The Rookie Report
The ability to accurately identify the 2010 rookies that will make an impact in the fantasy football world this season will go a long way towards building a championship-caliber roster. Why? Because rookie players have no NFL statistical history, meaning it’s tough for owners to gage their appropriate value. Being able to spot the talent and draft it at the correct moment is like upping your bet at the blackjack table the moment the deck is about to run hot.
Think about it. How sweet would it have been to have landed Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (2007) or Titans star Chris Johnson (2008) prior to rookie seasons that saw each player top 1,400 yards and ten touchdowns? That type of talent evaluation is what separates the playoff-bound teams from the losers.
Let’s turn our attention to the National Football Post’s 2010 Rookie Watch List. These are the player’s we want each of you to keep an eye on during your fantasy drafts this summer. If a rookie isn’t listed (i.e. Tim Tebow), there’s no reason to put him on your big board.
The Hot List
Ryan Mathews Running Back San Diego Chargers
When was the last time a rookie running back was getting consideration as a top-ten fantasy selection? Mathews is a unique blend of size, speed and power who averaged an impressive 6.6 yards per carry last year at Fresno State on his way to 1,808 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. Chargers head coach Norv Turner has already stated he expects Mathews to get close to 250 carries and 40 receptions this year, meaning 1,400 total yards and ten touchdowns is a very realistic projection of this guy’s upcoming season.
Veteran RB LaDainian Tomlinson is gone, meaning Mathews’ only real competition for the backfield workload comes from Darren Sproles, who has never carried the ball more than 93 times in a season in his five-year career. Remember, the Chargers traded up from the 28th pick to the 12th to land Mathews. They love this kid.
Jahvid Best Running Back Detroit Lions
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Best, think of a young Brian Westbrook or the 2008 rookie version of Steve Slaton. He’s a dynamic, dual-threat running back with great field vision and the ability to make a man miss inside of a phone booth. In 2008, the California standout averaged 8.1 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per reception on his way to 1,580 rushing yards, 246 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns. Best was a Heisman hopeful last season before a couple of concussions ended his junior year in early November.
Two-year veteran Kevin Smith is coming back from a torn ACL he suffered in Week 14 last season, which prompted Detroit to trade back into the first round this past April to land Best. The Lions offense is on the rise and the rookie running back is expected to be a big part of their 2010 game plan. This guy is explosive enough to have a legitimate shot at winning Rookie of the Year.
Dez Bryant Wide Receiver Dallas Cowboys
Bryant is a true wildcard entering the 2010 season but has the physical skill set and supporting cast to become one of the game’s top young wideouts. Fantasy owners need to keep in mind that Bryant hasn’t played a game since September 19 of last season as the 21-year old was suspended for the year due to an NCAA rules violation. At 6-2, 225 pounds, Bryant has the size and athletic ability to go up and make a play on the jump ball and the speed to stretch the field vertically on the outside. He joins a Dallas offense that ranked 6th in the league in passing last season (267.9 yds/gm) and 14th in scoring (22.6 pts/gm).
The upside here is the coverage he will face. With Pro Bowl wide receiver Miles Austin on the outside and pass-catching tight end Jason Witten going over the middle, opposing defenses will be forced to roll coverage away from Bryant, leaving him in very favorable 1 v. 1 matchups. The risk is that there is a slight chance Roy Williams decides to wake up and play football for a change, but we consider that to be about as likely as seeing Halley’s Comet twice in the same year.
C.J. Spiller Running Back Buffalo Bills
Arguably the most well-rounded running back in April’s draft, Spiller is a big-play threat that can hit the home run from anywhere on the field. He averaged over 5.3 yards per carry in each of his four seasons at Clemson and scored an impressive 16 touchdowns to go with his 1,715 total yards in 2009. Spiller’s an excellent pass catcher and has the skill set to be a three-down back in the NFL, which is a big plus for fantasy owners as Buffalo will have the option of keeping him on the field in virtually any situation.
