Say what you will about this year’s NFL. The one thing it certainly hasn’t lacked is intriguing stories, both on the field and off of it.
On the field, one of the most compelling trends has been the emergence of several impressive — if mercurial — rookie campaigns. Deshaun Watson went from backing up Tom Savage to being the best quarterback in fantasy to having his season cut short mid-week: a story that turned the league on its head. Kareem Hunt fumbled his first ever NFL carry but responded with seven straight games of at least 100 all-purpose yards. But even he’s slowed up recently after a heavy early-season workload, as covered on Sunday. Fellow first-round running back Leonard Fournette has been a revelation for the suddenly relevant Jaguars, but some curious off-field antics cost him the ability to play in last week’s game.
One highly touted debutant who’s remained relatively under the radar is Christian McCaffrey. He hasn’t put up the numbers like those mentioned above. He’s not even technically the lead back on his own team. That distinction belongs to Jonathan Stewart. And for fantasy owners, Carolina’s inability to run the ball has been frustrating.
But on Sunday against Atlanta, something changed. The Panthers got McCaffrey going early and often. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula got McCaffrey to the edges using a variety of pitches and sweep plays. The result: career highs in both carries (15) and yards (66) and his first rushing touchdown. Add in five receptions for 28 yards and McCaffrey posted 94 total yards, the second highest total of his career.
The timing of this big game is also encouraging. With Kelvin Benjamin traded away to Buffalo, the Panthers need dynamic playmakers for Cam Newton. McCaffrey and fellow rookie Curtis Samuel could fill those roles in the passing game. McCaffrey played on 81.5 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps Sunday, the most in his career. It’s time to try to acquire the speedy Stanford product before your league’s trade deadline, especially if an opposing team needs to fill in some byes at other positions over the next couple of weeks.
Here are four other rookies whose Week 9 performances ought to catch your eye.
Aaron Jones, RB, Packers
The entire Green Bay offense has fallen apart without Aaron Rodgers. The Packers’ skill players aren’t nearly as effective without their superstar quarterback. And it’s not like it’s going to get a whole lot better with right tackle Bryan Bulaga out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL. That spells doom for Jones, who ran for 131 yards and a score in his first game without Rodgers but just 12 last weekend against the Lions. Jones still carries some value: He’s the lead back and a solid pass catcher in an offense that emphasizes pass catching. But Ty Montgomery was the better back on Monday night. Furthermore, in weeks 14 and 15 — the fantasy playoff weeks — Green Bay takes on Cleveland and Carolina, teams that rank first and eighth, respectively, in rushing yards allowed per attempt. It’s time to squeeze whatever value for Jones you can get in the trade market.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams
Kupp is tied for second in the NFL in red zone receptions. Yes, you read that right. He has 13 targets inside the opponent’s 20, just one behind leader Dez Bryant. Kupp is also the second most targeted Ram, just slightly behind Robert Woods, and functions in a slot-receiver-friendly system. Despite all of that, he’s owned in just 53 percent of leagues. Of the Rams’ remaining eight games, six are either played in sunny Los Angeles or indoors. So while a lot of the league may deal with wintery conditions, Kupp usually won’t. No, he’s not going to put up huge yardage numbers, but he will get targets (at least five in six of eight games so far), making him an ideal backup. Grab Kupp if you can — he can be a starter in a pinch if players are out or playing in miserable weather.
Corey Davis, WR, Titans
Davis made his long-awaited return and played on three-quarters of the Titans’ offensive snaps against the Ravens. He caught just two balls for 28 yards, but most importantly he left the game injury-free. Remember, Davis had a really nice debut, reeling in six receptions for 69 yards. He’s the most physically talented receiver on the roster, and as he gets back to game speed, he should emerge as an important part of Tennessee’s gameplan. He’s rostered in under half of Yahoo leagues. Even if you’re not ready to add him, monitor his next week or two: He could be a promising option on your bench in the coming weeks.
Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers
As mentioned above with McCaffrey, Samuel will play a bigger role with Benjamin gone. We saw our first glimpse of what that could mean against the Falcons. He played on a career high 49 offensive snaps, catching three passes for 23 yards and adding a 14-yard rush. They are modest numbers. But following the game, offensive coordinator Mike Shula was anything but honest when talking about Samuel getting involved more in the future. “When he gets the ball, if you watch him, he’s usually making the first guy miss,” Shula said. “So we need to continue to stay in that direction and get him some more touches.”
Those are big words for the talented former Ohio State Buckeye. He’s owned just 13 percent of leagues, and given his minuscule statistical impact to this point, that makes sense. But he’ll get more opportunities going forward and that makes him, like Davis, worth monitoring going forward.