Welcome to the first installment of the Rookie Report, a weekly column where we'll discuss the fantasy potential and future ramifications of this year's crop of rookies.
History suggests that when analyzing NFL rookies, the main focus always falls on the running back position. Usually a running back is drafted with the idea that he'll either start right away or, at the very least, be part of a committee. With quarterbacks you have a steeper learning curve, as it takes time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. As a result, it's rare for a rookie quarterback to see anything more than spot duty during his first season. This season, however, is the exception. With wide receivers, there's the now-infamous third year breakout theory. However, there are exceptions to every rule. Last season guys such as Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall experienced breakouts in Year 2. That means you have to be ahead of the curve if you want to win.
In this first piece, we'll introduce you to a number of the NFL rookies who are starters, committee members or who may eventually produce solid fantasy returns. As the season progresses, we'll likely narrow the focus each week to a number of rookies actually making said impact and how you should treat them as far as your roster is concerned.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan will be handed the reins in Week 1. The question, though, is whether that's an indication about how ready and prepared Ryan is for the NFL, or just how awful the other choices were. Seems it is a combination of both. The knock on Ryan is he doesn't possess the arm strength of a true gunslinger. What Ryan does have is all the intangibles. His in-game IQ and field intelligence are well ahead of many quarterbacks at this stage. He's a leader who will command respect in the huddle from his very first snap. From a fantasy perspective, he's likely not ready to make an impact in the NFL in 2008 while leading a predominantly run-first offense, which, outside of Roddy White, isn't blessed with explosive weapons in the passing game.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
At 6-foot-7 and 236 pounds, Flacco can easily see the field, has excellent pocket presence and his arm has been called a howitzer. The negative, of course, is the level of competition he was exposed to in college, as well as the fact that Delaware's mostly shotgun offense is very different from being under center in the NFL. The good news for Flacco is that he enters a run-first offense that will not put a great deal of pressure on him to lead them down the field. Potential breakout receiver Mark Clayton, sure-handed veteran Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap make for an extremely productive trio of weapons. He's still a rookie, so counting on production this year is an extremely risky proposition. Look at the rookie seasons for such quarterbacks as Elway, Manning and Marino, and you won't see a guy who'll lead you to the promised land. As for the future, if his learning curve matches his skill set, it purports to be extremely bright.
Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins
Henne possesses a strong arm and can stretch the field with wide sideline throws as well as deep balls. While not the ideal size (6-foot-2, 225 pounds), Henne makes up for it with toughness and his ability to read and breakdown defenses. Joining the worst team in football is never a promising proposition for a young player, but when you combine Chad Pennington's recent history of injury with the fact there's a reason new general manager Bill Parcells opted for Henne in the draft, there's a chance he could be the starting quarterback before the close of the '08 season. With a hopefully healthy Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the backfield, and speedster Ted Ginn Jr. lining out wide, Henne has some options in the passing game. A rookie quarterback is never a good bet for current production, but Henne could be very useful in '09 and beyond.
Brian Brohm, Green Bay Packers
Brohm's mechanics are ready to play, as are his above average arm strength, great touch and ability to hit receivers in stride. In addition, Brohm has great football smarts, a strong work ethic and the ability to read defenses very well. He ran a complicated offense in college, so he should be a quick study for an NFL West Coast offense. The negative for Brohm is that the Packers have been grooming Aaron Rodgers to be Favre's replacement for three seasons. With a solid running attack led by Ryan Grant, and with star receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings aboard, Brohm would be afforded weapons no other rookie quarterback can boast should Rodgers struggle or get injured. Like most rookie quarterbacks, his prognosis for this season is rather bleak since playing time will be an issue. The future not only depends on Brohm's development, but also on how Rodgers fills the immense shoes of Brett Favre.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
McFadden begins the season as the complement to Justin Fargas. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds McFadden has elite speed (4.33 40-yard dash) to get around the corner and that extra gear to take it to the house. While McFadden has excellent upper body strength, some question his leg drive and ability to move the pile and break tackles. In the Raiders, he joins a team in a rebuilding mode. With a weak offensive line and a quarterback with all of 66 career pass attempts under his belt, running room might be sparse. In addition, the presence of Fargas and Michael Bush on the roster might create a small logjam for touches. Rest assured, Al Davis won't let his prize go unutilized. While not this year's Adrian Peterson, McFadden could be very productive this year and his athleticism on third downs makes him somewhat of a prize in point-per-eception leagues. While tough to predict early, McFadden will likely be an extremely solid second running back in the second half.
Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
At 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, Stewart is a power back who should complement the speed of DeAngelo Williams. Stewart has great strength to pick up the tough yards combined with quickness and the ability to get to the outside and go the distance. With zero career fumbles in college and plus blocking ability, Stewart will be on the field often. Head coach John Fox wants to return to the power running game he ran with Stephen Davis, so Stewart might be the rookie running back most likely to have a 1,000-yard season. Don't sleep on his potential simply because Williams is in the mix.
Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys
The 22nd overall pick out of Arkansas, Jones will find his role in the NFL quite similar to his days in college, as he'll be counted on to complement incumbent starter Marion Barber. At 6-feet and 200 pounds, speed, quickness and home run-ability are his biggest assets. Running behind the biggest offensive line in football, running lanes will be there for Jones to exploit. With his speed, if he makes the linebackers miss, defenders could be seeing a lot of the back of Jones' jersey this year. His carries and overall production will likely be low, barring an injury to Barber, but his touchdown total could be valuable. He should also warrant plenty of looks on third downs, so he'll be a bigger asset in point-per-reception leagues.
Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year's season-ending knee injury to Willie Parker prompted the Steelers to take Mendenhall with the 23rd overall pick. At 5-foot-10, 224 pounds, Mendenhall will be counted on to complement the return of Parker and should replace Najeh Davenport as the short-yardage back, assuming he gets over the fumbling problem he's had thus far. That role could make him a touchdown scoring machine. He can pick up yards between the tackles but has the speed to go the distance. He joins a Steelers team with a very solid offensive line, and Mendenhall's size is perfect for the physicality of the AFC North. With above-average hands, Mendenhall will see plenty of third-down duty. A must-have for Parker owners, his value will skyrocket if Parker isn't 100 percent this season.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
At 6-foot-1, 217 pounds Forte is a strong, tough runner between the tackles who can move the pile with just enough speed to get outside. He also has excellent hands, which not only make him a viable starter, but an every-down back. He's a gritty, determined runner with the ability to churn out yards, which fits right into the Bears' mentality and the toughness of the NFC Central. The negatives on Forte are that he had three mediocre seasons before busting out as a senior in what many consider a very weak Conference USA. Plus, he lacks the breakaway speed and athleticism normally associated with a feature back, and he suffered a serious knee injury in '06. He'll need to prove himself early, as Adrian Peterson is a solid third-down option, and Kevin Jones is a veteran presence who, if healthy, presents a serious threat to Forte's touches. A dangerous No. 2 running back, Forte is better served as a bench option with big upside.
Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions
Smith is fluid, cuts quickly, has great field vision and fits new ensive coordinator Jim Colletto's running scheme, as it's the same that Smith ran at Central Florida. Smith is a coach's dream with his work ethic and knowledge of the playbook, reminding many of Barry Sanders (ironically, the former Lion is the only person in NCAA history with more rushing yards in a single season). Handed the starting job with the release of Tatum Bell, the new look Lions will lean on their athletic newcomer. The negative for Smith is the level of competition he faced in college combined with whether a huge workload in college (905 carries in three years) will shorten the effectiveness of his NFL career. With his skill set and analyzing the Lions' depth chart, Smith is the sleeper rookie running back who could end up with the most production in '08. The recent signing of Rudi Johnson puts pressure on Smith to perform early, but he has the skills to get it done.
Steve Slaton, Houston Texans
At 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, Slaton isn't necessarily your prototype at running back. More of an outside runner, Slaton has great speed and quickness. The door is wide open for him to grab a prominent role in Houston, as current starter Ahman Green is always hurt, and Chris Brown just landed himself on injured reserve. Slaton averaged 4.1 yards per carry in the preseason and impressed the coaching staff. Assuming you can be patient, Slaton's upside grows as the season progresses and the inevitable Green season-ending injury nears. He's currently a No. 4 running back with much greater potential.
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Incumbent starter Willis McGahee has been slow to recover from offseason knee surgery, opening the door for Rice. The former Rutgers back burst through it in the preseason, showing excellent speed and power, as well as solid hands out of the backfield. Rice has not only made himself a handcuff for McGahee owners, but he may very well have earned himself touches even if McGahee comes back healthy. The dreaded running back by committee may rear its ugly head in Baltimore. Rice has a chance to catch the team's attention and prompt them to release McGahee heading into '09. Rice is not just a handcuff, but a very interesting sleeper for this season.
Others to watch:Chris Johnson (Tenn.), Tim Hightower (Ariz.), Ryan Torain (Den. -- injured but potential for second half)
DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles
At 6-feet and 170 pounds, this diminutive receiver draws comparisons to Carolina's Steve Smith. Jackson is an explosive playmaker with outstanding speed as well as the ability to separate from defenders on short routes. Lining up in a West Coast offense, Jackson will be a threat to take it the distance on short screens and quick slants in addition to deep balls. He's the scoring threat the Eagles have been missing since Terrell Owens' departure. The injury to Kevin Curtis and continued ineffective play of Reggie Brown may vault Jackson into a more prominent role in the offense. His emergence in the preseason has removed the sleeper tag, but keep your eye on Jackson. He'll instantly join the return game and could immediately join Devin Hester as one of the elite in the game. If your league counts return yards, bump Jackson up your board.
Donnie Avery, St. Louis Rams
Avery, 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is not your prototypical wide receiver, but he is blessed with speed (4.29 40-yard dash) and will be a threat to take it the end zone on every catch. He needs to fine tune his route-running ability as well as go over the middle more, but he's going to be counted on to help replace the production of the departed Isaac Bruce. Avery sprained his knee in the preseason finale, putting his availability for the opener in question. His biggest contribution as a rookie may come as a return man in special teams. The first receiver taken in the NFL draft, it's unlikely he'll be the most productive rookie receiver.
Devin Thomas, Washington Redskins
Thomas is more of the prototype for NFL receivers. He is a big target who doesn't go down easily. He's got terrific hands and isn't afraid to go over the middle and make catches in traffic. He combines toughness with the speed to go the distance on any play. He'll fit easily into head coach Jim Zorn's West Coast offense. Unfortunately, he'll have to share the ball with returning starters Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, tight end Chris Cooley and fellow rookie receiver Malcolm Kelly. Thomas has great upside and will likely be one of those receivers who really breaks out in season two or three.
James Hardy, Buffalo Bills
Hardy caught 79 passes for 1,125 yards and a whopping 16 touchdowns last year in college. The Bills desperately needed a complement to Lee Evans and they got themselves a huge target. Hardy doesn't have the speed to breakaway from defenders, but he's adept at using his large frame to shield defensive backs and make tough grabs in traffic. The Bills had trouble in the red zone last season, so Hardy immediately becomes Trent Edwards' favorite target for jump balls. In 36 college games Hardy had 36 touchdowns. That type of trend should continue at the next level. He's potentially the next Marques Colston, but keep in mind he doesn't have Drew Brees throwing him the ball.
Eddie Royal, Denver Broncos
Royal was a guy many figured as a return man. Well, he came to camp and won a prominent role in the offense. According to head coach Mike Shanahan, the Broncos had Royal ranked as the No. 1 receiver in the draft, and he's showing people why. He's surpassed Darrell Jackson, Keary Colbert and Samie Parker on the depth chart and is the starter opposite Brandon Marshall. Jay Cutler can't stop saying good things about him, and there's nothing more promising for a rookie receiver than the faith of his quarterback. Royal is a big-time sleeper this year who could be the top rookie receiver, especially if Cutler continues his progression towards becoming a great quarterback. Definitely worth a flier.
Others to watch:Limas Sweed (Pitt.), Early Doucet (Ariz.), Josh Morgan (SF), Jerome Simpson (Cin.), Malcolm Kelly (Wash. -- knee, potential for IR).
Dustin Keller, New York Jets
Keller combines size with good speed and athletic ability. He's likely too big for a defensive back and too quick for a linebacker to cover. The Jets have been using Keller in the slot, much in the same way the Cowboys use Jason Witten. That's a good sign. With Favre, Keller immediately becomes a viable target over the middle as the Jets look to exploit matchups. While he'll share time with Chris Baker and Bubba Franks, he could be a good bye week filler and may even develop into an every week starter as the season goes on.
John Carlson, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have been looking for a tight end for their West Coast offense after the failed Jerramy Stevens experiment. Carlson has the size and leaping ability to make catches in traffic. While he doesn't have great speed, he has excellent hands as well as good football smarts. Coming from a pro-style offense like the one Charlie Weis ran at Notre Dame, Carlson should have no problems picking up the playbook. With all the injuries the Seahawks have at wide receiver, Carlson is a potential sleeper as a No. 2 fantasy tight end.
There's your rookie report for this week. Good luck this week. See you next time.