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The Top 10 Fantasy Rookies Worth Watching
David Dorey
May 2, 2011

The NFL draft is perhaps the most optimistic event of the year since all 32 NFL teams selected the very best players possible and so far have all the big expectations of them that you do in August when you assemble your fantasy team. It is a time of high expectations despite knowing that about half of all rookies are outright flops and many if not most of them will not be on an NFL roster come September. The majority of those draftees will not even see a playing field in their first season even if they do make the team.

In the world of fantasy football, rookies take on an even less appealing look since redraft leagues are just looking for players that will perform this year and hopefully better than most in their position. That's going to be hard to find since rookies will need to battle past veterans for playing time. Now granted - every year there are freshman players who exceed expectations and that show up on fantasy teams for a reason. We have been especially fortunate in the most recent couple of years.

This year is very different than all the others. There has been no free agency so teams entered the draft not knowing what veterans they will have available to them and in some cases may have drafted purely for immediate need rather than "the best player available" since the draft is the only control they have had so far. That could result in more rookie activity this year but that all remains to be seen.

Another oddity from 2011 is that for the last ten years, there has been an average of 18 running backs drafted per season. That was a high of 23 (2008) and a low of 14 (2010). This season served a record 29 running backs drafted by a total of 24 teams. There were two backs drafted by Arizona, Dallas, New England, Philadelphia and Washington. And then factor in that the most productive rookie back from 2010 was LeGarrette Blount - an undrafted back. This could end up to be a radically changing year for backfields or at the least, there's going to be a lot of unemployed runners by September.

This is a very early look at the top ten players who hold fantasy interest heading into training camp. All players - rookie or veteran and drafted or undrafted - are worth keeping track of in the summer because every depth chart will be in flux until the final cuts to a 53 man roster. There will be a few surprises and a couple of notable injuries that cause new opportunities. The lack of free agency makes this early of a prediction even more speculative but for now, consider these as your top ten rookies for fantasy drafts. With so many unsettled situations, you really need to keep your eyes open because this should be a year of much change.

Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
New Orleans hopes rookie Mark Ingram will provide a boost to their running attack in 2011.

1. RB Mark Ingram, Alabama (NO - 1.28)

Granted - Ingram was not drafted until the end of the first round but he was the first back taken in the draft and was the consensus best runner of the bunch. The Saints are obviously a pass-first team and they did resign the fragile Pierre Thomas. And Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory are also there. But there was a reason why the Saints used their first pick on a running back. Thomas has been oft-injured as has Reggie Bush who may leave via eventual free agency. Chris Ivory was just the last man standing in 2010. No opponent can stack the line against the Saints rushing game and Ingram is also an accomplished receiver as well. At 5'9" and 215 pounds, he's considered a clone of Emmitt Smith.

2. WR A.J. Green, Georgia (CIN - 1.04)

Not only is Green big (6'4" and 211) and fast, he heads to the Bengals where a makeover is certain to be underway. It appears likely that Chad Ochocinco will be leaving and that Owens won't be back which is exactly why the Bengals used their valuable 1.04 pick on a receiving star who should pay off immediately. Green is likely to be on a young team with veterans including Carson Palmer on their way out, but he'll be a big part of a new era in Cincinnati that starts this season. Green is an all-around talent who will not need much development time.

3. WR Julio JOnes, AlAbama (ATL - 1.06)

The Falcons moved up and paid dearly to grab Jones which speaks volumes about their expectations. Jones is a workout warrior and actually topped some draft boards for wideouts. WIth Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez already in Atlanta, he may not be needed to perform too much this season. And he could play second fiddle to Roddy White which is possible. But do not write off Jones as a certain #2 wideout for his career. Consider the Cardinals who drafted Anquan Boldin with their 2.22 pick and got a great wideout that much exceeded expectations. Then they chose Larry Fitzgerald with their 1.03 pick. White was taken with the Falcon's 1.27 pick in 2005 and is already 30 years old. Jones won't likely out do White this year but beyond that all bets are off. Jones ran a 4.39 at the combine on a broken foot. He'll make the Falcons passing game really shine and that may come at the eventual expense of White.

4. RB Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech (ari - 2.06)

This was a surprise since both Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells are on the roster but the reality was that they offered nearly nothing when the Cardinals needed them the most. Hightower has never been more than an overachieving mediocre player and Wells has squandered his golden opportunity to matter. Williams brings in a nice all-around package with inside power despite only weighing 212 and he's fast enough to take it to the house. The only potential problem is that he has been less than durable in college with hamstring issues. The Cardinals need a rushing game desperately and both Hightower and Wells have already proven not capable of being difference makers. Williams has the opportunity to take over in Arizona if he can remain healthy.

