25. Andrew Luck
26. Mike Evans
27. Emmanuel Sanders
28. Alfred Morris
29. Lamar Miller
30. Kelvin Benjamin
31. DeAndre Hopkins
32. Jimmy Graham
33. Carlos Hyde
34. Justin Forsett
35. Brandin Cooks
36. Russell Wilson
Best Value: Mike Evans (26)
As would be expected of a rookie, Mike Evans got off to a relatively slow start, scoring just 42 points in the first 7 games. But something must have clicked because he scored a whopping 126 points in the next 9 games. If you extrapolate that 9-game stretch to the entire season, Evans ends up with 224 points, 2nd among all wide receivers. While Odell Beckham Jr. was driving people crazy with one-handed catches, Evans was quietly every bit as terrific. But even more impressively, he put up those numbers with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon leading the offense; two guys responsible for some of the worst quarterback play of 2014. Despite having arguably one of the best receiving duos in the league, McCown's passer rating was ranked 33 out of 34 quarterbacks while Glennon's ranked 26 out of 34.
Will Jameis Winston have a successful career in the NFL? No one can say for sure. But I really think that the #1 overall pick is going to be a lot better than what the Bucs had in 2014 and, at very least, I think the Bucs are going to let Jameis air it out considering the lack of a strong run game. Even more encouraging is that Jameis has long been touted as "NFL-ready" so I think his learning curve will be shorter than most.
Finally, did you know that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were operating without their offensive coordinator last year? It's true. After the 3rd preseason game, Jeff Tedford, Tampa's OC, was put on an indefinite leave of absence due to a serious heart condition. It certainly explains why the offense struggled so much last season. Now the Buccaneers have hired Dirk Koetter as the offensive coordinator. Koetter was the OC for the Falcons from 2012-2014 and is known for preferring to attack through the air; the Falcons finished 6th, 7th, and 5th in passing offense during his tenure. Any OC is better than no OC and a pass-happy one is especially good for Mike Evans.
Another point in Evans' favor is that rookies that break out in year 1 tend to increase production in year 2. I really believe in Evans' talent; he has great hands, fantastic body control, strength, and speed to go along with his huge frame. I think his upside is higher than that of the receivers just ahead of him. While Evans is less proven than Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, and T.Y. Hilton, I think he has a better chance than any of them to break 200 points (which would make him a top 5 receiver). I'd still probably take Cobb over Evans because Cobb's floor is so high due to Aaron Rodgers, but Evans' upside is too tempting for me to pass up for either Jeffery or Hilton.
Worst Value: Kelvin Benjamin (30) and Carlos Hyde (33)
Kelvin Benjamin, WR
Don't get me wrong, I think Kelvin Benjamin is pretty good. As a rookie, he finished tied for 16th among wide receivers in fantasy with 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns. But I don't think he is quite as good as his 2014 stats. I think that, as Cam Newton's only viable receiving weapon other than TE Greg Olsen, Benjamin's stats are inflated by volume. Benjamin received 146 targets in 2014, 6th most in the league, but tallied just 73 receptions. His 50% completion rate was 39th out of 41 receivers with over 100 targets (only Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts III were worse). In addition, Benjamin led the league last year in dropped passes with 10.
As far as pass-catchers go, the Panthers have only added WR Devin Funchess in off-season so Benjamin's workload could be slightly reduced but pretty similar overall. The problem is that I don't think he has a lot of upside compared to some of the guys behind him such as Jordan Matthew and Brandin Cooks. His position as the 14th ranked receiver indicates an expectation that he will improve but I'm not so sure. His schedule is slightly less favorable and his high touchdown total is liable to regress. If Funchess takes even just a couple of them, I can't seem Benjamin being much more than a low-end WR2.
UPDATE: On August 20, Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL and was declared out for the season.
Carlos Hyde, RB
I was pretty excited about Carlos Hyde coming into this year but it seems that the rankers at ESPN are even higher on him. Is that excitement justified? Hyde has a juicy role in an offense that figures to be fairly run-heavy. However, though Hyde was impressive at times in 2014, he had just 333 yards on 83 carries. 4.0 yards per carry isn't that spectacular. But what concerns me most is that the offensive line, once considered the strength of this team, is now a weak point after losing LG Mike Iupati, one of the best run-blocking guards in the league, as well as RT Anthony Davis and RT Jonathan Martin. The new RT is Eric Pears who played RG for Buffalo in 2014 and graded in the bottom 5 (out of 78) at the position. Center is another area of concern as starting center Daniel Kilgore is still quite a ways away from being healthy and backup center Marcus Martin graded in the bottom 5 at his position as well. LT Joe Staley is still fantastic and RG Alex Boone is solid but the line is considerably worse as a whole. I think Hyde will be a decent RB2 but I just don't think he's great value in the 3rd round. I'd just much rather have RB Frank Gore, Hyde's former teammate, who is ranked a round later.
Risky Pick: Brandin Cooks (35)
The risk is evident: Cooks finished the year with just 80 fantasy points, 57th among receivers. Of all the 1st round receivers of his draft class (+ Jordan Matthews), the next worst was Sammy Watkins who finished with 27th among receivers with 124 points. However, even as the least proven of the last year's rookie receivers, I'd take him over Watkins, Matthews, and even Benjamin.