However, owners need to taper their expectations for Spiller despite the fact that he was a top-ten pick. 1,000-yard back Fred Jackson will get a solid share of the workload and former first-round selection Marshawn Lynch is still on the roster, meaning there may not be enough touches to go around. In addition, the Bills’ offensive line leaves much to be desired, so Spiller could struggle to find running room during his rookie campaign. He’s got the talent, but his supporting cast and backfield competition could limit his overall production in 2010.
Keep a real close eye on…
Dexter McCluster Running Back/Wide Receiver Kansas City Chiefs
If you thought the “flex” position only existed in the world of fantasy football, think again, because McCluster is the real-life version. We had a chance to watch and talk with the 21-year old in Mobile at the Senior Bowl this past January and were truly impressed. As a running back, McCluster dominated the linebackers in 1 v. 1 passing drills, so the Miami Dolphins coaching staff moved him to the outside to take on the defensive backs. The result? Much of the same as the speedy, dual-threat playmaker burnt some of the country’s top coverage prospects.
Many fantasy owners are concerned about the former Rebel’s overall value because he’s currently sitting behind Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones on the Kansas City depth chart. But look at it like this: With pressing needs on the defensive side of the ball and the offensive line, why would the Chiefs use a second-round pick to draft another RB/WR? The reason? New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and head coach Todd Haley love what this guy brings to the table. They can line him up all over the field, as McCluster is a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. His touches will be somewhat limited in 2010, but expect him to be one of the league’s more exciting players.
Demaryius Thomas Wide Receiver Denver Broncos
We’re always a little bit hesitant to get too excited about rookie wide receivers due to the learning curve that comes with the position, but Thomas finds himself in a great spot entering 2010. Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall was traded to Miami this past offseason, so the Broncos currently find themselves with Eddie Royal and Jabar Gaffney as their top two targets. That’s not going to cut it. The 6-3, 229-pound Thomas averaged a ridiculous 25.1 yards per carry with Georgia Tech last year while scoring eight touchdowns on just 46 receptions. He’s got the size and balance to box-out defenders down the field and the speed to challenge some of the game’s top cornerbacks.
Keep in mind: The Broncos threw the football 57.4% of the time in 2009 (14th most in NFL) and Marshall’s departure leaves 154 targets on the table (5th in NFL). Thomas will need some time to adjust to the pro game, but should see enough action to produce some respectable fantasy numbers in 2010.
Ben Tate Running Back Houston Texans
Despite rankin g 4th in total offense (383.1 yds/gm) and 10th in scoring (24.2 pts/gm) last season, the Texans found out they had a big problem at the running back position. Houston ranked 30th in rushing yards per game (92.2), 30th in yards per carry average (3.5) and 18th in rushing touchdowns (13) as second-year back Steve Slaton and the rest of the depth chart failed to deliver time and time again. As a result, Houston went out selected the physical specimen known as Ben Tate in the second round.
At 5-11, 218 pounds, Tate gives the Texans the physical, between the tackles bruiser they so desperately need. He’s a rare blend of power and speed who averaged 5.2 yards per carry for the Auburn Tigers last season on his way to 1,362 rushing yards and ten scores. Be advised that Slaton will still have an important role in the offense, meaning Tate’s overall touches will be limited. However, the upside here is that the 21-year old will likely handle all of the Texans’ goal line carries (Cha Ching!).
Golden Tate Wide Receiver Seattle Seahawks
We weren’t real high on Tate coming out of Notre Dame and our position hasn’t changed. However, much like Demaryius Thomas, Tate finds himself in a great position on a Seattle offense that is desperate for playmakers. Outside of veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Tate will be competing with Deon Butler and Deion Branch for playing time, two guys the second-round pick should be able to beat out. Seattle ranked 3rd in the NFL in pass to run ratio (62.2%) last season and we don’t expect that number to change much knowing the Seahawks defense is likely to give up an abundance of points once again.
The upside here is intriguing for a few reasons. For starters, Tate spent three seasons playing in Charlie Weis’ pro style offense at Notre Dame, meaning he should have a shorter learning curve than some of the other rookie wideouts. In addition, he’s a polished route runner who caught 93 passes for 1,496 yards and 15 scores in just 12 games with the Irish last season, meaning he can make plays despite being the focal point of opposing defense’s game plans. As a bonus, Tate also rushed for 186 yards and two scores on 25 carries in 2009, so expect him to rack up some points in the rushing department as well.
