A dynasty league is a wonderful thing; provided, of course, you’re interested in following the rises and falls of NFL prospects year-round. A fantasy football roster is one thing; a dynasty roster is another. We’re looking beyond the here and now – the end-of-season hangover, the thrilling stories embedded in our minds, and the delicious and/or sour tastes some of our 2016 guys have left us with. Yes, it’s generally a 12-month process, scouting talent for the massive party that is dynasty relevance. Once the NFL season wraps in February, we wade through months of minicamps, rookie camps, private drill sessions, and reviews of all three by breathless beat writers. We follow the players through draft season, wondering who’s truly on thin ice when his looks to add new talent, and who’s poised to keep his role intact. Then, we watch training camps and preseason matchups with an eagle’s eye, searching for clues as to which narratives we expect to hold up and which were merely coachspeak or blog bluster. All in all, our goal is to identify the guys we want to party with long-term. Whom do we want to invest in going forward? Which fantasy eruptions meant something, and which ones didn’t?
Here in February, it’s indeed a bit early to nail down much. But we do have a season’s worth of tape and data on last year’s rookie class, guys who’ve only had one chance to assert themselves just far. We spent the 2015 offseason ranting on and debating them, and now we need to sift through the happenings.
So, who’s coming to the party?
Tier 1: He’s Already Here
A truly polarizing NFL prospect, Thomas represented something of a Fantasy Rorschach Test last offseason. At a brutish 6’3” and 212 pounds, various SPARQ calculations placed him around the 75th percentile of the class, with similar marks to prodigious athletes like Josh Gordon. There was dazzling tape, too: Matt Harmon gave his college play high marks in success rate vs. coverage. On the other hand, he presented problems for evaluators. Thomas wasn’t especially productive at Ohio State; over his two full seasons, he managed just 56.4 yards per game, making up a ho-hum yardage share of 25.6%. (For comparison’s sake, note that Will Fuller V, the first wideout drafted, drew 33.3% of Notre Dame yardage.) He wasn’t utilized much down the field, either – though Harmon has pointed out his high rate of success when he was.
When the lights came on, the pro side easily took the trophy, as Thomas posted one of the best rookie fantasy lines of recent memory. He finished as 2016’s PPR WR8, and in fact tallied the 4th-highest PPR total among rookies since 2000. Thomas is already Drew Brees’ most trusted target, up and down the field. From Week 3 on, Thomas drew a team-high 18.7% of team targets; that’s not a high percentage, but the Saints’ volume makes middle-of-the-pack target shares look golden. The production looks stout, too. A hefty chunk of Thomas’ usage comes on screens and quick slants, so his 76.0% catch rate seems sustainable for as long as Brees remains ultra-efficient. All told, Thomas’ 92-reception rookie season looks like a solid volume baseline going forward, give or take 5-7 catches. His touchdown outlook is strong, considering both his offense and his impressive short-yardage usage as a rookie. At this point, I’m holding strong and only glancing sideways at trade offers. His value is at an extreme high on the heels of that debut, but there are no more than 8-10 receivers – and no rookie draft picks – I’d rather have.
Tier 2: I Hear Them on the Porch
I remain enamored of Coleman, who probably boasted the best overall outlook of the class in terms of college production and measurables. Of course, his 2017 ceiling depends largely upon Terrelle Pryor’s status as a Brown. At this (early) point it seems he’ll return, which would dampen Coleman’s appeal noticeably, but take heart: he’s the same remarkable prospect he was last year. Coleman’s college career and measurables lined up closely with those of Brandin Cooks, only more productively and explosively. He accounted for 26.2% of Baylor’s passing yardage, showed a tremendous nose for the end zone with 31 touchdowns over his final 2 years, then posted a sexy 99.34 adjusted explosiveness mark during draft season. Besides, Coleman isn’t a gadget receiver; he played almost exclusively outside in school and as an NFL rookie. He drew 73 targets across 10 starts and will almost certainly be utilized heavily by another pass-heavy Browns iteration. After an injury-riddle rookie year, and with far more questions than answers in the Cleveland offense, Coleman is a buy candidate in my eyes. I’m willing to bet he could be had for a handful of guys below, or paired with another contributor for an uncertain name like DeVante Parker.
