Top Fantasy Football Rookies for the 2016 Season

The NFL Draft is behind us and training camp will be upon us in no time, so it’s time to start thinking about our fantasy football draft. However, we should first look at that draft which featured some talents running backs and wide receivers that should be targeted in your fantasy football league. Doug Moore lets us in on the top fantasy football rookies for the 2016 season.

As we approach the summer, organized team activities (OTAs) are taking place around the NFL. Among those taking part in OTAs are the new draftees, getting their first taste of NFL action. It can be hard for rookies to make a material impact, but there will be some who find themselves in an impact role for their team and others who will earn their way toward that type of role. For fantasy football, we will take a look at those who could end up being difference makers in 2016 and who deserve your attention come draft time. The list below represents the top rookies who should make an impact with their teams as rookies, ordered by the players who I expect to make the most impact.

1) Ezekiel Elliott – Running Back, Dallas Cowboys

There is no dispute who should be at the top of this list. Elliott is the highest drafted rookie this year and he lands in arguably the best spot for him from a fantasy perspective. He comes to a Cowboys offense that helped Darren McFadden finish fifth in the NFL in rushing yards for 2015 despite only starting 10 games. Dallas has one of, if not, the best offensive lines in the NFL. They also have a superstar at wide receiver in Dez Bryant and a proven quarterback in Tony Romo. When you consider last season where the team dealt with both Romo and Bryant on the sidelines, McFadden was still able to put up solid numbers despite opposing teams knowing that Dallas would run the ball a good amount.

Elliott is the undisputed top running back in the 2016 draft class and there are few flaws to his game. His pass-blocking allows him to stay on the field on third downs and he is one of the most polished and dynamic running backs to come out of college in recent memory. Despite reports of Elliott practicing primarily with the second-string offense in OTAs, there is no doubt that Elliott will be the lead back for the team by the start of the regular season. He is a true threat for 250-300 touches this season and not only has the momentum to be the best rookie in fantasy football for 2016, but he could potentially finish in the top five for running backs overall. Elliott is in a terrific spot and he may cost you a first-round pick in redraft leagues as we progress through the offseason, but he is definitely worth it.

2) Sterling Shepard – Wide Receiver, New York Giants

I am a huge fan of Shepard. Not only was he one of the more underrated wide receiver prospects, but he lands in a terrific spot with the Giants. The Giants have never had an opportunity to pair a clear number two receiver with Odell Beckham Jr., because of Victor Cruz’s injury riddled last two seasons. Additionally, the player who could have stepped in as a number two WR, Rueben Randle, departed in free agency for Philadelphia. Shepard gives them that player now and has a clear opportunity to seize the role early.  

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Shepard lacks optimal size for a wide receiver (5’10”, 194 pounds), but he makes up for it with his excellent route running ability and his terrific work ethic. He is primarily a slot receiver because of his size, but could be used from time to time on the outside thanks to his shiftiness and his solid speed (4.48 40 yard dash). He could step in right away and be their number two target in the passing game after Beckham Jr., especially with uncertainty at the tight end position (Will Tye, Larry Donnell, Jerell  Adams) and at the running back position (Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen, Rashad Jennings, Orleans Darkwa, Andre Williams, Bobby Rainey). He very well could ascend to the team’s number two wide receiver spot over Victor Cruz before the season starts and have a very good season. He also could top Randle’s stats from 2015 (57 receptions / 797 yards / 8 touchdowns). Make sure to target this guy on draft day.

3) Corey Coleman – Wide Receiver, Cleveland Browns

The first wide receiver drafted this year, Coleman is an electric player with tons of upside and playmaking ability. He does land in a potentially dangerous spot with the Browns, especially considering they do not know who their starting quarterback will be. Regardless, the team went heavy on wide receivers in the draft with Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, and Rashard Higgins. Coleman is expected to step in and be the team’s number one wide receiver in 2016 after the Browns lost Travis Benjamin in free agency, recently released Brian Hartline, and are uncertain about Josh Gordon’s status for 2016.

