Monday, August 16, 2010

Rookies: Talent + Opportunity = Fantasy Stardom

When evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie class, talent is but one salient factor. Equally important is the opportunity afforded each individual, which is also a multi-faceted equation.

Does the newcomer have a clear path to substantial playing time? Will he join a high-powered offense, or one whose punter is its most lethal weapon? Is he healthy heading into the season, or has he missed invaluable preseason reps due to nagging injuries?

Many of us fondly recall the 2008 rookie class, whose members were instrumental in our fantasy title runs. Matt Forte, Steve Slaton and Chris Johnson highlighted a bumper crop of first-year tailbacks, while Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson vaulted up the wide receiver rankings. John Carlson and Dustin Keller made waves at tight end, and even Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco proved to be valuable relief pitchers.

(It’s interesting to note that of the above, only Johnson and Jackson followed up with stellar sophomore campaigns. Keep that in mind when casting your lot with this year’s second-year stars.)

The Class of 2009, in contrast, was rather disappointing. Just one player at each position cracked the year-end Top 25 rankings – Mark Sanchez (24), Knowshon Moreno (17), Percy Harvin (25) and Brandon Pettigrew (25). As a result, rookies played little, if any, role in the vast majority of last season’s fantasy championships.

Don’t be surprised, though, if the pendulum swings back, as several NFL clubs are banking on significant contributions from first-year players. Here are the members of the Class of 2010 that I project to make a note-worthy impact during their inaugural seasons, in order of importance.

Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers. Rarely has the 12th overall draft pick wound up in such an ideal situation. Mathews immediately steps into the shoes of future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, in a high-octane offense perfectly suited to his strengths. An every-down back with good hands and the size needed for goal-line work, don’t be surprised to see Mathews flirting with the Top 5 fantasy ranks by season’s end.

C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills. What a difference a day makes. With both Fred Jackson (hand) and Marshawn Lynch (ankle) expected to miss 3-4 weeks with injuries suffered Saturday, the ninth-overall draft pick vaults near the top of the hot rookie list. Despite getting little air cover from Buffalo’s passing attack, Bills rushers have managed to be decent fantasy performers. Spiller, who many see as a Reggie Bush clone, could seize the starting job and never look back.

Jahvid Best, RB, Lions. Best is another explosive back who strolls into a starting job. He is fully expected to be Detroit’s workhorse this season, but a history of concussions from his senior year in college could haunt him. The Lions’ infrequent visits to the red zone may prove to be an even greater worry for Best’s fantasy owners.

Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys. The most talented receiver in this year’s draft could miss the entire preseason due to an ankle injury, but Dallas hopes he’ll be on the field by Opening Day. Like most rookie wideouts, Bryant will need time to adjust to the NFL; but few think Roy Williams will keep him out of the starting lineup for long. If he can develop a rapport with Tony Romo quickly, Bryant could be a force by mid-season.

Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers. By all accounts, the fourth-rounder out of Syracuse has seized a starting job while turning heads throughout the offseason. He is well ahead of fellow rookie wideout Arrelious Benn, drafted two rounds earlier; and Williams has stated his personal goal is to be Rookie of the Year. Little is expected of the Bucs’ passing attack, led by second-year QB Josh Freeman; but Williams is worth a late-round flier simply due to his soft hands and breakaway speed.

Dexter McCluster, WR, Chiefs. He will be Kansas City’s version of Percy Harvin. Officially listed as a receiver, he’ll also see time at tailback and even possibly as a wildcat QB. A threat to score from anywhere on the field, the Chiefs will look to get McCluster involved as often as possible, especially when playing from behind (which should be often).

Montario Hardesty, RB, Browns. If Jerome Harrison can’t replicate his 2009 year-end heroics, this rookie will get a chance to audition. Until then, he’s a handcuff with upside, mired in an offense that rarely lights up the scoreboard.

Toby Gerhart, RB, Vikings. Remember how I always hounded you to handcuff Chester Taylor to Adrian Peterson? Gerhart is now the guy to grab near the end of your draft, especially if you’re lucky enough to select Peterson first. He’s a bruising runner with excellent size, but he’s strictly AP insurance for fantasy owners.

Look, but don’t touch

Sam Bradford, QB, Rams. If talent plus opportunity equals fantasy stardom, what does talent without opportunity equal? In Bradford’s case, it means “see you in 2011, if you’re lucky.”

Ben Tate, RB, Texans. A severe ankle injury could cost him his rookie campaign, which is a pity since he would have competed for significant playing time in Houston’s backfield. If he avoids injured reserve and returns later in the season, he could be a valuable free agent pickup.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos. Chronic foot problems are costing Thomas valuable preseason reps. The first receiver taken in the 2010 draft would slide smoothly into the starting lineup if he could simply stay healthy. Perhaps by mid-season he’ll be worth a roster spot.

Arrelious Benn, WR, Buccaneers. Like Thomas, Benn’s first name is unnecessarily complicated; so right there I have a problem with him. Also, it’s hard to imagine two Bucs wideouts having fantasy relevance in their first year. Williams is the guy to draft; Benn’s value is probably limited to keeper leagues.

Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals. When, not if, he is named Cincinnati’s starting tight end, Gresham could develop into a viable fantasy backup. He’ll have to fight for Carson Palmer’s attention, but he’d be an intriguing red-zone target, with the Bengals’ flashier wideouts drawing most of opposing defenses’ attention.

Aaron Hernandez, TE, Patriots. Many observers believe Hernandez has the best hands of the Pats’ tight ends – which include current starter Alge Crumpler and fellow rookie Rob Gronkowski. If he gets the chance to prove it, Tom Brady could make Hernandez a star. Keep him in your peripheral vision.

Next Monday: The top sleepers of 2010.

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