Fantasy Football 2012: 7 Rookies Who Will Emerge as Impact Players

Cormac NeesonContributor IJune 19, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: 7 Rookies Who Will Emerge as Impact Players

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    There are few better ways to get an edge in your fantasy football league than picking up rookies who can be instantly productive. Owners who took a chance on Cam Newton, Julio Jones or AJ Green last year were richly rewarded.

    But not every rookie can be a consistent contributor right away, as owners of Mark Ingram, Jonathan Baldwin or Daniel Thomas discovered. With that in mind, here are seven rookies poised for immediate success who can help propel your fantasy team to the championship:

1. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

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    In the land of fantasy football, running backs are king, so it is no surprise that this list is headed by the highest drafted one of 2012.

    Ever since Adrian Peterson tore the league apart as a rookie, first-round running backs have been going high in fantasy drafts as owners try to find the next ‘All Day’. Players like Ryan Mathews, Darren McFadden, Mark Ingram and Knowshon Moreno were highly regarded in fantasy circles before they’d played a single NFL down. All were disappointing as rookies.

    However, if any man is capable of breaking this trend and replicating Peterson’s 2008 impact, it is Trent Richardson.

    In an era when the positional value of running backs continues to slide in the NFL, it speaks volumes that the Cleveland Browns deemed Richardson worthy of the third overall pick.

    It is hard to dispute their judgement. At 5’9” and 228 lbs, Richardson has the ideal build for a RB. He is short enough to have a low center of gravity and give tacklers a small target, but sturdy enough to both absorb and dish out physical punishment.

    Richardson can beat defenders in a variety of ways. He has the agility to leave them tackling nothing but air and enough speed to beat them to the corner. His most impressive attribute, however, is his raw strength.

    In college, Richardson could frequently be seen throwing defenders or dragging them behind him for several yards before finally being brought down. There is more to being a running back than carrying the ball, and Richardson excels in all phases of the game.

    As well as being a tenacious pass protector, he is a polished receiver with nearly one-fifth of his scrimmage yards at Alabama coming on receptions—which boosts his value even further in PPR leagues.

    The situation in Cleveland looks promising for Richardson’s owners.

    The Browns have a strong offensive line led by perennial All-Pro Joe Thomas and road-grading center Alex Mack. The addition of Brandon Weeden and his ability to hit receivers downfield should make defenses think twice about packing the box against Cleveland as they did during Colt McCoy’s tenure.

    There is an ideal fantasy handcuff for Richardson in the form of Montario Hardesty, who is good enough to fill in decently but unlikely to seriously cut into Richardson’s playing time.

    Indeed, given Richardson’s abilities in the passing game it is likely he will stay on the field for all three downs, making him a rarity in today’s NFL: a true workhorse back. In fantasy, production happens when talent meets opportunity and Trent Richardson does not lack for either.

2. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

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    There was a time when rookie quarterbacks were off the radar for fantasy owners. Conventional wisdom held that they needed at least a season to acclimate to the rigors of the NFL—assuming they got on the field at all.

    That notion has recently begun to change as players like Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton became roster players in their first year. Meanwhile Cam Newton exploded onto the scene to instantly become an elite fantasy QB.

    The example of Newton is particularly relevant to Robert Griffin III, as the two share the ability to rack up points both through the air and on the ground.

    A true multidimensional threat boasting a rare mix of arm strength, accuracy and speed, RGIII is the kind of player defensive coordinators dread.

    If a defense loads the box, Griffin will happily sling it deep over their heads. If they drop back in coverage, he can use his legitimate 4.40 speed to rip off massive runs. And if they attempt to both cover the back end and contain the scramble, Griffin has the intelligence and accuracy to carve up the D in the intermediate area of the field.

    If he reaches his full potential, RGIII will be impossible to defend against.

    Of course, fantasy owners in seasonal leagues are not concerned with Griffin’s long-term potential—only with what he can do as a rookie.

    It is unlikely that he will match Cam Newton’s performance. Griffin is not the bruising goal-line runner that Newton is, and has a less impressive stable of backs and receivers to work with.

