Most seasons, your best bet when assessing the fantasy prospects of a rookie class is to focus on the running backs. First-year quarterbacks should be avoided like the plague, or synchronized swimming. Rookie receivers occasionally achieve fantasy stardom, but it usually takes them a while to ramp up.
Last season was no ordinary season. Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas, the cream of the 2011 running back crop. The top performer at the position was Roy Helu, who scraped his way into the Top 30 thanks to a late-season surge.
Meanwhile, Cam Newton served notice that his transition from college would be seamless, with a colossal 422-yard, three-total-touchdown debut. A.J. Green reeled in a 41-yard TD on his first reception, and added 124 yards and another score in Week 2. Julio Jones topped 100 yards receiving in three of his first six games as a Falcon.
Those results were all the more shocking given the lockout-shortened offseason and abbreviated training camps.
So what are we to make of this year’s freshmen prospects? Will we see a return to ground-based normalcy, or perhaps more aerial fireworks from the most highly touted pair of rookie passers to enter the NFL in years? Are any receivers worth a late-round flier?
Remember that when evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie, talent is rarely the most 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 these caveats in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2012 and determine which players have the best opportunities to shine in their inaugural seasons, and which are best kept on the back burner.
Give them their due
Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins. Newton forever raised the bar, and the pressure, on rookie quarterbacks to perform at a high level, even when they join lousy teams. Like Newton, RG3 will be as dangerous on the run as he is when passing, so he should pad his fantasy value with rushing scores. Don’t expect him to put up record-setting passing numbers out of the gate, but Griffin is clearly poised for early stardom.
Trent Richardson, RB, Browns. Until he underwent a “minor” arthroscopic procedure on his left knee, Richardson was soaring to ridiculous heights on mock draft boards. Though the Browns are optimistic the draft’s third overall pick will be ready for the season opener, the red flags are flapping briskly in Cleveland. Keep in mind, this was the rookie’s second left knee surgery in six months, he’s joining one of the NFL’s lowest-scoring offenses and he’ll enter the season without the benefit of any preseason reps. Sure, Richardson has an elite skill set and a stranglehold on the starting job, but don’t be shocked if it takes him some time to become a fantasy force.
Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers. Those searching for value in this rookie class would be wise to look south, where the former Boise State star is poised to secure a starting job in a healthier offense. Only LeGarrette Blount stands in his way; but Martin, a physical runner with excellent receiving skills, already appears to have landed the lead role.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos. With Knowshon Moreno steadily underperforming his way out of Denver, Hillman is expected to be the primary backup to Willis McGahee, one of the least secure starting backs in the league. The rookie should assume third-down duties early on, but don’t be surprised if he slowly supplants McGahee as the Broncos’ primary backfield threat. Hillman has drawn comparisons to the multi-talented Darren Sproles, so his ceiling is high with Peyton Manning under center.
David Wilson, RB, Giants. Now that Brandon Jacobs is a 49er, the understudy role to Ahmad Bradshaw is wide open. The first-round pick from Virginia Tech is a talented runner with a history of fumbling problems at the collegiate level. That won’t fly in the NFL, but the Giants have fixed those problems before (see Barber, Tiki). Wilson will get his chances to shine, and with Bradshaw’s injury history, the rookie may get more than just a token look.
Isaiah Pead, RB, Rams. If you draft Steven Jackson, Pead should be one of your final selections. Drafted to be Jackson’s heir apparent, the rookie will start off as the team’s change-of-pace back. But keep in mind, Jackson has played all 16 games just twice in his eight-year career. Pead is a good bet to start a game or two, at a minimum, in his first season.
Look, but don’t touch
Andrew Luck, QB, Colts. He’ll start from day one for a humbled team in desperate need of offensive firepower. Luck seems destined for greatness, but it will take him longer to achieve fantasy relevance than fellow draftee Griffin, simply because he doesn’t figure to score much as a rusher. An aging Reggie Wayne and concussion-prone Austin Collie may also limit his upside in his rookie season.
Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns. The starting quarterback for the Browns wouldn’t be draft-worthy even if he wasn’t a rookie. Maybe next year, big fella. Then again, probably not.
Robert Turbin, RB, Seahawks. It now appears that Marshawn Lynch won’t face suspension this season for his recent DUI arrest, so Turbin’s impact in 2012 will be limited, barring an injury to the starter. He’s a handcuff to Lynch at best.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jaguars. On the plus side, Blackmon is a supremely talented athlete with good hands and tons of upside. Then there are the negatives: A second DUI arrest in June that could yield a season-opening suspension, a run-centric offense plagued by erratic quarterback play, and the arrival of red-zone beast Laurent Robinson. As he and Blaine Gabbert build their chemistry during the season, Blackmon may offer the occasional stellar outing. But true fantasy viability is likely a year or more away.
Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals. You’d think lining up opposite Larry Fitzgerald would provide plenty of opportunities for significant production; yet that hasn’t proven true since Anquan Boldin left for the Ravens. Though still listed behind Andre Roberts on the depth chart, Floyd is expected to win the starting job sooner than later. The rookie has a history of off-field issues, but his greatest obstacle could prove to be dismal quarterbacking.
Kendall Wright, WR, Titans. Griffin’s favorite target at Baylor should be scooped up in dynasty leagues, but don’t count on Wright to offer any consistency in his rookie year. It will take him some time to work his way up the pecking order, and Tennessee isn’t exactly an aerial powerhouse.
Coby Fleener, TE, Colts. It’s hard to get excited about a guy whose name sounds like a nerdy character on “The Office,” but Fleener will benefit from instant chemistry with fellow Stanford teammate Luck. Expected to join the starting lineup from day one, Fleener could easily be the most targeted receiver on the field in the early going. That alone makes him an intriguing prospect, though probably one best left off your draft day roster.
Randy Bullock, K, Texans. With only Shayne Graham to beat, Bullock is the odds-on favorite to win the kicking duties for the high-octane Houston offense. He may merit a free-agent pickup as a bye-week substitute or injury replacement.
Tomorrow: My first round of preseason positional rankings will be posted.
Next week: A look at the Sleeper candidates of 2012.