Fantasy Football: Which Cardinals Rookie Receiver Should You Target in Best-Ball Drafts?
The Arizona Cardinals' offensive roster looks almost nothing like the one we saw in 2018. It's possible we've never seen an NFL team attempt such a comprehensive overhaul of its offense in a single offseason, and that's exciting.
The root of this excitement starts from the top, with the hire of offensive-minded head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury's offenses were often among the best in college football, and six of those teams led the league in offensive snaps taken -- a stark contrast to the near-league-bottom play volume in Arizona the past couple of years. And as numberFire's own Kyle Dvorchak noted, Kingsbury's offenses called pass plays 60.1% of the time, on average, one of the highest rates in college football.
Kingsbury's penchant for the passing game is particularly exciting in conjunction with the team's new quarterback, Kyler Murray. Though it was in an understandably limited sample size -- he played behind Baker Mayfield for the Oklahoma Sooners -- Murray was dominant in college and posted a truly elite 2018 season, averaging a ludicrous 13.0 adjusted yards per pass attempt. He was an elite statistical draft prospect, and he graded out as ProFootballFocus' top quarterback prospect this year, rivaling Mayfield's top-notch passing grades from the previous two years while adding on 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
The Cards didn't stop their overhaul there, either. They added three rookie wide receivers in the 2019 NFL Draft, as well -- Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson. And if you're looking for an edge in best-ball drafts this year, these are names to know.
When we think of the Cardinals' offense over the past couple years, we don't exactly associate it with abundance. But Kingsbury's aggressive play-calling and Murray's elite college production could create a radically different -- and better -- situation for the team in 2019. There's a reason I recommended taking the over on FanDuel Sportsbook on Murray's prop bets earlier this offseason.
If the Cardinals' offense lives up to expectations, there's potential for a third pass-catcher to provide real value during the 2019 season behind Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, whom I think are both strong values at their current prices. After those two, though, there aren't many other proven pass-catchers on the team's roster. Are we really worried about a Kevin White breakout?
Fitzgerald has accounted for an average of 24.3% of the Cardinals' targets over the past three seasons. David Johnson averaged an 18% target share in that span, including his elite 2016 pass-game usage and his disappointing 2018 usage. And Kirk managed a solid 19% target share in his rookie season, and he can be expected to earn a larger share if he does enjoy a breakout sophomore campaign.
Even assuming a Kirk step up and that Johnson returns to his Arians-era dominance, that still leaves a significant percentage of the team's total targets available for the newcomers. That's appealing, especially for best-ball, when you don't have to pick when to start them, since they may not see steady week-to-week usage, making their pop weeks hard to predict. And given Kingsbury's past usage of wideout-heavy sets -- and his assurances that he intends to continue using them in the NFL -- there should be even more snaps up for grabs for the young receivers than we'd expect in a typical NFL offense.
The best part? Each of these rookies are virtually free in best-ball drafts right now. Andy Isabella currently has the highest average draft position (ADP) of the bunch at 160.1, per Draft.com's ADP data, making him a 13th-round pick in 12-team leagues. Butler and Johnson come off the board after the 200th pick, on average. If you want any of these players, they're yours. And a case can be made for any of them.
The Speed Demon
Draft capital can be a boon for a receiver's early opportunities -- organizations want to see the players they drafted highly succeed and will mostly have patience in giving them chances to do so. That would put 2019 second-rounder Isabella a step ahead of the other rookies. The team selected Butler with the very first pick of the third day of the draft. And lastly, Arizona selected Johnson with the first pick of the sixth round of the draft.
Isabella may receive the most opportunities among this cohort of receivers -- at least early on -- due to his high draft capital. He was the eighth wide receiver selected in this year's draft, and for good reason, too. He had the highest market share of his college team's receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns among drafted wide receivers this year while leading the nation in receiving yards. Two of the more predictive indicators we can look at when projecting wide receivers from the college game to the NFL are their collegiate production and the age at which they started to produce like a stud -- the earlier the better. Isabella checks both of these boxes.
Unfortunately, Isabella put up his video-game numbers against weaker competition than most of his peers. Playing at Massachusetts, he didn't face many top-notch opponents, so Isabella's huge numbers aren't quite as impressive. He did post a monster game against the Georgia Bulldogs, but most of his 219 yards and both of his scores during that game came after the Bulldogs had virtually cemented their eventual 66-27 victory.
Still, from a pure production standpoint, Isabella did everything you could hope for as a college receiver, and the Cardinals believed in him -- and his 4.31 speed -- enough to draft him in the second round.