5. RB Daniel Thomas, Kansas State (MIA - 2.30)

The Dolphins traded up to grab the big, 6'1", 228 pound back who may not have blazing speed but can move chains and score touchdowns. Ricky Williams turns 34 and is no lock to make the final roster as is often-injured Ronnie Brown. Thomas may end up as the obvious starter in Miami since even Lex Hilliard cannot believe he is the best option for this team that loves to run the ball. Thomas has a chance to bang out a very nice career here though the Fins have always been dedicated to a committee backfield. Thomas should at least be the goal line back for most of the scores.

6. rb mikel leshoure, illinois (det - 2.25)

This is another small surprise since the Lions tabbed Jahvid Best with their 1.30 pick in the 2010 NFL draft but Best was hampered by injuries nearly the entire season and never rushed for more than 65 yards in any game. Best is only 199 pounds and 5'10" with speed and open field ability his calling card. LeShoure is 6'0" and 227 yards and is a complete runner including a lock for all inside running for the Lions. There is an ever-improving offense being built in Detroit and while Best will remain a factor, that could be nothing more than a "Reggie Bush" type role and LeShoure could do all the heavy lifting, most the running and probably all the short yardage scoring.

7. rb demarco Murray, oklahoma (DAL - 3.07)

Following the trend of adding running backs to an apparent crowded backfield, the Cowboys used their third round pick on the 6'0", 213 pound ex-Sooner. Felix Jones remains but has yet to make good on his expectations. The drafting of Murray should be a death knell for Marion Barber's days in Dallas and Tashard Choice has been unable to make inroads to being a starter. This is yet another situation of a backfield that has disappointed grabbing one of the better backs in the draft just to shake up the roster and find a spark. Murray will get his chance and with the Cowboys also working on their offensive line, he may be in a better situation than may initially appear.

8. rb shane vereen, california (ne - 2.24)

This is going to be a hard draft pick in fantasy leagues because you'll have to make it while crossing your fingers and accepting the fact you'll never know for sure what to think in any particular week. The Patriots are making over their backfield which had become little more than a waiting room for backs filling out their retirement papers. But the Pats still have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead and they also drafted The burly Stevan Ridley only 17 picks later. Vereen is an all-around back and a noted receiver as well but he'll mostly serve to water down whatever happens in New England this season.

9. wr greg little, north carolina (cle - 2.27)

Outside of the red-hot wideouts taken in the first ten picks, any other rookie wide receiver is going to need to land on a team with major receiving needs to be pressed into much duty in their first year. There's no certainty that the 6th wide receiver to be drafted this year matters but at least Little is an imposing 6'3" and 220 pounds and heads to a team that failed to produce any wideout with over 500 yards last year. There is a major opportunity here and Little has a chip on his shoulder after sitting out last year because he accepted gifts from agents (and got caught). Major talent here but he has not played in a year and may be the only talent among the receivers in Cleveland. At the least, the team needs him to perform this year.

10. wr austin pettis, boise state (stl - 3.14)

Pettis was a nice find by the Rams in the third round since he's been a highly productive receiver who can play all three positions and will be a nice threat in the endzone with his 6'3" frame and good hands. Sam Bradford had a thoroughly impressive rookie season in 2010 despite having minimal help from the wide receivers. There is a very nice opportunity in St. Louis that Pettis could start to access as early as this season. Bradford wants help and Pettis joins an otherwise motley crew of wide receivers.

Again - the lack of free agency not only put a spin on the draft this year but it also makes forecasting much more challenging. There are hundreds of veteran free agents to process when the day comes and that will have an obvious bearing. But this was the year of the most running backs drafted since the NFL went to the seven round format. That means you have 29 chances to have the right rookie runner - assuming he isn't an undrafted player like last year.

I also did not mention quarterbacks in this because it is highly unlikely any rookie quarterback will perform to the level of a fantasy starter. The first six quarterbacks drafted all have upside and land in situations that should see them getting a chance to start as early as this year. Cam Newton is the only player likely to be a starting quarterback as early as week one and should the lockout continue and prevent rookies from getting much needed practice and training, then all bets are off on what any of them can do this year.

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