late-round pick that the personnel staff expressed surprise that he fell to them — were intriguing:
Roberts: Well, he’s going to have to. And I think he’s shown the ability as a runner that he can do that. He’s so strong. He’s going to get every opportunity to be that guy. Whenever we’ve given the kid an opportunity, he’s made the best of it. He’s a fun kid; highly energetic and highly motivated. And the quarterback likes him. When the quarterback likes you, you’ve always got a chance! Austin is a tail-wagger, and I love tail-wagers. Now, what is a tail-wagger? Well, whenever I open the door, my dog is standing there and his tail is wagging. That shows he wants to play. And that’s Austin. He has the same energy. And I want tail-waggers. I don’t want guys you have to prod. I want guys who want to play and get excited when it’s time to compete.
Roberts: I did what I call TV scouting for him, and I watched him play against Penn State. On that day, he was better than (Saquon) Barkley. I’m not taking anything away from Barkley, but Justin had a better rushing day in that game. So, he’s been highly productive in a conference that’s known to be a pounding, physical conference. I know he’s going to bring that. He’s a smart guy. He’s sharp and he works at it. He doesn’t have to mess it up to get it right. So, I want to see how it transitions. In the Big Ten, sometimes you get the advantage of having a better line than (the defense) so you’ll get bigger running lanes. The lanes (in the NFL) are not going to be the same. That’s the NFL.
Roberts' thoughts on Ekeler were complementary but they weren't those of a coach expressing confidence in Ekeler's upside. Beginning a response to a question involving the responsibility of a second back with "well he's going to have to," isn't on par with, "we're excited about what he can offer the team."
In fact, Roberts' take was more along the lines of Ekeler continuously surprising the staff last year and them admiring his effort and awareness. These are good qualities that may lead to better things in 2018, but they're reserved by a coach's standards.
Roberts' commentary on Jackson is the classic, "I see talent but he has to prove it translates to the NFL." However, it's fascinating Roberts brought up Jackson's skill in one of the top conferences in college football and his acumen as a learner thus far as a pro.
While this sounds like the No. 2 role is Ekeler's to lose, the team seems receptive to the idea that it could also be Jackson's to win. It means Jackson could easily make this a tight competition in training camp.
A four-year starter at Northwestern, Jackson bears a lot of athletic similarities to Jamaal Charles:
- An intelligent runner between the tackles.
- A strong ball security efficiency with a heavy workload.
- Capable of exploiting tighter creases than Roberts saw while watching one game.
- Excellent lateral and stop-start agility.
- Underrated leverage.
- The most active and accurate stiff-arm the RSP has profiled in years.
If Jackson earns the primary backup role to Melvin Gordon III, he's a must-draft behind a productive offensive line and could be one of the most surprising rookie producers of 2018 if Gordon gets hurt.
4. Chase Edmonds: There's no danger of David Johnson losing his starting job to Edmonds but after an impressive minicamp and OTA period, the Cardinals decided to feed all of Johnson's responsibilities to Edmonds. It's a sign that they're confident in Edmonds becoming the primary backup to Johnson this year.
It's also a sign that if Johnson gets hurt, Edmonds will become an integral part of the running and passing game. This isn't new to Edmonds, who displayed his versatility at Fordham and has a build and style similar to the likes of Brian Westbrook and Giovani Bernard.
Even GM Steve Keim has a lofty comparison that he doesn't want to tell the media. Rotoworld's Josh Norris told me that he thinks it's Matt Forte. It's an odd comp due to his size but makes sense if considering the versatility of the two backs.
Although the Cardinals offensive line has struggled and may continue to do so in 2018, Edmonds has a shot at earning starter volume if Johnson gets hurt and could offer PPR value along the lines of Theo Riddick or Duke Johnson Jr in the recent past.
5. Jordan Lasley: A smooth deep receiver with a rugged game after the catch, Lasley fell to the fifth round for a combination of reasons. First, he left school early. Second, he had a high drop rate during his college career. And third, he has a record of immaturity that led to arrests — none were major red flags but enough issues that support the perception of a young man who must make better decisions and keep his emotions in check.
Although Lasley dropped his share of targets at UCLA, he exhibits proper technique as a pass catcher and flashes skill to win the ball against tight man coverage in the deep game and as a rebounder in the red zone. After the catch, Lasley broke more tackles than any receiver profiled in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
The Ravens are playing rent-a-receiver with Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead IV. Chris Moore is a good young player but he lacks that multidimensional game to become a primary option. Breshad Perriman is on his way out because he hasn't refined his skills to maximize his athletic ability.
Lasley has a real shot to earn playing time this year with a good training camp. The Ravens and Baltimore media have praised him for his NFL-caliber route running and consistent play throughout the summer and early this week. Look for him to earn a shot to at least platoon with Moore in relief of Brown. However, he's probably a better fit as a flanker behind Crabtree.