Six rookies made impressive debuts during the 2012 season. Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson set a high bar for this year’s freshman quarterbacks, while Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson put up the gaudiest production for a trio of first-year backs since the bumper crop of 2008 (Matt Forte, Chis Johnson, Steve Slaton).
No receivers or tight ends finished among the Top 20 at their positions, however. I guess that’s what happens when the pick of the litter (Justin Blackmon) is banished to the aerial wasteland of Jacksonville.
So what are we to make of this year’s newcomers?
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 variables in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2013 and assess its members’ likelihood of shining during their inaugural seasons.
GIVE THEM A CHANCE
LeVeon Bell, RB, Steelers. No team values a big workhorse back more than Pittsburgh, and Bell has the look of an every-down player. He’s blessed with good hands, deceptive speed and outstanding athleticism. The Michigan State product is fully expected to be the opening-week starter, despite tweaking his knee during training camp.
Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals. A preseason hamstring injury has slowed his progression, but the first runner drafted in April is expected to supplant BenJarvus Green-Ellis at some point this season. Just don’t invest too high a pick on him.
Montee Ball, RB, Broncos. Those expecting Ball to win the starting job outright are in for a big letdown, as head coach John Fox has rarely entrusted rookie backs with a heavy load. Pass protection is mandatory in Denver’s scheme, and Ball has struggled in training camp. Look for the rookie to be eased in via committee as the season progresses.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers. Green Bay hasn’t had a viable fantasy back since Ryan Grant in 2009. The team believes Lacy can be the stud they’ve lacked, but the Packers will still live and die by the pass. If you can grab him cheap, you might get some value.
Zac Stacy, RB, Rams. This fifth-round pick from Vanderbilt has a chance to start at some point this season, given the unproven talent ahead of him. For now, the job is Daryl Richardson’s to lose. Grab Stacy late and you just might end up with a bargain.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams. St. Louis didn’t use the eighth-overall draft pick on Austin to groom him for the future. His diminutive stature makes him risky, but Percy Harvin Lite is an electrifying, multidimensional weapon that can score from anywhere on the field.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans. Houston finally has a talented young wideout to line up opposite Andre Johnson and provide coverage nightmares for opposing defenses. Give him a few weeks to get acclimated to the speed of the NFL, and Hopkins could become a reliable fantasy backup.
LOOK, BUT DON’T TOUCH
Geno Smith, QB, Jets. With only Mark Sanchez in his way, Smith will almost surely get his chance to start. But the offensive woes in New York run far deeper than Sanchez, making Smith’s prospects for early success dubious at best.
EJ Manuel, QB, Bills. Buffalo invested a premium pick on this strong-armed, but raw, prospect. Like Smith, he faces subpar competition (we’re looking at you, Kevin Kolb), so Manuel will get his moment in the limelight. Still, he’s at least a year away from fantasy relevance.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings. He need only climb over two mediocre veterans to earn a starting role opposite Greg Jennings, which isn’t too tall an order for a receiver with his credentials. But in Minnesota’s pass-challenged offense, Patterson’s talents will likely be squandered.
Aaron Dobson, WR, Patriots. If not for New England’s remarkably miserable track record with rookie wideouts, you’d think the team’s second-round pick would offer huge upside. Only Julian Edelman stands between Dobson and significant face time with Tom Brady.
Robert Woods, WR, Bills. He’s fully expected to earn the starting job opposite Stevie Johnson, but that role has rarely translated into fantasy value.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals. With Jermaine Gresham ahead of him, the best tight end of his draft class will be hard-pressed to make a fantasy impact in his freshman campaign.
Next week: A look at the Sleeper candidates of 2013.
August 26: The Perfect Draft