Rookies in fantasy football are a tricky proposition. Top picks play for terrible teams, no-names land in great situations, and each of them is being lectured by Pacman Jones at the Rookie Symposium, so all bets are off. If you’re in a keeper or dynasty league, then talent is usually more important than situation, but in redraft leagues you need the guy who will be in a position to produce right away, which is rare.
There have been exceptions to this rule, most notably Cam Newton last year, but in general, rookies don’t contribute much to fantasy championships. Fantasy owners tend to have short memories, so Cam’s success last year will artificially inflate the price of some rookies this year. Whether Andrew Luck or RG3 can repeat Cam’s 2011 performance is irrelevant. What matters is how much you have to pay for them. Value is always the name of the game in fantasy, and with rookies it is incredibly difficult to find value.
Cam was a top-5 QB in 2011, and lasted past the 12th round of most drafts, so the lesson is to reach for the young studs right? Mark Ingram begs to differ. Taken around the 20th back off the board in drafts, going from Alabama to a high powered Saints offense, Ingram had the makings of a fantasy starter or flex option. He ended up being outscored by the likes of Kevin Smith and Toby Gerhart, as well as two other backs on his own team. Injuries played a part, but that’s a risk for any player, much less one who has never had to face bounty-seeking NFL defenses for 16 games.
Rookies will always creep up owners’ draft sheets due to the irresistible lure of youth and potential, so the key is to have guys you target and possibly reach for, and guys that you flag and move down your list. Because in fantasy drafts, like bars, at the end of the night, the 21-year old will always be more appealing than the proven veteran, no matter what your head tells you.
Trent Richardson – RB – Browns
As much as I love his talent, T-Rich landed in a no-win situation. Not only is he in an impossible division, not only did his team manage less than 100 yards on the ground per game last year with Colt McCoy as their QB, but also they are handing the offense over to a rookie in Brandon Weeden. He may be a 28-year old rookie, but what does age have to do with prepping for the NFL? Has Weeden spent the last 6 years studying Dick LeBeau’s blitz schemes? The last QB to make the baseball to football switch was Drew Henson and look how that turned out. Weeden will learn a lesson from Henson’s Uncle Jim: It’s not easy being green, especially in the AFC North.
The lone upside to Richardson is that he is a true feature back in a league that is sorely lacking them. This argument is valid, but if you want T-Rich, you’re going to have to pony up in the second round for him, passing up receivers like Hakeem Nicks and Andre Johnson. If you’re willing to take the risk for the only offensive option on a team that averaged 3.7 YPC last year, be my guest. I’ll gladly take a stud wideout instead at this point in the draft.
Stephen Hill – WR – Jets
He’s been called the Second Coming of Megatron. Well once upon a time Reggie Bush was considered the next Barry Sanders and it took him five years to have any fantasy relevance. Yes, Hill and Calvin went to the same college. Yes, they probably both took Women’s Studies 201 in Baker Hall. But that is where the comparisons end. As a freshman, Calvin put up a line of 48/837/7 in his worst collegiate season. In his entire career, Hill’s line was 49/1248/9. Hill does have some tantalizing numbers of his own, being 6’5” and running a 4.36 40, but on the field he has done nothing to warrant going 43rd overall to the Jets.
Which brings us to his current situation. The inadequacies of Mark Sanchez are well-publicized in the press, but from a fantasy perspective, he has yet to put a receiver in the top 20 and has only had one (Braylon Edwards in 2010) in the top 30. Even for a talented receiver, a bad QB can ruin their production. For a receiver as raw as Hill? Sanchez will make him want to hitch a ride from Justin Blackmon to the nearest bar where they can complain about their QBs and drink Jägerbombs.
In the last 10 years, only 5 rookie tight ends have broken 80 points in a season: Gronk and Hernandez in 2010, John Carlson in 2008, Heath Miller in 2005, and Shockey in 2002. The average season from those tight ends was 51 receptions, 618 yards and 6 TDs, which would have been good for 12th among all tight ends last year. So if Fleener puts up a season that ranks among the top-5 in recent history, he still won’t be worth starting in standard leagues.
Fleener does have familiarity with Luck, which may help him, but Luck is also a rookie. The other five TEs mentioned either had Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, or Kerry Collins and Matt Hasselbeck in their “primes.” The odds are stacked way too high against Fleener to justify taking him over proven veterans like Tony Gonzalez or even guys like Jacob Tamme, who have found their way into favorable situations.
I am throwing a huge caveat in front of this blurb: DO NOT DRAFT RG3 AS YOUR STARTER.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at the reigning Heisman trophy winner. Unlike most top-5 picks, RG3 was not picked by a team that had a disastrous year in 2011. The Redskins traded up to get Griffin (albeit from the 6th pick), and as opposed to the Colts, whose roster is a total mess, the Skins have a nice core in place already. In fact, the only glaring weakness on this team last year was quarterback. So unlike Luck, and even Cam last year, RG3 is in a better position to win than most top-5 QBs.
Back to the caveat. Despite his other-worldly season last year, no sober person drafted Cam as their QB1. But he guided many teams to titles by unseating a mediocre starter, or by making a top QB trade bait for other roster weaknesses. My point is that even if you never start him, using a late-round pick on RG3 as your QB2 can get you to #1.
Year 1 – 107 receptions, 1220 yards, 7 TDs
Year 2 – 60 receptions, 944 yards, 9 TDs
Year 3 – 82 receptions, 1536 yards, 9 TDs
That’s a three year stretch averaging over 170 fantasy points, which is top-10 WR production. Those stats are from Steve Smith 2.0 in 2009, Mario Manningham in 2010 and Victor Cruz in 2011 AKA “The Guys Who Started The Season As The Giants 3rd Receiver.” In terms of consistency, only Roddy White has done better since 2009 than TGWSTSATG3R.
Randle steps into this role after increasing production in each of his three years at LSU, and never having a QB who played anywhere near as well as Eli has played recently. With questions about Hakeem Nicks’ health, Randle’s price on draft day is rising, but given the success of TGWSTSATG3R in recent history, he’s worth reaching for.
Doug Martin – RB – Bucs
As a New Jersey native, I am well aware of what Greg Schiano did to Rutgers football. He took a program that was the laughingstock of the NCAA and turned them into a team that has won five straight bowl games. He also has produced NFL and fantasy studs like Ray Rice and Kenny Britt, with Mohamed Sanu (another rookie I love) possibly joining those ranks in Cincinnati. My point is that he’s no Mike Shanahan, when he has a guy he can ride, he goes with it. Unfortunately for Schiano, LeGarrette Blount is no Ray Rice.
Fortunately for the fantasy community, Doug Martin can fill that role. When Rice first emerged in Baltimore, he had Willis McGahee in front of him on the depth chart and vulturing touchdowns from him on the field. Martin might not have all the talent Rice does, but he also has far fewer barriers. This is a guy being drafted as a platoon back who will likely end up with the majority of the carries for a team desperate to take pressure off Josh Freeman, and a coach who knows how to use the talent at his disposal.