First Down: Forget future, for Gordon, Gurley and Cooper fantasy stardom is now

Fantasy players always fear the unknown.

To the skittish, shelling out even a mid-round pick for an inexperienced player, no matter the situation, is akin to diving into a deep unexplored lagoon knowing there are only two legitimate outcomes – 1) Discovering a hidden treasure, 2) Encountering an amphibious humanoid with an affinity for brunettes and murder.  

SCARY!

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Over the past few seasons, those who dared to invest in the services of a Robert Griffin III, Eddie Lacy or Odell Beckham found instant riches. Those who didn’t suffered a fate far worse than any "Gill-man" attack, league-wide embarrassment.

Not long ago, drafting a rookie anytime before Round 5 was widely perceived as taboo. Circumvent useful veteran talent for unproven upside was the fantasy equivalent of swallowing a cyanide pill.

However, that viewpoint has changed.

Because nuances from the college game are woven into 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 NFL coordinators commonly pick the brains of college coaches every offseason or why the implementation of spread formations have increased. Team executives who break the bank on 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.

Hey, the NFL is a copycat league after all.

Three years ago the read-option exploded onto the scene, propelling RG3, Alfred Morris and Russell Wilson to great heights. Other first-year standouts, including Doug MartinJosh Gordon and Andrew Luck also ascended rapidly playing in more traditional offenses. After young power rushers dominated the landscape (e.g. Eddie LacyLe’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy) in 2013, last year gamers witnessed premier pass catchers Beckham, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Brandin Cooks, among others, squash notions rookie receivers only break out in Year 3. Each finished inside the top-30 in standard per game average at their position, the most impactful rookie WR class in fantasy and NFL history. Line gasher Jeremy Hill, PPR machine Jarvis Landry, ladder climber Allen Robinson and QB Teddy Bridgewater, who was a fringe QB1 in 12-team leagues Weeks 12-17, were also productive.

Though 2014’s successes will be hard to duplicate, this fall’s crop of greenhorns promises to churn out an equally profitable fantasy yield, particularly at running back. Those willing to take a chance stand to benefit.

What newcomers will be cornerstones on fantasy rosters this season? Here are six players poised to make a significant impact:

Melvin Gordon, SD, RB
ADP (From Fantasy Football Calculator): 27.2, RB13
The popular early-round pick isn't the next Michael BennettRon DayneBrian Calhoun or Montee Ball. He's a flashy, gliding rusher who is sure to overcome Wisconsin's RB-bust reputation. Recall he owns the highest career yards per carry average (7.79) of any RB in college football history. However, he isn't without flaws. Ball security, blitz pick-up and pass-catching are areas he needs to improve in. Still, his game-breaking wheels and open-field elusiveness will likely gift him ample opportunities. Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver, though superior pass-down options, aren't exactly world beaters. From the get go, Gordon will be deployed often on first and second downs running behind a retooled Chargers offensive line, one that ranked dead last in run-blocking last year. Todd Gurley may have the more productive career, but given the Ram's possible physical complications, Gordon is the safer 2015 pick. Still, the statistical expectations placed upon him are too lofty. Due to his limitations in the pass game, it seems likely he'll tote the rock roughly 15-17 times per game. At his current top-30 ADP, there is little to no profit margin, particularly in PPR. He should finish comfortably inside the RB2 range in 12-team leagues, but it's doubtful he flirts with RB1 status. A final tally around 1,200 combined yards with 6-8 TDs feels right, a total similar to what RB19 Alfred Morris achieved in '14. 

Amari Cooper, Oak, WR
ADP: 49.7, WR20
From his cloud above, Al Davis probably yelled for Oakland management to take speedster Philip Dorsett over Cooper in the draft. The 'Bama product, however, is exactly what the Raiders need. For all intents and purposes, he's the most complete wideout in a promising wide receiver class. Despite only adequate size, he's a gritty, tough and highly productive receiver. He excels on post routes downfield and executes undauntedly over the middle on crosses and slants. His rapid acceleration to top speed (4.42 40-yard dash) is superb. Most importantly, his quick sticks, planting ability and physicality at the line of scrimmage allow him to gain separation from defenders, a coveted skill at the next level. Lapses in concentration have been problematic at times, but he should be the flavor every week for Derek Carr. Without much competition, he should amass some 150-plus targets this fall. Recall, due to Oakland's defensive inadequacies, Silver and Black QBs chucked it 628 times last year, the fourth-most attempts in the league. The volume potential is awfully sexy. He isn't OBJ the sequel, but Cooper is a likely mid-range WR2 in 12-team leagues. Anticipate approximately 70 catches for 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. You won't make the mint at his WR20 cost, but you won't file for bankruptcy either. 

