AFC West Roster Holes: Optimal Landing Spots for the 2020 Rookie Class
With the NFL Draft approaching on April 23, it’s time to take stock of NFL rosters to find prime opportunities for the incoming rookie class. Even the most talented rookie can get buried on a depth chart in the NFL, while a fourth-round pick could break out in year one if drafted into the right situation.
This series of articles will search each NFL roster for glaring holes in the depth chart, focusing on the fantasy football positions of quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end. If a talented rookie is drafted to fill one of the following roster holes, we could have the formula in place for a fantasy football difference-maker. Check out our AFC North, AFC South, and AFC East coverage as well.
Denver Broncos: WR2
Courtland Sutton has established himself as one of the NFL’s premier young wide receivers, Noah Fant looks like a promising tight end of the future, and the backfield is currently overflowing with Melvin Gordon, Phillip Lindsay, and Royce Freeman all battling for touches. While it remains to be seen if Drew Lock can make this a fantasy-relevant offense, the roster is full of potential fantasy difference makers.
The most glaring hole on this depth chart is the receiving corps behind Sutton, and the Broncos may well look to address that weakness in the draft. Tim Patrick will be a third-year player and has had his moments, but the undrafted pass-catcher has just 39 receptions and one touchdown over 24 NFL games and certainly isn’t blocking Denver from making a move. Denver has the most resources invested in DaeSean Hamilton, a former fourth-round pick from the 2018 draft. Hamilton is signed through 2021 and figures to remain involved in the offense, but he profiles more as a low-upside slot target, and wouldn’t stand in the way of a more talented rookie. Otherwise, the roster is filled out by 2019 sixth-round pick Juwann Winfree (zero career targets), and a bunch of undrafted free agent types.
The big question, of course, is whether this Broncos offense can support another pass catcher. Sutton saw 125 targets in his sophomore year, a number that figures to go up. Fant saw 65 targets, a respectable showing for a rookie tight end, and we can pencil him in for more targets as well. The addition of Gordon and his receiving volume out of the backfield further muddies the waters for another receiver to emerge. And finally, there is the question of whether Lock can establish himself as an NFL-caliber starting quarterback.
In the end, draft capital will play a large role in the fantasy appeal of a Denver rookie wide receiver. A first or second-round talent should have no problem establishing himself behind Sutton and demanding targets from the start. However, it would be easy to see a mid-round rookie receiver get lost in the mix, fighting with Patrick and Hamilton for the leftovers in a low-volume passing game behind Sutton, Fant, and Gordon. The Broncos have five picks in the first three rounds, so there is a good chance that we see the receiver position addressed early on in Denver. If they draft a receiver with one of those picks, fantasy football owners should take notice.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB
The Chiefs’ offense is a fantasy goldmine with Patrick Mahomes at the helm, so the fantasy community should closely monitor any skill position player that they acquire in the draft. But the wide receiver position looks fairly settled, with Tyreek Hill commanding the lead role, Sammy Watkins brought back to start alongside Hill, and promising home run hitter Mecole Hardman waiting in the wings for additional opportunities. Even Demarcus Robinson was brought back on a one-year deal, and coupled with Byron Pringle, the two provided some big plays in 2019. It’s worth noting, for dynasty purposes, that Robinson and Watkins are set to become free agents in 2021, so there could be a long-term opportunity here. But for 2020, this is a fairly settled group. And with Travis Kelce dominating the tight end work, we can skip this position as well. The running back position, however, is worthy of our attention during the NFL Draft.
Kansas City’s backfield is a bit messy, so let’s break them down one-by-one. Damien Williams is the defacto starter and is signed through the 2020 season. At 28 years old, however, he likely isn’t the long-term answer at the position, as his cheap contract would suggest as well. Williams battled injuries during the 2019 season, only to come alive and score eight touchdowns in four games from Week 17 through the Super Bowl. Williams played 85% or more of the Chiefs snaps in the playoffs, so when it mattered most they relied on him heavily. Between his durability concerns and his impending free agency, however, Williams likely isn’t blocking the Chiefs from adding a running back in the draft.
Backing up Williams is Darwin Thompson, Darrel Williams, and the recently acquired DeAndre Washington. Thompson was hyped in the 2019 preseason and was the backup to Williams in the playoffs as injuries took their toll on the rest of the backfield. While there is some intrigue with Thompson, he is ultimately a former 6th-round pick and at 5’8″ profiles as a part of a committee. Darrel Williams filled in admirably in 2019 but is a former undrafted free agent on the last year of his deal. Washington was signed to a one-year deal this offseason and has some versatility to his game, as he showed as a backup for the Raiders. However, Washington doesn’t figure to block a more talented player and is likely not a part of Kansas City’s future.
With Thompson as the only running back signed beyond the 2020 season, there is a big opportunity here for a rookie running back. The Chiefs have a pick in rounds one through five, and addressing the backfield would make a ton of sense. A mid to late-round running back would not be guaranteed fantasy relevance this year and would have to battle the veterans behind Damien Williams for the role of backup while waiting for a potential injury. However, if the Chiefs used an early pick on a D’Andre Swift or Clyde Edwards-Helaire type running back, they would immediately become an early-round fantasy asset in redraft leagues, and in consideration as the number one pick in rookie drafts.
