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Rookie Rundown: No mystery, Manziel tops this year’s fantasy class

When psychoanalyzing typical fantasy football players and how they strategize for rookies, two prevailing schools of thought immediately emerge.

The first group generally exercises extreme caution. These are individuals who rarely jaywalk, swig, not slam, tequila shots and would never ‘mistakenly’ walk out of a Publix with unpaid crab legs under arm. As drafters, they pump the brakes on first-year players, preferring track record to potential. The risk, in their mind, outweighs the reward. #TeamRaisins

The second group, meanwhile, are followers of Freakonomics. At the blackjack table they always hit on 16, brazenly drive alone in carpool lanes at peak rush hour and willingly throw back tapeworm shots. In the draft room, they’re inclined to spend early picks on inexperience, banking on favorable situation and baseline skill to rule the day. Their catch phrase: Fortune favors the bold. #TeamHuevos

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Over the past few seasons, ultimate fantasies have come true for those apart of the latter.

Not long ago, drafting a rookie, no matter how nurturing the environment, anytime before Round 5 was widely perceived as taboo. Bypass useful veteran talent for unproven upside was the fantasy equivalent of chugging a gallon of Clorox.

However, that viewpoint has changed.

Because nuances from the college game are commonplace in playbooks throughout the league, the transition for some has been smooth. From level-to-level, system terminology and execution are often not dramatically different. It’s no wonder why Peyton Manning consulted Nick Saban this offseason or why the implementation of pistol and spread formations has increased. Coaches and team executives who invest fat dollars in young talent want to reap immediate reward. In many cases the only way to shorten a rookie’s learning curve is to replicate collegiate schemes. After all, the NFL is a copycat league.

Two years ago the read option exploded onto the scene, propelling RGIII, Alfred Morris and Russell Wilson to great heights. Other first-year standouts, including Doug Martin, Josh Gordon and Andrew Luck also ascended rapidly playing in more traditional offenses. Last season, power rushers dominated the landscape as Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy contributed soundly. Each finished inside the top-15 in PPR per game average at their position. Versatile threat Giovani Bernard, Bolt from the blue Keenan Allen, tight end Jordan Reed and much panned QB Geno Smith, who posted top-five numbers during the fantasy playoffs (20.6 fppg), were also productive.

Though 2013’s successes will be hard to match, this fall’s rookie crop promises to churn out an equally profitable fantasy yield, at the very least. Those who roll the dice stand to benefit.

After weeks of poking, prodding and Wonderlicking, destinations are now determined. What newcomers will be cornerstones on fantasy rosters next season? Here are seven players poised to make a significant impact (in order of projected contribution):

Johnny Manziel, Cle, QB (See highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team leagues): Round 8
Manziel is the McRib of professional football. On the outside his ability to score in multiple ways is quite delectable. However, his short stature, brazen improvisation, inexperience under center and off-the-field antics shrouds him in mystery. The kid is and will continue to be the most polarizing player in the league. But by all means doubt Johnny Freakin' Football. He's a contemporary passer who meshes ideally in the current pass-happy era of the NFL and Kyle Shanahan's offense, which RGIII excelled in during his rookie season. His track-record against the beasts of the SEC, most notably Alabama (907 combined yards, 7:2 TD:INT in two games), mobility, deception, strong arm, fearlessness and execution under the spotlight are very attractive qualities. Last year, Terrelle Pryor, largely because of his rushing contributions, was a top-16 QB prior to his benching. Manziel, a more developed thrower with a much higher ceiling, merely needs to average 200 passing yards, 50 rushing and a little over a TD per game to flirt with QB1 status. Of course the availability of Josh Gordon, who at this rate may soon open a dispensary in Colorado, will play an influential factor in his overall value, but if the Browns' top returning target is suspended for the entire season bank on Manziel to run like crazy, potentially threatening Griffin's rookie rushing record. Assuming he fends off Brian Hoyer in training camp and doesn’t get zipped up in a body bag by Week 8, a top-10 output isn’t out of the question. I’ll gladly draft him over Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick and even hipster wannabe Tom Brady. Yes, put me on record.

Fearless Forecast: 3,659 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 740 rushing yards, 6 rushing touchdowns

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Cooks should catch on in PPR. (USAT)

Brandin Cooks, NO, WR (See highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team leagues): Round 10
Manziel may dominate the headlines, but, in terms of turning a massive profit, Cooks may lead the rookie pack. The Oregon St. alum is a very polished product who is the definition of durable. Stretching back to his high school days he’s never missed a single game. Balanced, consistent and mature, he should brilliantly fill the void left by new Steeler Lance Moore and Eagle Darren Sproles. At 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, he’s more of a low-growing shrub than a deep-rooted tree, a lack of size that raises concerns when faced with press coverage, but because of his exceptional route running ability and blazing speed (4.33 40-yard dash), he should gain separation from defenders without much difficulty. With Marques Colston aging rapidly and Kenny Stills more of a deep threat, Cooks should attract plentiful targets in arguably the most prolific passing offense in the league, though Jimmy Graham will continue to be the Saints' vertical centerpiece. Mike Evans has tremendous potential as a fantasy WR3, but Cooks, who'll be a real steal in PPR circles, will provide more bang for the buck.

