Each week throughout the season, I’ll cover at least two rookies in the Rookie Report Card and try to always include the biggest performers from that particular week. On top of reviewing my expectations for each player coming into the league and covering how he’s performed at the NFL level to this point, I’ll actually give him a grade in three categories. Those categories are performance to date, 2018 potential and long-term upside.
The series continues as for the first time this year, we take a look at rookies Royce Freeman and Ian Thomas.
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Royce Freeman, RB DEN
Week 17 Stats: 17 carries, 60 rushing yards, eight receptions, 43 yards (10 targets)
Though many dynasty owners and NFL draft analysts saw Freeman as the latest in a string of Oregon Duck weapons to make the jump to making a big impact on Sundays, I had a hard time getting on board with his potential as a full-time pro. Though it was nearly impossible to not be impressed with the numbers he posted for the Ducks that included 6,435 yards from scrimmage and 64 touchdowns as well as his size (6’-0”, 230 pounds), nothing he did in college really made me say: “Wow!”
Sure, Freeman showed good decision-making at the line of scrimmage and a strong cutback to attack running lanes – particularly on inside zone runs – but very little beyond those things made him appear to be special when compared to the other recent runners coming out of college that have made an immediate impact.
With little to offer as a power back, Freeman doesn’t break a lot of tackles. In fact, he goes down far too often at first contact – often by way of an arm tackle. Lacking any means of eluding tackles by way of a stiff arm, spin move or jump cut, he doesn’t appear to have the elusiveness you like to see out of a full-time runner. All this, when combined with pedestrian speed for an NFL tailback (5.54 40-time) along with ho-hum athletic numbers at the Combine, kept me from having any interest in acquiring Freeman when rookie draft season came around – especially considering he had an ADP in the middle of the first round.
As training camp got underway over the summer, many dynasty owners continued to have high expectations as Freeman was averaging 5.6 yards per carry throughout the preseason, scored three times including two 20-plus yarders, and sat out week four of the pre-season which is usually the treatment reserved for only starters and players expected to have a big impact on an offense.
As we all learned, however, it was fellow rookie Phillip Lindsay (who got that same treatment) that was the most explosive player on the Denver offense, however.
Lindsay out-touched Freeman in 13 of the 15 games he was active and the two he didn’t were week three against the Ravens (when he was ejected early) and week 16 against the Raiders (when he left early due to injury). Lindsay was explosive, caught passes and broke tackles consistently through the entire season – something you couldn’t say of Freeman. He was everything the Broncos wanted Freeman to be and more, and relegated Freeman to nearly a full-fledged backup that only saw the field when Lindsay’s touches were getting out of control or to give him a rest when he was tired.
Although I believe Freeman has a place in the NFL, I have a really hard time getting on board with his being a full-time running back. Average speed, little power and a lack of elusiveness make him a replacement level ball carrier and it showed in week 17 when he was given 17 carries and 10 targets, turning into 60 rushing yards (3.5 YPC) and just 43 more yards receiving on eight catches.
Just imagine what Lindsay would have done with that workload.
If I’m a Freeman owner, I’m looking to get whatever value I can out of him. As far as I’m concerned, his value should be on par to that of the third running back on Denver’s depth chart, Devontae Booker, who outproduced him in 2018 in rushing yards per carry as well as in all receiving categories. And we all the what the consensus among most dynasty owners is on him.
Ian Thomas, TE CAR
Week 17 Stats: five catches, 61 yards, one touchdown (seven targets)
Thomas, despite being considered incredibly raw by most who watched him in college, was one of my favorite late round rookie picks this past summer.
Big (6’-4”, 260 pounds) and athletic, he profiled as a developmental tight end with the potential to stretch the field using his above-average speed and become a red-zone weapon due to his size and leaping ability. Although he had a habit of dropping catchable passes from time to time while at Indiana, the sky was the limit for the former Hoosier. And landing in an ideal spot to learn from one of the best tight ends over the last decade was ideal for a player that most thought would need time to learn the position.
With the stigma of being raw and considered a developmental player at a position that typically takes a while to become relevant as a fantasy option, Thomas slid to the fourth and fifth rounds of rookie drafts. He was an afterthought for most and ended up on many of my dynasty rosters.
Outside of a shallow crossing route that turned into a 27-yard catch and run for a touchdown in week two of the preseason, Thomas did little to make an impact or give dynasty owners anything to point to as a sign of things to come. Catching a total of 11 passes for 87-yards over the first 12 weeks of the regular season, his playing time behind Greg Olsen was limited and his opportunities to run routes were nearly none. When Olsen went down with yet another foot injury though, Thomas made the most of his chance.
Since that point, Thomas has been one of the biggest surprises for dynasty owners, catching 25 passes for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While much of that production has come on short crossing routes and on hooks or curls, he’s turned a couple of those opportunities into big plays like on the eight-yard touchdown he caught in the back of the end zone where he simply out-positioned the defender to make the catch against a New Orleans safety in man coverage. He also turned a simple short crosser later in the game into a 31-yard blast down the sideline.
Thomas has made an impact in four of his five games since the injury to Olsen. He’s looked explosive as a route runner, gotten good separation at the top of his routes, and hasn’t looked overmatched at any point.
Despite his role in 2019 being completely up in the air until we know for sure whether Olsen will be back or not, dynasty owners should be thrilled with what they’ve seen from Thomas over the last five weeks. While recent reports have indicated Olsen wants to return for another season, there’s no guarantee that will be the case.
At the very least, Thomas has proven his name belongs among the high upside young tight ends that are waiting to become regulars in starting lineups along with Chris Herndon. He should be valued as a fringe high end TE2 in dynasty leagues over the off-season with the upside to put up TE1 numbers as soon as 2019.
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