Last year the rookie class brought superstars from the get-go: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all played themselves to fantasy stardom in 2012. Alfred Morris may have had the biggest impact of all and was definitely one of the biggest steals going undrafted in many leagues last season. From out the outset, it doesn’t sound like we’ll have too many home-run hitters in 2013, but you just never know! That’s why we love playing this game. Let’s look at some first year players that should have a solid impact.
Le’Veon Bell – Pittsburgh Steelers – RB
Le’Veon Bell was the rookie darling this off-season and not solely on talent – not that he lacks it – but because of the opportunity that presented itself in Pittsburgh. With no real threats in his way, he was pretty much handed the starting running back job which gave him instant low-end RB2 status. Then came the injury and subsequent doomsday predictions. For a moment, Bell fell off the radar as he was projected to miss 8 weeks. Now the latest reports say that the Lisfranc injury scare was just a mild foot sprain and he is eyeing a Week 2 return? Now we’re talking about the steal of the draft maybe for those leagues that saw his ADP fall… I’m still not calling for him to hit the ground running whenever he returns, but I think he’ll develop into a viable fantasy starter as the season progresses.
Give him a couple weeks to get used to the NFL and I think we’re talking RB2 status by Week 6 (assuming a Week 2 or 3 return). He’s likely a flex play until then, but that’s not too shabby for a guy getting drafted after Round 6. Bell has a wonderful opportunity here and has a ton of skill. Last year at Michigan State he racked 51 percent of his yards after contact, which was tops among all FBS rushers, plus he can catch out of the backfield. Once Bell gets his feet wet, this kid can be relied upon heavily and I would try to do whatever it takes to see if his current fantasy owner doesn’t believe yet.
Giovanni Bernard – Cincinnati Bengals – RB
Sticking with running backs here, many forget Giovanni Bernard was the first Running Back taken in this year’s NFL Draft. The sky is the limit for this youngin’ who has been gaining solid value in fantasy drafts this year, going mostly in the 5th round. I like him more than the Broncos backs, Eddie Lacy, and Chris Ivory plus a number of others. One of my favorite quotes that will never get old is, “Hello!….You play…to win… the game!” – Herm Edwards. Heck, he could have easily been talking about fantasy football there, too. In fantasy I say again and again: you do not win your title in the first 6 weeks! The only thing holding Bernard back right now is that mister “getting slower by the minute” BenJarvus Green-Ellis is taking away touches. Maybe Green-Ellis reads this and goes off for a huge year.. hey, if he reads this, I’ll take it!…but I don’t see that happening. Bernard scored three times from the goal-line attempts in the preseason, so if he can claim some of those reps while eventually earning the starting position, we might be looking at a fantasy gold mine down the stretch.
Eddie Lacy – Green Bay Packers – RB
Eddie Lacy has probably garnered the most hype out of all the fantasy rookies and is the de facto first rook off the boards in drafts. I’m just not hugely optimistic with Lacy, and by the close of the season I think that owners will like Le’Veon Bell and Giovanni Bernard more, but in the meantime he is definitely a serviceable back and is a must on any fantasy roster. RBs drop like flies in drafts and Lacy is more than capable of putting up some monster weeks for the Packers, although it does worry me that he was passed in drafts due to some health issues and concerns about his work ethic. With that in mind sometimes being overlooked is all a player needs to fuel himself into stardom! Don’t get me wrong, Lacy has skill, but this is a pass first team we’re talking about with the Green Bay Packers. Down the stretch, when Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are duking it out for MVP, you know Rodgers is going be throwing the Touchdown’s instead of handing them off. Beware!
Still, camp was productive for Lacy. He entered in an unclear timeshare with Johnathan Franklin and incumbent starter DuJuan Harris and emerges as the clear cut number one back. His 2.0 YPC didn’t earn him the job, but with Harris suffering a season ending injury and Franklin seemingly unprepared for the pro game it looks like Lacy is in for a significant share of the workload in a high-powered offense.