The good news for Coleman is that his new head coach, Hue Jackson, is one of the brightest offensive minds in the game today. No matter who ends up under center (Robert Griffin III / Josh McCown / Cody Kessler), Coleman will most likely be force fed the football and be bombarded with targets in 2016. And with Coleman’s blazing speed (4.37 40 yard dash) and experience as the top receiver in an offense (was targeted 39% of the time in 2015 with Baylor), he could respond well to that amount of looks. Coleman has the potential to put up some serious numbers in 2016, but will most likely be limited because of less-than-optimal quarterback play. Regardless, Coleman looks to be in store for a great 2016 in fantasy football for a rookie.

4) Laquon Treadwell – Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Going into last season, Treadwell had a lot to prove after going down the season before with a nasty leg injury. He responded by putting up more than 80 catches, 1,100 yards receiving, and 11 touchdowns. He lands in a potentially great spot with the Vikings, who are in desperate need of production at the wide receiver position. They have a good young core led by Stefon Diggs, but Diggs is probably not a true number one wide receiver and Minnesota needs talent behind him regardless. With Treadwell in the fold, he can be a potential 1A to Diggs being a 1B in the passing game.

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Treadwell has optimal size at 6’2”, 221 pounds along with being a dominant receiver when in single coverage. He can win at the point of reception with great body control, the ability to go up high for catches, and his ability to box cornerbacks out. Treadwell also has solid ability after the reception with a great stiff arm and a very large catch radius. While Treadwell does land in a run-first offense led by Adrian Peterson, Teddy Bridgewater is expected to throw more in 2016 and Treadwell could be a big part of that. Don’t be surprised if he becomes Bridgewater’s “go-to guy” in 2016 and puts up great stats.

5) Josh Doctson – Wide Receiver, Washington

Another first round wide receiver in an interesting spot, Doctson lands with Washington. They have veteran wide receivers sitting at the top of their depth chart in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, but the team actually traded up from the 22nd spot to the 21st to grab Doctson. After the emergence of Kirk Cousins in 2015 and a solid offensive line, Washington is in line to have a quality passing attack in 2016. And with that, Doctson could be the cherry on top that finishes this sundae.

Doctson has experience as a team’s number one receiver (targeted 36% in 2015 for TCU) and runs great routes while not dropping many passes. He is a touchdown machine (25 touchdowns over the past two seasons) and can play well against contact even at the point of the catch to go along with moves to gain valuable yardage after the reception. Doctson may look like the team’s potential number three wide receiver, but that could change very quickly and he could find himself in the starting lineup consistently. Even if he doesn’t start many games, the fact that the Washington has a very weak running game on paper alludes to the team potentially passing a lot in 2016. Doctson could be in line for a big rookie season.

6) Michael Thomas – Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints

Thomas lands in a terrific spot with the New Orleans Saints. Not only does he get to play with one of the best quarterbacks of this generation in Drew Brees, but the Saints run a very pass-heavy offense. In 2015 New Orleans finished tied for 2nd with 667 passing attempts, 1st with 460 completions, and 1st in passing yards by more than 300 yards. Thomas hails from Ohio State, but did not receive the same amount of hype as Coleman, Treadwell, and Doctson. With the ideal size at 6’3”, 212 pounds and 10 ½” hands, Thomas measures out extremely well. He also had 18 touchdowns the past two seasons, signaling that he is a dangerous red-zone target.

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Thomas lands immediately as the team’s number three wide receiver behind Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, but he has the potential to pass Snead on the depth chart. Regardless, even as the number three wide receiver in a very pass-friendly offense, Thomas has the potential to put up solid numbers in 2016 and could surprise a lot of people with how well he performs as a rookie. It’s not out of the question that he finishes with better numbers than Doctson and Treadwell, but because of his spot on the depth chart for now, he has the makings of a great sleeper in 2016.

