Rookies coming into the NFL are hard to predict, as they must adapt to the speed of the pro game and fit into the system of their new team. Players who turn into stars often struggle in their first season, so tempering expectations is the best bet when thinking of these guys. That doesn't mean they can't be impact players, however, and grabbing a player later in your draft who will grow through the season and/or take on a bigger role is a great way to win your fantasy league.
I looked at top projected rookies from each position (other than kicker, where there are a few intriguing options) and where the numbers say they will land compared to last year's crop of first-year players. I named players I think will produce right away and those who have a better shot to grow throughout the year and/or will see their breakouts next season. All projections are from Fantasy Nerds and correct as of 7/26/2023.
** Travis Etienne is listed among 2022 rookies in some areas, but it was his second season after missing his rookie year with injuries in 2021, so I didn't include him when looking at rookies from last season.
Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons, 6th-ranked RB. Projected: 1,160.2 rushing yards, 8.8 rushing touchdowns, 42.2 receptions, 338.7 receiving yards, 1.9 receiving touchdowns
Robinson was drafted eighth overall by Atlanta, and the expectation is that he will step in as a bell cow running back right away. His ability to both run and catch the ball out of the backfield point to him having a huge workload and racking up stats. Sure enough, his projections see him matching the best rookie rusher (Kenneth Walker III, 1,050 yards, 9 touchdowns) and receiver (Rachaad White, 50 receptions, 290 yards, 2 touchdowns) last season at the position.
Robinson is rated sixth among running backs in standard scoring and fourth in PPR by Fantasy Nerds. His status projects that he will not only be the top rookie back but will be among the best and most productive players in fantasy. Simply put, I agree. If anything, I see Robinson's receiving projections too low.
Tyler Allgeier, who had a breakout rookie season rushing for over 1,000 yards, only caught 16 passes for 139 yards, and he probably won't be stepping onto the field on third downs or for designed screen passes. Second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder may need a safety valve more than a veteran passer would, and Robinson should thrive when those plays arise.
Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions, 21st-ranked RB: 690 rushing yards, 5.5 rushing touchdowns, 53.5 receptions, 444.1 receiving yards, 2.6 receiving touchdowns
Gibbs will probably be worth starting every week as the Lions surprised everyone by drafting him 12th overall, and the Detroit brass has been talking him up as a versatile weapon more than a straight running back. That means that even when new signee David Montgomery is in the backfield, Gibbs will still have a chance to get on the field in two-back formations and as a slot receiver.
Without considering his receiving projection, Gibbs' 690 projected rushing yards would have ranked sixth last year among rookies (between Washington's Brian Robinson and Buffalo's James Cook), and only Walker scored more than five rushing touchdowns. That player would be highly valuable with only token receiving production. Gibbs is also projected to have more receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns than any rookie back last season, putting him on another level in fantasy production.
If he does show out, the Lions probably won't hold him back for the sake of Montgomery, so I see Gibbs as one of THE breakout players this season. I will be drafting him before some of the veteran backs rated above him, including J.K. Dobbins, Alexander Mattison, Aaron Jones, and Miles Sanders, and I expect him to be near the top 10 in total points among running backs.
Zach Charbonnet, Seattle Seahawks, 41st-ranked RB: 593.1 rushing yards, 3.8 rushing touchdowns, 26.2 receptions, 208 receiving yards, 1.1 receiving touchdowns
Devon Achane, Miami Dolphins, 46th-ranked RB: 451.5 rushing yards, 3.2 rushing touchdowns, 30.7 receptions, 275.2 receiving yards, 1.2 receiving touchdowns
These two backs rank inside the top 50 according to Fantasy Nerds, so let's hit on them quick:
Charbonnet was drafted in the second round by the Seahawks a year after Walker was taken in the same round and led all rookies in rushing yards and touchdowns. He is expected to have an immediate role in the passing game, but Walker had more receptions last year than Charbonnet is projected this year and would seem to have the trust of the coaching staff. Charbonnet is a player to look at later in fantasy drafts, but he is hard to trust for consistent production unless Walker gets hurt.
Achane sits third on the depth chart (behind Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.) after being taken in the third round, but his shiftiness and ability to catch the ball have analysts projecting him to have an immediate role. The biggest knock is the players in front of him and the fact that one injury won't make him the starter right now, though the backs in Miami are more middling than great.
Both players have a chance to contribute and play early in the season with expanded roles a possibility as they get some seasoning, but they have clear barriers to their playing time and production. I am not counting on either to be a major factor in fantasy. Injuries change everything, and running back is very fungible, but these backs should be targeted toward the end of drafts as players with upside.
Jordan Addison, Minnesota Vikings, 41st-ranked WR: 62 receptions, 812.2 receiving yards, 4.3 receiving touchdowns
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seattle Seahawks, 43rd-ranked WR: 60.2 receptions, 763.2 receiving yards, 4.6 receiving touchdowns
Quentin Johnston, Los Angeles Chargers, 46th-ranked WR: 52.7 receptions, 719 receiving yards, 4.2 receiving touchdowns
Four receivers were drafted in the first round this year, and three of them are projected to have similar stats in their inaugural seasons. Let's first see where their numbers would fall among last year's rookies. These three players would have ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth in receptions last season. They would have ranked fourth, sixth, and seventh in receiving yards. The only players with more touchdowns were Christian Watson and Jahan Dotson, who both had seven (and Watson added two more rushing touchdowns).
