Matthew Berry's 10 rookie takeaways: Too low on Kyler Murray?
He's laughing as he says it, but he's nodding.
"Yeah man, I was mad. I told them they had to change it, but they wouldn't budge."
It's May 18 and I am on the field at the historic Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. I'm interviewing Hunter Renfrow, rookie wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders, and after seeing his Madden ratings for first time at the NFL Players Association's annual rookie premiere event, he was upset.
"It's my speed rating, man," he tells me, and I nod understandingly. I had spoken to a few Madden producers earlier and they had mentioned that Renfrow, like many athletes before him, was unhappy with a rating of his, so I asked him about it. "What's the issue?"
"It's too high!" I turn and say, "Yeah, I know it's just ... wait, what?"
Renfrow continued. "Man, they got me at 85. I'm not that fast. I want it lower, like an 82. Come on. Give me something to work up to!"
He laughs, but he is serious. Hunter Renfrow thinks his Madden speed rating is too high.
In all my years of doing this, I have never heard an NFL player complain a rating of his was too high. But then again, it's a weekend of firsts.
That's one of the points of the NFLPA Rookie Premiere, an event that is unique in professional sports. The NFLPA invites 40 of its most marketable rookies to spend three days connecting and working with all of the NFLPA's partners. Their Nike jerseys are revealed for the first time in a cool ceremony Friday night, for example; they take pictures for their Panini trading cards; and, as Renfrow discovered the hard way, they also learn what their rating in the popular EA Sports Madden video game will be.
The weekend also gives me a chance to interview them. I have had a relationship with the NFLPA for many years, and the organization could not be more kind or supportive of me or of fantasy football, in general. As a result, this was my third year being invited and, along with my friends at ACE Media, I sat down on camera with all 40 rookies for one long day in Pasadena. You'll be able to see these interviews and lots of other fun surprises on The Fantasy Show on ESPN+ in our NFLPA Rookie Premiere episode in mid-June and throughout the season.
I learned enough nuggets for a column as well. Keep in mind that at this point in the offseason, players haven't really been with their teams very long. Some have just been at rookie minicamp and haven't even interacted with veterans yet, others are just starting OTAs. It's a mixed bag. And obviously, a lot can change between the middle of May and the start of the regular season.
Finally, I get only 12 minutes with each player (hey, I had 40 guys to get through in one day) so, you know, take all of this with a healthy grain of salt. Enough caveats for you? Good. With that said, my opinion on a lot of players was changed by talking to them, talking to others and, frankly, just seeing them in person. Players are often bigger or smaller than you expected when you see next to you in full pads.
With that, let's dive in. In no particular order, here are 10 fantasy-relevant observations I made on the 2019 rookie class:
1. Murray and Butler quickly developing chemistry
While I was interviewing Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Hakeem Butler, a funny thing happened. Kyler Murray came over and intentionally "ruined" his answer, interrupting Butler and giving him some good-natured, well, you know the word I'd use here if I could. Let's keep it family-friendly and say he gave him some "razzing." Butler wasn't fazed and gave it right back to the quarterback. It was a fun, light-hearted moment, but what struck me is how comfortable they seemed with each other.
I asked Butler about that interaction after Murray left and he just smiled and shrugged. "Well, we're roommates," as if to say, "Duh, Berry." He explained further that a lot of times they don't even talk ball, but just are getting to know each other and that, in a short period of time, they have grown close, a sentiment Kyler echoed to me in a later interview.
Butler relayed a moment that happened in practice when Murray threw a ball high. I later asked Murray about this moment, and here's the story, as I've pieced together from both sides. Murray told me he threw a ball and right away he knew he had thrown it too high, and was getting mad at himself when all of a sudden, Butler came down with it.
Butler told me Murray apologized to him that night for the "bad ball," but Butler shrugged him off. It's a play that not only can he make, he expects to make it. He told Murray he thought nothing was wrong on the ball ... he figured Murray was just putting it in a place to avoid the defender and let Butler "go up and make a play."
Murray told me later how excited he's been, as he's never had a WR the size of Butler (he's 6-foot-6, 225 pounds). From Butler's point of view, using his body, size and winning those 50-50 balls is an important aspect of his game, something he's been working on with Calvin Johnson.
Do you need me to pick up that name I just dropped? Butler has been working out with Megatron himself, learning how to use his big frame and speed in the most effective ways. Clearly, he has already caught Murray's attention.
I met a lot of teammates: college guys who now play on different NFL teams and current pro teammates. All of them said the right things, of course, but none of them was as effusive and seemed as genuinely happy about the other than Kyler Murray and Hakeem Butler.
2. Rookie wideouts leaning on veterans
Quick hitter here, but as long as we are talking about Calvin Johnson, he also spent some time working out with Miles Boykin of the Ravens (6-foot-4, 200 pounds, 9⅞-inch hands). In fact, that was one theme that kept coming up over the course of the weekend. The influence of veterans.
In addition to Butler and Boykin both mentioning Johnson, Marquise Brown mentioned working out with Antonio Brown, JJ Arcega-Whiteside discussed being mentored by Steve Smith, Parris Campbell told me about his well-known relationship with LeBron James, and two guys (Riley Ridley and Nick Bosa) discussed the influence and support they've gotten from their older, current NFL-playing brothers (Calvin Ridley and Joey Bosa, respectively).
One final thing on Boykin. The interview itself wasn't very revealing -- he's been with the team less than two weeks, and the Ravens are likely going to be very run-heavy -- but for whatever it's worth, man did I like Boykin's personality. Really smart, charming and thoughtful. I'm definitely a much bigger fan after having met him. One of my favorite interviews, and I had a lot of them that I really liked. (Overall, this is a very personable rookie class this year.)
3. Josh Jacobs: Offensive rookie of the year?
I don't think it's any shock that the expectation is that Josh Jacobs will be used a lot. But I was surprised when, after I asked Jacobs about his expected passing-game usage with the Oakland Raiders, he told me he's been lining up in the slot and even outside. "Oh yeah," he said after I gave him a look. "They got me all over the place." Jacobs told me that coaches have told him they expect him to be in the offensive rookie of the year conversation because of how much they are going to place on him.
4. Henderson a must-handcuff for those who roster Gurley
When I read the ESPN Fantasy projection for Los Angeles Rams rookie running back Darrell Henderson (428 rushing yards, 67 receiving yards, 2 total TDs), he immediately shook his head and said we were too low. I asked him why and he just shrugged matter-of-factly, mentioning he knew how the Rams were going to use him and how good the offense and offensive line were. Now, in fairness, after I started asking him for more specifics he backed off, saying it was early and that he meant he hoped he would get lots of opportunity, but that he just wanted to help the Rams win. I took that as maybe him feeling he said too much and was trying to walk it back.
Henderson did make a point earlier in the interview of saying Todd Gurley has been very supportive of him and that the star running back reached out the day after the draft. My feelings about Henderson are based way more on game tape and sources than anything, but certainly my conversation with Henderson helped solidify this opinion: Anyone who drafts Gurley needs to make absolutely sure they have Darrell Henderson on their team. And yes, I know the Rams brought back Malcolm Brown (whom I also like). Henderson is a sleeper whose stock will continue to rise all offseason.
5. Mattison a late-round consideration
I asked Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison about whether he was brought in to be more of a complement or a backup, and he said complement. Although he acknowledged that it's a crowded and talented running back room, his expectation is that he will be used a decent amount, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Given Dalvin Cook's injury history, if the depth chart shakes out as Mattison suspects (and I agree with him), he will be a very intriguing later-round RB to target.
6. Bullish on Irv Smith Jr.'s long-term value
Let's stay in Minnesota, where rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. jumped in my dynasty ranks with one simple answer. I casually asked him if he had spoken to Kirk Cousins yet. "Oh yeah," he said, "Kirk told me I remind him of Jordan Reed." Smith said they've talked about how much success Cousins had with Reed in Washington and how they (Cousins and Smith) could try to emulate that success. As of this writing, Kyle Rudolph is still there and it will be a run-heavy offense, but still, Smith's dynasty stock is rising.
7. Haskins impressive as a future asset
Dwayne Haskins is big, man. It's sometimes hard to tell when you see someone on TV, but I'm a reasonably tall person. I'm 6-foot and 195 pounds or so. Not a giant, I know, but I rarely look out of place when surrounded by former athletes on TV at ESPN. And man, Haskins just towered over me. Officially he's listed as 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds, but he seemed even bigger to me. He's going to be tough to bring down in the pros. He said all the right things in our interview -- doesn't care whether he starts Week 1, Week 6 or some future season, he just wants to help the Redskins win, and so on.
But more than what he said was how he acted. He came by both of my interviews with Redskins teammates Terry McLaurin and Bryce Love to show a little support for both guys. And both guys, separately, said of Haskins that that's just how he is. A natural leader and a guy who makes sure everyone feels included. McLaurin said it's been exciting to continue their relationship at the pro level after starring together at Ohio State.
"Him just knowing where I set up in a zone, where I like the ball, when to throw it to me," McLaurin said.
I ultimately think the Redskins are going to be very run-heavy this season and whoever is the QB won't be a fantasy asset, except in the deepest leagues. But as a Redskins fan, I was thrilled when the team selected Haskins and everything I saw and heard from (and about) him last weekend only solidified it for me. He's someone who should have nice dynasty value.
8. Campbell should thrive in Indy
The praise for Haskins didn't come only from his current Redskins teammates. It also came from Colts rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell, another of Haskins' favorite targets at Ohio State. Campbell discussed the leadership qualities Haskins has and how he can make all the throws, hitting you exactly on the shoulder you want.
It was a two-way street of love and respect, as when I asked Haskins what Andrew Luck was getting in Campbell, Haskins talked about his playmaking, speed and ability to win at any place on the field.
Now, I've interviewed players before that I really liked and it hasn't translated to fantasy success -- I mean, my favorite interview the past three years is probably Philly's Mack Hollins in 2017 -- but for what it's worth, I loved Campbell and, from what I know of Luck (and I've met him once), I think they will get along famously.
9. Shanahan should make the most of Samuel's skill set
When I asked San Francisco wide receiver Deebo Samuel if the coaching staff had told him where the 49ers saw him in this offense, he nodded and cut me off. "X. I'm gonna play the X." Now, as our own X's and O's guru Matt Bowen notes, "Kyle Shanahan is very diverse with his formations. He will move guys around based on opponent and matchup." Matt said his scouting of Samuel leads him to believe Samuel could play the X, Z or the slot, adding, "This could be a situation when Kyle wants him to learn one spot during spring workouts. Show you can do that -- alignment and assignment -- and then the coach starts to build out from there ... Z, slot etc."
So lots of caveats there. And I bring all that up because among the players who have played a lot of "X" for Kyle Shanahan over the years are Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Pierre Garcon in his career-best season and Dante Pettis for a good chunk of last season. If Samuel is playing the "X" for Shanahan, even in a part-time situation, I'm interested.
10. I am probably too low on Kyler Murray
I spoke of Kyler Murray earlier in the Hakeem Butler section, but wanted to focus solely on Murray here. Both Butler and Andy Isabella (another Cardinals draftee who was also at the rookie premiere) raved about Murray's accuracy in practice. But the thing I found most interesting was his reaction to his ESPN projection. Most players (with the exception of the aforementioned Renfrow, of course) took the over on their projection or just said, "Sounds good to me, I'm just trying to help the team win, blah, blah, blah."
But Murray was shocked and upset when I told him we were projecting a line that read 3,798 passing yards, 22 TDs, 14 INTs and 100 carries for 558 yards and three more touchdowns. He looked at me as if I read it wrong. "A 22-to-14 TD-interception rate?" he said shaking his head. Clearly, he does not think he will come close to that high a turnover rate.
The other part of his projection he thought was crazy was 100 rushing attempts. He thought he'd be way over that. I asked him if he expected a lot of designed runs. I said we knew he'd have a lot of scrambles on broken plays, but was he hoping for more designed run calls? He said no, "not with the guys in this league."
But even with that lack of desire for designed runs he thought, over a 16-game season, 100 rushing attempts was too low. I have Kyler as the No. 14 QB right now and I'm likely too low.
We will have much more from the event in the specific NFLPA Rookie Premiere episode of The Fantasy Show on ESPN+. I think you will find it very informative to see how the players answered my many questions, hear their tone and take note of their mannerisms. There are a lot of guys we didn't have space for in this column who will be covered on the show, such as David Montgomery of the Bears, DK Metcalf of the Seahawks, A.J. Brown of the Titans, tight ends T.J. Hockenson (Lions) and Noah Fant (Broncos) and many others. So be sure to tune into that.
And with that, enjoy the holiday weekend!
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- also thinks his speed rating is too high. He is the 2017 FSTA Fantasy Football Analyst of the Year and the creator of RotoPass.com and RotoPassDaily.com. He is also one of the owners of the Fantasy Life app and FantasyLife.com.