Montee Ball – Denver Broncos – RB
Montee Ball is another talented rookie with a ton of skill. Reports out of Denver and from Peyton Manning himself a few days ago have all said the same – Montee Ball is the most talented back on the roster. That’s quite the compliment coming from your hall-of-fame QB and it’s a big reason why I like Ball this year. Who better to have than Peyton Manning helping you out during your rookie campaign? Manning made Joseph Addai a solid Running back and should definitely be able to do so with the explosive Ball, pointing him in the right direction and making sure he finds the right holes. Ball may be an injury away to one of the other running backs from truly exploding, so he isn’t quite on the fantasy radar in week one (particularly as it looks like Knowshon Moreno may earn the start), but definitely keep an eye on his progression. Again this is also a pass first team which will hurt him, but he should be very serviceable flex option this season after he gets a couple of games under his belt.
Tavon Austin – St. Louis Rams – WR
Rookie of the year? He seems certain to be in the conversation as long as he stays healthy. At 5’8″, 174 pounds he does make me a little weary in the NFL, but as I always used to do in my buddy’s Winter Bowl tackle football classic, just run out of bounds! Kidding aside, Austin is one fast kitty, and is capable of having a rookie season like Randall Cobb did in Green Bay. The difference is, Austin is already lining up in the slot whereas it took Cobb sometime to distinguish himself with the plethora of veteran receivers that were already in Green Bay. Last year Cobb caught 80 passes for 954 yards and eight touchdowns. Austin owners would be thrilled with similar production.
Of course, comparing players across different systems is problematic but it should be noted that Austin will be taking the slot position which Danny Amendola held last season, and Sam Bradford looked his way a ton. Austin has the skill-set and the home-run potential on every play ability to be a difference maker this season. If he and Bradford get on the same page early those Cobb-esque numbers should be reached and he’ll be solid weekly start in fantasy leagues. The chemistry looked good in the preseason with Austin hauling in 66.7% of his 12 targets.
Kenbrell Thompkins – New England Patriots – WR
We all missed the boat in the early days on this one, calling for Aaron Dobson to steal the show in New England. Yet, it’s the undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins who has been getting Tom Brady’s attention in Foxborough, and, if he’s getting Brady’s attention, then he should have yours too. Danny Amendola is locked in to lead the team (if not the league) in targets at least until Rob Gronkowski’s arrival, yet there are still a lot of targets to go around in Brady’s offense and it looks like Thompkins may be next in line. He led the team with a game-high eight catches and 116 yards versus the Detroit Lions in week 3 of the preseason; no doubt that Thompkins and Brady were on the same page and looked mighty good together. This year, he looks to be taking the spot of Brandon Lloyd, who put up 74 grabs, 911 yards and 4 touchdowns, and a similar line is not totally out of the question for the precise route running star. I’m for one holding off the party train though… sure there is significant potential here, and I think he has a successful week one against the now Jairus Byrd-less Buffalo Bills, but when Gronkowski does come back (he practiced in full pads just a couple of days ago) Thompkins’ targets will drop. Aaron Dobson is still bigger and faster, and if he learns the system better, he may take some reps away as well. There are still a lot of variables that can come into play in New England, so his current price tag – one which has soared in fantasy drafts – is too rich for me!
DeAndre Hopkins – Houston Texans – WR
DeAndre Hopkins has been cleared by his doctors from concussions and is ready for Week 1, which is great news for fantasy owners who drafted him with this concussion scare lingering. I really like Hopkins, he’s been compared to Roddy White for his playing style and is slated to start opposite Andre Johnson come Week 1. Johnson will surely find himself facing double-teams which will leave the door open for Hopkins to shine. Johnson is also a strong mentor who says he talks to Hopkins daily, giving him advice. Thompkins hauled in a beautiful 34 yard touchdown catch in his first preseason game – the Texans may have finally found a WR2! Most of us have started Kevin Walter throughout the years, hoping for a decent game, and while he did produce from time to time our efforts were fruitless more often that not. Hopkins is seriously skilled with great hands and can be relied upon this season. 60 catches and over 900 yards is not out of the question from the young stud with potential for more.
Honorable mention goes to Christine Michael and EJ Manuel as well.
Manuel could find himself on the fantasy radar as well. He’s returned quickly from knee surgery and looks to start for the Bills this week against the New England Patriots.
Who did I miss/what rookies are you relying on big this year? Share your thoughts, below.