As the 2011 fantasy football season draws to a close, it's never too early to consider your draft options for 2012, and take away some lessons while the battle scars are still fresh.
As happens every season, some of this year's rookies couldn't match their high expectations while other rookies exceeded theirs.
I analyzed the scenarios around the league for this rookie class, assessed their likely future situations and arrived at a list of rookies who are most likely to be high-impact fantasy players next year.
Athletic, a beast to bring down, but not a polished passer. That's Tim Tebow.
Add a stronger arm and a legit No. 1 wide receiver to throw to, and that's Cam Newton.
Flouting the fantasy football rule that rookie quarterbacks cannot be fantasy stars, Newton quietly posted the fourth-best QB fantasy points per game through Week 14 in standard Yahoo scoring, ahead of more touted passers like Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Such success has been due to his ability to rack up points running the ball. The collateral damage of Newton's running ability has been the decreased reliance this year on running back DeAngelo Williams—even after Williams signed a five-year, $43 million contract.
With a full offseason ahead for Newton and WR Steve Smith, and understanding that running QBs are more prone to injury, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera will likely expand the passing playbook.
He will lean a little less on Newton and more on Williams for the ground game. Newton will be expected to pick up the subtle nuances of the QB position over the winter and he has both the coachability and competitiveness to dedicate himself to improving his passing.
Even so, the Panthers coaching staff would be foolish to completely eliminate a valuable asset of Newton's game. And with Smith and tight end Greg Olsen as two strong passing weapons, expect Newton to offset any reduction in rush production with more passing production and remain a high-end fantasy QB next year.
If the name Mikel Leshoure doesn't ring a bell, it will next year.
The rookie disappeared from the fantasy landscape when he tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason. Prior to that, the Detroit Lions raved about how exceptional he had been both physically and mentally in camp and that they had big plans for him.
Incumbent, but fragile, RB Jahvid Best is still recovering from a concussion and has had a history of concussions dating back to his collegiate days at California. With that kind of medical log for Best, his future (and his role) with the team is uncertain.
Whether or not Best returns, Leshoure has an excellent opportunity to wrest the lead role in the Lions running game next year and make a substantial impact in the fantasy landscape.
Leshoure is a big back similar to Rashard Mendenhall who can run over defenders while also having burst and juice in the open field. This skill set makes him valuable in the red zone as well.
When retread RBs like Kevin Smith can run well for the Lions, Leshoure will certainly flourish.
The "Shanahanigans" are over.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan declared Roy Helu as the primary ball carrier and backed up the declaration by handing Helu the rock 23 times each in Weeks 12 and 13, and an amazing 27 times in Week 14.
No more Ryan Torain or Tim Hightower and only a smattering of fellow rookie Evan Royster.
Helu responded by running for over 100 yards in each of those three games, making him the sixth-highest RB in average fantasy points per game in that stretch.
While not known as a receiver, he also demonstrated he has some ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He racked up seven receptions for 54 yards in Week 12 and another four receptions for 42 yards in Week 13.
Helu won't be a sexy pick next year, but Shanahan-featured RBs have a track record of solid, if not fantastic, fantasy production.
After bursting onto the scene with 253 rushing yards in Week 7 and following that up with 139 and 135 yard performances in Weeks 9 and 10, rookie DeMarco Murray has fallen precipitously off the fantasy map.
He couldn't crack 100 yards rushing in either of Weeks 11 and 12 and produced only 38 and a paltry 31 total yards in the last two weeks before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Teammate Felix Jones, who underwhelmed in the first five games of the season, took over for Murray and ran well in his place.
Does this spell the end of Murray's fantasy significance for next year?
Not in the least.
For one thing, Felix Jones is injury-prone, playing all 16 games in a season just once in his career. Furthermore, Jones will be in the last year of his contract next year, which would give the Cowboys incentive to give Murray every opportunity to play so the front office will know whether or not they need to upgrade at RB in the 2013 NFL draft.
Given the at-times dominating flashes that Murray displayed in his rookie year, it would not be wise to discount him in 2012 fantasy drafts.
A.J. Green has been productive, but not sensational. At least not sensational in the sense of having "blow-up" games (over 150 yards and/or multiple TDs in a game) like fellow rookie WR Torrey Smith.
That might be keeping the rookie Green from being a sexy pick in next year's drafts.
That's good for you.
Consider that a general rule of thumb for fantasy owners is to downgrade rookie WRs.
The reason is first-year wideouts struggle to learn the offense, earn trust from their QBs and separate from NFL-quality defenders, making them inconsistent options. What very few fantasy owners realize is that A.J. Green has been the amazing exception to that rule of thumb.