The Not-So-Gentle Giant
Hakeem Butler also produced like a stud in college, racking up 1,318 receiving yards and 9 scores in his final season -- good for slightly more than 42% of the Iowa State Cyclones receiving yardage and a whopping 45% of their receiving touchdowns.
Butler's shocking combination of size and speed -- his 4.48-second 40-yard dash and 6'5", 227-pound frame were good for a 97th-percentile speed score -- showed up on the stat sheet with his elite efficiency. He averaged 22 yards per reception in 2018, the highest rate among receivers drafted in 2019. His senior season was so explosive that some of the top film analysts around -- Thor Nystrom, Josh Norris and Matt Waldman -- had him ranked as their top wideout prospect during the pre-draft process.
And as Norris has noted since the draft, Butler's fourth-round draft capital might not be as disappointing as it looks on paper. He was the first pick of the third day of the draft -- the most valuable pick of the entire day. The Cardinals had an entire night to field trade offers for that pick and to deliberate between the vast pool of remaining players. They decided that drafting Butler was the best way to make use of that pick. It might not have the same clout as Isabella's second-round capital, but Butler has more draft capital than we might think at a glance.
The biggest knock on Butler is that he didn't produce the impressive numbers or highlight-worthy film until his senior season. As mentioned above with Isabella, future NFL studs produce from an early age in college. Butler couldn't do that despite having 2018 UDFA Allen Lazard as his chief competition for targets on the Cyclones. Butler redshirted his freshman season, then caught just nine passes as a sophomore. He broke out in his junior season but was outshone by Lazard that year.
We should be concerned that Butler could not surpass a future-UDFA on his team's target totem pole, but his final season was impressive enough to assuage some of those concerns.
Johnson has the least draft capital, but according to early beat reports, he's had the strongest offseason of any of the new rookie receivers. Keep in mind that it's still June, and Week 1 is a long way away, but it's good to see the youngster start well despite his lower draft capital.
Johnson boasts an impressive analytical profile, too. While he doesn't have the speed or athleticism of Butler or Isabella, he produced like a stud from an early age for the Fresno State Bulldogs -- enough so to surpass Davante Adams on his way to becoming the school's all-time leader in career receiving yards. He posted an impressive 35.7% dominator rating, according to PlayerProfiler.com, which qualified as a 69th-percentile score, and broke out for the team at age 19 -- a 68th-percentile breakout age. Metrics like these made Johnson an underground favorite among some analysts in the dynasty fantasy football community.
Speed was one of the big concerns for Johnson during the pre-draft process, and his 4.60 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine did little to help. He significantly improved on many of his athletic testing numbers at Fresno State's Pro Day, though players often do perform better at Pro Days. Offseason reports have been glowing for Johnson, even emphasizing that his "play speed is incredibly fast" during the Cardinals' minicamp. However, offseason reports based on practices need to be taken with a grain of salt, so we should consider this more of a nice sidenote than an actionable endorsement.
Still, Johnson's analytic profile indicates that he could be an asset in the NFL -- and for fantasy -- if he's given opportunities come the regular NFL season. He may not have the athleticism or draft capital of his teammates, but he's not as much of a long shot as he may seem.
But Who Should We Draft?
Given everything we covered above, it seems clear why Andy Isabella's ADP is so much higher than his teammate's -- elite college production from a young age coupled with his early-round draft capital and big-time athleticism. He'll likely get the first crack at a starting job due to his draft capital, and he even looks the part of the kinds of receivers Kingsbury's offenses have run through in the past. I would highly advocate for taking Isabella at his current draft price in your best-ball drafts, particularly if you already missed out on Christian Kirk or Larry Fitzgerald earlier in the draft.
But what if someone else nabs Isabella first? In the best-ball format, players who can produce a couple weeks of spiked potential are more valuable than they would be in traditional fantasy leagues. In the later rounds of best-ball drafts -- where you can take Butler or Johnson at your leisure -- you should be targeting players who have the potential to put together a few big outings. Between those two guys, Butler's high-end athleticism and size give him an edge over the smaller and slower Johnson, despite Johnson's consistent and impressive production in college.
The 2019 Cardinals' offense is going to be unrecognizable compared to the 2018 version of the unit, and situations with the most year-to-year change present some of the best opportunities for value in your fantasy leagues. Every receiver who makes this final roster come September is going to be worth consideration for fantasy, and the rookies could be some of the best values at their current ADPs.