Saved by the Bell! Pittsburgh RB, other rushers, to set rookie pace

When it comes to rookies conventional wisdom no longer applies. With a few notable exceptions, most first-year players, particularly quarterbacks, were once thought to be multi-year projects, the Steve McNair approach – observe, learn and wait.

But in this day and age where instant gratification is constantly sought after, time isn’t of the essence. Several players picked in April are immediately pressed into competitive situations where often times they emerge as the go-to option, evident in the rapid ascension of guys like Robert Griffin III, Doug Martin and Josh Gordon, to name a few, last year. Because nuances from the college game are commonplace in playbooks throughout the league, the transition for some guys is seamless. From level-to-level, system terminology and execution are often not drastically different.

In football’s version of speed-dating, an inexperienced player that excels under fire typically buys at least another 2-3 years of trust. Conversely, those that fail quickly crash the pity party, drinking foamy beer alongside fellow busts JaMarcus Russell, moo cow Mike Williams (Not the Tampa version) and Mark Ingram (Too soon?).

Unfortunately, many commodities from this year's draft may soon pump the keg.

From a talent standpoint, this year’s class pales in comparison to 2012’s, a group that will be deemed ‘legendary’ 10 years from now. Though there is quality depth at wide receiver and running back, other fantasy focused positions lack punch, especially quarterback. However, success is all about opportunity. Any player given a chance to showcase his wares can thrive. Look at what 'The Butler' Alfred Morris, a passed-over sixth-round pick, accomplished a season ago. Displayed in the chart above, he totaled 246.3 fantasy points, the third-best among rookie RBs since 2000. His 1,613 rushing yards ranked third all-time for freshmen backs behind Eric Dickerson and George Rogers. As always, it all boils down to volume and system fit.

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

Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh, RB (Watch highlights here)

Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team league): 5-6
Scrawl it in blood. Bell will be the most sought after rookie among fanatics this fall. The Spartan embodies characteristics the Steelers typically cherish in a running back – brawn, toughness, endurance, strong blocking ability and a three-down skill set. The rusher isn't particularly flashy. He lacks lateral agility, elusiveness and ran a mediocre 4.60 40-yard dash at the Combine. However, straight-line speed at running back is an overrated trait. What Bell does best is steamroll over defenders. He's a thundering herd of bison in human form. It would be no surprise if he finished well-inside the top-10 in yards after contact. He's also a better-than-advertised receiver, an instant upgrade in all facets over inconsistent options Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. A blue collar throwback in a timeshare age – he logged 30-plus carries in seven of 13 games at Michigan State last year – he's Steven Jackson in Black and Gold. Pittsburgh's above average passing attack only enhances his statistical upside. The Steelers' line remains a work in progress, but expect him to conduct the train from Day 1. Trust him as a RB2 in 10-team leagues and deeper.

Fearless Forecast: 268 attempts, 1,125 rushing yards, 31 receptions, 228 receiving yards, 9 total touchdowns

Tavon Austin, St. Louis, WR (Watch highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted (12-team league): 7-8
The Rams, in desperate need for an upgrade at WR with Chris Givens atop the depth-chart entering the draft, traded up to the No. 8 spot to acquire the Mountaineers' microwave. He must be Percy Harvin's long lost brother. He's a compact, sure-handed wideout equipped with fantastic speed, enhanced versatility and supreme elusiveness, a textbook 'matchup nightmare.' The human juke button's Austintaneous ability to shift direction and accelerate will prove lethal at the next level. With Danny Amendola now the apple of Tom Brady's eye, the youngster steps in to fill the slot void for Jeff Fisher's club. Expect him to be trusted immediately. Last year, Sam Bradford targeted Amendola 9.1 times per game. Without much competition for looks on roster outside of Givens and ex-Titan Jared Cook, the rookie should net at least 7.0 targets per game. Because of his explosiveness and plus route-running skills, look for him to establish an instant bond with Bradford, becoming a top-flight WR3 in virtual leagues.

Fearless Forecast: 71 receptions, 928 receiving yards, 145 rushing yards, 7 total touchdowns

Montee Ball, Denver, RB (Watch highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted: 5-6
After Knowshon Moreno underwent a second procedure on his knee in February, it became imperative for John Elway to solidify his backfield. Prior to landing in Denver, many, including yours truly, questioned Ball's potential at the next level. His yeoman persona, undeterred attitude towards contact, terrific pad level and fluidity as a receiver are admirable qualities. However, he's a one-speed runner with significant tire wear. During his last two years in Madison he accumulated 697 total touches. Throw in his average power and lack of finesse, and Ball isn't a player that immediately jumps out. Still, his situation is ripe. Due to the Broncos' embarrassment of riches in the pass game (Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker), whoever logs carries in Denver will see tractor trailer-wide holes. He'll have to fend off Moreno and Ronnie Hillman for touches, but, provided his cut-block abilities please No. 18, he should deliver top-25 numbers at RB.

