Fantasy owners are in Luck with this rookie class

Pat Fitzmaurice
Fantasy owners are in Luck with this rookie class

This year’s class of rookie fantasy performers was looking like a bumper crop even before Doug Martin and Andrew Luck went berserk last week. Those two combined for more than seven football fields’ worth of total yardage In Week Nine, underscoring just how special this year’s rookie class truly is.

Every year, we fantasy owners hope that the incoming rookies adequately replenish the player population, and that a handful of them emerge as front-line contributors who’ll add excitement to our little hobby for years to come. I’d say this year’s rookie class is more than meeting those standards so far, wouldn’t you?

There have been a few rookie flops, too. I see that those of you who drafted Justin Blackmon based on my preseason advice have brought along crates of rotten produce, but I ask that you refrain from giving me my well-deserved pelting until after the show.

(Sound of angry murmuring)

Thank you, Justin Blackmon owners. And your drinks are on the house tonight.

Any discussion of this year’s rookies should start with the quarterbacks. The Class of ’12 might not measure up to the legendary Class of 1983, which included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, but it seems like it has an excellent chance to equal or surpass the excellent Class of 2004, which yielded Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, it’s a good bet that the two jewels of this year’s rookie QB class, Luck and Robert Griffin III, will both be taken ahead of Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger in next year’s fantasy drafts, no matter that the members of the Class of ’04 are at or near the peaks of their careers.

RG3 is so electrifying, I’ve actually gotten goose bumps while watching him play. Watching RG3 early in his NFL career, one can almost imagine what it must have been like to watch Jimi Hendrix during the early days of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Rock fans of that era had seen great guitarists, but they’d never seen or heard anyone quite like Jimi. We’ve seen great quarterbacks before, but we’ve never seen anyone quite like RG3. Remember the hullabaloo over Michael Vick heading into the 2011 season, when he was being taken first in a lot of fantasy drafts following his tour-de-force performance the previous season? Well, RG3 can do everything Vick could do at the height of his powers, but while Vick has always had the accuracy of a sawed-off shotgun, RG3 has the accuracy of a high-powered rifle.

Hey, Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?

As undeniably awesome as RG3 has been, in no way has he overshadowed the more conventionally skilled Luck. The No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft has been every bit as good as advertised — all that and a bag of pork rinds. Entering Thursday night’s game against Jacksonville, Luck was on pace to throw for 4,808 yards this season. The man he replaced, Peyton Manning, a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer forever to be regarded as a demigod in Indianapolis (and probably Denver, too), has never thrown for 4,800 yards in a single season. And oh, by the way, Luck entered Week 10 with three rushing touchdowns. He doesn’t have RG3’s wheels, but those tires sure aren’t as deflated as ol’ Peyton’s.

RG3 and Luck appear destined to be top-five fantasy quarterbacks for most of their careers. Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson might not have that sort of upside, but all are cementing their roles as NFL starters and experiencing fewer growing pains than anticipated. Each has fantasy potential ranging from solid starter to quality backup — and really, they’re already pretty decent fantasy backups despite being hamstrung by a lack of pass-catching talent on their respective teams.

Tannehill isn’t nearly as raw as I thought he’d be. Never mind that he has thrown only five TD passes; his upside is higher than that of Wilson or Weeden. Wilson is something of a game manager, which limits his ceiling, but he has thrown 13 TD passes this season — an encouraging sign of Aikman-esque potential as a passer who might never amass a ton of yardage but will get his share of TDs. And even though Wilson hasn’t done much as a runner thus far, he has the ability to get you points with his legs. Grandpa Weeden, the 29-year-old rookie, probably isn’t going to be anyone’s weekly fantasy starter in years to come — at least not by design — but you have to love how he forces the ball downfield without fear of interception (though I’m not sure Browns fans always love it). Early-career Brandon Weeden plays a lot like late-career Carson Palmer, and that’s not all bad.

And how about these rookie running backs? Trent Richardson and the aforementioned Martin figure to be first-round fantasy picks next season. Alfred Morris, an eight-carat diamond in the rough, might get first-round consideration, too.

Richardson is already a top-10 fantasy back, proficient as a runner, receiver and TD scorer. He has made a big splash despite health issues that might be masking even greater potential. Richardson had arthroscopic surgery on his knee shortly before the start of the season, and recently he has been dealing with a rib cartilage injury. It’s scary to imagine what he might be able to do when completely fit. And if it turns out that Richardson is one of those top backs who are destined to be dinged up constantly, a la Brian Westbrook, it’s at least encouraging that Richardson has fought through the pain (save perhaps for his early exit in Week Seven, which might have been coach-mandated).

