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Rookies to target in 2011 drafts

Scouting and drafting rookies in fantasy football is akin to going out on a first date: You have some high hopes for the payoff at the end of the night, but you're usually left on the doorstep with the door closing in front of you.

Let's see if we can give you some advice so you don't go out on draft day with a loaded weapon, a la Something About Mary. (Ew, gross.)

Before you dive head first into the unknowns think about this: What makes a rookie intriguing? Talent, sure. Situation, yes. Opportunity, all right. And supporting cast, potentially.

All of that lies more in the realm of perception than reality.

Rookie quarterbacks might be the most hyped and worthless picks of all. Heck, they are hardly worth waiting three-plus years for in keeper leagues.

Only once this century has a rookie passer finished among the top 12 scoring QBs in fantasy (basically a viable starter). That was Vince Young in 2006, when he threw more picks than TDs and barely finished 12th -- only because he was second to Michael Vick in rushing yards at the position and scored a league-best seven rushing TDs.

If a team is starting a rookie at quarterback, it almost certainly isn't any good. Despite the hope for throwing from behind, bad teams don't tend to render good fantasy quarterbacks.

Rookie receivers can surprise us, but usually they come out of nowhere. It isn't the highly regarded ones that post the best numbers. Very few drafted the Bucs' Mike Williams a year ago. Anyone picking a Bucs rookie receiver last August was going for Arrelious Benn, not Williams.

It was Williams who sneaked up with 11 TDs and almost 1,000 yards. So, yes, rookie receiver picks can hit for you, like Anquan Boldin did so spectacularly in '03 as the fourth-highest scorer at the position. Usually, though, the best rookie receiver picks are the ones from the depths of the draft or off the waiver wire -- not the ones off the top shelf.

Tight ends can do it, too, but they are like poor man's receivers. They usually do it out of the woodwork. A year ago, everyone gushed about the talent of Aaron Hernandez and his potential connection with Tom Brady. But it was another rookie behind Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, who wound up being the fifth-highest scoring tight end in fantasy.

You would think a running back could produce right away. But then all of you should remember how last preseason saw the Chargers' Ryan Mathews hyped up as high as Round 1 in some drafts. He went in the top 30 overall in almost every league.

Mathews wasn't even the No. 1 scoring back on his own team -- Mike Tolbert was -- and he finished 32nd in scoring, but not overall ... at the running back position.

You just cannot accurately project where those rookie gems are going to come from, so it makes it nearly impossible to score great value with them in your draft.

Historically, there are some success stories, though. For all of the rookie disappointments like Mathews, C.J. Spiller, Knowshon Moreno, Darren McFadden, Kevin Smith, Marshawn Lynch -- all blah as rookies -- there are some Adrian Petersons or Chris Johnsons. They are clearly more of the exception than the rule, though.

After all this criticism of the perceived diaper dandies, let's see if there are any worthwhile additions from the 2011 rookie class. Just know the caveat emptor, buyer beware; these rookies don't come with a one-season warranty.

Here are the top 10 rookies going off the board in drafts. Like we said, most won't produce on the level of their draft position, but you need to be made aware of the names, so you don't go "Who dat?" when their names are called.

1. RB Mark Ingram, Saints (Average draft position: No. 54)

It wasn't as clear today as it was a week ago -- and you think Week 1 of the preseason doesn't make a difference. Ingram was clearly the class of this draft class and he was supposed to wind up in a sweetheart situation in Miami, with no real challenger to his touches. He will have to contend with veteran Pierre Thomas and the fact the Saints like to spread the ball around so much, but Ingram is looking more and more like he will be a significant starting point for the wide-open Saints offense.

Ingram, the son of former Giant and Dolphin Mark Ingram, has pedigree, talent and now circumstance. He is going to be soaring up from his current draft position as we move along this preseason.

2. RB Daniel Thomas, Dolphins (ADP: 61)

Everyone thought the Dolphins would pick Ingram in Round 1. Instead, the Dolphins waited to make Thomas the fifth running back off the board late in Round 2.

Still, Thomas came out of the lockout with the promise of being the first rookie picked in fantasy, but the Dolphins are somehow trying to justify Reggie Bush as the starting back. Thomas can still be the bulldozer and goal-line back, but he doesn't offer the same high ceiling now. We all know Bush is going to get hurt, so Thomas could rise back up in-season.

