2012 Fantasy Football: Identifying Impact Rookies

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on May 1, 2012

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 season, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in 2012 for an unprecedented three straight top 5 finishes. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-13 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate preseason rankings. 

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The fantasy community has had a chance to digest the draft and projected depth charts are changing by the minute. When trying to predict production, I generally lean on a simple equation:

 
Opportunity + Talent + Durability = Production
 
In the realm of fantasy football, opportunity is just as important as (if not more important than) talent, though talent does tend to create some opportunity. A good running back isn't going to post very good numbers if he is buried on the depth chart. Conversely, a mediocre back could be a serviceable fantasy starter if he's given 20 touches per game. 
 
While recapping the draft, five players immediately jumped out as potential impact rookies:
 
In this year's draft class, Richardson appears to be the only "no-brainer" fantasy pick. He is slated to become the workhorse back for the Browns, and even though he's joining a suspect offense, there simply aren't that many workhorse RBs to go around. In terms of touches, 18-20 per game seems reasonable given Richardson ability in the passing game. His ADP will probably settle in the 2nd or 3rd round, perhaps earlier depending on how the other RBs fare this summer. He's a RB2 with upside; it wouldn't be surprising if he finished in the top 10 given his likely workload. Montario Hardesty may be on the roster bubble, which would leave Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya as the main backups to Richardson.
 
It will be interesting to see how RG3's final numbers compare to Andrew Luck's. From a pure fantasy standpoint, Griffin has a good chance to outscore Luck due to his ability to run the ball. RG3 should not be confused with last year's ROY Cam Newton. Griffin's wheels are better but he's not nearly the force around the goal line that Newton is, and it was that ability that made the Carolina QB the top impact rookie in 2011. Griffin has been going a bit earlier in early fantasy drafts, so his price looks like it will be higher.
 
If Luck's talent lives up to the hype, then he could certainly be a fringe QB1 or better by the end of 2012. The issue is that we won't know if he's for real until he actually plays, so there's more risk than there is with an established starter like Jay Cutler or Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Colts were determined to surround their new franchise QB with talent, drafting TEs Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, RB Vick Ballard and WRs T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill. They'll join Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Donald Brown and Delone Carter to form a (largely unproven) offensive arsenal with considerable upside. Look for Luck's ADP to fall in the QB2 range.
 
GM Mark Dominik didn't trade up to draft Doug Martin so that he could serve as LeGarrette Blount's backup. Blount's lackluster play and poor ball security in 2011 makes him one of the most vulnerable starters in the league. Meanwhile, scouts say that Martin is capable of being a three-down back, so he'll get every opportunity to usurp Blount and get true RB1 touches. Blount is a fairly big fantasy name, so barring big news out of Tampa's training camp, Martin's stock may be depressed well into the summer. If he wins the starting job, look for him to go in the 4th or 5th round, a la Mark Ingram in 2011.
 
Normally rookie TEs take a while to make a splash, but recently there have been a few first year players that have posted solid fantasy numbers as teams use the position more as a receiver than as a blocker. Fleener has a chance to hold TE1 value by year's end, thanks to his reunion with his college quarterback (Andrew Luck) and the fact that he landed on a team with a big need at TE. The Colts also drafted Dwayne Allen, so fantasy owners should pay attention to how each player picks up the Colts' offense. Fleener was the consensus best receiving TE in the draft, so he should see plenty of snaps as Luck's security blanket. There is a lot of depth at TE this year, so Fleener can be had in the later (double digit) rounds. 
 
Other players will emerge as camp battles begin. Let's take a look at each skill position and break down a few other names.
 

QUARTERBACKS

 
The two names that really stick out are Brandon Weeden of the Browns and Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins. Neither player looks primed for a great fantasy season, but other than Luck and RG3, they are the two rookies most likely to find themselves starting in 2012. He'll have to beat out Colt McCoy, but Weeden seems to have the faith of the Cleveland brass. In Miami, Tannehill has to deal with incumbent starter Matt Moore and the newly signed David Garrard. Neither receiving corps is particularly good, so don't expect much from either player in 2012.
 

RUNNING BACKS

 
The first thing I look for when trying to get a handle on a young player's potential workload is the vulnerability of the starter. The aforementioned LeGarrette Blount is quite vulnerable, and that's part of what makes Doug Martin so attractive.
 
Running down the list of early-round draftees, the next name that jumps out is Ronnie Hillman, who is expected to get some work as Willis McGahee's backup. Broncos VP John Elway calls him a "great change of pace to what we have," so it doesn't seem like he views Hillman as McGahee's replacement in 2012. McGahee is on the wrong side of 30, so it's not a stretch to see Hillman as the team's RB1 in a year or two, though he is on the small side and durability was a concern in college. There is also the matter of Knowshon Moreno, who is still on the roster but may be traded at some point.
 
The Giants drafted David Wilson in the first round so at worst he projects to be Ahmad Bradshaw's backup. Bradshaw is not the most durable player, so it's not a stretch to envision Wilson getting a few starts in 2012. To a lesser degree, the same goes for the Rams' second round pick Isaiah Pead, who will spell Steven Jackson.
 
Other draftees include:
 
49ers: LaMichael James vying for snaps behind Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and Kendall Hunter
Ravens: Bernard Pierce backing up Ray Rice
Steelers: Chris Rainey competing for carries behind Isaac Redman
Dolphins: Lamar Miller challenging Daniel Thomas for work behind Reggie Bush
Colts: Vick Ballard joining Donald Brown and Delone Carter in unsettled backfield
 

WIDE RECEIVERS

 
Unlike 2011, when A.J. Green and Julio Jones landed in very promising situations, there aren't any WRs that jump out as attractive mid-round fantasy picks in 2012. 
 
