Rookie players are some of the most intriguing assets in fantasy football. They are high risk/high reward players, because just like NFL teams, fantasy owners have not yet seen them play live NFL games. I do have a few biases that will show up in these rankings. Most of the leagues that I play in have PPR and good IDP scoring. I also generally devalue rookie Tight Ends and Defensive Linemen as they take more time to develop. Furthermore, this rookie tight end class was one of the weaker ones in recent years.
There are many players with excellent opportunities to contribute in 2012 that are worth monitoring. This seems to be a draft class of peaks and valleys. The top five rookies have great value. However, once they are off the board pretty much everyone feels like a reach until you get into the second round. At that point, there are quite a number of Wide Receivers and a few defensive players with excellent opportunities to contribute in IDP leagues this year. That value seems to last about another 30 or even 40 picks until you have to start drafting guys just because they went to your favorite school or they have a funny name you like to say out loud. This means odds are good someone on whom you place a second round grade will fall to you in round four, so be ready.
Keep in mind; this list is for dynasty leagues. If you are playing in a seasonal league or a keeper league that allows you to keep only a couple players, you probably are not going to need to go past Tier 2 this year. Most of the players in Tier 3 are going to be available on waivers if they surprise and contribute this year.
1. RB Trent Richardson, Browns – The best college back to enter the NFL since Oklahoma Sooners RB Adrian Peterson.
2. RB Doug Martin, Buccaneers – Rookie head coach Greg Schiano is going to pound the ball and Martin is his workhorse. Some experts I respect say he could be as good as Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice. I do not know about that, but I do think he will make last year’s starting RB LeGarrette Blount into a pure backup in short order.
3. QB Robert Griffin, Redskins – I prefer to believe that head coach Mike Shanahan is not quite so insane yet that he has lost his magic touch helping NFL quarterbacks create solid fantasy QB numbers.
4. QB Andrew Luck, Colts – Luck should be a great NFL player, but do not take for granted he is the best in this draft class, just because the Colts were willing to part with future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning. Manning had four neck surgeries and he is 36-years old, the rebuilding Colts needed to move in another direction. Luck is a still a great prospect, the fact he comes in fourth on my list is really an incredible compliment to the three guys I rate ahead of him.
5. RB David Wilson, Giants – He will share time with starting RB Ahmad Bradshaw, which is stronger competition than Martin, but he still has a chance to exceed Brandon Jacobs’ 571 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns from 2011.
6. RB Isaiah Pead, Rams – I will admit to being unnaturally enthusiastic about Pead’s abilities. I am a little skeptical about the Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson comparisons; St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher drafted many mediocre running backs in Tennessee before he struck that gold in 2008. What solidifies his ranking here is he is a Steven Jackson breakdown away from significant playing time; a distinct possibility given Jackson’s 2,138 career carries and 28-years of age.
7. WR Kendall Wright, Titans – After the draft I saw the top 3 wide receivers this year as roughly equivalent. I gave the edge to Wright because I love quarterback of the future Jake Locker and the match up problems teams will have defending both Wright and incumbent starting WR Kenny Britt. Britt has been spending a lot of time on the operating table and talking to authorities this off-season, a Britt suspension becoming a significant possibility. Wright is clearly the top WR in this class and could be a strong 2012 contributor with a strong camp and a lengthy Britt suspension.
8. WR Justin Blackmon, Jaguars – There simply is no elite WR in this class, so do not go chasing after one early in your fantasy draft. Blackmon will be Blaine Gabbert’s only option or close to it, which means he has greater value in PPR leagues. Expect a ton of catches but not a lot of touchdowns in this stagnant offense. Blackmon presents solid WR2 value for years to come, but also keep in mind he has two DUIs since 2010. That poor decision-making could be a sign that Blackmon is a bust in the making or at the very least a player that is going to be dealing with suspensions.
9. WR Michael Floyd, Cardinals – Finally, a capable replacement for WR Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the Baltimore Ravens in 2010. Now they just need a capable replacement for QB Kurt Warner, who retired after the 2009 season. Current starter Kevin Kolb has not done anything to make people forget about Warner.