Fearless Forecast: 75 receptions, 803 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns

Mike Evans, TB, WR (See highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team leagues): Round 5
My third cousin twice removed is a dynamic force who is a near carbon copy of new teammate Vincent Jackson. A former stud high school basketball player, he utilizes his 6-foot-5 frame to the fullest. Undeniably Manziel's favorite target at Texas A&M, he won multiple coverage battles by climbing the ladder and plucking the ball cleanly at catch point. That unteachable length and radius combined with his underrated speed, toughness and run after catch talents will make him an instant threat to secondaries. Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's high-flying offense, which historically centered on an aggressive vertical attack during his days at Cal, along with Josh McCown's rebirth and Jackson's presence also favor the youngster. Cooks is my pick to click in this year's WR class, but the skyscraper won't lag far behind. By year's end, he will have cemented his standing among reliable WR3s in 12-team leagues ranking ahead of Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Marques Colston.

Fearless Forecast: 64 receptions, 854 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns

Devonta Freeman, Atl, RB (See highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team leagues): Round 9
It might be surprising to some, but Freeman's landing spot might be the most attractive among this year's RB bunch. Steven Jackson was birthed shortly after the Big Bang which makes highly vulnerable to injury and Jacquizz Rodgers is more of a change of pace option. In other words, the FSU product has a conceivable path to appreciable early season carries. If that occurs, he would become this year's version of Zac Stacy. At 5-foot-8, 208 pounds, Freeman is built like a Russian nesting doll. His low center of gravity, deceptive power, balance, vision, plus hands and excellent execution picking up the blitz makes up a three-down skill set. Last year for the National Champs, he averaged a laudable 5.9 yards per carry, totaling 94 combined yards and a TD on just 14 touches versus Auburn in the BCS title game. The Falcons were horrendous in run blocking last fall, ranking No. 22 in the category according to Pro Football Focus' metrics. However, the arrival of first-round pick Jake Matthews injects hope their performance in that area can turn around quickly. Combine that with the return of Julio Jones and the ground game is certainly looking up. He'll begin the season behind S-Jax, but bank on him starting at least 3-5 games at a minimum.

Fearless Forecast: 193 carries, 827 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 161 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns

Kelvin Benjamin, Car, WR (See highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team leagues): Round 10
After cutting ties with Steve Smith and losing Brandon LaFell to free agency, the cupboard was incredibly bare for Cam Newton. Enter Benjamin. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, the ex-Seminole is a near replica of Eric Ebron in body type. His imposing size, brutalizing strength and versatility makes him hard to drag down after the catch. Among first-year wideouts, it's no stretch to think he'll set the YAC pace. When it comes to the route tree he's a bit unpolished and he's been bitten occasionally by drops, but with only Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery and Greg Olsen to fight over for targets, he should emerge as Newton's favorite weapon by midseason, particularly in the red zone. The Panthers, who tossed the third-fewest pass attempts per game last year (29.5), will continue to emphasize ball control, but Benjamin is a strong bet to entice 100-plus looks. View him as a WR5 with midrange WR3 potential in 12-team leagues.

Fearless Forecast: 49 receptions, 572 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns

Jeremy Hill, Cin, RB (See highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team leagues): Round 8
Two weeks before the Draft, reports out of the Queen City pegged Giovani Bernard for 300 touches. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson went as far to say he envisioned Gio undergoing a Ray Rice-like second-year growth. However, with the pulverizing Hill now in the picture, that prediction may have changed. The former LSU Tiger, pound-for-pound, might be the most complete rusher among the rookie RB crop. He won't win many open-field footraces and runs a bit upright (4.66 40-yard dash), but he's a solid one-cut rusher equipped with brutish yards-after-contact power. Last year in Baton Rouge, he compiled an impressive 7.2 yards per touch. His game tape against Iowa in the Outback Bowl should have a place in Library of Congress. In that contest, he rolled up 216 yards and two scores on 28 carries, leaving colleague and Hawkeyes die-hard Andy Behrens, who witnessed the destruction firsthand, in tears. Gio will be featured heavily on pass downs, but in short yardage situations, particularly near the goal-line, Hill will act as hammer, likely overtaking BenJarvus Green-Ellis in that role. Recall last year, BJGE crossed the chalk seven times. In his inaugural campaign, the kid could achieve a similar result but with modest yardage.