3. RB Ryan Williams, Cardinals (ADP: 88)

If there is a breakthrough star of this class, it could be Williams. He opened the preseason as the backup to Beanie Wells, but Williams is far more of a game-changer with his game-breaking speed. Wells is going to do the heavy lifting, but he is as much of an injury risk and a young bust as anyone at the position.

Ironically, it was Williams' 40 time that cause him to slip into Round 2 of the NFL draft, as the second back taken shortly after Ingram.

"I think 40 speed and game speed are two different things," he told draft reporters.

He is absolutely right. Williams could really prove to be the best rookie value, relative to draft position. You just might have to wait a little longer on production with him than Ingram or Thomas.

4. WR Julio Jones, Falcons (ADP: 96)

Jones has been impressive in camp to most observers. The sixth overall draft pick has a great situation before him as a running mate to the already-elite Roddy White in the Matt Ryan-led Falcons offense.

Ryan is going to have a huge year. Big, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and fast, 4.34 40, Jones is going to be a significant part of that.

The Falcons paid dearly to trade up to get him, so we have to figure they are seeing some outstanding potential. They have been thrilled with his potential so far.

5. RB Roy Helu, Redskins (ADP: 105)

Helu dropped into the fourth round, but there are merely mediocre options ahead of him on the Redskins' depth chart. Tim Hightower has taken the reins from Ryan Torain -- reins from Torain, funny -- and Keiland Williams is now playing fullback. Helu has a chance to emerge from their shadows and be a productive fantasy back.

Helu is battling sixth-round pick Evan Royster for backup time right now, but you have to figure the higher pick is going to win out. Royster, the rookie out of Penn State, is interesting later on draft day, though.

6. WR A.J. Green, Bengals (ADP: 108)

The post-lockout roster movement could have made Green the No. 1 rookie to target in drafts. After all, he was first non-QB skill-position player picked after Cam Newton went No. 1 overall.

But the promise of playing with a mediocre rookie in Andy Dalton for a potentially terrible Bungles team is not promising at all.

Going into the draft, Green looked like a good bet to be a significant fantasy contributor in Year 1, too.

If Green was in Jones' situation in Atlanta, we might have been inclined to rank Green as the No. 1 rookie to target. On talent alone, Green is a future star. This year, however, it will be tough for him to produce with the junk around him.

7. RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys (ADP: 120)

Murray was going to take a chunk out of Felix Jones' value in Dallas, but a hamstring injury has limited him in camp, and the Cowboys are now expecting big things from Jones as their starter. Jones has already served his apprenticeship behind Marion Barber. Now, it is Murray's turn to do the same.

Murray is going to fly up these charts if he gets healthy and Jones falls flat or is injured. There is sleeper potential here, but Murray enters the season more of a Jones handcuff than a potential star.

8. RB Delone Carter, Colts (ADP: 144)

Carter has talent, but the fact he is sitting behind Joseph Addai (who just got a large contract) and Donald Brown is making Carter a bit overdrafted at this point. That Colts offense hardly has enough for one back, much less three.

There is potential this year and beyond, so consider Carter late. Just don't expect much in the way of production out of the gate.

9. QB Cam Newton, Panthers (ADP: 155)

This is not a criticism of the makeup and talents of the No. 1 overall pick; this is a measure of our disdain for all rookie QBs in fantasy. They just provide little bang for the buck. That's really all any of them are worth in fantasy, a buck.

Newton, though, has something former Titan Vince Young had: rushing touchdown potential. Remember, Young is the only rookie quarterback this century to sneak up as high as No. 12 among fantasy scorers at the position. Newton is the next Vince Young, and that really doesn't sound like much, but it is actually better than nothing. (Young is a great sleeper behind injury risk Vick in Philly, by the way.)

10. WR Greg Little, Browns (ADP: 192)

And after pooh-poohing rookie QBs, we promote a potential breakthrough of a sophomore one in Colt McCoy. McCoy could surprise in fantasy this season and a third-round wideout, Little, from North Carolina could be the beneficiary.

He is likely the last of the rookies who should be picked in a standard fantasy league. He hasn't been great in camp, though, and is coming off a year's suspension at North Carolina for accepting improper benefits. We wouldn't suggest picking him outside of keeper leagues, but the masses are at 192 overall.

