Every year there are a few unheralded rookies who make a major impact in fantasy football. Recent examples include guys like James Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Elijah Mitchell, and Amon-Ra St. Brown who all outperformed expectations for their rookie season and provided stretches of strong fantasy production. Identifying these players in advance is no easy feat and we should expect to be wrong more often than we are right when drafting late-round rookies. However, hitting on this type of player provides the asymmetric upside needed to win large field best ball tournaments like those on Underdog Fantasy or Drafters Fantasy. I will be spreading bets across a number of rookies late in drafts but the players featured in this article are some of my early favorites.
I only considered rookies who went on day 3 of the NFL Draft or were undrafted. Additionally, I am excluding players like Isaiah Spiller who have been widely discussed and are already considered good upside bets at their current cost. My goal is to give you players who are flying under the radar but have a real chance to emerge as valuable fantasy contributors in 2022.
RB – Houston Texans – Pick 107
Dameon Pierce is already getting some steam and will likely be drafted multiple rounds ahead of the rest of the guys on this list but he is worth including because he did not receive a ton of publicity in the pre-draft process and his ADP is likely to continue to rise throughout the summer. Pierce joins a backfield where his main competition for touches is Marlon Mack and Rex Burkhead, on a team that is looking to the future and evaluating young players. The Texans won’t be a great offense but Davis Mills was serviceable as a rookie and should ensure a reasonable amount of production for the skill position players around him. If Pierce is able to win this job early in the season he could significantly outperform his current ADP. I wasn’t particularly high on Pierce as a prospect but volume is king at the running back position and he has a shot to earn lots of it. The Texans offense will cap his upside so there is a limit to how high he should rise, but I want to get my exposure in early best ball drafts as I think his cost most likely goes up from here.
RB – Arizona Cardinals – Pick 201
Keaontay Ingram has a true three down skill set with enough size (6’0” 221lbs) to work between the tackles and the receiving skills (89 collegiate receptions) to be a weapon on passing downs. He was a productive player in his first two seasons at Texas totaling 1,973 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns. His junior season was marred by injuries and the arrival of Bijan Robinsion who is likely to be the RB1 in next year’s class. Ingram then transferred to USC for his senior season where he put up an impressive 1,067 scrimmage yards in 10 games. He was selected by the Cardinals in the 6th round, but steps into a backfield lacking quality depth. Chase Edmonds left for Miami this offseason which leaves James Conner as the clear lead back. Behind him, Ingram is likely to compete with 2020 7th round pick Eno Benjamin for the backup job. Benjamin is a fine late round dart throw in his own right, but he has barely earned playing time in two NFL seasons so I prefer to take the shot on Ingram to win that job. The Cardinals may yet sign a veteran RB to complement Conner but until that happens I believe Ingram is a good upside pick at the end of best ball drafts.
WR – Green Bay Packers – Pick 132
Romeo Doubs was the second receiver selected by the Green Bay Packers after they traded up to get Chirstian Watson at the beginning of round 2. All the hype around Watson has allowed Doubs to be mostly overlooked despite the fact he will be catching passes from Aaron Rodgers in an offense with a huge number of vacated targets. Doubs is not quite the athlete that Watson is but he brings a similar skill set as a big bodied (6’2” 201lbs) vertical receiver who can win on deep routes with speed, as well as physicality in jump ball situations. Doubs also isn’t afraid to work over the middle of the field and hang in to make tough catches through contact, a trait that should endear him to Aaron Rodgers. He also played running back in high school which makes sense when you watch him in run after the catch and kick return situations.
While Christian Watson should get the first crack at winning a starting receiver job, I am a little nervous about how a player with a nearly 13% drop rate in college is going to do with Rodgers as his QB. Should Watson find himself out of favor with Rodgers it could be directly to the benefit of Doubs who can play a similar role in that offense. We all know Aaron Rodgers has ‘his guys’, a status which can be far more important than draft capital once the season opens up. If Doubs is able to win Aaron Rodgers’ trust he could have a massive ceiling as a downfield/red zone threat.
It’s also worth mentioning that Doubs played in Snoop Dogg’s youth football league (a rabbit hole worth going down, Netflix series and all) as a kid. While this might not impact Doubs rookie season projections it sure makes me hope he succeeds in the NFL. I’ll be grabbing a few late round shares of Doubs in early best ball drafts and will be monitoring reports from the Packers for any positive news and ramping up my exposure accordingly.
WR – Buffalo Bills – Pick 148
Khalil Shakir was a trendy name in dynasty circles in the weeks leading up to the draft. Then he was drafted into one of the NFL’s best offenses which has some question marks at slot receiver. Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis are locked in as the primary outside receivers and the Bills signed Jamison Crowder to replace Cole Beasley in the slot. Crowder has played in 12 games each of the past two seasons, has battled injuries during that time, and is coming up on his age 29 season. By all accounts Shakir is incredibly popular with teammates and coaches alike, has a tenacious work ethic, and does all the little things right. He meets the thresholds for NFL caliber athleticism and is a good special teams player which should help ensure he will be active on gameday, even with all other receivers healthy.
Shakir will likely compete with Isaiah McKenzie to be the fourth receiver and primary backup to Crowder. McKenzie has shown flashes in the NFL but is more of a gadget player and isn’t likely to command a ton of volume, even with an injury ahead of him. Shakir profiles as more of a true slot receiver who could fill the Cole Beasley role in Buffalo’s offense. His fifth round draft capital will make it difficult for him to see meaningful snaps early in the season but his reliability, toughness, and work ethic make me believe he will seize any opportunity that comes his way. If Shakir gets the chance to start, whether through injury or poor play ahead of him, I don’t anticipate him giving the job back. Should Shakir end up starting in the slot for Buffalo down the stretch, he could be massively valuable in best ball tournaments which makes him a great pick at the end of drafts.
Bo Melton / Dareke Young
WR – Seattle Seahawks – Picks 229/233
This is a 2-for-1 on a pair of 7th round picks from the Seahawks who are deep deep sleepers and are going undrafted in the majority of best ball leagues. As the Seahawks roster currently stands it is difficult to see how either of these guys earn much playing time, but that could all change if D.K. Metcalf or Tyler Lockett were to be traded. Seattle is clearly in rebuilding mode and there have been rumors for months that one or both of those receivers could be traded. Those rumors have cooled in recent weeks but nothing is off the table in this offseason of blockbuster moves. Should Metcalf or Lockett be traded (or miss significant time) one of Melton or Young could find themselves on the field earning meaningful targets. Dareke Young profiles as more of a Metcalf replacement while Melton would be more likely to fill the Lockett role.
I don’t recommend taking these guys frequently in early drafts, but if the Metcalf/Lockett trade rumors seem to be heating up again I will mix in some shares of Melton or Young in the last round. Amon-Ra St. Brown showed that volume in a bad offense can still lead to good fantasy production and that type of season is in the range of outcomes for Melton and Young. Of the two, Melton appears more pro-ready as he played at a Power 5 program and has a phenomenal athletic profile while Young played at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. Neither guy is a high probability bet but that means they should have low ownership in large field tournaments and could be massive difference makers if their ceiling outcome materializes.