By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
Remember the 2014 NFL draft’s receiver class? Odell Beckham Jr.! Mike Evans! Brandin Cooks! Jarvis Landry! Allen Robinson! Sammy Wat… oh. Kelvin Benja… ugh. Martav… never mind.
Recent busts aside, the 2014 draft class featured the most prolific rookie receiver group since the 1996 draft that airdropped Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Muhsin Muhammad, Joe Horn, and Terrell Owens onto NFL fields. Moreover, those 2014 rookie WR seasons were particularly impressive in retrospect:
Odell Beckham Jr.: 1,305 yards
Mike Evans: 1,051
Kelvin Benjamin: 1,008
Sammy Watkins: 982
Jordan Matthews: 872
Jarvis Landry: 758
For the last three years, fantasy enthusiasts have been chasing those rookie year highs, only to slink away in disappointment at a Breshad Perriman lost season or Corey Coleman’s squandered potential. 2017 has been trending on the same downward trajectory as top-10 picks, Mike Williams and John Ross, struggle just to get on the field.
As the last vestiges of 2014 vanish from the fantasy community’s collective conscience, this year’s rookie receiver class is initiating a subtle ascent. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis, and Kenny Golladay are not dead yet.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
Smith-Schuster’s role is steadily expanding. Over the last three weeks, his snap share climbed from 44.1% to 78.3% to 82.0%, and his routes run escalated from 17 to 28 to 30. Smith-Schuster also scored a touchdown each week over that span. After putting Martavis Bryant in witness protection, he is quickly becoming the ying to Antonio Brown’s yang in Pittsburgh’s passing game.
Completed Air Yards
Yards Per Target
JuJu Smith-Schuster Advanced Efficiency Metrics on PlayerProfiler.com
Smith-Schuster’s increased usage parallels an efficiency spike. Though he just turned 21 years old, Smith-Schuster is now the most efficient receiver in the NFL. In fact, he is the only NFL receiver who ranks in the top-3 in completed air yards as well as PlayerProfiler.com’s signature advanced efficiency metrics: Target Premium and Production Premium.
Looking ahead, Smith-Schuster’s next two opponents are the Titans and Packers, both top-10 in fantasy points allowed to opposing receivers. Get Smith-Schuster lineups in all fantasy formats for the foreseeable future.
Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
While Smith-Schuster loudly announced his arrival to the sports world with buzzworthy touchdown celebrations, Golladay is quietly surging. Recall that Golladay, not Smith-Schuster, was the fantasy world’s most buzzworthy rookie receiver over the summer after numerous preseason splash plays.
After Detroit drafted Golladay in the third round, fantasy gamers zoomed in on his prospect profile, which revealed an exceptional talent. According to some analytical models, Golladay was the best receiver in the 2017 NFL Draft. Golladay is one of a select few receivers with both an 80th percentile College Dominator Rating and Speed Score on PlayerProfiler.com.
Shortly after a monster two-touchdown performance in Week 1 of the regular season, Golladay suffered a serious hamstring injury. He returned in Week 10 after a six-week absence and posted an astronomically efficient 8 yards per route run. More importantly, despite running less than 10 pass routes, Golladay out-targeted Marvin Jones last week.
Fantasy Points Per Game
Marvin Jones-Kenny Golladay 2017 Splits
Jones’ splits with and without Golladay on the field are striking. Golladay’s snap share and routes should continue to rise. As a superior downfield playmaker, he will continue to cannibalize Jones’ target share as the second half progresses. Be sure to add Golladay in leagues where available.
Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans
Don’t forget Corey Davis, perhaps the most exciting rookie receiver. Davis was a mega-producer all four years at the college level, posting a mind-bending 5,278 receiving yards and 52 touchdowns before the Tennessee Titans selected him with a top-10 draft pick.
Like Golladay, he battled hamstring strains throughout the NFL preseason and regular season. Yet, Davis already has two 10-target games on his rookie résumé. This volume is even more impressive in the context of the run-oriented Titans offense.
Corey Davis Recent Role Expansion
As with Smith-Schuster, Davis’ role continues to expand. Last week, he officially relegated Eric Decker strictly to a slot role in three-receiver sets and led the team in targets. Decker logged a 37.5% snap share while Davis was on the field for 91.2% of the Titans offensive plays. Davis also ran more than twice as many pass routes as Decker in week 10.
Looking toward the fantasy playoffs, Davis faces four of the NFL’s most receiver-friendly defenses over the next six weeks.
Titans Schedule Through the Fantasy Football Playoffs
The 6-3 Titans playoff surge coincides with Davis’ ascendance. If Marcus Mariota continues to establish radar lock on his rookie playmaker, it’s wheels up for Davis in fantasy.
While the 2017 rookie receiver class may not end up with huge numbers because of injuries and slow starts, this trio could end up deciding league titles down the stretch.