Rookie fever is in full swing in fantasy football circles as we continue to work through the aftermath of the NFL Draft. We know many of the big names that will climb the ADP charts the closer we get to September but it’s just as crucial to hit on some potential hidden gems among the first-year players.
Hitting on those guys is a huge step towards winning your league.
Below, I’ll offer up 10 players drafted in Round 3 or later who could provide some under-the-radar fantasy appeal as rookies in Year 1.
Desmond Ridder, QB, Atlanta Falcons
One of Desmond Ridder’s top comparisons during the pre-draft process was Marcus Mariota. Now, he sits behind Mariota on the Falcons' depth chart.
Given the Falcons' clear rebuilding stage of their franchise and Mariota’s history of inconsistent play and injuries, there’s a good chance the younger passer gets on the field in Year 1.
Ridder has accuracy concerns but brings high-end processing and good athleticism to the position. Atlanta may well be rebuilding but they have some playmakers with Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Pitts and Drake London in the fold. Ridder could end up giving the Falcons some decent games if he gets on the field.
If both guys start at least half of the games this season, there’s a chance Ridder could outscore fellow rookie Kenny Pickett in per-game fantasy points simply because he could end up being the better rushing threat.
Brian Robinson, RB, Washington Commanders
A third-round pick is no small investment at the running back position. Washington picking Brian Robinson on Day 2 is a clear signal they’re not happy with what they’re getting from their backfield.
Robinson is an early down grinder who picks up extra yards after contact. Head coach Ron Rivera has long preferred a physical ground game to set the tone for his offenses.
Antonio Gibson, a former third-round pick himself, didn’t enjoy the breakout season many hoped for in Year 2. His 2021 was littered with injuries, fumbles and stalled momentum.
He still has the chance to authoritatively take the starting job in training camp and never give it up. However, any slip-ups could result in Robinson getting a chance to wrestle the job away. This is a backfield to monitor in training camp.
Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans
Prior to the NFL Draft, I identified the Texans as the team that had the most wide-open running back depth chart in the NFL. Dameon Pierce only has Marlon Mack and Rex Burkhead standing between him and a starting job.
Pierce doesn’t have a ton of experience as a volume rusher but showed off some receiving chops as a college player. The Texans are certainly to be in some negative game scripts so Pierce needs to win a role in that portion of the offense to be fantasy relevant as a rookie.
We could easily see the Houston backfield wither into a middling committee with no significance whatsoever but if anyone on that roster has a path to RB2 upside, it’s Pierce.
Tyler Allgeier, RB, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons waited until the fifth round to add a running back, adding Tyler Allgeier out of BYU. It wasn’t a significant investment but the team immediately cleared the way for him to quickly climb the ranks when they released Mike Davis right after the draft.
Cordarrelle Patterson and journeyman Damien Williams are ahead of him in the rotation as of now. If Allgeier has a good offseason, he could push Williams to the side. Patterson’s optimal usage comes as a third-down, passing game and gadget back. Using him as an early down banger just doesn’t get the best he has to offer.
If Patterson stays in a primary receiving role, Allgeier could emerge as the base back. Arthur Smith’s offense obviously churned out a great rushing attack in Tennessee. Allgeier has a shot to contribute to that revival in Atlanta.
Isaiah Spiller, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have continued to churn the RB2 spot behind Austin Ekeler with Isaiah Spiller being the latest addition.
Spiller took some heat during the predraft process but has been a productive rusher over the last three years. He projects as a solid rusher albeit one not dripping with dynamism. The Chargers have more than enough sizzle with Ekeler — they just need someone else to provide a little pop behind their star back. Josh Kelley and Larry Rountree have failed to emerge as that guy over the last few years. Spiller could buck the trend this season.
Whether because of his rushing style — he’s said he doesn’t want to handle a workhorse role — or because of injuries, we always seem to be talking about Ekeler’s backups. With Justin Jackson still unsigned, Spiller is a name to know.
David Bell, WR, Cleveland Browns
The Browns didn’t make many high-equity picks in the draft but the third-rounder they sank into David Bell has a chance to be a sizable hit.
Bell fell a bit down pre-draft boards because of his poor athletic testing at the NFL Scouting Combine. He ultimately was the 16th receiver off the board last month. However, he was a productive collegiate player who plays a smart, physical brand of wide receiver. He projects perfectly to a big slot role. At 6-foot-1, 212 pounds he’s built similarly to Chris Godwin, who has shined in this role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Browns have a wide-open wide receiver depth chart beyond Amari Cooper right now and Bell could walk into a ton of Year 1 opportunities.
Jalen Tolbert, WR, Dallas Cowboys
One of my top wide receiver bets beyond the big names, Jalen Tolbert getting third-round draft capital was a pretty big win for his outlook. The landing spot really helps his early career projection, as well.
Tolbert has good size, separation skills and is just solid in almost all phases of the receiver position.
With Michael Gallup questionable for the start of the season (January ACL tear), Tolbert only has to beat out James Washington for the starting receiver gig in September across from CeeDee Lamb. Tolbert has a shot to play in three-receiver sets as a rookie for a quality offense with good quarterback play.
Khalil Shakir, WR, Buffalo Bills
My favorite Day 3 pick at the position, Khalil Shakir walks into a gorgeous landing spot with the Buffalo Bills.
The front office jettisoned Cole Beasley this offseason and replaced him with Jamison Crowder. He projects as the slot man between Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis. However, if Crowder gets hurt or has just straight-up lost a step, Shakir could step into that role.
Shakir is a good route runner who was used a ton out in space. He has some really impressive contact balance with the ball in his hands. Shakir brings a nice dimension that the Bills have not had from that interior spot lately. You should keep an eye on how this receiver battle plays out in training camp.
Calvin Austin, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
I am absolutely fascinated by how the Steelers will line up their wide receivers this season. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McLoud were pure slot receivers and both departed in free agency. The biggest addition to the receiver room was Round 2 pick George Pickens but he’s a pure outside receiver.
Does this mean a role change is in line for Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool? Johnson took just seven percent of his snaps from the slot and Claypool was inside for 18.7%.
If that doesn’t happen, Calvin Austin might have a longshot way to climb the ladder faster than imagine. Austin played pure outside X-receiver in a college but given that he’s 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, he might project better as a speed slot man.
Again, this is a long shot but the Steelers spent two draft picks at the receiver position with Johnson’s contract set to expire next year and Claypool coming off a down year. Maybe this is more of a 2023 projection than anything but keep an eye on how the Steelers deploy these guys in 2022 either way.
Jelani Woods, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Rookie tight ends typically don’t provide a ton of juice. Frankly, the position has been a better bet on second contracts in the NFL.
If someone is going to buck the trend from the 2022 crop, Jelani Woods has the best shot.
Other guys like Trey McBride and Greg Dulcich went to landing spots with flashy veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. Mo Alie-Cox is the only somewhat established guy on the Colts roster but he’ll be 29 this season he’s never been someone the coaching staff has seen fit to make a featured player.
Woods brings all the size and athletic traits we look for in breakout tight ends and will play with an established quarterback. There’s opportunity for him behind Michael Pittman and fellow rookie Alec Pierce at wide receiver.
Keep a close eye on Woods’ progress throughout the offseason.