Fearless Forecast: 183 carries, 789 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 96 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns

BEST OF THE REST

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In the late rounds, go West young drafters. (USAT)

Terrance West, Cle, RB (See highlights here) – Owners would be foolish to dismiss the Towson product because he played for a FCS team. The dude is a smasher, no matter the level. Last year, he established a new FCS rushing record accumulating a mind-blowing 2,509 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns on 413 attempts. He's compact, powerful and nasty between the tackles. In junior Shany's zone-blocking scheme he could be spectacular. Ben Tate is the lead horse, but his long injury history projects multiple starts for the rookie. Count on West delivering RB2 caliber lines in 12-team leagues multiple times this season.

Odell Beckham, NYG, WR (See highlights here)Rueben Randle's days as a relevant fantasy option are numbered. Beckham, who is now working underneath former Green Bay QBs coach Ben McAdoo, has a Randall Cobb appeal about him, which likely signals a reduced role for Randle. He can play inside or out, is blessed with fantastic wheels (4.43 40-yard dash) and is creative after the catch. If the retooled New York o-line can adequately protect Eli Manning, Beckham should deliver occasionally useful numbers in deeper leagues. After last year's Hakeem Nicks disaster, the Big Blue and fantasy communities should be thrilled with his production.

Sammy Watkins, Buf, WR (See highlights here) – Great player, unfortunate landing spot. That's the appropriate description for Watkins. The Clemson standout, the first receiver taken in the Draft, is nuclear in nature. He's agile, fast, superb after the catch and tracks the ball extremely well. With Stevie Johnson in San Fran, he will be counted on heavily from the get go. Unfortunately, his situation is far from ideal. E.J. Manuel completed only 58.8 percent of his attempts in 2013, displaying atrocious touch on deep balls and in play action. Watkins will have his moments, but best case scenario is a second half emergence, similar to what Cordarelle Patterson showed last year. Let someone else reach.

Carlos Hyde, SF, RB (See highlights here) – Widely perceived as the consensus top RB pre-Draft, Hyde, the third rusher taken, was stolen by San Francisco at No. 57. He's a runaway beer truck who gets downhill quickly utilizing his beefy frame to thump would-be tacklers. Last year at Ohio St., he averaged a ridiculous 7.3 yards per carry. Equally impressive as a receiver and pass blocker, he possesses few weaknesses. Frank Gore remains the unrivaled starter and Marcus Lattimore, despite his slow recovery from a pair of devastating knee injuries, will get a chance to carve out a role, but Hyde is sure to net at least 6-10 touches per game. Of course, if Gore, who's been remarkably durable since 2011, succumbs to a major setback, Hyde would vault into the RB1 discussion. Expect him to be one of the most coveted mid-to-late round handcuffs when the draft season commences in August.

Bishop Sankey, Ten, RB (See highlights here) – The first rusher off the board in the NFL Draft shouldn't be the first rookie RB taken in virtual football exercises. To be fair, Sankey is a pinball between the hashmarks and boasts a solid all-around skill set, but his sketchy efforts against the blitz and questionable break-tackle ability should relegate him to a committee role. Shonn Greene is terribly unexciting, but, at least to start, Sankey will be a change of pace option for the Titans garnering roughly 10-12 touches per game. Don't overreach for his services, but if he slips into the Round 8-10 range, gobble him up. There's a fair amount of flex appeal here, especially in PPR.

Marqise Lee, Jax, WR (See highlights here) – What version of Lee will show at the next level? The guy who dominated Pac-12 competition at USC two years ago or the inconsistent guy who underwhelmed last year? When playing his best, Lee is a tough pass catcher whose unafraid to venture across the middle, displaying superb short-field burst and separation skills. Nagging injuries have limited him in the past, but he and fellow rookie Allen Robinson will be given every opportunity to start opposite Cecil Shorts Week 1. Keep in mind, Justin Blackmon is not expected to see a single snap this year.

HANGING IN THE SHADOWS: Eric Ebron, DET, TE, Devante Adams, GB, WR, Cody Latimer, Den, WR, Andre Williams, NYG, RB, Tre Mason, StL, RB, Allen Robinson, Jac, WR, Teddy Bridgewater, Min, QB, Blake Bortles, Jac, QB, Jordan Matthews, Phi, WR, Ka'Deem Carey, Chi, RB, James White, NE, RB, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TB, TE, Paul Richardson, Sea, WR, Lache Seastrunk, Was, RB, Tyler Gaffney, Car, RB

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