Below is a table with all of this year's draftees along with their projected roles for their respective teams in 2012.
 
Player College Team Pick (Round) Projected Role Competition/Notes
Justin Blackmon Oklahoma State Jaguars 5 (1) WR1 value depends on development of Blaine Gabbert
Michael Floyd Notre Dame Cardinals 13 (1) WR2-WR4 Andre Roberts, Early Doucet
Kendall Wright Baylor Titans 20 (1) WR3-WR4 Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins
A.J. Jenkins Illinois 49ers 30 (1) WR3-WR4 Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams
Brian Quick Appalachian State Rams 33 (2) WR1-WR3 Danario Alexander, Steve Smith, Chris Givens, etc.
Stephen Hill Georgia Tech Jets 43 (2) WR2-WR3 Jeremy Kerley, Chaz Schilens
Alshon Jeffery South Carolina Bears 45 (2) WR2-WR3 Earl Bennett, Devin Hester
Ryan Broyles Oklahoma Lions 54 (2) WR4-WR5 likely to play behind Nate Burleson & Titus Young
Rueben Randle LSU Giants 63 (2) WR3 Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden
DeVier Posey Ohio State Texans 68 (3) WR2-WR3 Kevin Walter, Keshawn Martin
T.J. Graham North Carolina State Bills 69 (3) WR2-WR4 Donald Jones, David Nelson
Mohamed Sanu Rutgers Bengals 83 (3) WR2-WR4 Marvin Jones, Jordan Shipley
T.Y. Hilton Florida International Colts 92 (3) WR3-WR5 Donnie Avery, Austin Collie, LaVon Brazill
Chris Givens Wake Forest Rams 96 (4) WR2-WR4 Brian Quick, Steve Smith, Danario Alexander, etc.
Travis Benjamin Miami (FL) Browns 100 (4) WR2-WR4 Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Jordan Norwood
Joe Adams Arkansas Panthers 104 (4) WR3-WR4 Brandon LaFell, David Gettis
Devon Wylie Fresno State Chiefs 107 (4) WR3-WR5 Jonathan Baldwin, Junior Hemmingway, Terrance Copper
Jarius Wright Arkansas Vikings 118 (4) WR2-WR4 Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Greg Childs
Keshawn Martin Michigan State Texans 121 (4) WR3-WR4 Kevin Walter, DeVier Posey
Nick Toon Wisconsin Saints 122 (4) WR3-WR4 Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Adrian Arrington
Greg Childs Arkansas Vikings 134 (4) WR3-WR5 Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Jarius Wright
Danny Coale Virginia Tech Cowboys 152 (5) WR3-WR4 Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris
Marvin Jones California Bengals 166 (5) WR2-WR4 Mohamed Sanu, Jordan Shipley
Juron Criner Arizona Raiders 168 (5) WR4-WR6 Louis Murphy, Jacboy Ford, Eddie McGee, Duke Calhoun
B.J. Cunningham Michigan State Dolphins 183 (6) WR3-WR5 Legedu Naanee, Clyde Gates, Rishard Matthews
Marvin McNutt Iowa Eagles 194 (6) WR4-WR6 Riley Cooper, Jason Avant
Tommy Streeter Miami (FL) Ravens 198 (6) WR3-WR5 Tandon Doss, David Reed
LaVon Brazill Ohio Colts 206 (6) WR4-WR6 Donnie Avery, Austin Collie, T.Y. Hilton
Rishard Matthews Nevada Dolphins 227 (7) WR4-WR6 Legedu Naanee, Clyde Gates, B.J. Cunningham
Jeremy Ebert Northwestern Patriots 235 (7) WR5-WR6 Julian Edelman, Anthony Gonzalez
Junior Hemingway Michigan Chiefs 238 (7) WR4-WR6 Jonathan Baldwin, Terrance Copper, Devon Wylie
Jordan White Western Michigan Jets 244 (7) WR4-WR6 Chaz Schilens, Jeremy Kerley, Patrick Turner, Stephen Hill
 
At this point, there are few solid rookie WR options, though Brian Quick (and Chris Givens), Stephen Hill, Alshon Jeffery, Michael Floyd, DeVier Posey, T.J. Graham, Mohamed Sanu (and Marvin Jones), Jarius Wright (and Greg Childs) all have a realistic chance to start for offenses that feature decent to good QB play.
 
Justin Blackmon was the top WR pick, but his value is heavily dependent on the play of QB Blaine Gabbert. In terms of fantasy value, he landed in one of the worst possible spots.
 

TIGHT ENDS

 
I wouldn't expect much from any rookie TE not named Coby Fleener, but there are a few guys who could surprise. Dwayne Allen was the second TE taken, also by the Colts, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses alongside Fleener. Cincinnati's Orson Charles could put a dent in Jermaine Gresham's value, while Miami's Michael Egnew will have an opportunity to usurp Anthony Fasano in the next year or two.
 
Another player I'm watching closely this summer is Adrien Robinson. Eli Manning loves to throw to his tight end and at this point both Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum are sidelined as they recover from knee injuries. Robinson ran a sub 4.6 40-yard dash and has good size and hands. Martellus Bennett is penciled in to start, but this is a camp battle to monitor.
 
Filed Under: Preseason, 2012