Among rookies, Abdullah could emerge king of the fantasy jungle (AP)
Among rookies, Abdullah could emerge king of the fantasy jungle (AP)

Ameer Abdullah, Det, RB
ADP: 64.5, RB29
The Nebraska product is a true mighty mite – small, fearless and tough. At a minimum, Abdullah will have universal FLEX appeal in PPR leagues this fall. Attempting to tackle the RB is trying to wrangle a greased pig. His ankle-breaking cuts, balance, patience, vision and burst make him highly elusive. No surprise, he excelled in agility tests at the combine leading all RBs in the three-cone, 20-yard/60-yard shuttles, broad jump and vertical jump. His quick downhill burst, low pad level and strong finishes are underrated. Also an accomplished receiver, he hauled in 73 passes in four seasons with the 'Huskers. The expectation is for the rookie to work in tandem with pile-driver Joique Bell. However, questions loom about the incumbent's conditioning after undergoing offseason procedures on his Achilles and knee. If Bell rounds into form quickly, Abdullah will be Detroit's new Reggie Bush, a secondary rusher with tacky hands who will be highly employable at times this season. But if Joique resembles junk, the youngster would emerge a 15-17 touch per game back, a completely plausible outcome. Regardless, there's 50-catch potential here, particularly in a Joe Lombardi offense that typically involves RBs in the pass game (93 catches last year). Assuming he's a complementary option for part of the season, anticipate roughly 1,100 combined yards with 5-7 TDs. 

Tevin Coleman, Atl, RB
ADP: 69.5, RB31
An oasis filled with endless opulence, runway models and statistical riches. Figuratively, that's exactly what Coleman stumbled upon. Scrawl it in blood, he will flourish in Atlanta. Matt RyanJulio Jones and Roddy White provide a vibrant atmosphere. The trio tax defenses downfield creating wide holes for the ground game. Keep in mind Atlanta was the 14th-most valuable backfield in fantasy last year. And that was with a fossilized Steven Jackson setting the pace. The Falcons' offensive line, which ranked No. 28 in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus, must make strides under new OC Kyle Shanahan. Devonta Freeman enters Falcons camp the starter, but it's a matter of when not if Coleman surpasses him. There's a reason why the new regime invested a third-round pick in his services. Though his upright run style is worrisome, there's no disputing his sprint-car speed and one-cut abilities. He registered 7.54 yards per carry and averaged 169.7 rushing yards per game last season on a bad Indiana team. His experience on passing downs working as a receiver/blocker and zone-blocking familiarity will also benefit him greatly at the next level. Overall, the former Hoosier has three-down potential. It's no stretch to think TC bests Gordon/Gurley this year toting roughly 60 percent of Atlanta's touches. Pencil me in for 1,050-1,150 combined yards with 7-9 TDs. 

Todd Gurley, StL, RB
ADP: 46.3 (RB23)
Imagine an enraged bull driving an 18-wheeler downhill. When operating at 100 percent, that's Gurley. The Georgia product is quite possibly the nastiest RB to enter the league since Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch. He's a violent downhill runner with plus wiggle and hands. Prior to shredding his knee last season, he racked 61.9 percent of his yards after contact. That's a number similar to what Lynch achieved with the 'Hawks last year. Obviously, his ACL recovery will be monitored closely. The latest, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, has the rookie opening training camp on the NFI list. In other words, he'll continue to rehab until the Rams feel he's ready to practice fully, which could happen at any time. Jeff Fisher has already stated Gurley will be brought along slowly, meaning the rusher could begin the regular season as a secondary option to Tre Mason. It's possible he logs just 8-12 touches per game over the first few weeks of the regular season. When will Gurley be unleashed? Best guess: He records his first 15-carry game Week 5 at Green Bay. Patience needs to be a virtue. Even behind a rebuilt offensive line (No. 23 in run-blocking in '14), he could be a difference-making rusher for the playoff minded. Over the fantasy season's second half, he's sure to establish residency inside the RB top-20. 

