Monday, August 8, 2011

Rookie prospects even dimmer than usual

With all the hype and breathless reporting that greet rookie classes at the beginning of each NFL season, you’d think they would have a greater impact on fantasy leagues. Yet over the past two seasons, you could count the true difference-makers among the first-year players on one hand.

In 2009, Knowshon Moreno and Percy Harvin were solid, if unspectacular, fantasy contributors. Last year, Tampa Bay gave us LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams, the only rookies worthy of a regular starting role on a fantasy contender.

The pro game is simply too fast, too complex and too long for most newcomers to master in one season. And that’s in a typical year, with a full offseason of training camps, OTAs and class time to prepare.

As we know all too well, this is no typical season; so we’d be wise to lower our expectations accordingly.

Remember that when evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie, talent is rarely the decisive factor. More relevant is the opportunity presented to the player, which is also a multi-faceted equation.

Does the newcomer have a clear path to a starting gig? 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?

With those caveats in mind, let’s examine the members of the Class of 2011 with the best opportunities to shine in their inaugural seasons.

Mark Ingram, RB, Saints. The table is set for no rookie like the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Ingram is a battering ram with outstanding vision and sure hands, and what he lacks in speed he makes up for in tackle-busting ability. He should become an instant starter and goal-line beast in New Orleans’ high-octane offense. The oft-injured Pierre Thomas is coming off ankle surgery and is unlikely to impede the rookie’s path to stardom.

Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins. Until Reggie Bush landed in South Beach, Thomas had the Miami backfield all to himself. But the rookie from Kansas State was drafted to be a workhorse, not a passing-game threat like Bush. Thomas’ upside will be limited more by the Dolphins’ offensive struggles than a competition for carries.

Julio Jones, WR, Falcons. Atlanta paid dearly to draft him, so he will be given every opportunity to excel. Jones has all the tools to develop into a superstar, including an up-and-coming quarterback and a prolific offense in dire need of a dynamic complement to elite wideout Roddy White. He’d make a great fantasy WR4 or WR5, but he’ll probably be drafted too high.

Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals. Tim Hightower is a Redskin and Beanie Wells has failed to seize the workhorse role envisioned when he was drafted in 2009. Enter Williams, a big-play threat with the potential to jumpstart the league’s worst rushing attack. Look for the rookie from Virginia Tech to share carries with Wells early on, with the balance shifting Williams’ way as the season wears on, especially if the veteran succumbs to yet another injury.

Alex Henery, K, Eagles. David Akers has been an elite fantasy kicker for years, thanks to Philly’s high-scoring offense. But he left for San Francisco in free agency, leaving the plum assignment to Henery, who set an NCAA record for career field-goal accuracy (89.5%) at Nebraska. Grab him late and reap the rewards.

A.J. Green, WR, Bengals. He has everything you want in a top-flight receiver, except an experienced quarterback to feed him the ball. Green’s combination of size (6-4, 211 pounds), quickness, crisp route running and outstanding hands will likely be squandered until Andy Dalton gets up to speed.

Look, but don’t touch

DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys. Felix Jones enters his fourth season as a tenuous starter at best. Murray, the explosive rookie from Oklahoma, will have an opportunity to seize the role over time, but a bum hamstring during training camp is doing little to dispel his injury-prone label.

Delone Carter, RB, Colts. Donald Brown will begin the season as Joseph Addai’s primary backup. Carter will likely finish the season there.

Greg Little, WR, Browns. The physically gifted wideout instantly becomes the best receiver in Cleveland. If he and Colt McCoy can develop a strong rapport, Little could offer some late-season value. More likely, he won’t be worth a roster spot until 2012.

Cam Newton, QB, Panthers. On the plus side, he will likely be the Day One starter. On the down side, well, is everything else. Carolina is in rebuilding mode (a nice way of saying they were the NFL’s worst team in 2010), and Newton arrives bereft of experience in the pro-style offense. His transition will surely be ugly at times.

Next week: We’ll dissect the fallout from the recent free agency frenzy.

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