    However, Griffin has the quick feet and strong arm to quickly become a home-run hitter both through the air and on the ground—particularly if Fred Davis and Pierre Garcon can fulfill their undeniable potential.

    He may not be top three in fantasy points at his position like Newton was as a rookie, but Griffin should be taken late as a low-risk, high-reward backup QB.   

3. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

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    Robert Griffin III is not the only QB poised to make an instant impact in 2012.

    RGIII may be the flashier player with higher upside, but Andrew Luck went ahead of him in the draft because he is regarded as the safest, most pro-ready signal-caller to come out of college since Peyton Manning, whom Luck will fittingly replace in Indianapolis.

    Luck was overshadowed by Griffin’s fireworks display at the NFL Combine, which is slightly unfair as Luck is an exceptional athlete. At 6’ 4” and 235lbs with a 4.6 forty time and a 36 inch vertical leap, he has the measurements of a pass-catching tight end.

    It is not often that you see a quarterback tear off multiple 50-yard runs, force a fumble with a bone-jarring tackle or make a spectacular one-handed catch along the sidelines—all of which Luck did at Stanford.

    It is even rarer to find such a player who is also regarded as an elite pocket passer.

    The long-term future of the Colts would therefore seem to be in good hands and Luck will almost certainly start from Week 1.

    Through no fault of his own, however, Luck’s fantasy stock is a little lower than that of Griffin's. Peyton Manning carried Indianapolis even more than we realized, and his absence last year exposed the shoddy state of the Colts’ roster as they stumbled through a miserable two-win season.

    However, Luck’s situation is better than it might seem at first glance. The Colts managed to retain Reggie Wayne and while the veteran receiver is declining, it is possible that he will be reinvigorated by Luck in the same way that Steve Smith was by Cam Newton.

    When healthy, Austin Collie is an expert navigator of the intermediate zone, which is where Luck does his best work as a passer. He should also be comforted by the presence of college teammate Coby Fleener, who was his favorite target at Stanford.

    And while he’s no Michael Vick, Luck’s ability as a runner should not be underestimated.

    Griffin has the edge in arm strength and speed and is thus the better fantasy prospect for 2012, but Luck is another late-round QB2 with the upside to make his owners very, very happy.     

4. Brian Quick, St Louis Rams

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    Much like quarterback, wide receiver was once regarded as a position that needed a year or two of seasoning before they could be relied on as fantasy contributors.

    But Marques Colston came out of nowhere to have a 1,000-yard season in 2006. Since then players like Eddie Royal, AJ Green and Julio Jones have all gone over 900 yards as rookies.

    Brian Quick may not be the most talented wideout of the 2012 class, but he seems best placed to add his name to that list.

    Quick is set to become the St Louis Rams’ leading receiver right from the off, as the likes of Danny Amendola, Greg Salas and Steve Smith are better suited to complementary roles.

    The Appalachian State product may not be an elite deep threat, but he has every other tool to become a No. 1 wideout. He is a punishing, powerful runner after the catch in the mold of Brandon Marshall or Anquan Boldin. Expect to see Sam Bradford funnel a ton of short passes towards Quick in the hope that the burly receiver can make something out of nothing.

    With soft hands and the demonstrated ability to haul the football in even while getting hit, Quick, with an imposing 6’ 4’’ frame, should make a serious threat in and around the endzone.

    Quick does have several question marks. It’s a big step up from the Southern Conference to the NFL, and he is very raw as a route-runner.

    However, as the likely focal point of the Rams’ passing attack and the innate ability to be a redzone monster, Quick will reward owners who take a late-round flyer on him.

5. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    As first-round running backs go, Doug Martin isn’t the most exciting of prospects.

    He has neither the searing speed of Darren McFadden or Reggie Bush, nor the overwhelming power of Adrian Peterson or Trent Richardson.

    In a way, this is good news for fantasy owners since Martin would seem to be at or near his ceiling. It means that the Buccaneers decided it was worth spending a first-rounder on the player he is now, rather than the player he might become.