I really do love the potential of Doctson, who is admittedly a bit old for a technical rookie, but who looks poised to enter 2017 as a high-volume starter. Washington looks likelier by the day to cut ties with both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, leaving 214 of last year’s targets on the table. Let’s not let fade that wideout whisperer Matt Harmon credited Doctson with the best 2015 contested catch rate of his class (on the largest sample size, no less), and that in the process, he was an absolute touchdown dynamo (a 17.5% rate as a full-timer). He’ll vie for targets with Jordan Reed and slot extraordinaire Jamison Crowder, but there should still be plenty of volume. If Washington repeats last year’s passing distribution and we give 250 targets to Reed and Crowder, Doctson is looking at a solid volume floor to accompany his tantalizing upside. He’s a strong, strong hold.
Fuller was an ultra-productive scorer in college, boasting 29 touchdowns in 2 starting years at Notre Dame, and he brought a strong (if overstated) athletic profile to the table. And he flashed that promise early with the Texans, posting lines of 5-107-1, 4-104, and 7-81 over the first 4 weeks. But defenses effectively took his deep-ball prowess out of play shortly after, limiting him largely to a screen-based game in an offense both averse to and incapable of throwing down the field. Fuller isn’t a perfect nor very polished prospect, and he drops a lot of balls, though that’s a pretty variable issue. Still, considering the team’s investment in him – he was the first wideout drafted last year, remember – it’s unlikely he’ll face any new, viable competition for targets in 2017. The real issue, of course, is just how bad his quarterbacking will be going forward. Brock Osweiler looks Benny Hill-esque under center, but his $19 million cap hit makes it unlikely the team can pursue the big-splash passer it desperately needs. Fuller owners should sit tight, and those looking to add major upside would be advised to float a few deals for him. After all, the Houston quarterbacks can’t conceivably get worse, and a marked upgrade (Mike Glennon? Nick Foles?) could easily vaunt Fuller to weekly WR2 status. It’s a climb, but a very doable one.
Tier 3: They May Already Be Here, Somewhere in the Back…
Shepard’s rookie year carried a nice, high floor, and it provided a few big-time games that have elevated his dynasty value. The problem is, as we could’ve guessed from his good-not-great college career and measurables, it’s hard to see much real upside. Shepard only topped 73 yards once across 16 starts; if we use Pro Football Reference’s amazing Season Finder tool, we learn he was one of only 14 wideouts since 2000 to start every game and draw 100+ targets, but fail to reach 700 yards. That’s not encouraging, but at least he’s in decent company:
The hope is that Shepard, like some of those names, will keep developing his slot skills into elite territory and make his hay as a clear-cut PPR dominator. There’s even upside that, with better quarterback efficiency, he extends his overall game like Chambers or Holmes. It’s a goal within reach, assuming the Giants don’t add a notable pass-catcher in the offseason. But to me he’s not nearly as valuable as the above guys, who carry similar floors but real, palpable ceilings.
Mitchell is a very likable prospect – he’s athletic, boasting a 2016 SPARQ score better than those of classmates Braxton Miller and Will Fuller V, and he was an early bloomer in a potent, pass-happy offense. But he’s also a candidate to be a hair overvalued. The Patriots notoriously rotate through a dense crowd behind Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Mitchell will almost certainly enter 2017 vying for opportunity with valuable deep threat Chris Hogan and perhaps Danny Amendola, at a minimum. I think Mitchell will contribute solidly in 2017 and beyond, but at this point he doesn’t appear close to a weekly sure-thing.
Hill is electrifying, and a frightening prospect for opposing defenses. But it’s hard not to like some of the deals I could probably land for him. Still, both his volume and his effectiveness tailed off mightily at times, and he struggled to win consistently as a wideout. It seems unlikely, barring injuries, that he’ll be utilized much as a conventional all-over target. There are success stories for prospects like Hill, but few of them are born out of an offense like Hill’s, which finished 27th in plays per game and 25th in pass attempts. Coach Andy Reid recently brought up DeSean Jackson’s name while talking up Hill, and while that’s a tantalizing mention, it’s important to note that Reid’s offenses ran a lot more snaps together in Philadelphia than it does in Kansas City. Hill would need to average a lot more than 26 snaps a game, his rookie mark, to even approach week-to-week consistency.
