It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Why is that? Well, it’s NFL Draft week! Between Thursday and Saturday, 262 players will achieve a dream they’ve likely had since childhood, while many more will also achieve their dreams as un-drafted free agents. It truly is a special event that is hard to match. Heck, to make matters better, they even put it in Vegas this year!
The NFL Draft is also a very exciting time for all football fans. This is where the foundation of teams are built, and for some teams, they’ll get lucky enough to add a future cornerstone to their roster. Yet, it’s all a mystery, which makes this very exciting.
All of the above can be directly attributed to fantasy football. Whether you’re in a dynasty league or are preparing for your redraft leagues, the NFL Draft can have rippling effects. Particularly in a dynasty league, rookie drafts are the easiest way to acquire young talent to build around for the future. If you were able to draft Ja’Marr Chase or Justin Jefferson over the past two years, for instance, your fantasy team is certainly in a much better place now!
Now, we’re left to find out who the next fantasy superstars are. To do this, today, we will be going over my pre-draft rookie rankings. This all started via the development of a projection model, which uses the statistics deemed to be most significant to future fantasy success. However, it’s impossible to project prospects perfectly, which allows for refinement through a ranking process. Thus, the rankings are not simply what my model would suggest, though I will trust it as a tremendous foundation.
Without further ado, let us get to the rankings! We’ll go position-by-position, highlighting the key factors to look for, as well as the stars and sleepers at each position. Who do you need to targeting in your dynasty league? Find out here!
Stats via Pro Football Focus
2022 Fantasy Football Pre-Draft Rookie Rankings
|Matt Corral||Ole Miss||3||16.7|
|Sam Howell||North Carolina||4||17.5|
|Bailey Zappe||Western Kentucky||7||8.8|
|Kaleb Eleby||Western Michigan||8||8.2|
You can get quite far with projecting quarterbacks by simply looking at their rushing production and draft capital. Meanwhile, players with higher average depth of targets (aDOT) and big-time throw rates BTT%) also tend to perform better fantasy-wise, as those players tend to have a higher ceiling due to their play style. Their college efficiency matters slightly, but in fantasy land, we’ll always be looking for opportunity and rushing ability. If you’re in a Superflex league, this is the position you generally go into rookie drafts wanting to target.
- This is the perfect transition to Malik Willis. The presumed leader of the pack of a thin quarterback class, there are some legitimate concerns around his profile. For starters, he’s a fifth-year senior who failed to have strong production at Liberty, while he has quite the propensity to take sacks (30.5% pressure-to-sack rate). However, these are more “real-life” concerns than for fantasy. In the latter, we can focus on his 79.2 rushing yards per game over the past two seasons, which is better than any season Jalen Hurts had. With that elite mobility and an aggressive play style (11.2 aDOT, 9.1% BTT), the Eagles quarterback is a strong fantasy comparison. Assuming he gets first-round draft capital, he’s a slam-dunk pick in Superflex leagues.
- There is a close to zero gap between Desmond Ridder, Matt Corral, and Sam Howell. Ridder likely offers the most rushing upside, Howell had the best college production, while Corral is the balance of the two. To be frank, these players are as interchangeable as it gets, meaning that they are ranked based on the likelihood of being drafted in the first round. With the bar at quarterback being so high, it’s hard to become a starter if you’re not a first-round pick, and although I remain skeptical any player of these three go in the first round, all indications are that Ridder has the best odds.
- There is a reasonable chance Kenny Pickett could be the first quarterback drafted. After having below-average production the first four years of his college career, the Pittsburgh product broke out with a 92.1 PFF passing grade and elite surface-level passing numbers (42 TDs, 7 INT, 116 passer rating). In fantasy though, he isn’t a player to target. We’re talking a player who put up 14.75 rushing yards per game over his college career, was a below-average producer before his fifth year, and doesn’t create big plays (3.6% BTT) despite an average time-to-throw over three seconds. Even if the breakout is legitimate, he essentially has no margin for error based on his limited rushing ability, making the reward not worth the pick.