    Thus, it seems likely that Martin will step right into a starting role in Tampa Bay—particularly given last year’s disappointing showing by his main competitor, LeGarrette Blount.

    With the possible exception of his excellent lateral agility, Martin doesn’t have any one outstanding attribute that leaps out at you. However, the former Boise State Bronco is a well-rounded back who is at least good at everything.

    His stocky build and initial burst make him a solid inside runner, while his vision and agility make him dangerous in the open field. Martin is also a relatively polished receiver and pass-blocker who will stay on the field for third downs.

    Another factor working in Martin’s favor is Tampa Bay’s free agent spending spree in the offseason.

    Vincent Jackson is a huge receiver who can get downfield in a hurry, and Josh Freeman has the powerful arm to get him the ball. This will force defenses to back off a little, opening up space around the line of scrimmage for Martin to work with.

    The Bucs also bolstered their line by acquiring Carl Nicks, arguably the best guard in the league. Nicks will combine with Davin Joseph to give Tampa Bay a formidable interior partnership that should provide Martin with ample running lanes.

    Doug Martin may not be flashy, but his versatility and favorable situation make him a safe pick as a RB3.

6. Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals

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    As well as being arguably the best wideout in the NFL, Larry Fitzgerald is an intelligent man and the son of a sportswriter. It is fair to say that he knows a thing or two about the wide receiver position.

    It thus reflects very well on Michael Floyd that Fitzgerald publicly lobbied for the Cardinals to draft the Notre Dame standout, getting his wish when Arizona made Floyd the 13th overall selection.

    It is easy to see why Fitzgerald holds his fellow Minnesotan in such high esteem. There is more than a passing similarity between the two in terms of playing style. The 6’ 3” Floyd turned in a 4.4 forty time at the NFL Combine, but there is more to him than an impressive size and speed combination.

    He has the body control and reliable hands to snag the ball and get his feet down along the sidelines or in the endzone, while his long arms and knack for boxing out defenders will serve him well in jump-ball situations. He is also a powerful, tackle-breaking runner after the catch.

    The presence of Fitzgerald will be an enormous help to Floyd. A young receiver would be hard-pressed to find a better mentor to teach him the tricks of the trade. And Floyd will be seeing a lot of single coverage as defenses focus their resources on containing Fitzgerald.

    However, Floyd may be limited by the Cardinal’s situation at quarterback, as neither Kevin Kolb nor John Skelton inspires much confidence as of yet.

    If given competent quarterback play, Floyd will be in a position to do a lot of downfield damage. Take him as your fourth or fifth wide receiver and hope that either Kolb or Skelton gets it together.

7. Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts

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    The tight end position is in the middle of a revolution in the NFL. Teams are moving away from the idea of the TE as an anonymous blocking grunt. Instead, teams are looking for players such as Jimmy Graham who create mismatches in the passing game just by being on the field.

    To do this, a tight end must be big enough to bully cornerbacks and fast enough to outrun linebackers.

    Standing at 6’6” and running a 4.45 forty, no player in the 2012 draft class fits this description better than Coby Fleener.

    The biggest knock on Fleener is that, at 247 lbs, his relatively slender frame limits his effectiveness as a blocker. In a roundabout way, this is good for his fantasy stock. Since Fleener will rarely be called upon to block, he will essentially function as an over-sized wide receiver for the Colts.

    And while playing with a rookie quarterback would normally be cause for concern, the impact is lessened by the fact that Fleener already has three years experience playing with Andrew Luck. The chemistry developed together at Stanford should carry over into the NFL and see Fleener become the go-to guy from Day 1, especially since Luck has shown a predilection for targeting his tight ends.

    Fleener is no mere safety blanket either. As a senior he averaged 19.6 yards per catch and had four receptions of more than 50 yards.

    He also has a nose for the endzone, as demonstrated by 17 touchdowns in his final two years at Stanford.

    Since there is such a plethora of receiving tight ends in the NFL at the moment, Fleener probably shouldn’t be starting in 12-team fantasy leagues. But as a big-play threat with a penchant for hauling in scores, he’s a guy who fantasy owners need to keep a close eye on.