As the NFL offseason ramps up with the combine this week, most fantasy football aficionados will focus their energy on the incoming rookie class. On top of that, there’s the looming free agency that will be weighing on the minds of anybody trying to get an offseason advantage in the fantasy football landscape. What tends to fly under the radar is the leap that so many players can take from between their first and second years in the NFL. Far too often talented players are labeled as “busts” after their rookie seasons and are left for dead.
Real-life NFL owners and fantasy owners alike crave instant success when compiling a team. In reality, however, it isn’t always that simple. Factors such as team chemistry, player development, and coaching philosophy often lead to a rookie failing to live up to his true potential. There will be a number of players from each draft class that get written off as “busts”, but are able to rise up and make major contributions in their sophomore seasons. This table, sorted by selection in the 2017 NFL draft, shows players that disappointed as rookies in 2017 and managed to make a significant jump in 2018.
*½ PPR scoring*
Clearly, there’s potential for disappointing rookies from 2018 to have breakout seasons in 2019. While the rest of the fantasy community drools over the potential of the 2019 rookie and free agent classes, don’t forget to keep an eye on the potential sophomore studs of 2019. Let’s explore some candidates from the 2018 draft class that could make big production leaps in 2019.
Ito Smith, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Ito Smith was a fourth-round draft pick by Atlanta in 2018. He had extremely low expectations as a rookie with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman squarely ahead of him on the depth chart. Falcons coach Dan Quinn has already come out and said that he’s expecting a big step forward for Smith in 2019, which makes sense with Coleman likely to find a new team in free agency.
Smith appears primed to find role splitting the backfield with the injury-prone Devonta Freeman, who’s appeared in 16 games just twice in his five-year career and only saw action in two games last season. Between head, knee, and groin injuries, Sports Injury Predictor gives Freeman a 50.4% chance of injury in 2019. Smith will, at a minimum, frequently spell Freeman in an attempt to keep him fresh and healthy. Should Freeman miss time, Smith would become lead back in Atlanta. He’s the type of player you take near the end of your fantasy draft that could pay off huge dividends by midseason.
Ronald Jones II, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jones was the definition of a rookie bust, appearing in only nine games and carrying the ball just 23 times all season. He didn’t get any better as the year went on either, as he didn’t see a single carry after week 12, despite being active each week. He did catch seven of nine passes thrown his way, and while that’s not much of a sample size, it at least shows that he does have some pass-catching ability.
Even though Jones’ rookie season couldn’t have gone much worse, he basically gets a complete do-over in 2019. The ousted Tampa Bay coaching staff, for whatever reason, never had a role for the talented back out of USC. Plenty of running backs have found success under incoming head coach Bruce Arians. Both Arians and general manager Jason Licht have expressed optimism for Jones headed into 2019, so the 21-year-old should get every chance to prove himself throughout the offseason.
DJ Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Chark was drafted in the second round last year by the Jaguars, a team that had four veteran receivers in front of him and wanted to lean on the run game. Not exactly an ideal scenario for the LSU product. In 2019 however, there should be a window of opportunity for Chark to make an impact in Jacksonville and fantasy football.
Donte Moncrief is a free agent who will be inclined to sign elsewhere this offseason, bumping Chark up at least one spot on the depth chart. Second, and more importantly, John DeFilippo has been brought in as the new offensive coordinator. Surely a coach that was fired from his previous team for passing the ball too much can find a use for a 6’3” receiver with a 40 inch vertical and 4.34 40-yard dash. Chark has the potential to be 2019’s version of Mike Williams.
Christian Kirk, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Kirk won’t be flying under the radar as much as Chark, as the fellow second-round pick from last year was targeted in every game of his rookie season until he suffered a season-ending foot injury in week 13. His season totals, 43 receptions for 590 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games, are decent enough given how putrid the Cardinals offense was in 2018.
As respectable as his rookie season was, Kirk could take the biggest leap of all the sophomore receivers in 2019. Despite the return of sure-fire Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, Kirk sets up to be the primary receiving option in the NFL version of head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s air-raid offense. He could be in line to be a top-12 receiver in PPR formats given the number of pass attempts that should be flying in Arizona next season.
James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Washington is the third second-round pick from last year that I’ll bring up. It would be easy to label his rookie season as a bust after he logged just 217 receiving yards and one touchdown on 16 catches last season. Maybe that can be forgiven when considering superstars JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown combined for 2,723 yards and 22 touchdowns on 215 catches.
Now that it’s become clear that Antonio Brown won’t be returning to Pittsburgh, Washington may be the most obvious candidate to breakout in his second season. The Steelers have a long track record of developing wide receiver talent to go along with Ben Roethlisberger. The list is impressive: Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster…James Washington? What’s more, Big Ben has consistently been able to support two fantasy relevant wideouts in the same season. Washington showed enough big-play ability in college at Oklahoma State and in the 2018 preseason that nobody would be surprised if he stepped up as a top-tier fantasy receiver alongside JuJu.
Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins
About one year ago Mike Gesicki was all the rage after he completely dominated the combine. For reference, take a look at this Tweet from NFL Research last year.
Gesicki’s unreal athleticism didn’t translate to into on-field success in his rookie season. He only hauled in 22 catches for 202 yards and never found the end zone.
The good news for Gesicki is that the factors that held him back in 2018 may not be an issue in 2019. The new coaching regime in Miami includes offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea, who spent the last ten years in New England. While there he might have gotten a few ideas of how to use an athletically freaky tight end. There’s also a good chance the Dolphins have a new starting quarterback in 2019. If whoever it is can develop a rapport with Gesicki, he could turn into one of the few reliable fantasy tight ends. His ceiling is through the roof, and it’s within the realm of possibilities that he becomes the 2019 version of George Killte.
Agree or disagree? Any glaring omissions? Hit me up anytime on Twitter @aalarson to discuss anything fantasy related this offseason, and make sure to check in with Dynasty Football Factory throughout the year.