10. WR Stephen Hill, Jets – I’m a little skeptical that Georgia Tech is all of a sudden some stud WR factory (see Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson), but Hill does has the talent and opportunity to start quickly. I have moved him up since May because of his strong showing in OTAs, but his value will be handicapped by a run oriented offense that features two struggling quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow.
11. RB Ronnie Hillman, Broncos – Hillman’s situation is very similar to Pead, except starting RB Willis McGahee is a little more durable than Jackson. Hillman also has better competition at the backup spot in RBs Lance Ball and Mario Fannin. I have moved him down a spot because the hype train is starting to slow down for Hillman compared to where it was at right after the draft.
12. WR Alshon Jeffrey, Bears – The fellow who took him in my May draft is a huge Bears fan and said it perfectly: a rookie with character concerns being mentored by Brandon Marshall, what could possibly go wrong? Personally, I think Jeffrey has the same problem as Houston Texans Arian Foster showed in college at the University of Tennessee. Similar to Foster, Jeffery appeared to take off a lot of plays last year off because he was bored. He should step it up now that the level of competition is more relevant to his interests.
13. WR Ryan Broyles, Lions – Matthew Stafford throws enough to create several stud receivers. Broyles has the great hands and precise route running to fit perfectly in the slot in Detroit immediately. Keep in mind Broyles is coming off an ACL injury, so health and conditioning could be an issue to start the season.
14. LB Luke Keuchly, Panthers – This guy is going to be a tackle machine no matter where he lines up. He is a very safe pick that should contribute this year and in the future.
15. WR Brian Quick, Rams – I am even more skeptical of the Rams trying to solve their WR woes with rookie receivers, but Quick looks the part so far and has a clear path to the WR1 job. He also has a young quarterback in Sam Bradford that gives him good dynasty value, provided that Bradford continues to progress.
16. WR Nick Toon, Saints – The Saints are set at tight end with Jimmy Graham, but their receiving core has some question marks, despite franchise QB Drew Brees being signed long-term and still in the prime of his career. WR Robert Meachem was lost in free agency to San Diego. Their top receiver, Marques Colston is healthy now, but has had knee issues in the past. No other WR on their roster has ever been a consistent player. I also have a bit of a soft spot for Toon because his father (New York Jets WR Al Toon) was on my first fantasy football team many moons ago. Early reviews of Toon’s OTA work are glowing; he could be a steal given that the Saints have an elite quarterback and some holes at wide receiver.
17. WR Greg Childs, Vikings – Childs’ situation is similar to Quick’s. Childs may be even more talented, but landed in an even more muddled fantasy situation. I do like second year QB Christian Ponder’s chances to develop. If Ponder and Childs look good in camp, I see Childs moving up into late first round value by August, ahead of Quick.
18. WR Reuben Randle, Giants – You may have to wait a little for him to develop but he is more talented than last year’s third wide receiver, Mario Manningham. Manningham was serviceable in that role last year and the Giants throw the ball enough for three receivers to put up big numbers.
19. LB Lavonte David, Buccaneers – I believe the comparisons to Derrick Brooks just may turn out to be on the money. David makes up for his lack of size with a nonstop motor and a nose for the ball.
20. RB Lamar Miller, Dolphins – Miller’s path to playing time is murky behind RB Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. Miami is easily the most dysfunctional team in the league, so I tend to downgrade all their players. Every RB taken after Miller requires a serious leap of faith for you to believe they will ever amount to anything in the NFL. I like Miller’s talent, just not his situation.
21. S Mark Barron, Buccaneers – Defensive backs are generally a dime a dozen. On the one hand that means you should not pay too much for them. On the other hand, landing a perennial top 10 DB becomes an even more precious commodity. Barron will have the tackle opportunities in the run heavy NFC South to keep him in that lofty status for his entire career.
22. TE Coby Fleener, Colts – I downgrade Fleener significantly for several reasons. I think it is unwise to assume that anything happening in college will easily translate to the pros. Fleener caught 10 TDs from Luck last year, but that was only on 34 total receptions. There is no guarantee that Fleener will be a touchdown machine in the pros, especially The Colts also drafted another pass catching TE in Dwayne Allen. Finally, rookie tight ends take time to develop. So while Fleener would be a solid 3rd round pick, he’s over hyped and will likely be taken too early by a fantasy owner that is looking at the hype, not the production.