Las Vegas Raiders: WR
The Raiders added Marcus Mariota to join Derek Carr at a quarterback position that is likely filled for the 2020 season. Darren Waller has emerged at tight end and is under contract through 2023, and with the addition of Jason Witten the Raiders will likely pass on tight ends in the draft. Josh Jacobs isn’t a free agent until 2024, and his first-round draft capital locks him into the workhorse role for the foreseeable future. Losing DeAndre Washington to free agency opens up some depth behind Jacobs, but Jalen Richard remains on the roster for at least one more season and possibly the next, so any running back additions are likely to be minor. That leaves us with the wide receiver position, where the Raiders can barely hide their desire to add a difference-maker.
Tyrell Williams is shockingly signed through 2022, though it appears that the Raiders could get out of his contract after this season if they desire to. He was the Raiders’ number one receiver by default early last year and came through in the touchdown department for fantasy owners, scoring in each of the team’s first five games. Williams showed his typical big-play ability, averaging 10.2 yards per target, but pretty clearly isn’t an alpha-dog number one receiver. Williams hasn’t caught 50 passes and hasn’t reached 750 yards receiving since 2016. Williams also battled plantar fasciitis down the stretch in 2019, sapping some of his ability.
Behind Williams, Hunter Renfrow has the most promise and had a bit of an under the radar rookie year. Renfrow finished 2019 with two straight 100-yard games while scoring a touchdown in each, and averaged 4.6 receptions per game in the eight games following the Raiders’ Week 6 bye. He’s a perfect short-range, check-down option for Carr, and likely has a future in the offense. But as a former fifth-round pick, Renfrow likely has a fairly capped ceiling.
The rest of the receiving corps will become free agents after the 2020 season. Nelson Algholor was signed in the offseason, and with $887,500 guaranteed in his contract should make the team. Zay Jones is around, but Las Vegas could walk away from him with no cap hit. Nobody else on the roster figures to factor into their long-term plans. This group is set up for a top-end receiver to fit perfectly into place.
With two first-round picks (picks 12 and 19), it seems unlikely that Las Vegas passes on one of the top receivers. CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III have all been mocked to the Raiders, and all would find a hefty workload awaiting them. The Raiders may opt to take advantage of the depth in this receiver class and take one later, but after pick 19 they don’t draft again until pick 80 in the third round. This is a team that added Antonio Brown last offseason, so they clearly want that elite pass-catcher. While Carr’s lack of downfield passing ability could hold one of these rookies back from being a true WR1 in fantasy football, any of them would be extremely enticing fantasy options if they end up in Las Vegas.
Los Angeles Chargers: QB, RB
There is actually more of an opportunity available at wide receiver than you might think at first glance. Only Mike Williams is signed beyond the 2020 season, and he is just signed through 2021 (assuming they pick up his option). That means Keenan Allen is set to become a free agent after this season. The rest of the receiving corps is a wasteland, so there is some real opportunity after 2020 if Allen doesn’t re-sign. But as far as this year goes, Allen and Williams will lockdown the targets out wide, and the Chargers are full of passing game options at tight end and running back.
Hunter Henry recently signed the franchise tag, so while his future is up in the air as well, there isn’t room for a fantasy difference-maker at the tight end position this year. With the notoriously slow development of young tight ends, we can skip this position on the Chargers. That leaves quarterback and running back for any potential fantasy impact in year one.
Los Angeles is talking like they are happy with Tyrod Taylor as the quarterback for this year and beyond, but you can’t trust much of what teams say this time of the year. Taylor is a free agent after this season, and everything about his profile screams upper-level backup quarterback. With former fifth-round pick (and first-round name) Easton Stick as the only other option under center, the Chargers are obviously linked to drafting a quarterback with the sixth pick of the draft. Even if they do draft a quarterback at pick 6, or decide to wait until pick 37 in the second round, a rookie quarterback in Los Angeles likely won’t set the fantasy world on fire right away. Taylor is the perfect quarterback to start the year under center while the rookie learns the playbook. Tua Tagovailoa may need time to work into game shape coming off of his hip injury, and Justin Herbert may not be ready to lead a franchise Week 1. Both would be attractive options in dynasty leagues and potential second-half streaming options in redraft. But odds are, neither will make a massive splash early on in 2020.
At running back, Austin Ekeler recently signed a four-year deal, is just 24 years old, and won’t become a free agent until the 2024 season. While Ekeler has the lead role locked down, there’s still room for some fantasy relevance backing him up, especially considering he has never rushed for 600 yards in his three-year career and has previously shared work with Melvin Gordon. Justin Jackson is the only other running back under contract, and while the Chargers are very high on him, he has some warning signs for his future outlook. Jackson is a former seventh-round pick that has battled injuries, has recorded just 406 rushing yards in his two-year career, and is a restricted free agent in 2021. There’s an opportunity for a rookie running back to come in and immediately compete for the backup job, which could be more of a 1B role to Ekeler’s 1A role if they wish to keep Ekeler fresh. The Chargers have all of their draft picks, and while they are unlikely to use one in the first three rounds on a running back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them draft one in the later rounds. If that happens, I would be looking to add any potential rookie as a sneaky dynasty asset.
(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire)