By David Sabino
August 12, 2010
Gridiron 11

Once an afterthought in fantasy leagues, rookies have become major contributors, increasingly worthy of serious draft consideration. While we're not advocating taking quarterbacks like Sam Bradford or Tim Tebow, players from other skill positions, such as Ryan Mathews and Dez Bryant, are slated for veterans minutes, which allows them to be slotted as if they've been in the league for years. Except in the smallest of leagues, the following 11 rookies will all be active in big ways at some time during the season. So, instead of grabbing a twilighter like Torry Holt or Larry Johnson at the end of your draft, take someone with great upside instead.

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1 Ryan Mathews, Chargers
Ryan Mathews, Chargers
The leading rusher in the nation at 150.7 yards per game last season, the Fresno State product has captured the fancy of the fantasy football community now that he's been tagged to be LaDainian Tomlinson's successor. It would be unfair to lay the blame for San Diego's rushing struggles last season on LT2 alone, especially with the spate of injuries that hit the O-line. Even with Mathews on board, combined with the fact Vincent Jackson will be missing for the start of the year (and likely much more time), the Chargers won't become a run-heavy team all of a sudden, not with Philip Rivers still able to find Antonio Gates, and Malcom Floyd down the field. In other words, Mathews will be a weekly fantasy starter but to believe that he'll be the same offensive machine this year that Tomlinson was in his prime is too lofty an outlook.
2 C.J. Spiller, Bills
C.J. Spiller, Bills
New head coach Chan Gailey has shown a tendency to favor the run -- in both seasons as Cowboys head coach, Dallas finished in the Top-8 in rushing yards and the Top-5 in rushing touchdowns -- so he shouldn't be too fazed that the Bills have very little passing game. That will play right into the strengths of Spiller, the first runner off the board in April's draft and someone who has apparently overtaken Fred Jackson as the main man in Buffalo's backfield. Until the quarterback situation is remedied (and good luck to all who believe Trent Edwards is the answer), Gailey will have little choice but to keep feeding the ball to the Clemson speedster. Move him up on your draft lists.
3 Dez Bryant, Cowboys
Dez Bryant, Cowboys
He'll be sidelined for a majority of the preseason with a high-ankle sprain. That's bad news since he's allowing Roy Williams the opportunity to re-claim the prominent role in Dallas' offense that he seemingly squandered after leading the league in dropped passes last year. However, the Cowboys brass fell head over heels with Bryant the minute he walked into Valley Ranch, so don't be discouraged. He'll be someone to consider starting every (healthy) week.
4 Jahvid Best, Lions
Jahvid Best, Lions
It looks like Best will be splitting duties in the backfield with the recovering Kevin Smith, who has made major strides following knee surgery. That great news for coach Jim Schwartz is terrible for those who are hoping that Best would be a fantasy force for a team that hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher score more than six touchdowns in a season since James Stewart in 2000. With the workforce split, that trend should continue, making Best more of a flex/reserve option than someone to rely on week in and week out.
5 Aaron Hernandez, Patriots
Aaron Hernandez, Patriots
One of the standouts at Patriots camp thus far has been the rookie tight end from Florida. Although the second tight end taken in the 2010 draft by New England, Hernandez will have more fantasy value than Rob Gronkowski, the first, due to his excellent receiving skills and ability to get down the field. In the suddenly stout AFC East, a big body with great hands is invaluable, and there's no doubt that Tom Brady will find many uses for his new dangerous weapon, especially near the goal line, where the running game has failed miserably in recent seasons.
6 Mike Williams, Buccaneers
Mike Williams, Buccaneers
A major playmaker while playing for a horrid Syracuse team, Williams' off-field problems (which he calls a "misunderstanding") led to his departure from the team midway through the 2009 season, a red flag that saw him drop all the way to the fourth round. Now listed as a starter in Tampa, Williams appears motivated to get beyond his bad rap. He'll be key to the rebuilding of an offense that ranked in the bottom third in passing yards and touchdowns. With a nose for the end zone, and a developing quarterback in Josh Freeman, who'll be able to get him the ball in position to score, Williams is someone who you'll want, especially in keeper leagues.
7 Brandon LaFell, Panthers
Brandon LaFell, Panthers
LaFell fell into a perfect situation for a rookie receiver, with nothing but underachievers vying for the opportunity to play opposite Steve Smith, who'll command double coverage, and on a team with a running game that will force defenses to put eight-men in the box. Further, he'll be catching passes from a quarterback who many teams will underestimate but has the arm strength to get the ball down field. A great route-runner, LaFell will make his way into fantasy lineups, especially on a situational basis.
8 Golden Tate, Seahawks
Golden Tate, Seahawks
You have to be something special for a USC coach to tab a Notre Dame player as his future star receiver. After an impressive off-season marred only by a dumb incident in which he broke into a donut shop, he's in position to start the season as one of Seattle's top receivers. In part, that's thanks to injuries to other receivers, but also as a result of his explosiveness, something Seattle's offense has lacked for years before the arrival of Pete Carroll. He's a good flex option who may evolve into a great one before too long.
9 Dexter McCluster, Chiefs
Dexter McCluster, Chiefs
Kansas City's offense promises to be one of the most improved in the league with the additions of Thomas Jones and the speedy jack-of-all-trades McCluster. A poor-man's Percy Harvin without the migraines, McCluster will operate all over the field for offensive gurus Todd Haley and Charlie Weis, playing wide receiver primarily but also on returns with an occasional rushing attempt as a tailback or wildcat quarterback. He's drawing comparisons as a more offensively-polished Dante Hall, Kansas City's All-Pro return man and part-time receiver of a few seasons back, and as such is sure to make a big fantasy splash.
10 Jordan Shipley, Bengals
Jordan Shipley, Bengals
Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant are around, so you wouldn't think there would be any room for Shipley in the Bengals attack, but think again. Colt McCoy's roommate and favorite receiver at Texas has his sights on being the second coming of another Lone Star State product, a good pass-catcher from Texas Tech named Wes Welker. It's a lofty goal but not completely beyond the realm of possibility if Carson Palmer is fully back from his arm troubles of two years ago and if Bryant's balky knee is as troublesome as many think. Don't be surprised to see Shipley installed permanently as the slot receiver, a la Indy's Austin Collie, as the older Owens and Bryant split time on the outside.
11 Montario Hardesty, Browns
Montario Hardesty, Browns
A preseason knee injury will likely cost Hardesty a chance to begin the season as the Browns primary running back. Even with Jerome Harrison likely getting the nod instead, that in no way should deter you from taking Hardesty late in the draft. Running back depth is such that good backs will always rise to the top, and playing behind an underrated offensive line that paved the way for 130.4 yards per contest in 2009, up 30 yards per game from a year earlier, will enable the second-round pick to make his mark at some point during the year. Stash him away.

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