|Breece Hall||Iowa State||1||14.5|
|Kenneth Walker||Michigan State||2||13.3|
|Rachaad White||Arizona State||3||12.2|
|Isaiah Spiller||Texas A&M||4||11.1|
|Pierre Strong||South Dakota State||10||7.9|
|Kyren Williams||Notre Dame||11||9.0|
|Jerrion Ealy||Ole Miss||14||9.6|
|Kevin Harris||South Carolina||15||7.7|
|Quan White||South Carolina||18||7.6|
|Jashaun Corbin||Florida State||19||7.1|
|Zonovan Knight||NC State||20||6.9|
|Ronnie Rivers||Fresno State||21||6.8|
|Ty Chandler||North Carolina||24||4.4|
|Max Borghi||Washington State||26||5.5|
|D'Vonte Price||Florida International||28||6.1|
|Jaylen Warren||Oklahoma State||31||3.2|
|Snoop Conner||Ole Miss||32||2.3|
|Leddie Brown||West Virginia||33||3.4|
|Greg Bell||San Diego State||36||0.6|
As is the case with any position, draft capital is key when projecting running backs. First-round running backs have a significantly higher hit rate than the rest of the pack, and the returns immediately start to dwindle after round two. Why? Well, running back production for fantasy is significantly tied to volume as opposed to skill, and higher-drafted players naturally get more chances. Furthermore, PFF rushing and receiving grades, yards/route run, missed tackles forced/attempt, and explosive rushes/attempt are other key efficiency indicators. Lastly, the overall yardage share they had, as well as their best season yardage share, is also correlated to future fantasy success.
- Breece Hall is the clear consensus #1 running back in this draft. I will note that his yards after contact/attempt and explosive rushes/attempt are below-average, as is his yards/route run. That being said, he’s an athletic marvel (4.39 40-yard dash, 215 pounds) who immediately became a star as a true freshman at Iowa State, while he also commanded a double-digit target share. If he goes in the first round, he cements himself as the #1 pick in rookie drafts, even if some of his peripheral numbers don’t point to him being a true superstar.
- If I was an NFL general manager, Kenneth Walker III would be the top running back on the board. The 21-year-old’s numbers are simply absurd. On the 20-80 scale, his 0.33 missed tackles forced ranks as an 80, while his 4.27 yards after contact/carry come close to that as well. Clearly, he’s the best pure runner in this class, so why does Hall have him beat? In the end, it comes down to his lack of receiving production. In his peak season, he only commanded 16 targets and averaged 0.44 yards/route run, and never reached 30 receiving yards in a game. In PPR formats, that is quite concerning. It’s simply very difficult to be an elite fantasy asset without receiving acumen, and although that could come, historically college receiving production is relatively stable when translating to the pro level. He enters the NFL as a standout talent, though this may be a case where the fantasy value and the real-life value differ slightly.
- Rachaad White and Tyler Allgeier are two very interesting prospects to keep an eye on. White was a transfer from community college that had both a 90+ PFF rushing grade and receiving grade last season- color me interesting. Allgeier, meanwhile, isn’t seen as an explosive player, but he was a true 80-grade talent in terms of creating yards after contact (4.44 YCO/A), while he also caused missed tackles at a high level. White is the more explosive player and better talent, but it will come down to draft capital for both of them.
- Draft capital shouldn’t be an issue for Isiah Spiller, who may end up as the #2 running back off the board, even before Walker III. A productive player who started as a freshman in the SEC will always be very interesting, though it’s hard to look past a few factors. For starters, his athletic testing was not only below-average but at the bottom of the scale. Meanwhile, he never quite dominated in college, though there isn’t anything to really pick apart; it was just a lack of standout ability. I have no doubts he’ll be a relatively high-floor starter, but he’s not as talented of a receiver as White, and not as talented of a runner as Allgeier. If he gets second-round draft capital, though, it’s almost impossible not to have him as the #3 back in this class, as he’ll have clear shot at getting that beautiful volume that we’re looking for.
- I’m going against my model by putting Zamir White and Dameon Pierce in the top 10. Neither received much of a workload in college, nor were they involved as receivers. On the bright side, they’re bigger backs who should handle a heavier workload with ease and demonstrated intriguing peripheral rushing ability. Pierce was the better producer and showcased more receiving prowess, but White is the supreme athlete and overall talent. They may the two highest-variance running backs in this class.
- You want explosiveness? Pierre Strong can provide it. He’s a difficult player to project since he played at South Dakota State, but my guess is he ends up as a change-of-pace running back with big-play ability- a player who may end up better in best ball, but has a ceiling worth chasing. James Cook, Kyren Williams, and Tyler Badie, meanwhile, are the best pure receiving backs in this class. The later two are more proven runners, but Cook will get the best draft capital and was the clear best receiver of the three. He doesn’t have a three-down ceiling, though he’ll be a viable flex option most likely, a la JD McKissic.