Just off the board:

1. K Alex Henery, Eagles (ADP: 199) -- It is surprising a Super Bowl contender is going with a rookie kicker, but veteran David Akers didn't work out so well in the postseason last January either.

2. RB Shane Vereen, Patriots (ADP: 203) -- He was the third RB picked this past April (right before Mikel Leshoure (out for the season, Achilles'). He might not be the best rookie on his own team. Stevan Ridley is setting the world ablaze after an impressive showing in the first preseason game.

3. WR Titus Young, Lions (205) -- He is not going to be a primary or even a secondary option for his team, but if Matthew Stafford takes off and everyone focuses in on Calvin Johnson, Young could be a sneaky-good fantasy option. Long term, his situation looks promising.

4. RB Kendall Hunter, 49ers (216) -- This was one of our favorite backs going into the draft, but having to play for a subpar offense and behind an elite guy like Frank Gore limits his value. If something happens to Gore (again?), look out, though.

5. WR Jonathan Baldwin, Chiefs (219) -- If not for the Chiefs adding Steve Breaston in the brief post-lockout offseason, Baldwin would have been a lot higher on this list. There is talent here, but the Chiefs are one-trick pony-like with their passing game going through Dwayne Bowe. They want to change that, but Breaston is the more likely beneficiary this year.

6. QB Andy Dalton, Bengals (228) -- He shows up here only because he is the starter right now, something that cannot yet be said for Newton. If you asked us before the draft, Dalton would be the sixth-best draft product at the position. He is the lone one starting, albeit for a bad, bad team.

7. WR Leonard Hankerson, Redskins (238) -- The 'Skins don't have an intriguing quarterback, but Hankerson is a big target who could develop a little niche for himself playing off the spry Santana Moss. The 'Canes connection can certainly help Hankerson surprise.

8. RB Stevan Ridley, Patriots (NR) -- Keep watching him this preseason, just don't overrate it. He is still behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and perhaps eventually Vereen on the depth chart.

9. RB Bilal Powell, Jets (NR) -- Speaking of being buried on the depth chart. Shonn Green, LaDainian Tomlinson and perhaps Joe McKnight block this fourth-rounder out of Louisville. The fact the Jets run the football makes Powell someone to track, though.

10. RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons (NR) -- This burner could earn some time for a great running team, if Michael Turner gets hurt. Turner looks thicker and thicker every year, so perhaps injury could find him. Rodgers could be the beneficiary.

11. WR Torrey Smith, Ravens (NR) -- He would have been a starter and higher on this list if not for the trade last week for Lee Evans (who becomes a sleeper now). Smith can be a decent third wideout in the Ravens offense and a decent developmental pick. Joe Flacco clearly has an up arrow on his career.

12. RB Jamie Harper, Titans (NR) -- Javon Ringer is the handcuff for the holdout Chris Johnson, but Harper should be Ringer's handcuff. Harper will be more of a plodder than a slasher, though.

13. RB Jordan Todman, Chargers (NR) -- If Mathews falls flat again, perhaps Todman can be the lightning to Tolbert's thunder in that potent Chargers offense.

14. WR Greg Salas, Rams (NR) -- He was in a run-and-shoot offense in Hawaii and he gets the career connection with burgeoning star Sam Bradford. But it is a crowded situation in St. Louis, with so many interchangeable receivers. The good news is they are all mediocre.

15. TE Kyle Rudolph, Vikings (NR) -- We had to have one tight end on the list. Believe us, the '10 rookie success of Gronkowski and Hernandez are exceptions, not the rule. Donovan McNabb does love the tight end, though. If Visanthe Shiancoe doesn't get it done, the Notre Dame product Rudolph might.

You will notice our Top 25 rookies to target doesn't include first-round quarterbacks Jake Locker (Titans), Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars) or Christian Ponder (Vikings). Don't draft them. It will take them years to be fantasy viable at the position. Heck, Ryan Mallett might be as good as any of them, but does anyone really see him playing in New England as long as Tom Brady is alive and kickin'?

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com and will outline all the news and nuggets game-by-game every week of the NFL season in his fantasy version of the Monday morning quarterback. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ON SALE: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

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