Targeting Rookies in your Fantasy Draft
The three day party at Radio City Music Hall is now well behind us. Stress levels were high, but for many college football stars, their dreams finally came true. For the most part, each draftee said the right thing and embraced their new digs, making it clear they are hungry and ready to work. Yes, even Johnny Football is behaving so far.
But not everyone feels the positive energy oozing from draft day. Some league veterans see their job security compromised and some resent the implied direction their team is going based on draft selections. Andre Johnson has been one of the more outspoken league veterans, hoping for a ticket out of Houston after being displeased with his team's draft effort. If only Johnson had an opportunity to work with a top-tier quarterback (or had a complimentary wide receiver during his career). We'll put the Andre man crush aside for the moment and focus on this year's rookie class.
As we learn year after year, the draft (while filled with feel good stories and players ready to break on the NFL scene) is loaded with players that will end up being a bust. Whether it be injury, the wrong team fit or inability to translate their talent to the NFL level, many of the new names we select at the back end of this year's fantasy drafts will be forgotten names a few years from now; It's just the nature of the business. While the average career length of NFL prospects drafted in the first round is nine years, the overall average career length is 3.5 years. Fortunately, player longevity is a not a concern when it comes to deciding which rookies deserve a stash on your rosters.
For the high volume fantasy owners, be cautious of going too far all-in on any one rookie early in the drafting season. As the season gets closer, you will likely have a more defined list of rookies you are comfortable rolling with. Avoid getting emotionally tied to any one player before training camp. Instead, allocate a minimum 10% of your roster space to a wide range of rookies that have a realistic path to an immediate role. For the 2014 Rotobowl, be comfortable owning two or three rookies on your 20 man roster, and be prepared to drop them in favor of rookies on the free agent waiver wire as opportunities arise.
There will be peaks and valleys in their development, as well as consensus expectations that you can use to your advantage (think Eddie Lacy in 2013). There were two weeks in August 2013 where DuJuan Harris was the 'starter' and the paparazzi was having fun with Lacy's weight. Those were the optimal weeks to draft Lacy. Rookie Average Draft Position will often fluctuate wildly, so watch for sudden movement that are overstated. If you have a sleeper you really want to load up on, try to schedule your drafts when you know "your guys" are out of favor. You'll hopefully get additional value out of drafting your key rookie sleepers as their ADP trends downward.
Don't be scared off rookie running backs that look locked into potential back-up roles or time shares, especially on run first teams. RBs generally have the easiest transition to the NFL of all the skill position players. Pay attention to pass protection reviews and implied usage in the receiving game. Rookie RBs that acclimate to the NFL passing game quickest will find the field more. There will be a handful of worthy fantasy picks in the second half of your draft (and later via free agent pick up) that many will scoff at which could end up paying huge dividends during a long season filled with injuries and bye weeks.
Wide receivers and tight ends historically have battled a greater learning curve once hitting the NFL scene. And while most receivers are said to hit their stride in year three at the earliest, the league has changed and more is expected immediately. Still, the vast majority of rookie receivers are wildly inconsistent, making for painful lineup decisions when you drafted them to be a weekly starter. Be leery of chasing big name rookie receivers that will get heavy preseason hype (like Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks). Realize that starter production is already priced into where they will likely fall. A promising 2nd year wide receiver is a wiser choice in the first half of your draft as they have already experienced the growing pains that come with being a rookie. Instead, view rookie receivers as depth in the later rounds. When you take shots on rookie WRs and TEs after round 10, there are no expectations priced in. If they fail, you drop them.
Rarely does a rookie QB come along that is roster worthy out of the gate. Not every rookie class has an Andrew Luck or Cam Newton. With that said, taking a flier on someone bucking the trend in the last rounds of the draft never hurt anybody. If you want to take a shot, just make sure he's a 3rd string QB on your roster.
Also consider rookies on teams that have no star power. The Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers (Newton excluded) and Oakland Raiders are all examples of teams that lack a go-to top tier player that garner specific game planning against. There is a clear path to heavy production on these teams if one of their draft picks show they are worthy.
Keeping in mind that we are more than three months from the start of the season and everything can and will change. Here's a handful of rookies that I have a preliminary soft spot in my heart for:
TRE MASON - RB ST. Louis Rams- If you watched Auburn's BCS National Championship run, your surely fell in love with Mason's ability to run the rock. Compared to Ray Rice, Mason runs low to the ground, is deceptively illusive and can catch (although was not utilized much as a receiver in college). He runs hard through the line and showed he can be a workhorse despite his less than ideal RB frame. He will likely fall in drafts because Zac Stacy finished 2013 as one of the Ram's bright spots, but look for Mason to make the most of his touches and possibly unseat Stacy as the starter sooner rather than later. TARGET AS A RB3
CARLOS HYDE - RB San Francisco 49ers- Frank Gore has been a fantasy darling for the last decade, but the tank is almost empty. Enter Carlos Hyde, who looks to be the perfect fit for the 49ers' pounding mentality. Hyde is a well rounded RB generating enormous power through the line, can pass protect and receive. Gore won't relinquish his starting role without a fight, but expect him to be a good mentor for Hyde as his transition to back up picks up speed throughout the season. For those concerned about Marcus Lattimore being in the mix, the 49ers likely would have passed on Hyde had they thought Lattimore was completely recovered from his three torn knee ligaments. TARGET AS A RB3
BISHOP SANKEY - RB Tennessee Titans- Sankey joins a backfield led by Shonn Greene (who is coming off knee surgery). If there were ever a perfect situation for a rookie RB to get an opportunity and run with it, this is it. Sankey has a nice burst and could easily find himself in line for the majority of touches if he breaks a few early in the season. The only concern here is that drafters may chase Sankey too far up the board. TARGET AS A RB3
TERRANCE WEST - RB Cleveland Browns- West is a tricky one, but if he stays on the board until round 12, grab him (especially as a Ben Tate handcuff as he always seems to have nagging injuries). West is a big back that handled a heavy load with 439 touches in 2013 at Towson. With Josh Gordon likely suspended for the entire season, the Browns will be forced to grind out games with defense and ball control. West is certainly a sneaky sleeper. TARGET AS A RB4
JORDAN MATTHEWS/JOSH HUFF - WR Philadelphia Eagles - With Desean Jackson out of the picture and Chip Kelly running the show, there will be opportunities for Eagle receivers to light up the fantasy scoreboard. Matthews, who is the cousin of Hall of Famer Jerry RIce, could settle in as a slot receiver or even get looks on the outside given that Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper are no sure things. Huff was one of Kelly's own at Oregon and also possesses the skills to be a high volume slot receiver. Kelly thought enough to look past Huff's off the field problems and draft him, meaning he should be a rookie receiver on your radar. Monitor their progress in training camp, but both are worth fliers in the second half of your draft. TARGET BOTH AS A WR5.
JARVIS LANDRY - WR - Miami Dolphins - With the caveat that rookie receivers are generally slow to develop, Landry has the feel of one that could significantly exceed expectations. Both Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline have played long enough that we know what they are. Wallace, while less productive than he should be, still gets heavy coverage. Hartline makes an occasional big play, but is a middle of the road NFL receiver. With Ryan Tannehill looking to flourish in his third year, you better believe he is secretly hoping Landry will develop into his guy. Expect Landry to line-up all over and make a run at leading the Dolphins in receptions this year. TARGET AS A WR5.
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