Before discussing some of the most notable rookies selected in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL draft and how they may produce this season, make sure your expectations are realistic. Many prospects are being over hyped; the hardest part will be deciding which ones to draft.
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Selected fourth overall, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound LSU powerhouse was drafted to be Jacksonville’s workhorse from the get-go. Leonard Fournette won’t be on par with Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s 2016 debut, but he’s not going to be an early-round bust like Montee Ball or Ryan Mathews.
Elliott, also drafted fourth, finished as the second-highest scoring RB in standard and PPR, as well as seventh and fifth overall, respectively, behind one of the most dominant offensive lines in the past decade. Fournette is good but his situation in Jacksonville is different. Fournette rushed for 843 yards and eight touchdowns in seven games for LSU last season due to a left ankle injury. In three seasons, he amassed 3,830 yards rushing and scored 40 touchdowns. That’s why Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville’s executive vice president of football operations, was enamored with the bruising back.
“You cannot have enough [playmakers], but that was the intent,” Coughlin said after the Jaguars picked Fournette. “The intent was we need to get the ball in the end zone. We don’t get the ball in the end zone enough. We need players to put the ball in the end zone. This guy can help us with regards to that.”
Last season, Jacksonville’s rushing game tied for 29th in touchdowns (8), ranked 24th in attempts (392) and was 22nd in total yards (1,631). Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon will be the primary backups. Fournette may get close to 300 carries, but the offense struggled last year and could put a damper on his production. Blake Bortles is a bad quarterback. He needs to improve and so does the offensive line, which Pro Football Focus (PFF) surprisingly ranked 13th. His current average draft position (ADP) is RB13, 21st overall (standard) and RB11, 31st overall (PPR), per FantasyPros.
It’s often unnerving to take a rookie RB that high. Fournette is an exception.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
This isn’t real life where moralities come into play. Draft Joe Mixon because he can help you win a fantasy football title.
Listed at 6 feet 1 and 228 pounds, Mixon is a rising sleeper. He had early first-round talent and was the best running back in this year’s draft, according to numerous experts. Because of RB need the Bengals selected Oklahoma’s controversial prospect at 48th overall. That decision could be the steal of the draft.
Mixon is behind Jeremy Hill on Cincinnati’s depth chart. Giovani Bernard may miss some games due to tearing his ACL last season and Rex Burkhead signed with the New England Patriots. The only reason Mixon is currently behind Hill is because training camp and the preseason has yet to begin.
Hill’s production declined throughout his three-year career. His 5.1 yards per carry average in 2014 dropped to 3.8 yards last season, up 0.2 yards from 2015. Having scored a total of 29 rushing touchdowns, including nine last year, is a bright side. When Mixon is given the lead back role he will outproduce Hill on the ground and through the air. Hill only had 21 receptions last year, 63 overall.
The writings on the wall for Mixon to become an every-down workhorse with impact out of the backfield and as a receiver. Last season at Oklahoma, he rushed for 1,274 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 37 passes for 538 yards and five touchdowns. Combined with the 2015 season, he gained 2,921 yards from scrimmage and scored 26 touchdowns. Mixon also forced a missed tackle once every 3.9 offensive touches, and his nine missed tackles forced on receptions tied for fifth-most in the draft class, per PFF.
Cincinnati has a below-average offensive line but still had the ninth-most rushing attempts (446) and attempts per game (27.9) last year. That bodes well for the rookie, whose player comparisons include Matt Forte and Le’Veon Bell, per PFF and NFL.com. It’s OK to love a guy’s RB1 upside and hate his past. Joe Mixon is worth the risk.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota
As can be read in the following writeup on Christian McCaffrey, believing Dalvin Cook will have a better rookie season has everything to do with opportunity. The Minnesota Vikings traded up to take Florida State’s standout with the 41st overall pick. Minnesota signed former Raiders running back Latavius Murray to a three-year deal in March but knew it was necessary to draft Cook. Murray rushed for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on 195 carries last season. A 4.0-yard average behind one of the league’s best offensive lines is not good enough.
Cook won’t be the next Adrian Peterson; rather, he’ll be a focal point to help the Vikings improve its ground game, which averaged a league-worst 75.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Another season with QB Sam Bradford should improve the passing game with receivers Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph. The hope is for defenses to respect Bradford and not stack the line.
In three years at Florida State, Cook gained 5,399 yards from scrimmage and scored 48 touchdowns. The best part for Minnesota is 4,464 yards and 46 touchdowns of that total were rushing. Listed at 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, he was the first Seminoles RB to break the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman in the past 30 years. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said “Dalvin Cook is a first-round talent who slipped into the second round solely because of the off-the-field issues. … When you put his tape on, he’s special. He’ll make a difference in Minnesota.”
His current ADP is RB22, 62nd overall. In a standard 10-team league Cook can be drafted as an RB3 with the opportunity to be an every-week starter. The Vikings traded up for a reason.