7) Tyler Boyd – Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals

Boyd lands in a great spot with the Bengals. After losing Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in free agency, Cincinnati has a major hole at wide receiver behind A.J. Green. Boyd can come right in and take over the number two wide receiver position for the Bengals because of  injuries and scarcity. While Cincinnati still has playmakers in Green, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard, Boyd could benefit from Eifert’s recent foot surgery, which could reportedly cost him a few regular season games.

Boyd is used to dealing with high-target volume, as he was targeted at least 120 times in all three of his seasons at the University of Pittsburgh. Boyd projects better as a slot / possession receiver, but he has the ability to make big plays thanks to his route running and terrific body control on contested catches. Overall, Boyd may not be anything more than the number four option in the team’s passing game when everyone is healthy, but could have the potential for some big games. Keep him in mind as you approach the late rounds in your drafts.

8) Devontae Booker – Running Back, Denver Broncos

We finally reach another running back after Elliott. Booker has arguably the second-best situation of all rookie running backs in 2016. The team re-signed C.J. Anderson to a four-year deal this offseason and re-signed Ronnie Hillman to a cheap one-year deal as well. Booker is an extremely well-rounded running back though, who is capable of handling lead back responsibilities in both the running game and receiving game. He does have an injury history and is already nearly the same age as Anderson and Hillman, but Booker still has upside.

In the past, the Broncos have shown no fear in benching starters when production is not where they want it to be, and even with a new contract, Anderson isn’t guaranteed to hold on to his lead back role if he struggles out of the gate like he did last season. Booker is more talented than Hillman (who had a poor showing in 2015 even when he took over lead back responsibilities from Anderson). Booker is in a great spot, even if he is initially the handcuff to Anderson. Be sure to target him in the last few rounds of your draft as a strong handcuff running back who could carve a good role out in 2016 if things go south for the starters.

9) C.J. Prosise – Running Back, Seattle Seahawks

After Marshawn Lynch retired this offseason, a lot of people expected Thomas Rawls to be the team’s new lead back and become their workhorse. It is very possible that happens, but coming off a major ankle injury and only having a limited showing in 2015, people may be jumping to conclusions. Prosise is a former wide receiver who converted to running back while at Notre Dame. He is obviously very talented in the receiving game and has ideal size for the running back position at 6’0”, 220 pounds.

Prosise can run well between the tackles and in open space along with being a very patient runner. With only one year as a running back and five fumbles on 156 carries, his ball security and experience will be questioned as he enters his rookie season. But Seattle uses a very run-friendly offense and finished with the third most rushes (501) in 2015, averaging more than 140 yards per game despite Lynch missing multiple games because of injury. Prosise landed in a great spot and has the opportunity to impress in OTAs with Rawls still recovering from surgery. Prosise could potentially be in a committee with Rawls in 2016 and is expected to have a big role on third downs. He is one of the best potential handcuffs in 2016 who could have an expanding role as the season goes on.

10) Jordan Howard – Running Back, Chicago Bears

Howard is another running back who lands in a great spot, especially considering how the team was looking to add to its running back corps this offseason after letting Matt Forte leave via free agency. The team has Jeremy Langford at the top of its depth chart as of right now, but Langford didn’t necessarily impress in his role as fill-in lead back in 2015 and the team clearly wanted more depth and potential competition for the lead role for the upcoming season. Howard has shown to be capable of handling a lead back role at both UAB and Indiana.

Howard does have some injury questions and was not featured much in the passing game while in college, so he may project best as a solid two-down back in the NFL. Even with that, he has the chance to take that role immediately in 2016 from Langford (and Ka’Deem Carey). Howard has great size at 6’0” and 230 pounds, along with being smart on the field in choosing running lanes and being able to shake off tackle attempts. Don’t be surprised if he has an immediate role in 2016, but his limitations in the run game hurt his potential to be a workhorse for the team. Still, Howard could put up some good numbers in the run game in 2016 if he plays his cards right and will be someone to keep in mind in the last few rounds of the draft.

Follow Doug on Twitter @DMooreNFL.

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