Fearless Forecast: 227 attempts, 1,007 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 211 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns

DeAndre Hopkins, Houston, WR (Watch highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted: 8-9
The Clemson product wrecks secondaries like he does expensive hotel rooms, in spectacular fashion. Nabbed by the Texans at No. 27 overall, Hopkins really is Houston's missing offensive link. For years, the organization failed miserably in its attempt to find a reliable vertical weapon to complement Andre Johnson. Futility no more. Hopkins is a polished talent that has few weaknesses. He runs crisp routes, accelerates quickly up-field, can break press coverage, sheds tackles and is fearless across-the-middle. In many ways, he's a younger version of Atlanta's Roddy White. The Texans were old school offensively a season ago calling 'run' a whopping 508 times, the fourth-most in the NFL. This offseason, Gary Kubiak expressed his desire to ease the burden on Arian Foster. With Hopkins now in tow, he has that luxury. Because of his well-rounded skill set and likelihood of seeing favorable coverages, the kid is in a great position to pay a handsome dividend in his inaugural campaign. In the race for rookie WR bragging rights, he and Austin will be neck-n-neck. Draft him with confidence as a WR3 in 12-teamers.

Fearless Forecast: 53 receptions, 713 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

Jonathan Franklin, Green Bay, RB (Watch highlights here)

Projected fantasy round drafted: 10-11
Many will question the Noise's sobriety ranking Franklin ahead of Eddie Lacy. After all, the Bruins' All-time leading rusher was drafted two rounds later, slipping to the fourth. But the Packers robbed the Glendale Train. Franklin is an outstanding downhill runner with superb lateral movement who, despite his slight build, gains extra yards by churning his legs after initial contact. Faster than his new tag-team partner (Frank: 4.49 40-yard, Lacy: 4.57) and more versatile, he's a better all-around fit for Green Bay's zone-blocking scheme. After fumbling problems plagued Franklin early in his college career, several scouts questioned his ball security along with his blocking abilities pre-draft, which likely explains why teams overlooked him. However, he resolved those issues in a dynamite senior campaign under Jim Mora, displaying excellent across-the-board skills. He'll need a sparkling camp to surpass Lacy, but given his plus speed, strong zone running and useful hands, his chances are better than you might think. That happens, and the late-round flier will turn a massive profit in drafts. With defenses focused on grounding Aaron Rodgers, he will be gifted plenty of space to operate.

Fearless Forecast: 208 attempts, 910 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 197 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati, RB (Watch highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted: 7-8
The Bengals, rumored for weeks to be heavily interested in an explosive complement to plodder BenJarvus Green-Ellis, succumbed to temptation and selected the North Carolina product in Round 2. Not only impressed by his blazing wheels around the edge, tender hands and adeptness on special teams, Marvin Lewis and company covet Gio's leadership and work ethic qualities. Soon, fantasy owners will too. Cincinnati's offense is shaping up to be one of the league's deadliest. With A.J. Green, an improved Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert to throw to and a rigid offensive line anchored by newly re-signed tackle Andre Smith to protect him, Andy Dalton could have a field day vertically, paving the way for Bernard and BenJarvus to gain appreciable yards on the ground. Because of his unsavory injury track-record in college, questions loom about the rusher's long-term durability. But because he'll likely work between the 20s, earning roughly 12-15 touches per game, his odds of remaining upright are favorable. Since the LawFirm will remain the closer, TDs will be few and far between, but the Spiller-like rookie will likely contribute soundly as a FLEX option in PPR leagues. Highlight his name on your cheat sheet.

Fearless Forecast: 153 attempts, 684 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 336 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

E.J. Manuel, Buffalo, QB (Watch highlights here)
Projected fantasy round drafted: 11-12
In the 'Oh snap!' moment of Round 1, the Bills traded down from the No. 8 pick, a move most believed was to make drafting a quarterback more palatable. That indeed was the case, but the name uttered from Warden Goodell's mouth wasn't Ryan Nassib, the passer Bills head coach Doug Marrone mentored for four years at Syracuse, it was Manuel, the tantalizing prospect from Florida State. Ten years from now when pundits and fans look back at the 2013 QB class, a bright aura will surround the QB's name. He is the prototype passer for the modern era – mobile, highly athletic, strong-armed and intelligent. Best in play-action or in the 'gun, the signal caller, who clocked a 4.65 40-yard time at the Combine, is a poor man's Cam Newton. Critics contend his progressions and reads are highly questionable, legitimate concerns. Even late in his career with the Seminoles, he recklessly chucked passes into tight coverage. Still, Marrone plans to run an up-tempo offense predicated on reacting, not thinking, a style of play that should help Manuel reach his full potential. The rookie will battle Kevin Kolb this summer for first-team reps, but considering the talent package and hefty investment in him, it's likely the veteran will soon take a backseat. Manuel is far from starter material in 12-team leagues, but with a number of quality weapons around him (e.g. Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and C.J. Spiller) and playing behind an robust offensive line, he could be the surprise sensation of the fantasy season. Don't forget about him in the beer hazy rounds.