Montario Hardesty Running Back Cleveland Browns
With Jerome Harrison and James Davis both on the roster, it was interesting to see the 5-11 Browns use a second-round pick on Hardesty this past April, especially after Cleveland finished the 2009 season ranked 8th in the NFL in rushing (130.4 yds/gm). New football czar Mike Holmgren must have been as impressed with Hardesty’s game tape as we were, considering the former Tennessee Volunteer has had a history of injuries that concerned many NFL front offices.
Regardless, Hardesty was one of the best downhill runners in this past April’s draft. The 23-year old is a nice combination of speed and power and exhibits the ability to lower his shoulder, break tackles and pick up yards after contact. He rushed for 1,345 yards and 13 scores last season and added another 302 yards on 25 receptions, demonstrating the ability to make plays as a pass catcher out of the backfield as well. If you want an example of what this guy can bring to a football team, look no further than a two-game stretch in November of 2009 when Hardesty carried the ball 71 times for 350 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky. He’ll be splitting touches to start the season, but don’t be surprised if the former Volunteer takes over the job at some point during the year.
Others to monitor
Jermaine Gresham Tight End Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals got little to no production from the tight end position last season, which is why they spent a first-round draft pick on the 6-5, 261-pound beast from Oklahoma. Gresham is a pass-catching specialist who hauled in 66 receptions for 950 yards and 14 scores in 2008 with quarterback Sam Bradford. While he missed the entire 2009 college football season due to a knee injury, fantasy owners should feel comfortable in the fact that Cincinnati (as well as several other teams) cleared him medically and put a first-round grade on him. With wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant stretching the defense on the outside, Gresham should be free to make a living over the middle and in the red zone. He has the potential and skill set to crack the top 20 in scoring among tight ends this season.
Anthony Dixon Running Back San Francisco 49ers
Much like Dexter McCluster, Dixon was another player at last January’s Senior Bowl who made us stand up and take notice. The 6-1, 235-pound bruiser rushed for 1,391 yards and 12 scores at Mississippi State last season despite playing just 11 games and running behind one of the SEC’s worst offensive lines. Fantasy stud Frank Gore will handle the majority of the backfield duties for the 49ers this season and Glen Coffee is expected to get some touches as well. But remember, Gore has only completed one 16-game season in his five-year career. Dixon could end up being a waiver wire stud should something happen to San Francisco’s main offensive weapon.
Arrelious Benn Wide Receiver Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Benn’s disappointing 2009 campaign at Illinois (38 receptions, 490 yards, 2 touchdowns) can mostly be attributed to shaky quarterback play and a bad offense. However, now that Antonio Bryant is gone, the depth chart in Tampa Bay is wide open to the point where Benn is already listed as a starter. The Buccaneers ranked 11th in the NFL in pass to run ratio (58.1%) last season and we expect that number to hold steady as this youthful team continues to play from behind. Benn struggles at times separating from press coverage, but if quarterback Josh Freeman can take the next step in 2010, these two could form a somewhat effective duo. Keep in mind that Benn is a threat on the ground as well, as the wideout carried the ball 55 times for 259 yards and two scores from 2007-2008 at Illinois.
Rob Gronkowski Tight End New England Patriots
At 6-6, 265 pounds, few tight ends in the NFL can match Gronkowski’s size and athletic ability. The former Arizona standout averaged a monster 15.9 yards per reception during his two seasons with the Wildcats while catching a total of 75 passes for 1,197 yards and 16 scores. He’s got a big frame which he uses to box-out defenders down the field and in the red zone and a soft pair of hands that seem to catch just about everything thrown his way.
However, two big problems stand out when projecting Gronkowski’s potential in 2010. First, he missed the entire 2009 season due to a back injury and there are some whispers around the league that he may not be fully recovered. Second, the Patriots signed veteran TE Alge Crumpler and drafted Florida standout Aaron Hernandez this past offseason, so there will be plenty of competition for snaps in New England. He’s got the potential to be a waiver wire surprise, but Gronkowski isn’t draft worthy as of the current moment.