Like Shepard, Boyd immediately claimed major rookie snaps as his team’s primary slot man. Also like Shepard, Boyd made a very negligible impact with them. Things looked bright when he drew 17 targets in 2 weeks immediately after A.J. Green’s injury, but his offensive share only declined going further. He failed to lead the team outright in targets in any of the final seven weeks, and he didn’t top 66 yards in any of them. Still, he showed surehandedness (a 66.7% catch rate) and likely won’t have Brandon LaFell to battle for targets in 2017. There will almost certainly be another semi-capable body in LaFell’s place, but Boyd absolutely has the slot potential to stay this entrenched in the offense. A yearly line of 54 catches, 603 yards, and 1 touchdown wouldn’t intrigue dynasty folk, though, so his 2017 value is dependent upon whether the Bengals reinvest at wideout. It’s encouraging, at least, that they’ve gone very cheap at receiver since drafting Green, which bodes well for Boyd’s outlook. We may see real PPR value – 70 catches or so – if they stand pat and give him 100+ targets.
Tier 4: They’re Invited, and They Might Swing By
Carroo watched the majority of his rookie season happen, catching all of three passes as the team’s seldom-used No. 4 wideout. But real opportunity should open up in 2017 for Carroo, one of last year’s most enticing rookies from a college production standpoint. Carroo’s sheer dominance of the Rutgers passing game, to the tune of 49% of their receiving yards and a dizzying 23.8% touchdown rate, can’t be forgotten about. I’m fairly confident Kenny Stills will leave as a free agent, which should afford Carroo a baseline of 70-80 targets in Year 2. And if DeVante Parker continues to battle inconsistency and nagging injuries, Carroo could leap into WR4 relevance for stretches. He’s a hold after an invisible debut, but one who offers palpable excitement.
It’s fairly remarkable that Treadwell never popped into the Vikings’ game plan, and even more so that he ultimately drew just three targets. It’s concerning he couldn’t take real snaps from Charles Johnson, and that both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen erupted instead. By the numbers, Treadwell never appeared to be set up for explosive success – he was never utilized downfield significantly in college, and it seems unlikely he’ll develop that while playing pitch-and-catch with Sam Bradford. He’s very young, of course, at 21, and he produced very solidly at Ole Miss. I still hold out hope that his lack of rookie playing time resulted largely from dropped passes and the breakouts of two veteran teammates. But drops are fickle and don’t tell forecast careers well, and he’s probably at least more gifted than Thielen. Still, until we see him put some space in front of his competition for the No. 2 job, he’s a dynasty hold, and not an especially strong one amongst this class.
Sharpe flamed out quickly after a 7-catch Week 1; he didn’t top 4 receptions or 68 yards again all season. Often invisible for multi-game stretches, Sharpe didn’t put anything on tape to suggest Marcus Mariota will value him highly in 2017. He’s a very average athlete, with a pedestrian 91.32 adjusted explosiveness mark from last year’s combine, and the Titans are all but guaranteed to add dynamism to a ragged receiving corps. Sharpe’s best-case scenario is as a weekly five-reception threat with no eruptive potential, and his floor is disturbingly low.
An undrafted rookie from last year, Anderson is an enticing speedster – he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash – and it looks as though he’s already leapfrogged former second-rounder Devin Smith as the team’s preferred deep threat. (I still think the world of Smith’s college resume, and I like his chances if he sees some sustained health.) He started seeing regular burn on offense with 62 snaps in Week 4, then saw between 42 and 71 in each game down the stretch. The results were nice: he racked up 61+ yards in 4 of the team’s last 7 games. It’s always fun to see an undrafted rookie take an early step forward, but we have to be a bit skeptical. When such a guy is forced into the rotation, teams frequently scramble in the offseason to replace him with a starting talent. Anderson will likely stick on the roster and be one of the first men up if injuries strike again. But he carries little dynasty value in the Jets’ “what are they going to do?!” passing game.
Tier 5: I Have Serious Doubts That They’ll Show
After surprisingly winning the slot job during his rookie preseason, Miller was used lightly when the games mattered. He started 10 games, and his snaps did ramp up mid-season during Will Fuller V’s swoon. Still, his crowning achievement was a 5-catch, 25-yard, 1-touchdown day in November; he didn’t top four targets in another game all year. The Texans simply opted not to utilize a dedicated slot man much, if ever, last year, as Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins gobbled up a whopping 77% of the team’s wideout targets. That’s the nature of the beast in Bill O’Brien’s ideal passing game: the two starters dominate opportunity and the bench is pieced together from modest contributors. Miller is a for-real athlete and could very well have an NFL future, but it’s unlikely to be realized soon from this far down the pecking order.