These players aren't projected to reach the high standards set by Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave last year, as they both had over 70 catches and 1,000 yards, but each will be a player that can be counted on for production some weeks with the possibility of reaching higher peaks. Addison had the most storied college career of the group, shining with Kenny Pickett at Pitt before continuing his dominance at USC, and working with Justin Jefferson should open holes for the rookie to contribute immediately. I see Addison as the top rookie receiver this season with the highest upside.
Smith-Njigba was seen as a possible top-10 pick, but he missed most of last season with an injury after shining in 2021. He will work as the third receiver behind veterans DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, but Lockett is aging, and Metcalf is a different type of receiver. I see Smith-Njigba as more of a rotational player who breaks out next year, but he has all the skills to make an impact this season.
Johnston showed how physically impressive he is as TCU made it to the National Championship game, and he has the tools to be an imposing receiver, akin to Metcalf. He is on a team with an ascending quarterback, but he also sits behind two big-named receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Those players have battled injuries in the past, particularly Williams, so Johnston could step into a void in the lineup and thrive this season. He is another player, though, who I see having a bigger impact next year.
Zay Flowers, Baltimore Ravens, 55th-ranked WR: 49.9 receptions, 669.3 receiving yards, 3.5 receiving touchdowns
Flowers is ranked below the other three first-rounders, but his projected stats aren't far off, and he could make an immediate impact. Baltimore has been chided for their lack of receiving options around Lamar Jackson, but Flowers rounds out a professional receiving room with former first-rounder Rashod Bateman and veteran Odell Beckham.
Bateman has struggled with injuries, and Flowers is probably a better player. Beckham's name is bigger than his production at this point in his career, and I don't see him making a large impact this season, even if he is able to stay healthy. It might take some time, and I'm not counting on Flowers at the beginning of the season, but he could easily become the top target in Baltimore by the end of the year. (Jackson has also said the team will be throwing more this season, so more opportunities might be available.)
Dalton Kincaid, Buffalo Bills, 16th-ranked TE: 43 receptions, 485.3 receiving yards, 4.3 receiving touchdowns
Sam LaPorta, Detroit Lions, 21st-ranked TE: 40.7 receptions, 439.4 receiving yards, 3.5 receiving touchdowns
Michael Mayer, Las Vegas Raiders, 30th-ranked TE: 36.8 receptions, 403.4 receiving yards, 3.1 receiving touchdowns
Three rookie tight ends rank among the top 30 players at the position, and they all have similar projected stats. Only Cade Otton had more than Mayer's projected 36.8 receptions among rookie tight ends last year (with 42), and only Chigoziem Okonkwo (450) and Greg Dulcich (411) topped 400 yards. No player was over three touchdowns. Rookie tight ends are said to struggle their first year, and the numbers from last season show that trend.
These three shouldn't be counted on as weekly options, but there will be times they will probably be worth starting in a given week. Kincaid was drafted in the first round and has higher projections across the board than veteran teammate Dawson Knox, though the numbers are all close. LaPorta is second on the depth chart also, but the player ahead of him, Brock Wright, has been a backup through two seasons, catching only 30 passes. Mayer was seen as the most pro-ready tight end coming out of college this season, but he sits behind productive veteran Austin Hooper currently.
Any or all of these three players could be starting and/or making an impact by the end of the season, but counting on them as a top option is going to make for a long season. Follow the numbers and avoid the rookie tight ends until they show a reason to trust them.
Bryce Young, Carolina Panthers, 22nd-ranked QB: 3,611.3 passing yards, 20.9 passing touchdowns, 13.4 interceptions, 234.9 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns
C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans, 26th-ranked QB: 3,422.1 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 182.7 rushing yards, 1.6 rushing touchdowns
These rookie signal callers are the new faces of their respective franchises, but they will probably need time before becoming reliable fantasy options. Both rank above every rookie quarterback last year in all categories, but only Pickett started double-digit games, and these two are already listed as starters going into training camp.
Their low rankings, both outside the top 20, are in line with expectations. Neither team has a great supporting cast, but they both have enough talent to help guide their rookie through the season. Keep an eye on both Young and Stroud, but they will probably only be options against bad defenses on a spot-start basis.
Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts, 17th-ranked QB: 3,012.5 passing yards, 16.6 passing touchdowns, 13.6 interceptions, 740.7 rushing yards, 5.4 rushing touchdowns
Let's finish with the most polarizing player in this year's Draft and a player with one of the largest gaps in possible projections. Gardner Minshew is at the top of the depth chart right now, and many analysts thought Richardson might need a redshirt year before stepping in as the starter. The Indianapolis brass has talked up Richardson, though, including comments about playing in games as the fastest way to learn and improve.
There's a bigger article to write on this, but running quarterbacks regularly outplay their passing output to rank higher among quarterbacks in total fantasy points. This makes sense, as more yards on the ground mean more points, but how much of a difference does it make?
Justin Fields (last year's leading QB rusher) was the sixth-highest point scorer among quarterbacks last season while ranking only 27th in total passing yards, a difference of 21 spots in the rankings. Using those same rankings over the last five years, the top-five quarterbacks in rushing yards have ranked higher in total points versus passing yards by an average of 8.24 spots in the rankings.
Richardson is projected to be the fourth highest QB rusher this season but only 28th in passing yards. Using the same rankings difference from before, he would end up as a top-20 quarterback, but that's a projection that sees him NOT starting at the beginning of the season. When he does start, I see him scoring near the top 10 players in the league at the position with a chance to break into that group. He is currently going undrafted or not being taken until the end of drafts, so you have a chance to grab him for nothing while waiting for him to blossom. Even if he isn't starting Week 1 (which I think he will), grab Richardson and stash him on your bench.