- My favorite three sleepers in this class? Jerrion Ealy, Kevin Harris, and Tyler Goodson. Ealy has a lot of intriguing traits – his 0.32 missed tackles forced/attempt is elite, while he thrived after contact and as a receiver. However, he’s also 189 pounds and still mustered just a 4.52 40-yard-dash, not an ideal combination. Weight (197 pounds) could be a concern for Goodson as well, and he didn’t have a strong career PFF rushing grade. At the same time, he’s an athletic player that had a greater share of his team’s yards last season than Kenneth Walker III and has athleticism on his side. Harris, on the other hand, is a bigger back at 221 pounds and has above-average athleticism for his size. Plus, he had 36% of his team’s yards at a sophomore, performed well after contact, and also produced as a receiver. All three of these players are also declaring as underclassmen, making their relative production more impressive. Draft capital is a notable issue with them, but they can make a clear impact in the right situation.
|Garrett Wilson||Ohio State||2||14.5|
|Chris Olave||Ohio State||5||14.5|
|Skyy Moore||Western Michigan||7||12.5|
|Jahan Dotson||Penn State||8||11.8|
|Christian Watson||North Dakota State||9||11.9|
|Khalil Shakir||Boise State||11||9.9|
|Jalen Tolbert||South Alabama||16||10.6|
|Calvin Austin II||Memphis||17||9.5|
|Kevin Austin Jr.||Notre Dame||19||10.6|
|Velus Jones Jr.||Tennessee||23||8.7|
|Tre' Turner||Virginia Tech||24||8.2|
|Erik Ezukanma||Texas Tech||25||7.5|
|Isaiah Weston||Northern Iowa||27||5.2|
|Dontario Drummond||Ole Miss||28||7.1|
|Reggie Roberson Jr.||SMU||30||5.1|
|Jalen Nailor||Michigan State||31||4.9|
|Braylon Sanders||Ole Miss||32||4.2|
|Jaivon Heiligh||Coastal Carolina||35||3.4|
|Makai Polk||Mississippi State||36||0.5|
|Johnny Johnson III||Oregon||38||1.5|
|Dai'Jean Dixon||Nicholls State||40||0.9|
Projecting wide receivers, in my opinion, is the most difficult of the four positions- there is a lot of refinement and skill to the position that is difficult to capture. Draft capital is by far the best predictor of future success, with the hit rate of day-three receivers being close to zero. From there, you’re just looking for a balanced profile between athleticism and production, both from an efficiency standpoint and a dominance standpoint (yards per team pass attempt). In a draft where the prop for first-round receivers is at 6.5, it will be very interesting to see how it all shapes up.
- As draft season has gone on, the trepidation around Treylon Burks has strengthened. Yet, I cannot move him off of my #1 wide receiver ranking. From a production standpoint, he was elite after the catch, was able to work down the field, and had back-to-back seasons with PFF grades of 88.9 and 90.8, respectively. Meanwhile, he has size (6’2″, 225 pounds) on his side, and while his 4.55 40-yard dash was disappointing, it still gives him an above-average speed score for his size. To top it off, in the SEC, he managed a 3.51 yards per team pass attempt, which is more than elite, and was ultra-productive as both a sophomore and a junior. I get the concerns about his overall refinement as a player, but I cannot ignore how dominant of a production profile this is. In a draft where the top is nowhere near as strong as it was last season, I’ll take my chances with the player with multiple seasons of dominant performance.
- From there, the gap between Garrett Wilson, Drake London, and Jameson Williams is remarkably small. Wilson (sophomore) and London (junior) have similar peak seasons, and are completely different players; London has the size in his favor, while Wilson is more of the classic separator. I give Wilson the slight edge as I’m generally biased towards players of his prototype compared to London, though it truly is a coin flip. Williams, on the other hand, may honestly be the true answer as the #2 receiver in this class, and perhaps #1. He’s the top big-play threat, thrived after the catch, and clearly has athleticism on his side. My model’s slight tendencies to overrate players of his profile, the limited sample size of elite production, and the ACL injury put him #4 overall, but he’s the type of player that you will have massive FOMO about if you don’t draft him.
- Usually, seniors don’t have a great hit rate from college to pro. However, the fact that Chris Olave averaged 3.24 yards per team pass attempt as a junior, and has been hyper-efficient (86.6 PFF grade) since being a sophomore is very encouraging. His production after the catch is definitely something to keep an eye on, and I ultimately see him as a strong #2 receiver who may be better in real-life than fantasy, though that might be doing him a disservice.
- Every year, there is a prospect that I become randomly infatuated with. This year, it may be Skyy Moore. Sure, he’s only 5’10”, but he actually weighs more than Wilson, Williams, and Olave, which is much more significant than the height. Thus, we can focus on the fact that, although not at a power-five school, Moore was extremely productive and was a larger factor in the passing game than Dee Eskridge, a player who was much older than him and went in the second round last season. The fact he already had to deal with NFL-caliber target competition and thrived is encouraging, and he has a lot of similarities to a Golden Tate-type player in the slot. Now, let’s pray he goes in the first round! Looking at you, Bills.