23. TE Dwayne Allen, Colts – Speaking of Allen, I had not rated him in May. Now I am willing to make him even with Fleener, simply because it appears both rookies will be given an equal opportunity.
24. QB Brandon Weeden, Browns – Weeden has very limited upside, but he will not totally face plant. He will be a stable backup in case of bye weeks or injuries. Until the Browns add a franchise receiver, it is impossible to know what they have at the quarterback position. It is possible Baylor WR Josh Gordon, who was taken in the second round of the supplemental draft could develop into that player.
25. RB Robert Turbin, Seahawks – This is the tier for taking risks on speculative upside. In May I had him rated at 54 and said, “Turbin is only valuable as a Marshawn Lynch handcuff.” Well that opportunity now appears to be coming sooner than expected, plus Lynch could be facing a suspension for his DUI. I do not have Turbin any higher because Seattle does have other options, including Carolina refugee Tyrell Sutton who has a lot of talent, but was buried deep on the Panthers’ depth chart.
26. WR Josh Gordon, Browns – He is an unknown commodity that had some issues at Baylor; all supplemental picks have issues that kept them out of the NFL draft. He is a talented player with an opportunity to be the Browns top receiver; the problem is that until we see what kind of player Weeden develops into, it is impossible to know if being the Browns top receiver is a good thing.
27. WR Juron Criner, Raiders – Oakland is overloaded with decent but not great WR talent so it is difficult to see how Criner will carve out playing time in 2012, but in chaos there can be opportunity. If Criner is as talented as his film indicates, he could be starting opposite Denarius Moore at some point in the future.
28. WR Devon Wylie, Chiefs – Dwayne Bowe’s relationship with the Chiefs has been tenuous for some time. Jon Baldwin is a head case with a lot left to prove. If Wylie looks good in camp, he also could see the field faster than anyone expects. Bowe is probably not back with the Chiefs in 2013, which creates an opportunity for Wylie to become a starter.
29. WR Mohamed Sanu, Bengals – I will bet on him being the starting receiver opposite of WR A. J. Green in Week 1, but even if he does become the starter, how valuable is that? Sanu will most likely become a possession receiver who will not see many yards after the catch, but will get enough receptions to be a consistent fantasy WR3 in PPR leagues. The running game, Green, and emerging TE Jermaine Gresham will take too many targets away from the second Bengals receiver.
30. QB Russell Wilson, Seahawks – Pete Carroll changes quarterbacks as often as Henry VIII changed wives, so Wilson could become a starter or a third string quarterback at any point this season. While his head coach scares me, Wilson is a special talent. As someone who lived in Boston when Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy at Boston College, I am not so worried about Wilson’s 5’ 10” height. Give Wilson a year or two and he may well turn into fantasy gold.
31. DL Bruce Irvin, Seahawks – Speaking of insane Pete Carroll draft picks, he seems to think he has the next Terrell Suggs in Irvin. Maybe he is right, maybe he is wrong, but Irvin will have plenty of opportunities to rush the quarterback this year.
32. LB Mychal Kendricks, Eagles – Overshadowed by Philadelphia’s acquisition of MLB DeMeco Ryans, Kendricks has the talent to push to start for the Eagles now and gain steady LB2 value quickly.
33. TE Ladarius Green, Chargers – He will take time to develop as Antonio Gates’ apprentice. If you can afford to stash Green away for three years, do it. He could develop into a special player in the Chargers pass friendly system.
34. RB Cyrus Gray, Chiefs – Gray is not the most inspiring talent in the world, but he is just a Jamaal Charles setback away from fantasy relevance.
35. WR LaVon Brazill, Colts – With a complete offensive overhaul in progress, rookies can earn playing time quickly. He will be stuck behind WR Reggie Wayne and WR Austin Collie to start the season. Brazill has the speed to bring a new dimension to that WR corps. His development all depends on how quickly he can make the transition from MAC football to NFL football.
NOT RATED: QB Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins – At some point, I have to mention him, but Tannehill is not on my board. Do not draft him. I thought former Oakland Raiders QB JaMarcuss Russell proved that a lack of starts in college is a certain indicator of quarterback failure. Tannehill will eventually start and be absolutely horrific for his brief career.