Monday, August 17, 2009

Preseason column #2: Rookies deserve fantasy love, too

The 2008 fantasy season was notable for many reasons, but none more so than the impact made by its outstanding rookie class.

Matt Forte and Steve Slaton were the brightest stars of the group, finishing the 2008 season among the Top 10 performers at the prized running back position. Chris Johnson very nearly made it a rookie trifecta, coming in at No. 11, and Kevin Smith chimed in at No. 18.

In all, no fewer than 13 first-year backs took their turns in the fantasy spotlight throughout the season, from consistent contributors like Jonathan Stewart to one-hit-wonders such as BenJarvis Green-Ellis. And were it not for injuries, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones may have lined up alongside their classmates in the Top 20.

Two freshman wide receivers joined in on the fun, with Eddie Royal squeaking into the Top 20 and DeSean Jackson not far behind. John Carlson cracked the Top 10 among tight ends, while Dustin Keller quietly posted Top 15 fantasy stats.

Even quarterbacks Matt Ryan – and to a lesser extent, Joe Flacco – made more than a blip on the fantasy radar, with each among the Top 20 performers at their position by year’s end.

While we would be foolish to expect another bumper crop of rookie stars in consecutive years, it’s clear that the NFL is no longer an exclusive fraternity that expects its freshman recruits to fetch water for the veterans at practice and watch from the sidelines on game day.

Several rookies will be expected to step up immediately to upgrade a position of weakness on their teams. Others will undoubtedly be pressed into action ahead of schedule due to injuries or poor play by the veterans ahead of them.

So it behooves every fantasy owner to look closely at the new faces on the fantasy landscape and consider selecting one or two for your squad. After all, Forte and Slaton were instrumental in countless title runs in 2008, and other rising stars are just waiting for their chance to be the next rookie sensation.

Here are the members of the Class of 2009 who I expect to contribute significantly during their inaugural seasons, in order of importance.

Chris “Beanie” Wells, RB, Cardinals – Am I crazy to include him among the Top 10 in my running back rankings? Like a fox! Wells gives Arizona the prolific running threat they so desperately need, and the rookie will benefit from wide-open running lanes left by opposing defenses committed to reining in Kurt Warner & Company. The team knows what Tim Hightower brings to the table, which is why the NFC champions invested their first-round pick in Wells. He'll be the cream of the 2009 crop of runners and, best of all, you can get him as late as the fifth or sixth round!

Knowshon Moreno, RB, Broncos – Another first-round selection in April’s NFL draft, Moreno offers similar upside to Wells and will be the first rookie taken in most leagues. But bear in mind that Moreno not only must compete against veteran free-agents Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan, but Denver hasn’t produced a Top 25 fantasy rusher since 2005 (Mike Anderson). The diminished passing threat posed by Kyle Orton won’t help.

Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings – Mark my words: Harvin will be the top rookie receiver of '09. Not only should he develop into the team’s top receiving threat before long, but he’ll amass fantasy points as a runner, a kick returner and even as a wildcat quarterback. You’ll be starting him as your WR3 by October.

Donald Brown, RB, Colts – Expected to contribute immediately as Joseph Addai’s understudy, Brown could conceivably take over the starting job should the veteran stumble out of the gates. He should be drafted primarily as Addai’s handcuff, but don’t be surprised if he emerges as an every-week contributor by midseason.

Brian Robiskie, WR, Browns – Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Robiskie is both, having been selected in the second round out of Ohio State and cast into a wide-open competition for a starting gig opposite Braylon Edwards. The rookie isn’t a game-breaking threat, but rather a solid possession receiver with excellent football smarts. He should be starting by Week 1.

LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles – Philly’s second-round draft pick is considered an ideal complement to star tailback Brian Westbrook, and he’s exceeding his coaches’ lofty expectations in training camp while the starter has been rehabbing an ankle injury. McCoy will be fantasy gold should the injury-prone Westbrook miss real playing time, so the two backs should be handcuffed at all costs.

Jeremy Maclin, WR, Eagles – Rookie wideouts are notoriously slow starters, but Maclin could very well match DeSean Jackson's impressive rookie stats by year's end. He should supplant the injury-prone Kevin Curtis as a starter in Philly’s high-octane offense in short order. Maclin is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, which could be early and often with Donovan McNabb at the controls.

Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions – He’s running neck-and-neck with Daunte Culpepper in camp, and could be starting by Week 1. Stafford has the potential to excel out of the gates with the help of the other-worldly Calvin Johnson. Don’t draft him, and don’t expect Ryan-type numbers from him; but Stafford could emerge as a decent bye-week fill-in should the Lions’ offense start clicking.

Shonn Greene, RB, Jets – Barring an injury to AFC rushing champ Thomas Jones or his electrifying backup Leon Washington, Greene is unlikely to be a consistent fantasy performer in his rookie season. But things change fast in the NFL, and Greene is one of those game-breaking players with the skills to contribute right away given the opportunity.

Where art thou, Michael Crabtree? That’s the same question voiced by 49ers coaches and fans alike. Whether the promising rookie ends his holdout soon or not, he’s missed invaluable practice reps and will struggle to make an impact during his rookie season. Let someone else waste a pick on the diva, who will also have to contend with an unstable quarterback situation when, or if, he decides to report to the team.

Next Monday: A look at my Top 10 Sleepers of 2009.

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