These two Rams carry some sneaky dynasty appeal. “Prized, franchise” quarterback Jared Goff has a lot to turn around from his rookie year, but the Rams have been proactive and exciting in bringing in aid. Young coaches Sean McVay (head coach) and Matt LaFleur (offensive coordinator) come from backgrounds as quick-learning overachievers that have elevated the Washington and Atlanta offenses, respectively. Virtually any shock to the Rams’ dormant system should produce at least a few more passing fireworks. Perhaps most importantly for Thomas and Cooper, though, are that Kenny Britt looks likely to leave town, and that Brian Quick will be an unenticing free agent. There’s a non-zero chance we see Thomas and Cooper listed atop the summer depth chart with gadgetman Tavon Austin – and they’d still be all but free for dynasty owners to acquire. And the prospects themselves carry notable, if shaky, dynasty appeal. Cooper was mega-productive in school but lacks NFL-level dynamism. His NFL “reveal” was a 54-snap Week 11 that saw him catch a 23-yard pass, then turn his other 5 targets into all of 13 yards. The deck is stacked against him as a major contributor, but his upper-level projections peg him as a poor man’s Jarvis Landry. He could have seasons of 60-70 catches in his near future. Thomas was a popular draftnik sleeper; he posted a dazzling 2015 at Southern Miss (1,391 yards and 17 scores as the team’s clear ball dominator) and shone in running and jumping drills at his Pro Day. But the floor is real: he failed to draw a combine invite, settled in as a sixth-round pick, and saw just 104 snaps as a rookie. Deep-leaguers will be paying attention to his summer development, and the opportunity currently available is ample.
Turner doesn’t boast much of a resume for a young prospect. He’s a former LSU recruit who made modest noise at Louisiana Tech, but wasn’t a combine invite (nor was he drafted). He’s smallish (5’10”, 193 pounds), but posted solid Pro Day numbers (39” vertical, 10’10” broad jump). His appeal comes from being a quick study; he overcame those long odds to be called to the roster in November and lead the team in receiving in a spot start for Jordan Matthews. There’s not much to be excited about here, but his quick NFL jump start could bode well, and he’s almost certainly unowned in your league.
Allison made a modest amount of noise down the 2016 stretch as the Packers battled a host of wide receiver injuries. He closed the year with 66- and 91-yard games, plus a touchdown, amidst praise from Aaron Rodgers. Still, there’s probably not much to see here. The team will carry Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, and Jeff Janis into the offseason, so Allison will likely be fighting for air in camp. He’s a thoroughly underwhelming prospect.
A surprise undraftee last year, Lewis shredded at Bowling Green before working his way into (light) rookie snaps. His play was uneven for sure, featuring a disastrous spot start for Victor Cruz, but he did flash downfield ability and catch two long touchdowns. With Cruz likely done in New York, Lewis will battle with a similar downfield threat for snaps the Giants’ No. 3 in 2017. Any further appeal is up to him.
Tier 1: I Can Hear Them in the Driveway
Rookie tight ends don’t produce. It’s a demanding position, one that typically requires a green-faced rookie to master both aspects of his offense to some degree, then transplant veteran performers enough to make statistical waves. It’s not a myth: it truly doesn’t happen often. Dating back to 2000, out of 119 first-year TEs to draw 10+ targets, only three caught 50+ balls, which works to confirm the long-standing perception that rookie tight ends can’t be counted on for fireworks. We’ve seen just three great (read: true TE1-level) rookie seasons over that 16-year span. So, we can feel fairly confident that no 2016 rookies were expected to produce majorly, and therefore none really disappointed and fell much, if at all, in dynasty stock. None were first-round picks, and none were projected to many snaps at all in Year One. Don’t panic, and don’t assume anything (yet).
As we plow through those rookie results from 2000-15, though, one statistical measure does seem to foreshadow a strong career: touchdown rate. Generally speaking, we were able to spot off the bat the handful of tight ends who were valued highly for their red zone ability – and those guys went on to strong NFL careers at an impressive rate. All told, the rookie TEs who (a) drew at least 30 targets and (b) posted touchdown rates of 10% or better boil down to the following 14 names:
That’s an impressive list, one that hints at a strong floor and a very strong ceiling for both Henry and Hooper. Both worked into at least situational receiving roles as rookies, and both found the end zone at solid clips:
Henry wasn’t expected to play much of a role in 2016, but his skill (and Antonio Gates’ wavering health) forced him into enough action to close the year as the per-game PPR TE17. Henry made a name for himself as a touchdown-maker: he tied for third leaguewide among TEs in targets from inside the 10 (despite missing a game), and his 5 touchdowns from there tied for second. He was explosive, as well, notching the sixth-best yards-per-target mark at the position (9.02) and scoring 3 more times from outside the 10. All told, 7 of Henry’s 36 receptions topped 20 yards; not even Jordan Reed could reach that rate last year. Simply put, Henry was efficient and dominant enough to join an extremely exclusive cohort of rookie TEs that actually mattered to fantasy owners.
