Most seasons, your best bet when assessing the fantasy prospects of a rookie class is to focus on the running backs. First-year quarterbacks should be avoided like the plague. Rookie receivers occasionally achieve fantasy stardom, but it usually takes them a while to ramp up.
Last season was no ordinary season. Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas, the cream of the 2011 running back crop. The top performer at the position was Roy Helu, who scraped his way into the top 30 thanks to a late-season surge.
Meanwhile, Cam Newton served notice that his transition from college would be seamless, with a colossal 422-yard, three-total-touchdown debut. A.J. Green reeled in a 41-yard touchdown on his first reception and added 124 yards and another score in Week 2. Julio Jones topped 100 yards receiving in three of his first six games as a Falcon.
So what are we to make of this year’s freshmen prospects? Will we see a return to ground-based normalcy, or perhaps more aerial fireworks from the most highly touted pair of rookie passers to enter the NFL in years? Are any receivers worth a late-round flier?
Remember that when evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie, talent is rarely the most decisive factor. More relevant is the opportunity presented to the player, which is also a multifaceted equation.
Does the newcomer have a clear path to a starting gig? Will he join a high-powered offense, or one whose punter is its most lethal weapon? Is he healthy heading into the season, or has he missed invaluable preseason reps because of nagging injuries?
With these caveats in mind, let’s examine the class of 2012 and determine which players have the best opportunities to shine in their inaugural seasons:
• Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins: Newton forever raised the bar, and the pressure, on rookie quarterbacks to perform at a high level, even when they join lousy teams. Like Newton, RG3 will be as dangerous on the run as he is when passing, so he should pad his fantasy value with rushing scores.
• Trent Richardson, RB, Browns: Until he underwent a “minor” arthroscopic procedure on his left knee, Richardson was soaring to ridiculous heights on mock draft boards. Though the Browns are optimistic the draft’s third overall pick will be ready for the season opener, the red flags are flapping briskly in Cleveland. Keep in mind, this was the rookie’s second left knee surgery in six months, and he’s joining one of the NFL’s lowest-scoring offenses.
• Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers: Those searching for value in this rookie class would be wise to look south, where the former Boise State star is poised to secure a starting job in a healthier offense.
• Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos. With Knowshon Moreno steadily underperforming his way out of Denver, Hillman is in line to be the primary backup to Willis McGahee, one of the least secure starting backs in the league. The rookie should assume third-down duties early on, provided his preseason hamstring injury doesn’t linger. Don’t be surprised if he slowly supplants McGahee as the Broncos’ primary backfield threat.
• David Wilson, RB, Giants: Now that Brandon Jacobs is a 49er, the understudy role to Ahmad Bradshaw is wide open. Wilson will get his chances to shine, and with Bradshaw’s injury history, the rookie might get more than just a token look.
• Isaiah Pead, RB, Rams: If you draft Steven Jackson, Pead should be one of your final selections. Drafted to be Jackson’s heir apparent, the rookie will start off as the team’s change-of-pace back.
Next week: A look at the Sleeper candidates of 2012.
Ladd Biro has been named Football Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association for two consecutive years (2010-2011). Follow all his advice at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com), on Facebook and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).