The most unknown commodities heading into any fantasy football season are always the rookies. Try as we might, we always over hype some guys while letting other, less heralded names fall through the cracks. Hitting on a rookie can provide you some of the biggest return on your draft day investment as we all search for the next Randy Moss to make a grand entrance into the NFL.
Here are my rankings for this year’s rookie crop and please use them as they are intended. The following rankings are for 2014 only. These aren’t intended as dynasty rankings or prognostications as to what kind of career these players will have. Simply, these are the guys you’ll want to target in redraft leagues before your league mates can get their hands on them. With the formalities out-of-the-way, it’s on to the rankings, starting with a U-Dub transplant:
1) Bishop Sankey, RB (TEN) – Fantasy is a game all about opportunity meeting talent. In some cases, a unique talent can do a lot with limited chances, but in Sankey’s case, it’s all about being the RB with the best situation. This isn’t to say the former Husky doesn’t possess a ton of skill as his 1,870 rushing yards and 20 TD last year at Washington are no joke. But when you walk into an NFL locker room and the only thing standing between you and the lion share of the backfield touches is the plodding Shonn Greene, it’s hard not to feel good about your outlook.
2) Brandin Cooks, WR (NO) – Surprise, surprise. This might not have been the WR you expected to see first, but Cooks more than deserves this accolade. As soon as the trade was announced that landed Cooks in New Orleans, I couldn’t help but think about the grin on Sean Payton’s face as he imagined all the things he could do with his shiny, new toy. Remember, not only is Darren Sproles gone, but so too is Lance Moore. That’s 108 catches no longer calling Louisiana home and you can believe that Brees and Payton will have no problem getting Cooks plenty of those looks.
3) Mike Evans, WR (TB) – Although he didn’t get the headlines at Texas A&M, I’m convinced Evans was the lynchpin that allowed that offense to run circles around some vaunted SEC defenses. He moves on to Tampa Bay where he has the luxury of being paired with Vincent Jackson on the outside. Opposing defenses won’t be able to roll coverage to both sides, meaning Evans might see a whole lot more single coverage than he ever dreamed of in college. He’ll be a beast on jump balls and in the red zone from day one.
4) Sammy Watkins, WR (BUF) – There’s not much of an argument when asked who the most dynamic offensive talent in this year’s rookie crop is. Sammy Watkins has the kind of physical talent and potential that hasn’t been seen from a young receiver since Calvin Johnson was drafted #2 out of Georgia Tech. He’ll be fantastic for the next decade, but that doesn’t mean he’ll come out of the gate a house of fire. The Bills don’t offer much in terms of offensive help as their supporting cast of pass catchers is among the worst in football and the jury is still out on E.J. Manuel as an NFL quarterback. Watkins will go through some growing pains, but he’ll have a handful of games when his immense talent will be on full display.
5) Terrance West, RB (CLE) – When Ben Tate signed with Browns in the offseason, I was about as high on him as anyone. I think the potential for a runner to thrive in Cleveland is there. When the front office decided to drop a third-round pick on a small-school back from Towson, it made me sit up and take notice. They love this kid and for good reason. His versatility and agility are perfect for Cleveland’s scheme and he’s going to push Tate for carries from the start. On weeks when the inevitable injury bug bites the veteran, West could easily find himself as a top-20 option.
6) Kelvin Benjamin, WR (CAR) – Benjamin is a physical freak, no two ways about it. He has the potential to be a game-changing receiver in this league for a decade. Cam Newton will love having a huge target to throw to on the outside and Benjamin will enjoy the spoils of being the #1 guy. That being said, Benjamin has been labeled as a raw talent who will take some seasoning at the pro level before he can truly explode. Based on how he’s looked at camp so far, some might disagree with that assessment. Like Evans, Benjamin has the potential to be a red zone monster and could exceed the 700-850 yards he’s been projected for.
7) Carlos Hyde, RB (SF) – On draft day, it looked as if their couldn’t be a worse landing spot for Hyde than the crowded backfield of the 49ers. But injuries to Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James pushed him squarely up to #2 on the depth chart early in camp. Hyde is arguably the most talented RB in this rookie class and will be used frequently to keep Frank Gore’s workload manageable. His path to 15+ touches a game isn’t as clear as Sankey or West, but he could easily do the most with them should he find himself with that role.
8) Devonta Freeman, RB (ATL) – Speaking of a back that landed in a glorious situation, the Falcons got themselves what I believe is a pure steal in Freeman (and I don’t say that just because I have a Chris Weinke jersey hanging in my closet). He’s a bowling ball of talent who should be #2 on the depth chart when the season opens. And all that’s standing between him and the top spot are the rubber bands that are holding Steven Jackson together. Freeman will get adequate run to spell Jackson and would get a huge boost if the incumbent again finds himself sidelined with an injury. I actually like Jackson this year but would try especially hard to nab the Florida State rookie as well.
9) Eric Ebron, TE (DET) – Looks like Detroit felt they needed another physical specimen for Matt Stafford to throw to, so they added Ebron to their fantasy friendly passing game with the 10th overall pick. The UNC product could be a matchup nightmare for opposing secondaries and will benefit from having the best receiver in the game on the outside. Ebron does have a few hurdles to jump, namely the steep learning curve of being an NFL TE as well as having Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria in the mix at the position already. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes Ebron to become a favorite target of Stafford, but when he does, watch out.
10) Tre Mason, RB (STL) – When it comes to the fantasy outlook of Mason in 2014, it really has more to do with whether or not you believe Zac Stacy is the real deal. Personally, I think he’s going to show that his 2013 performance was no fluke, relegating Mason to nothing more than mop up duty. Another thing working against Mason is his inability to pass protect, a necessary skill for RBs in today’s game. Mason will have his moments, but he’s more of a handcuff than a week-to-week option.
11) Jeremy Hill, RB (CIN) – Hill’s selection in the second round means he, and not veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, is poised to be the complement to Giovani Bernard in the Bengals’ backfield. Bernard isn’t built to tote the rock 20 times a game, so he should get 8-10 carries each week. But I’d pump the brakes when it comes to making Hill the default goal line back in Cincinnati. Teams are starting to realize that size isn’t all it’s cracked up to be inside the five and Bernard acquitted himself quite nicely when he had his chances to pound it in. Don’t draft Hill with the expectation of him vulturing away score after score from Bernard. It’s not going to happen.
12) Jordan Matthews, WR (PHI) – Next to Brandin Cooks, I don’t think there’s another WR who landed in a better spot than Matthews. Not only does he get to be a part of Chip Kelly’s wide open, fast paced offense, but there is a vacancy atop the depth chart now that DeSean Jackson is calling Washington home. Matthews won’t immediately step in and fill that void as he has to contend with Riley Cooper and the returning Jeremy Maclin, but he should see plenty of snaps early on. That number could continue to grow throughout the season should he prove to be a better target than the veterans in front of him.
13) James White, RB (NE) – Anytime you’re a RB playing for Bill Belichick, you’re never that far away from the field or the bench. As we speak, Shane Vereen is the back to own from the Patriots, but they’ve shown the ability in the past to sustain two fantasy-relevant runners. Conventional wisdom would tell you that second guy is Stevan Ridley, but James White is making everyone in New England second guess that idea. Ridley’s fumblitis certainly opens the door for White, who had over 4,000 career yards at Wisconsin, to get double digit carries including those all important goal-line touches.
14) Johnny Manziel, QB (CLE) – You’re in one of two camps when it comes to Johnny Manziel’s fantasy prospects. Either you think he’s going to see the field early because Cleveland didn’t spend a first-rounder to see Brian Hoyer taking snaps, or that he’ll be buried for the majority of the season while he learns everything he needs to learn about being a pro. I’m on the side of the former and will absolutely take the over on Manziel getting 12 starts. Even if his numbers through the air are brutal, he gives you that Tebow-esque value of knowing that his legs will net him a couple of fantasy points each week. I’ll take a flier on him as a QB2 late in a 12- or 14-teamer.
15) Odell Beckham Jr., WR (NYG) – Out goes Hakeem Nicks, in steps OBJ (I have to fight the urge to call him ODB every time). Ok, so it’s not actually that simple as that since Reuben Randle will assume the larger role with Beckham Jr. serving as the team’s third receiver. The jury is still out on whether Randle can be that second guy after Victor Cruz, or if the Giants necessarily want him to be. I think Beckham Jr., much like Randle last year, will turn in a few big performances mixed with some clunkers along the way.
16) Teddy Bridgewater, QB (MIN) – What a rocky road it was leading up to the draft for Bridgewater. He went from being talked about as the #1 overall pick to barely cracking the first round with Minnesota. But let’s face it: Ponder and Cassel aren’t the answer for the Vikings at QB and a flat start out of the gate will only increase the pressure for Mike Zimmer to make the switch. Bridgewater won’t be anything special when he gets the call as the Vikes will certainly lean on Adrian Peterson and a short, controlled passing game to ease him into the job. He could be a sneaky little matchups play in deeper leagues as we come down the stretch.
17) Charles Sims, RB (TB) – Slowly but surely, the cat is being let out of the bag on just how good Charles Sims really is. You name it, he can do it. He can run inside, run outside, catch it out of the backfield and even is ahead of the curve when it comes to pass protection. If you’re looking for a comp, try Matt Forte. I don’t think there’s any way Lovie Smith, who coached Forte formerly, can keep him off the field. I wouldn’t label Doug Martin injury prone quite yet, but if he goes down and turns the job over to Sims, he might never get it back.
18) Marqise Lee, WR (JAC) – Lee gets the nod as the final WR on our list primarily for one reason: he’s healthy. Receivers have been dropping like flies in camp for Jacksonville meaning that Lee has gotten a ton of reps and has an inside track to more snaps when the season starts. The Jags figure to again be trailing in a bunch of contests this year, meaning garbage time numbers could be smiling on Lee. But hey, garbage time stats still count.
19) Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE (TB) – Further adding to the basketball team Tampa Bay is assembling, I expect ASJ to step in as the starting TE for the Bucs immediately over Timothy Wright and Brandon Myers. He gives new QB Josh McCown another big target in the middle of the field, but the biggest obstacle to fantasy success as a rookie isn’t so much his production as it is the depth of the position. There are a lot of good TEs out there in that 12-20 range that make it difficult for Seferian-Jenkins to jump into the fold off the bat. Still, six TDs doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
20) Andre Williams, RB (NYG) – It’s a shame that David Wilson’s neck injury is causing him to hang it up for good. Never want to see that happen to a guy. It’s Williams who stands as the beneficiary of that misfortune as he inherits the backup job for the G-Men. He looked good in the Hall of Fame Game (for whatever that’s worth) and is coming off a 2,177-yard season at Boston College. He’s not a three-down back as he recorded exactly zero catches last year, but he can certainly handle the grind of getting volume carries. Rashad Jennings is entrenched as the starter but he’s far from being untouchable. Williams provides nice upside at a marginal cost.
Major League Fantasy Football Radio This Sunday August 10th from 11:30am-12:30pm EST we will have two guests – Jeff Nelson and Chase Jacobs. Jeff is a high school defensive coach in PA, 2 time Major League Fantasy Football Champion, and Chase is a writer for majorleaguefantasysports.com. We will be discussing the safety position as well as wide receivers. Sports Palooza Radio Network is who we owe thanks to in providing the platform. You can call in live at 646.915.8596, you can listen online live, or you can download the podcast.
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