Going forward, things obviously look bright, with or without Gates in the fold. Gates will be 37 when the 2017 season starts, and he’s missed 7 of the Chargers’ last 32 games. Over the past 2 seasons, the Chargers’ non-Gates tight ends have combined to take 1,994 offensive snaps. Henry may need to wait until 2018 for his ceiling to be fully unleashed, but his floor looks relatively safe for next year.
Hooper would have just missed the cut for the above list – he drew 27 targets across 14 rookie games – but he also excelled in his chances near the goal line. The Falcons are a predominantly run-oriented team in the red zone, and they certainly don’t trust Julio Jones much from there. They’ve thirsted after a dynamic short-yardage threat since Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez began to fade. It stands to reason that their third-round investment was made with an eye on providing Matt Ryan with a strong target in the end zone. Hooper also chimes in outstanding downfield capability; as a rookie, 4 of his 19 catches amassed 28+ yards, and he and Ryan missed on only one deep ball attempt. Opportunity should be there in spades, as both Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo are free agents. He’s not as all-around sexy as Hunter, but comes markedly cheaper and could boast a similar ceiling.
Tier 2: The Invites Were Sent; It’s Up to Them
The good: Higbee is a freakish athlete, boasting a physical profile similar to that of Travis Kelce. He’s big (6’6” and 249 pounds), and even though he provided no athletic measurements pre-draft, his open-field dynamism is on clear display on tape. He also carries over a stronger NFL resume from Western Kentucky than you might think. Higbee ran primarily as an in-line TE in school and blocked more than many phenom types have – and scoring 8 touchdowns on 38 catches is a notable, if not big, deal. He did little once the regular-season lights came on, but he did manage to see 403 snaps and drew 7 targets in a November game. The bad: Higbee was arrested less than three weeks before his draft for a racially-charged assault, which is never a good look. Still, I have to say I’m encouraged by the Rams spending a fourth-round pick on Higbee in spite of the arrest, when they probably could have landed him a round or two later. And nominal 2016 starter Lance Kendricks carries a $4.25 million cap hit, which could be untenable considering his modest skill level. Jared Goff hardly glanced Kendricks’ way down the stretch last year, so a change may be coming.
All told, Higbee is a longshot for 2017 value, but outside Henry and Hooper, no 2016-drafted TE has a sexier outlook. Much of that is a reflection on the relatively poor TE class, but his potential is readily displayed.
DeValve saw just 93 offensive snaps as a rookie, but that’s not a death knell, considering he was a fourth-round pick and lost most of training camp to injury. And he flashed real ability, catching 10 of his 12 targets and turning 3 of them into gains of 20+ yards. DeValve was a wildly explosive prospect, boasting near-elite numbers in the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill, and vertical and broad jumps. He’ll open 2017 well behind Gary Barnidge, but could find his way into a decent complement of snaps. There’s even an (outside) chance the Browns save $3 million and send the medicore Barnidge packing as they enter yet another full-on rebuild.
Anderson, a wideout/tight end hybrid type with an 80th-percentile SPARQ number, posted a very impressive resume catching balls from Jared Goff at California. He then drew raves from the coaching staff through his first offseason, followed by noticeable targets as the No. 3 TE in an injury-plagued rookie year. As for his NFL outlook, it’s important to note two things. One is that Bill O’Brien’s Texans ramped up their TE usage dramatically last year (12.4% of targets in 2015, 30.7% in 2016). The other is that Ryan Griffin is a free agent, and would cost Houston significantly more as a No. 2 TE than would the undrafted Anderson.
Vannett has size and plus athleticism on his side, even if he was never especially productive in school. He’s worth keeping an eye on, if only on opportunity potential. Jimmy Graham’s direct backup, Luke Willson, is a free agent, and Graham isn’t the picture of health. Willson and Cooper Helfet combined to play 1,051 snaps over the last two years.
 Shockey, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez