Ranking the Top Fantasy Rookies of 2013

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJuly 29, 2013

Ranking the Top Fantasy Rookies of 2013

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    Training camps are under way, and among the players getting ready for this season are a new crop of rookies, from first overall pick Eric Fisher to undrafted free agents.

    NFL players aren't the only folks getting ready, though. Fantasy owners everywhere are busily poring over cheat sheets and reading articles in advance of their drafts, hoping to field a team that will lead them to fantasy glory.

    Rookies can be of great help in that regard. Sure, they have added value in keeper and dynasty leagues, but players like running back Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins made quite a fantasy impact in their first NFL season.

    It's unlikely that this year's crop will make the dent that last year's rookie invasion did, but there are still more than a few newcomers who could become valuable fantasy assets in 2013.

    Here's a look at the cream of the crop where this year's fantasy outlook is concerned.

10. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers

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    Heading into the 2012 season, most considered Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen a first-round prospect. However, his production dropped due to injuries and iffy quarterback play. His draft stock followed suit.

    The 6'2", 206-pound Allen fell to the third round of April's draft, where the San Diego Chargers added him to an unsettled wideout corps that includes injury risks Danario Alexander and Vincent Brown and the venerable Malcom Floyd.

    The questions swirling around those receivers may be the ticket to significant playing time for Allen. While he doesn't have blazing speed, he is just the sort of precise route-runner with soft hands that quarterbacks can come to depend on quickly.

    Charles Davis of NFL.com said of Allen, "He plays the game a lot like Anquan Boldin and has hands like Larry Fitzgerald."

    If that hyperbole is even half right, he will be starting sooner rather than later.

    Allen's WR5 fantasy value to start the season may not be especially high, but all it will take is one injury for that value to skyrocket.

9. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Despite the presence of Jermaine Gresham, the Cincinnati Bengals somewhat surprisingly used their first draft pick in 2013 on a tight end, selecting Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert.

    The 6'6", 251-pound Eifert, who won the Mackey Award last year as college football's top tight end, would certainly appear to be an upgrade over Gresham, who finished 2012 as fantasy's 10th-ranked tight end on the strength of 64 catches and five touchdowns.

    The problem, of course, is that Gresham is still there as well, which raises the question of whether Eifert will see enough targets to make a significant fantasy impact as a rookie. With that said, Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports that the Bengals will line Eifert up in different spots in an effort to get him the ball.

    Add to that the fact that the Bengals badly need to find a second pass-catcher to complement A.J. Green, and there's enough upside there to justify a late "lottery ticket" pick with Eifert, especially for teams with an every-week starter like Jason Witten at tight end.

8. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings were a surprise playoff team last year and a wheeler and dealer in the 2013 NFL draft. By the time the team was done, the Vikings had accrued three first-round picks, including one that they used to select Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

    The 6'2", 216-pound Patterson is an athletic freak. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock called him the most explosive offensive player in the draft" after Tavon Austin.

    Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Patterson is also something of a "project" where his route-running is concerned, and the Vikings may work him in slowly.

    If Patterson has a strong camp, he won't stay behind Jerome Simpson for long, but we're still talking about the third option in one of the NFL's worst passing attacks.

    The future is bright, but in the present, Patterson is a late-draft upside play at best.

7. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

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    It seems that almost since the day Houston Texans wideout Andre Johnson became an elite receiver, the team has been looking for a viable second receiver to pair with him.

    The Texans took another stab at it in the 2013 NFL draft, adding Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins in the first round after a 2012 season in which he topped 1,400 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.

    Johnson, for his part, has liked what he's seen of the 6'1", 214-pound Hopkins, telling John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that Hopkins "has a lot of talent. ... I’m going to help him as much as I can."

    Johnson's presence opposite Hopkins will certainly keep the double-teams to a minimum, and Hopkins will start. However, we're still talking about the third passing option for a run-first team and a fantasy WR4 at best in 2013.

6. Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams

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    Zac Stacy is, without question, the most speculative pick on this list. The former Vanderbilt standout could very easily finish well outside the top 10 rookies, or he could just as easily finish within the top five.

    You see, the departure of Steven Jackson has created a very murky backfield situation in St. Louis.

    Isaiah Pead was a massive disappointment as a rookie last year. Fellow second-year pro Daryl Richardson fared better in 2012, but he's not a special talent by any stretch.

    That could potentially open the door for Stacy, a player who Rotoworld's Josh Norris called "a runner who displays great vision with blocks at the second level, strong cuts thanks to a well-built frame and low center, consistent tackle breaking ability when dealing with first contact, and a willingness to stick his nose in on pass protection."

    It basically boils down to whether you think Stacy can take the job and, well, run with it.

    If you don't, stay away.

    If you do, he's a steal at his present asking price on draft day.

5. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Strictly from a talent standpoint, Giovani Bernard may well be the top fantasy prospect in this year's class. The 5'8", 202-pounder's ability to make people miss and catch the ball out of the backfield makes him an intriguing fantasy prospect.

    That ability as a receiver has also caught the eyes of the Cincinnati coaching staff. Geoff Hobson of the team's website points out that the Bengals lined Bernard up at receiver in OTAs in an effort to get the ball into his hands in space.

    However, that doesn't change the fact that Bernard will have to share that ball with BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield in 2013. Green-Ellis topped 1,000 yards last year, and the Cincy ground game has all the makings of a true committee this season.

    You can make the argument that three years from now, Bernard will be the top player from this year's group. But the chips are stacked against him taking home the prize in 2013.

4. Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos

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    There's a lot to like about rookie running back Montee Ball of the Denver Broncos.

    Ball was wildly productive at Wisconsin, topping 1,800 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. The 5'10", 214-pounder has a prototypical feature back build and is a punishing downhill runner with experience in the zone-blocking scheme that the Broncos use.

    Toss in the departure of Willis McGahee, and there's significant fantasy upside.

    There's more than a little risk as well, at least where 2013 is concerned.

    Most of that risk comes in the form of Ronnie Hillman, who entered training camp atop the depth chart in Denver, according to Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post. Simply put, the Broncos aren't going to just hand Ball the job, especially if he struggles in blitz pickups.

    If Ball wins the starting job in camp, he'll shoot up this list. But as things stand right now, the 2012 Doak Walker Award winner is a risk/reward fantasy RB3 for the upcoming season.

3. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    Just about everything I wrote about Montee Ball also applies to Eddie Lacy. Both bruisers fell into potent offenses after prolific and productive collegiate careers.

    Like Ball, Lacy has more than a little fantasy upside in 2013. And just like with Ball, there's a red flag or two.

    The Packers aren't necessarily known for pounding away on the ground, and given that they invested another pick at running back on Johnathan Franklin just two rounds after Lacy, his hold on the starting job isn't ironclad.

    So why is Lacy ranked higher than Ball?

    If the injured toe that caused Lacy's draft-day dip really is 100 percent healed, then the former Alabama star could shine in Green Bay's offense. Sure, the Packers are a throwing team, but Lacy could be devastating in a Stevan Ridley-type role role, gashing tired defenses and closing out games.

    As the NFL Network's Mike Mayock put it, "This guy's a three-down tailback. He'll protect the quarterback. He can carry 20 to 25 times a game. For the Packers, who have been running the ball by committee, this is a perfect pick."

    If Lacy winds up the bell cow in Titletown this year, he'll shatter his draft spot. Even in a timeshare, the 5'11" 230-pound Lacy is worth a look in 2013 as an upside RB3.

2. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams

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    Fantasy football is still very much a running back's game. The early rounds of most drafts this year will be dominated by the position. Still, one rookie who plays a different position managed to crack the top five this year, and that player is likely the most dangerous youngster in the 2013 draft class with a football in his hands.

    Wide receiver Tavon Austin, who torched Oklahoma for a mind-boggling 572 all-purpose yards last year, was drafted eighth overall by a St. Louis Rams team in desperate need of help at the position.

    Via Kevin Patra of NFL.com, Austin told NFL Total Access that he considers himself one of quarterback Sam Bradford's "new toys," saying, "[Bradford] definitely believes in me and I definitely feel good about myself."

    There's reason for fantasy owners to have some faith as well.

    Austin is a danger to score every time he has the rock, and as the Rams' most explosive playmaker on offense, one would think the team will game-plan Austin touches. However, the Rams have added a lot of young receiving talent over the past couple of years, so it may be a touch premature to anoint him Bradford's "go-to" receiver from the start.

    Austin's explosiveness and upside make him an intriguing fantasy pick as a third receiver, but it's also a bit of a risky pick, at least in the short term.

1. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    With all due respect to Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, the former Michigan State star isn't tops on this list because he's the most talented player on it.

    That's not to say that the 230-pound Bell doesn't have talent. He's surprisingly quick for a back of his size, he possesses soft hands and he can run with authority. In fact, he led all FBS rushers with 51 percent of his rushing yardage coming after contact in 2012, according to Brad Evans of Yahoo! Sports.

    What gets Le'Veon Bell the top spot for 2013, though, is the combination of talent and situation. The Steelers ranked a dismal 26th in the NFL in rushing last year, and they spent a second-round pick on Bell to try to remedy that problem.

    There isn't much standing between Bell and a heavy workload in the Steel City, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has already called him "a three-down back," according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Pittsburgh wants to run the ball, and it wants Bell to be "the guy." That combination of skill and opportunity vaults him into RB2 consideration in 2013, making Bell the pick of the rookie litter this season.