Eric Mack: NFL fantasy 2012 rookie projections - Sports Illustrated

Rookie Projections: Richardson, Luck lead first-year players

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Cam Newton spoiled us. He posted the greatest rookie season in the fantasy era and now sets the bar incredibly high for all to follow him, namely Robert Griffin III.

We should know by now, though, rookies are more suspects than prospects in Year 1.

It will take a huge first season by Trent Richardson to restore the faith of rookie running backs. Richardson is expected to be the first rookie off the board in drafts this season, but we haven't seen reliable return from the top rookie rusher since Adrian Peterson in 2007.

Mark Ingram (2011) was a dud a year ago. Ryan Mathews (2010) might finally break through in Year 3, but the wait has been frustrating. Knowshon Moreno (2009) barely registers in fantasy drafts this August. And we're still waiting for Darren McFadden (2008) to show up for a full season.

Yet, the Browns' Richardson is still going in Round 1 in early drafts on, even after he needed another knee 'scope and might not debut until Week 1 of the regular season, or later. Richardson is often off the board before the likes of sure-fire fantasy stalwarts Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Those are some lofty expectations to live up to.

Richardson is not going to perform up to his draft position. It is unlikely RG3 will either, particularly if the post-Newton hype gets Griffin III picked as a fantasy starting quarterback in standard one-QB leagues. The Bucs' Doug Martin average draft position is already inside the top 25, despite the fact he is not yet even certain to relegate incumbent LeGarrette Blount to a reserve role.

Then, among the other top rookies in 2012's class: Justin Blackmon opened his NFL career as a holdout (never good news for fantasy picks); Michael Floyd has already been called out by Larry Fitzgerald for his work habits and might not start for the Cardinals; and Colts tight end Coby Fleener opened camp as a second-teamer to fellow rookie TE Dwayne Allen because of the latter's blocking superiority.

There is potential in every rookie class in fantasy, but most of it comes out as surprises as the season unfolds. Heck, Newton wasn't drafted in many leagues a year ago and wound up being a top-five scorer behind fantasy legends Aaron Rodgers, Brees, Brady and the emerging Matthew Stafford.

Most analysts will gush about the talent of these guys in their rookie lists. You already heard about the possibilities on draft day from the likes of Mel Kiper and your talking head of choice. We will list the top rookies here with the caveats of why they probably aren't going to perform up to their draft position.

It is not that we shouldn't like the top rookies picked in fantasy drafts, we should just anticipate disappointment and perhaps even let someone take the risks on them.

1. RB Trent Richardson, ADP: 9

Yes, once healthy/if healthy, he is going to be the Mr. Everything for his team, but if fellow rookie Brandon Weeden isn't a threat as a passer, Richardson could rush for 1,000-plus yards and be a bust because of a low touchdown total. He is guaranteed to fail to outscore players picked after him, especially the top QBs. You are probably better off taking a more sure-thing at QB, TE or WR. That knee just hasn't been right and represents too much of an unknown. He is a risk best left for someone else to take.

2. RB Doug Martin, ADP: 21

The Bucs are expected to be run-oriented under new coach Greg Schiano and Martin is a well-built 5-foot-9, 223-pound back. The problem he could have is, in addition to a potentially underwhelming offense to work in, Blount. Blount is a bigger back and could take the goal-line scores and relegate Martin to doing the inglorious work between the 20s. Martin could be this year's Ingram, which makes him a risky pick inside the top 25.

3. QB Robert Griffin III, ADP: 86

He is a freakish, multi-dimensional QB talent like Newton, but Griffin III isn't quite as big, so he shouldn't run as much as Newton did, and RG3 doesn't have a Steve Smith sure-thing at receiver. Sure, there are weapons in Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss, Fred Davis and a slew of young WR talents, but RG3 is going to be hard-pressed to come close to Newton's once-in-a-generation rookie numbers. Draft RG3 as a backup QB and you will be thrilled. Slot him as a starter and you're setting yourself up for disappointment at the highest-scoring position in fantasy.

4. RB David Wilson, ADP: 88

Wilson is potentially the best rookie in this class if anything happens to the oft-injured Ahmad Bradshaw before opening night. Wilson instead will get limited touches behind Bradshaw and likely D.J. Ware to start the season. But the talent is there if the opportunity comes: "The fastest running back we've ever had," Eli Manning told The New York Daily News. "I mean this guy's quick. He's explosive, so that's kind of exciting."

5. RB Ronnie Hillman, ADP: 90

The good news about Hillman is coach John Fox doesn't dislike him like Moreno, even though Hillman has had hamstring issues most of training camp. Willis McGahee is going to be the workhorse in an offense that still should be run-heavy, even if Peyton Manning is capable of moving the chains coming off career-threatening neck surgeries. But Hillman is working as the third-down back and since Manning looks healthy, you have to figure Hillman is going to see the field a lot in the number passing sets. Seeing him get picked among the top 90 players is a far too optimistic until something happens to McGahee. Considering McGahee's age and healthy history, maybe early drafters are just expecting the worst from Denver's veteran starter, as opposed to expecting too much from the undersized third-round pick.

6. WR Justin Blackmon, ADP: 113

Blackmon has the chance to be this year's A.J. Green rookie smash hit at WR, but he lost reps early in training camp. It makes considering him the sixh rookie off the board a bit outrageous at this point. He has to prove to be Blaine Gabbert's go-to man in order to warrant that spot. Gabbert was ineffective getting the ball down field as a rookie, so Blackmon will be frustrating if Gabbert doesn't make some significant strides himself, too.

7. QB Andrew Luck, ADP: 118

Luck was the No. 1 overall pick in April and he is the first rookie on this list who will be drafted appropriately: As a backup. Luck figures to be playing in a lot of lopsided games in an offense that will allow him to complete a lot of short, rhythm passes. He could rack up the garbage-time numbers Newton clocked up a year ago. By midseason, we might consider Luck a top-12 fantasy quarterback, basically a starter in a standard league.

8. WR Michael Floyd, ADP: 120

We tend to downgrade the Cardinals' Fitzgerald among the elite fantasy WRs because of his unsettled QB situation. Heck, Fitzgerald said so himself. So, we have to downgrade Floyd for the same reason, especially since the talented but raw Floyd opened training camp behind not only Fitzgerald on the depth chart but Andre Roberts and Early Doucet as well. Floyd is going just too early, considering his situation.

9. TE Coby Fleener, ADP: 135

Fleener, Luck's teammate from Stanford, might be the second option in the passing game behind veteran Reggie Wayne, but he also is currently the second tight end on the Colts' depth chart. He's second to a rookie, Allen, in fact. Allen is more of a traditional tight end because he can help in blocking schemes, perhaps even to protect Luck. Fleener can be the Dallas Clark in this Colts offense and Luck's familiarity with him can only help Fleener's cause when the rookie passer is making split-second decisions.

10. RB Isaiah Pead, ADP: 151

After coach Jeff Fisher came out and said he sees a lot of CJ2K in Pead, we are rethinking our modest ranking below on Pead. Steven Jackson is nearing the age of breakdown and Pead could be the next big thing in fantasy at the RB position, assuming Richardson, Martin or Wilson don't blow us away in Year 1. Look at the top backs in fantasy right now: Arian Foster (undrafted), LeSean McCoy (late Round 2, 53rd overall) and Ray Rice (late Round 2, 55th overall). You don't have to be picked in Round 1 of the NFL draft to be picked in Round 1 in fantasy drafts. Pead is right in the McCoy-Rice zone as the 50th overall pick this April.

1. WR Stephen Hill, Jets -- He is this year's Torrey Smith (Ravens), a starter opposite a veteran possession receiver in a run-heavy offence. Hill can be a field stretcher for Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow.

2. WR Mohamed Sanu, Bengals -- Former Patriot Brandon Tate opened camp as the starter opposite burgeoning WR star A.J. Green, but Sanu is third and capable of elevating to No. 2. Green is going to draw a lot of coverage, so Sanu could be open quite a bit.

3. WR Kendall Wright, Titans -- If he wasn't behind Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and perhaps third-year WR breakout candidate Damian Williams, we would see Wright get picked much higher in drafts. Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer coached Andre Johnson (975 yards) and Terry Glenn (90 catches) as rookies. "I felt good about those guys, and I feel good about Kendall, what he can do," Palmer said. "He is going to be a star in this league. He's got stardom written all over him."

4. RB Chris Rainey, Steelers -- He is not a Steelers type power back, but offensive coordinator made something out of Dexter McCluster as a scat back. Rainey is more explosive and the Steelers are talking about running a no-huddle with Big Ben Roethlisberger's arm as the primary weapon.

5. K Randy Bullock, Astros -- You want a kicker from a great running offense that has a questionable QB in the red zone. The Texans are just that. He can be more productive than rookie Alex Henery was for the Eagles a year ago.

Tier 1 -- Potential fantasy starter on draft day.

Tier 2 -- Fantasy backup to start season.

Tier 3 -- Eventual bye-week replacement options.

Tier 4 -- Eventual waiver-wire fliers and developmental keeper picks.

Tier 5 -- Long-term projects that might never make a fantasy impact.

As many as five of these QBs could be starting as early as Week 1, but only Griffin III is a potential fantasy star in Year 1. He can be Newton/Vick-like, but we also thought the same about Vince Young, right? Long term, you have to figure Luck is going to be the best of the class, while Tannehill emerges later this year or 2013/beyond as a steady, not spectacular starter.

Wilson, Pead and Miller are the intriguing talents on this list but they have the depth chart working against them going into camp. Pierce will get picked as Rice's handcuff in all leagues, while Hillman and Turbin are backing up rushers in run-oriented offenses. There are going to be a number of surprises emerging from this list, like there is every year at the injury-plagued RB position.

Childs recently tore the patella tendon in both knees, putting his career in jeopardy. There are loads of talented rookie receivers every year, so watch them in the preseason closely. You want to take fliers on the ones with good QBs/great passing games and with opportunity before them to rise up the depth chart quickly. Most of the guys after the top two tiers are long shots to contribute in fantasy this year, but you might want to keep eyes on them for the future.

The Colts are considering a two-tight end offense. That should help protect Luck, at least. Egnew and Green have potential if Anthony Fasano or Antonio Gates get hurt.

There is a chance the top four of these kickers win jobs in training camp. If Tucker does over Billy Cundiff in Baltimore, you might want to move him up to No. 1 here. The Ravens kicker promises to be a good starter for fantasy owners, not so much the case with the Vikings or Rams.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for You find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).