Fearless Forecast (16 starts): 3, 176 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 19 interceptions, 508 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns


Zac Stacy, St. Louis, RB (Watch highlights here) – Physically, Stacy is a cross between Mike Tolbert, Maurice Jones-Drew and a dorm-room fridge. Though he lacks foot-speed and wiggle, the 5-foot-8, 220-pound rusher is an ox-strong plow between the tackles who should rack considerable yards after contact. As a member of the Vanderbilt Commodores he averaged a laudable 5.6 yards per carry from 2010-2012. He's also a decent receiver out of the backfield. Already the best rusher on the Rams roster, he should overtake incumbents Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead in short order. If there's an Alfred Morris in this year's draft class, it's likely Stacy.

Fearless Forecast: 197 attempts, 866 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 78 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns

Eddie Lacy, Green Bay, RB (Watch highlights here) – Projected by most pundits to be the first RB selected, Lacy actually was the fourth back off the board, falling to Green Bay at pick No. 61. The former 'Bama star is a battering ram who relishes contact and displays excellent pad level. But after a miserable Pro Day, some soured on his overall abilities. One scout I talked to said Alabama's sterling offensive line masked Lacy's deficiencies. Yes, his power is reminiscent of vintage Michael Turner, but his one-dimensional skill set offers little outside early-down/short-yardage work. Additional questions about his pass-blocking abilities, work ethic and hamstring/toe/foot health, further tarnishes his perceived 'glowing' fantasy image. Add in Franklin's presence and it's entirely possible Lacy goes the way of Mark Ingram.

Fearless Forecast: 154 attempts, 654 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 94 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

Terrance Williams, Dallas, WR (Watch highlights here) – Two years ago Laurent Robinson altered the tilt of the fantasy world, emerging from the shadows to produce a 54-858-11 line in 14 games for the 'Boys. Williams could be the second-coming. He isn't the greatest crossing-route receiver, but, because of his long frame and plus body control, he's a fantastic outside threat, particularly in the red-zone. Since Miles Austin would break a bone penetrating a thin fog and with defenses stretched dealing with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, Williams will make a measurable impact in at least a handful of games this fall. You'll be hard-pressed to find a better bench WR with more upside.

Fearless Forecast: 48 receptions, 632 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

Geno Smith, New York Jets, QB (Watch highlights here) – Jets HQ is one sword-swallower away from becoming a full-blown circus. Smith, who gruelingly waited out Day 1 without hearing his name called, slipped to Round 2, a value pick for the Jets. The ButtFumbler is officially on the hot seat. Smith's unreal stats at West Virginia masks a questionable skill set. At times, his accuracy was impeccable. However, in other instances, his throws greatly missed his intended target. Mark Sanchez is the Titanic personified, which should pave the way for Geno to start by Week 5, but with a bare arsenal, his chances of fantasy success Year 1 are minimal.

Fearless Forecast (12 starts): 2,436 passing yards, 12 passing touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 198 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati, TE (Watch highlights here) – Undoubtedly, the Notre Dame tower is the king of this year's TE class. Not only blessed with size, he's a terrific, tacky-handed vertical threat who mirrors Greg Olsen in style and substance. With Jermaine Gresham also on roster, it's clear Cincinnati is hoping to emulate New England's two-TE approach, setting up Andy Dalton to be successful inside the red-zone and on intermediate throws. Don't expect the moon from Eifert in his first season, but a low-yard, high-TD yield, similar to what Kyle Rudolph tallied with Minnesota last year, seems attainable. Consider him a high-end TE2 in 12-teamers.

Fearless Forecast: 38 receptions, 502 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns

Aaron Dobson, New England, WR (Watch highlights here) – Love or hate The Hoodie, the man knows how to work a draft. Earning a windfall from Minnesota by trading out of the first round, the Patriots spent one of two second-round picks on the Marshall product. An anti-Welker – Wes led the league in drops last year – Hobson possesses quite possibly the stickiest fingers in this year's WR class. Last year as a senior with the Thundering Herd he had zero drops on 92 targets. Now teamed with ultra-efficient Tom Brady and with minimal competition outside Danny Amendola on the Pats roster, he could be a real diamond in the rough. Tuck his name away.

Fearless Forecast: 46 receptions, 624 receiving yards, 4 total touchdowns

Cordarelle Patterson, Minnesota, WR (Watch highlights here)– Watch highlight reels of the receiver and he leaps off the screen. He's big, highly explosive and tough to tackle, a true athletic marvel. Unfortunately, in terms of immediate fantasy value, he offers little. Clearly, Patterson is an unfinished product. Yes, his raw skills are sensational, but his route-running skills are very unrefined. With that in mind and because Christian Ponder routinely chucks wounded ducks downfield – he ranked dead last in deep-ball passing among eligible QBs last year according to Pro Football Focus – the wideout will be largely unreliable this fall. His long-term upside is immense, but for those in non-dynasty formats, better first-year options are available.

Fearless Forecast: 39 receptions, 519 receiving yards, 117 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns

HANGIN' IN THE SHADOWSZack Ertz, Phi, TE, Robert Woods, Buf, WR, Justin Hunter, Ten, WR, Keenan Allen, SD, WR, Stedman Bailey, StL, WR, Joseph Randle, Dal, RB, Christine Michael, Sea, RB, Da'Rick Rogers, Buf, WR

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