First of all, Cooks' season wasn't as bad as it seems. He missed the last 6 games due to a broken thumb. Extrapolating his 80 fantasy points over 10 games to a full 16-game season would give Cooks 128 fantasy points, placing him 23rd among receivers and giving him 1 more point than Jordan Matthews. But I'm even more optimistic about Cooks because he's the primary receiver for Drew Brees, an elite QB. I expect his target volume to increase significantly with Marques Colston continuing to decline and the four next-most targeted pass catchers, Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Pierre Thomas, and Travaris Cadet, all gone. Those 4 players accounted for 315 targets in 2014 and the only pass-catcher the Saints have added in the off-season is RB C.J. Spiller.
Let's do a quick estimate.
So let's assume that C.J. Spiller gets 70 targets in 2015 which is pretty generous as it would have been the 5th most targets for running backs in 2014. So we've accounted for 70 of the 315 vacated targets.
Then, let's assume that the Saints go with a more run-heavy approach on offense and Drew Brees throws 70 less times, going from 659 attempts in 2014 to 589. I think this number is a bit generous because, since 2007, Brees has never had less than 635 attempts in a season in which he played all 16 games. 589 attempts would have been 9th most last year while Brees has never finished lower than 3rd in attempts since 2007 (playing a full season). But let's go with it. 70 + 70 = 140. 140 out 315 targets accounted for.
Now let's account for the amount of targets that Cooks was on pace for in 2014. Cooks had 69 targets in 10 games which would have put him at around 111 targets. 111 - 69 = 42. Cooks would have had about 42 more targets in 2014 if he had stayed healthy. 140 + 42 = 182. So now 182 out of 315 targets are accounted for.
As a result, even with our generous estimates, we still have 133 unassigned targets.
It's hard to see Marques Colston getting many more targets than he did last year (99 targets) seeing how much he's slowed down in recent years. Maybe TE Josh Hill plays a bigger role this year with Graham gone (Hill had 20 targets for the Saints last year) but he's pretty much an unknown. Maybe a 3rd receiver such as Nick Toon sees a few more targets come his way. But I think that, more than likely, a good chunk of those targets are going to find their way to Cooks as he is, by far, the most electric of the bunch. I'd say at least 20 targets is more reasonable, which projects him to have 131 targets in 2015 which would have been just 16th most among receivers. Cooks led the league in 2014 with a catch rate of 76.8% (53 receptions on 69 targets). Combine that exceptional catch rate with 131 targets and that comes out to over 100 receptions. And personally, I think 131 is a fairly conservative estimate and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a similarly high catch rate for Cooks with another year of experience under his belt especially because elite QBs such as Drew Brees, who is know for his accuracy, are really good at getting the ball to their receivers. Let's throw one more equation in there: high volume + high catch rate = lots of fantasy points. News flash: primary receivers of elite quarterbacks tend to do well in fantasy. I'm a big believer in Brees and, unless you think his production is going to fall off a cliff, someone is going to have to put up big stats and Cooks is the logical benefactor.
There's no reason to think that Cooks would do worse than last year. He looks fantastic in camp and an extra off-season to gel with Brees can only help. So his floor isn't as low as his 2014 stat line would suggest on the surface. True, he's a bit risky because a lot of what I said is derived from speculation and projection rather than results but I feel good about his upside.
Safe Pick: Alfred Morris (28)
A reliable running back is a valuable running back. And Alfred Morris is so reliable. Yet, for the past two years he's been underrated because he's that "unsexy" running back. We know what he is. Some people like to chase the unknown, the Carlos Hydes, the Melvin Gordons, the Jonathan Stewarts. Not me, I like safety in my early rounds. Morris is always productive. He's a lock for at least 1,000 yards and 7-8 touchdowns.
Plus, this year, I think there's upside for a little more.
- His offensive line might be a little better; the weakest link on the line last year (RT Tyler Polumbus) is gone and replaced by 1st round pick Brandon Schreff. Albeit, rookie linemen, even ones drafted in the first round, do tend to struggle so Schreff might not be an upgrade right away. More importantly, LT Trent Williams was playing hurt last year. When healthy, he is one of the best left tackles in the league.
- The offense as a whole might be better. Maybe RGIII can turn things around. Perhaps Jay Gruden gets the offense going to 2015. I feel like last year was the floor for Morris and this offense in general as they flip-flopped between 3 different QBs throughout the season.
- RB Roy Helu is gone. Helu vultured 4 touchdowns from Morris in 2013 and 3 in 2014. Without him, Morris may hit pay dirt a couple extra times.
Sure, there are a lot of maybes and mights in that list and I'm not saying that Morris' upside is significantly higher but he finished 12th among running backs last year and I think that is his floor. Everything is looking up and we might see him achieve a stat line closer to 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns which is well within his capabilities considering he had 1,613 yards and 13 TDs his rookie year.
One thing to note is that Morris' 2nd half of the schedule is much more favorable than the first half. If you don't end up drafting Morris, you might keep an eye out for an opportunity to trade for him.
9/3/2015 Update: There have been rumblings that the coaches really like 3rd round rookie Matt Jones. Jones has been tearing it up in the preseason, earning one of the highest grades for running backs from PFF with 139 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. If there is any truth to the hype, Jones could represent a significant drain on Morris' value. Morris is a volume guy so the prospect of losing significant carries is troubling especially since the two are similar in running style meaning it might not be just on 3rd downs that Morris comes out. My "safe pick for round 3 may not be so safe after all.