Mardy Gilyard Wide Receiver St. Louis Rams
Projected starters Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton had a combined 72 receptions for five scores in 2009, so it’s safe to say there’s going to be an open competition at the wide receiver position in St. Louis this summer. The Rams were absolutely atrocious on both sides of the ball last year, so owners should expect plenty of garbage time passing from a team that will no doubt be trailing in many games this season (St. Louis ranked 10th in pass to run ratio in 2009 at 58.8%). There will be some growing pains when rookie QB Sam Bradford takes over the offense, but expect the Rams to throw the ball all over the field—something that suits a player like Gilyard (168 receptions for 22 touchdowns from 2008-2009) just fine.
Aaron Hernandez Tight End New England Patriots
Hernandez’s targets will likely be limited in 2010 since the Patriots also have veteran Alge Crumpler and rookie Rob Gronkowski on the roster, but you have to be intrigued in the fact that New England would draft a tight end in the second round and then use another selection in the fourth to land the former Florida standout. Expect the Patriots to use Hernandez in a variety of ways that includes splitting him out into the slot in an effort to utilize his pass-catching abilities. New England loves to use multiple personnel packages in an effort to throw opposing defenses off their scent, so don’t be surprised if Hernandez puts up a respectable stat line in 2010.
Note: Over the past three seasons, no rookie signal-caller has ranked better than 15th (Matt Ryan, 2008) in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks
Sam Bradford St. Louis Rams
Of all the quarterbacks that were drafted in April, Bradford is the only guy with a chance to put up a respectable stat line. Why? Because he’ll crack the starting lineup before anyone else and will likely be throwing for four quarters. Expect growing pains and a lot of interceptions, but Bradford is a smart and accurate quarterback who will eventually catch on in the NFL. The lack of talent around him doesn’t help matters, which is why fantasy owners should stay away from the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Jimmy Clausen Carolina Panthers
We like Clausen’s accurate arm and pro style experience, but Matt Moore is going to start for the Panthers in 2010 and there is no timetable as to when the former Notre Dame signal caller will take over the offense. Even if he does get the nod at some point this season, he’ll go through the same growing pains as Bradford. There are more reliable waiver wire options out there.
Rolando McClain, LB, Oakland Raiders: The former Alabama standout steps right into the starting lineup in Oakland and should be an impact player from day 1. If the front four can keep him clean, expect McClain to be a candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors.
Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: Playing opposite sack-master Trent Cole should be a huge asset to Graham just like playing opposite Dwight Freeney is for Robert Mathis. His playing time may be somewhat limited, but expect plenty of tackles for loss as Graham excels at using his speed to get around the edge.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: What can’t this guy do? He’s a punishing tackler that moonlights as a ball hawk Ed Reed style.
Derrick Morgan, DE, Tennessee Titans: Now that veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch is gone, somebody has to get the sacks in Tennessee. Morgan has great speed coming off the edge and the luxury of playing next to two block-eating defensive tackles in Jovan Haye and Tony Brown.
Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks: A bit undersized, Thomas has excellent speed and coverage skills. He should be able to rack up a nice interception total as opposing offenses look to carve up the Seahawks.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants: Considered a “boom or bust” prospect by many experts, JPP was one of the most freakish athletes in last April’s draft. He’s got good speed and extremely long arms, which should help him to stack and shed at the point of contact. He won’t see as many reps due to the depth at the DE position in New York, but we expect him to make a nice contribution this year.
Daryl Washington, LB, Arizona Cardinals: Keep Washington on your radar and watch to see if he can crack the starting lineup. He’s got the speed to track ball carries from sideline to sideline.
Nate Allen, S, Philadelphia Eagles: A second-round draft pick out of South Florida that flew below the radar during draft season, Allen has the opportunity to win the starting job in Philly now that veteran Marlin Jackson is out for the year. He recorded 80 tackles and five interceptions in 11 games last year.