- The only other two wide receivers that I could see going in the first round are George Pickens and Jahan Dotson. All you have to do is see Pickens’ production as a true freshman in the SEC (88 PFF receiving grade, 2.64 yards/route run) to be intrigued, especially considering he’s 6’3″, 195 pounds, and ran a 4.47 40-yard dash. At the same point, he wasn’t the same as a sophomore and barely played as a junior after missing most of the season due to a torn ACL. He won’t make plays after the catch and is a bit of a boom-or-bust option, but the boom is enticing. Dotson, meanwhile, does not have the size that Pickens has (5’10”, 178 pounds), and his 4.43 40-yard dash is underwhelming considering that. The hit rate of senior receivers, as alluded to previously, isn’t the greatest, but he was very productive as a junior. He’ll likely slot in as a steady slot option, a la Jamison Crowder, even if the ceiling isn’t super enticing.
- From there, the class takes a hit. Christian Watson (6’4″, 208 pounds, 4.36 40-time) and Alec Pierce (6’3″, 208 pounds, 4.41 40-time) are the athletic marvels of this class. Watson is a senior at North Dakota State, while Pierce never quite flourished at Cincinnati. At the same time, some of their athletic comparisons are very exciting; the air yards they’ll likely get as pure vertical threats makes them future high-upside spike week options.
- Then, there are the productive players with question marks. Khalil Shakir had PFF receiving grades of 88.2, 88.8, and 89.3, but he may be a day-three pick. David Bell, meanwhile, is an elite producer with very poor athleticism, while Wan’Dale Robinson dominated this past season, but is also 5’8″, 179 pounds. They all have the capabilities to be impact players, though roadblocks face them.
- Then, there are the two big-college players, John Metchie and Justyn Ross. Metchie dealt with immense target competition and wasn’t used down the field, though profiles as a yards-after-catch weapon who may get day-two capital. Ross, meanwhile, was dominant as a freshman with a 91.2 PFF receiving grade and 4.98 yards/route run (!!), but then missed all of his junior year with a neck injury, struggled while dealing with more injuries as a senior, and also didn’t perform well with his athletic testing. The upside is through the roof here, though the red flags are definitely legitimate. He is honestly the hardest player to project moving forward. Part of me thinks I have him ranked way too low, while the other half sees significant downside. Well, it wouldn’t be an NFL Draft without some mystery!
|Trey McBride||Colorado State||1||9.1|
|Charlie Kolar||Iowa State||3||7.6|
|Isaiah Likely||Coastal Carolina||4||6.0|
|James Mitchell||Virginia Tech||6||5.0|
|Daniel Bellinger||San Diego State||8||4.5|
|Jeremy Ruckert||Ohio State||9||3.3|
|Jalen Wydermyer||Texas A&M||12||1.5|
|Curtis Hodges||Arizona State||16||-0.5|
|Connor Heyward||Michigan State||18||-1.5|
|Teagan Quitoriano||Oregon State||19||-1.7|
As opposed to wide receiver, tight end is much easier to project, though that’s not necessarily a positive; this isn’t a position with a lot of upside attached to it. Balancing out production (mainly yards/route run) with athleticism is the simplest way to project tight ends, and this is the position where draft capital matters the least. Considering the first-round disappointments we’ve seen compared to some later-round “booms,” it is easy to see why that would be the case.
- The clear top tight end in this class would be Trey McBride. Last year’s John Mackey award winner earned an absurd 95 PFF receiving grade in 2021 and is also an above-average athlete who has the size (245 pounds) to play in-line as well. He’ll certainly be the first tight end off the board, and profiles very similar to other recent tight end prospects who went on to succeed at the NFL level. I’ll make the bold prediction that he goes to the Buccaneers in the second round, which would be quite the optimal future landing spot.
- After that, it’s “pick-your-poision.” Greg Dulcich profiles as a player who can stretch the field vertically, and has the best chance of the rest of going on day two of the draft. Charlie Kolar, meanwhile, has been ultra-productive from a young age at Iowa State, though isn’t providing much after the catch or as a big-play threat.
- Once upon a time, Isiah Likely was my model’s #1 tight end. That was before running a 4.88 40-yard dash, which is quite alarming; tight ends with a speed score as low as him have not generally succeeded. Add in the fact that his production came at Coastal Carolina, and it becomes harder to trust him, though he had the best yards/route run and PFF receiving grade of this class. Let’s hope he bucks the trend!
- Jelani Woods and Chig Oknownko provide a lot of athleticism at the position but have zero production to speak on. James Mitchell, on the other hand, showcased the ability to be productive, particularly after the catch, though he’s not as athletic and has a chance to go undrafted. I’d keep an eye on all three of these players as this year’s draft sleeper, though we’re searching for a needle in a haystack.