Martin is now leading all running backs in fantasy scoring, having made a quantum leap with last week’s 251-yard, four-touchdown rushing explosion. It would be lazy to say that Martin is a Ray Rice clone, and the scouting community could undoubtedly point out numerous differences in their games. But for fantasy purposes, Martin really is a Rice clone. And given that Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, who coached Rice at Rutgers, is committed to the running game, while the Ravens sometimes seem to think that Joe Flacco should be the centerpiece of their offense, there might be a case to be made for drafting Martin ahead of Rice in 2013. But before we elevate Martin to that tier, we have to see more evidence that he can put up satisfactory numbers against good defenses. He has punished a number of below-average defenses this season — Oakland, New Orleans, Kansas City, Carolina. But he ran roughshod over a pretty fair Minnesota defense two weeks ago, and early in the season he at least held his own against the Giants and Cowboys. Still, it would be nice to see him rip apart a top defense before we start talking about him as a top-five overall fantasy pick.

Morris has been the biggest surprise of this draft class. An unheralded sixth-round draft pick out of Florida Atlantic, the small but powerful Morris has complemented RG3 nicely, banging out 793 rushing yards and five TDs as the battering ram in Washington’s zone-read running game. Mike Shanahan is notorious for having an itchy RB finger, but Shanny seems to have complete faith in Morris. The rookie has 164 carries so far; no other Washington running back has more than 12.

There’s also some depth to this RB class, though it might take time for other members to emerge as key fantasy contributors. Daryl Richardson and Vick Ballard are playable options, though they share rushing duties in their respective offenses. Brandon Bolden looked sharp before a knee injury knocked him out of the mix for New England, at least temporarily. Bernard Pierce, Robert Turbin, Ronnie Hillman and Bryce Brown all have shown brief flashes of competence, but all are backing up established studs. David Wilson and Isaiah Pead have been disappointing in that they haven’t been able to earn significant carries, but they remain intriguing talents who could emerge down the road.

With such a bountiful rookie harvest at quarterback and running back, we probably shouldn’t complain that the first-year pass catchers have been collectively unremarkable.

The rookie TE class is thinner than Mick Jagger, with the Colts providing the only small bit of rookie-TE satisfaction. But even in Indianapolis, the yield hasn’t been as good as hoped. Second-round draft pick Coby Fleener was Luck’s college teammate at Stanford, but their college chemistry hasn’t carried over yet. Fleener had 82 receiving yards in Week One and hasn’t had more than 42 yards in any game since. He’s still looking for his first NFL touchdown. Third-rounder Dwayne Allen has two TD catches and is starting to play a more substantial role after a slow start.

We should probably cut the rookie wide receivers a little slack and grant them time to develop into reliable fantasy contributors, since receivers generally have a lower rookie success rate than running backs. Obviously, not every draft class produces wideouts the caliber of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, as last year’s did. But in 2010, we saw strong debuts from Mike Williams and, before an injury derailed his season, Dez Bryant. In 2009, Percy Harvin and Hakeem Nicks quickly established themselves. 

Josh Gordon and Kendall Wright have been the most productive of this year’s rookie receivers, though neither is offering more than potential flex value. Gordon, chosen by Cleveland in this year’s supplemental draft, has caught four TD passes and made some big plays. But he has only 19 catches and hasn’t recorded a 100-yard game yet, so putting him in your fantasy lineup in any given week would require a leap of faith. Wright has 42 catches and three TDs, though he’s gaining just 9.1 yards per catch and, like Gordon hasn’t had a 100-yard game.

Alshon Jeffery had two TD catches in five games for the Bears before breaking his hand. With Chicago short on viable WR options other than star Brandon Marshall, Jeffery could quickly find a niche when he returns. Ryan Broyles is starting to come on for the Lions and might offer fantasy help down the stretch. T.Y. Hilton had two 100-yard games, but in his other five games he has totaled 37 or fewer yards. Stephen Hill and Chris Givens have had their moments, but not enough of them to help a fantasy team.

And finally we come to the two biggest fantasy duds of this year’s rookie class, WRs Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd.

Blackmon and Floyd both went to teams with shaky QB situations, but that excuse doesn’t adequately account for their struggles thus far. Floyd, the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft, was unimpressive in the preseason and wasn’t able to immediately work his way past Andre Roberts or Early Doucet on the depth chart. There may be reason for guarded optimism, however. Floyd has been targeted 18 times in Arizona’s last two games, catching 10 of those throws for 116 yards. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt says Floyd is going to play a more significant role going forward. We’ll see.

Opportunity hasn’t been the problem for Blackmon, whom the Jaguars traded up to take with the fifth pick of the draft. He leads the Jaguars in targets with 54, yet he’s caught 23 passes for 225 yards and one TD. So in other words, Blackmon is catching fewer than half the passes thrown his way, he’s gaining less than 10 yards per catch, and he’s barely averaging four yards per target. That last stat is especially damning, and it makes me wonder whether Blackmon is going to be able to turn things around.

But, hey, even with the most bountiful crops, not every vegetable or piece of fruit makes it onto supermarket shelves.

And I believe that’s a fitting cue for the rancid-produce-bearing Blackmon owners. Have at it, boys.