So far this year, impressively, no other WR has fewer single-digit games (in Yahoo standard scoring, non-PPR) than the rookie Green. He only has three such games.
That's right: Wide receivers like Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, etc—all have more "fail" games than Green.
Talk about consistency...it's a fantasy owner's dream.
Yes, it's true that Green hasn't had a "blow-up" game (over 150 yards and/or multiple TDs in a game).
But if you want to pencil in consistent, productive numbers every week in your lineup and sleep like a baby, A.J. Green is your guy.
Plus, as the undisputed No. 1 WR on his team, you know he's going to get the targets. In 2012, with a full offseason to improve his game and work with fellow rookie QB Andy Dalton, Green will certainly give you a few of those blow-up games to go along with that consistency, making him a viable WR1 without requiring the expense of a high draft pick.
Unlike A.J. Green, Julio Jones has had two huge games: 131 yards and two TDs in Week 9, and a 104 yard and two TD show just this past weekend in Week 14.
Unfortunately, the rookie Jones has also had several disappearing acts, including a meager 29 yards in Week 2, 16 yards in Week 5 and just nine yards in Week 10. What's worse is that teammate Roddy White continues to have more targets (averaging 10.6) than Jones (6.9 average).
So how does Jones make the list then?
Keep in mind that inconsistency is the norm for a rookie WR, especially when playing alongside a veteran WR. Calvin Johnson as a rookie had games of three yards, 17 yards and 37 yards. But Johnson went from 48 total catches for 756 yards and four TDs in his rookie season (when Roy Williams was the No. 1 Lions wideout) to 78 catches, 1,331 yards and 12 TDs in his sophomore season.
Julio Jones is on pace for 46 catches for 825 yards and five TDs (with White as the No. 1 Falcons wideout)...very similar rookie numbers and situation to "Megatron."
I'm not suggesting Julio Jones is the next Calvin Johnson, but you can be certain a stronger sophomore season is in store for the talented Falcons rookie.
Since White will still be listed No. 1 on the Atlanta depth chart in 2012, Jones won't be highly touted in fantasy rankings next year, but he will be just as productive as White (if not outperform White) at the price of a lower-round draft pick.
While A.J. Green and Julio Jones were already-heralded rookie WRs (fourth and sixth overall picks in the NFL draft respectively), 58th draft pick Torrey Smith flew completely under the radar in fantasy until his 152-yard, three-TD blow-up in Week 3. Like Jones, Smith has been inconsistent this rookie season.
But Smith has already outproduced Jones in yardage (693-670) and TDs (6-4). And, believe it or not, Smith's numbers (46 rec/852 yds/7 TDs) are on pace to actually edge out Hakeem Nicks' rookie year numbers (47 rec/790 yds/6 TDs).
Interestingly, Smith led his team in targets in Week 14 and the team also looked for him in the red zone, which is a good thing for a stretch-the-field WR like Smith. Both of those hidden facts are useful indicators of the team's growing confidence in Smith as the top passing weapon.
Next season, Smith will take over the No. 1 WR role on the Ravens from Anquan Boldin sometime in the regular season, if not by the end of training camp.
The experts will likely call him a sleeper for next year's fantasy drafts, but ignore that mumbo-jumbo.
He won't be a sleeper.
He'll be a rising star.
Yes, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder have gotten mostly positive spin for performing fairly well as rookie QBs not named Newton—and rightly so.
But the rookie QB not named Newton with the biggest upside for next season is Jake Locker.
We've only gotten two extensive looks at Locker, in Weeks 11 and 14 due to...surprise!... Matt Hasselbeck's injuries—and Locker has been surprisingly impressive.
Despite Tebow-like completion percentages, Locker has thrown for 422 yards, rushed for 47 yards and notched four total TDs (three passing, one rushing). And Locker has compiled 107.3 and 91.5 passer ratings even without Kenny Britt, making Nate Washington a fantasy star in both those games.
Locker's numbers would make him the fifth-best fantasy QB (Dalton and Ponder would be 19th and 18th, respectively). And unlike Dalton and Ponder, Locker didn't start a single game, yet produced despite not getting first-team reps in practice.
The two reasons that Locker is an honorable mention and not officially on the list are:
1. The sample size of his body of work is very small. He did play against an above-average defense as well as a below-average defense, so we did see him against two different levels of competition. Nevertheless, portions of two games cannot give a completely accurate picture.
2. Hasselbeck is likely still going to be the starter next season.
Locker has a higher ceiling than Dalton or Ponder and is in a better situation than Colt McCoy, but Locker will have to wait for his time.
Waiting may be beneficial for Locker, but not so great for fantasy owners.