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Nelson Agholor, Phi, WR
ADP: 76.3, WR32
Gushy feelings over Jordan Matthews are oversaturated. Everyone, almost everywhere are virtually guaranteeing a quantum leap in Year 2, a dangerous prediction. Philadelphia is a stats factory, but there are no assurances a significant fraction of Jeremy Maclin's 144 targets from 2014 will be awarded to Matthews. Why? Agholor. Philly is a place sure to maximize the rookie's fabulous abilities. Route precision is the name of his game. His sharp cuts, expanded tree and plus speed (4.42 40-yard dash) are standout characteristics. He also tracks the ball terrifically, gets good leverage off the line and owns highly reliable hands. Overall, his versatility and polish resemble an established veteran's. Reports suggest he'll start outside Day 1, likely in Maclin's old spot. The Eagles' staff seems resigned keeping Matthews in the slot. Riley Cooper and Josh Huff, meanwhile, are expected to battle for the other wing position. Nail down a starting gig and Agholor will garner much appeal in the fantasy community. Remember last year the Eagles attempted the fifth-most pass attempts in the league. Cooper should set the pace among first-year WRs, but Agholor may not lag far behind. In fact, it's no stretch to think he outperforms Matthews. He's that good. For now, 65-70 receptions for 950-1,050 yards and 6-8 TDs are likely.  

Tampa's Dreamsicle should be sporadically employable in fantasy this year.
Tampa's Dreamsicle should be sporadically employable in fantasy this year.

OTHER YOUNGSTERS TO GUN FOR

T.J. Yeldon, Jax, RB (53.1 ADP, RB25) – "Three-down back." "Workhorse." High volume." These are common phrases Jaguar coaches have spewed about Yeldon this offseason. Sound familiar? Those who bought into Toby Gerhart hook, line and sinker last year know the flowery illustrations all too well. Yeldon is expected to open the regular season as Jacksonville's primary back. Though unaggressive considering his stout frame (6-foot-1, 226 pounds), he's creative in the open-field, slippery and lethal pushing off the initial cut. He runs a bit upright which leaves him vulnerable to nicks and scrapes, but the Jags are expected to deploy him some 15-plus times per game. The projected workload is tempting, but questions remain. The Jags' transparent offensive line (No. 25 in run-blocking in '14), forgiving defense and Blake Bortles don't inspire confidence. And last year only 8.6 percent of their plays were in the red zone. Some will reach, but taking a selfie with a ticked off wild animal is a better idea. Yeldon will be terribly erratic. 

Duke Johnson, Cle, RB (93.2, RB39) – It's crowded in Cleveland. Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and Duke will each attempt to pull away from the RBBC scrum this summer. Johnson is a nimble, shifty rusher in the Gio Bernard/Shane Vereen vein who's a strong candidate for 40-50 catches this fall. Some anticipate him asserting himself as the three-down RB in short order, but the Browns don't envision the rookie shouldering a heavy load, at least initially. Look for him to net roughly 10-12 touches per game out of the gate. 

Jameis Winston, TB, QB (154.4, QB21) – We can agree that the Heisman winner has been a knucklehead off the field. However, on it, he's master and commander, a player with strong leadership skills, a tall pocket presence and steely resolve. Couple that with his high-leverage execution and strong arm, and it's easy to see why the Bucs covet his services. From a fantasy perspective, he won't light the world on fire in Year 1. His intermediate passes, of which he completed only 56.5 percent last year, must improve. But surrounded by Redwood trees Vincent JacksonMike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and in a Dirk Koetter system schemed similarly to what he ran at Florida St., Winston has more value than you think. Keep in mind Tampa's generous D should force him into many high-volume workloads. Bank on a borderline top-20 campaign.  

Kevin White, Chi, WR (82.1, WR33) – When Chicago selected White at No. 7 overall in this year's Draft, Bears fans at the Auditorium Theater rose to their feat and jubilantly applauded the pick. On a team peppered with holes, the West Virginia standout filled a need. White has the size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), speed (4.35 40-yard) and mean streak needed to be a highly productive receiver at the next level. "Mountain" strong – he set the pace among WRs with 23 bench presses at the combine – he can break press coverage with relative ease and is hard to drag down after the catch. Not to be overlooked, his quick-twitch cuts allow him to gain separation from defenders. However, the edges are rough. His route tree is very green which means it may take him a month or three to make a significant impact. Still, the physical tools and opportunity – he should win the starting job opposite Alshon Jeffery – are there. If only Jay Cutler wasn't his quarterback. White may play unevenly over the regular season's first half, but I suspect he'll be at least WR3 worthy from Week 10 on. However, you're overpaying at his current price point. 

Marcus Mariota, Ten, QB (160.5, QB23) – A near desolate wasteland fantasy-wise, Nashville isn't the greatest location for the former Duck. Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker are serviceable weapons, but Justin HunterHarry DouglasHakeem Nicks and fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, despite his enormous physical makeup, elicit excitement equivalent to any Adam Sandler movie. Mariota is multidimensional. His blazing straight-line speed (4.52 40-yard), ability to break contain, sharp on-the-move throws and quick release make him difficult for defenders to lasso. He can squeeze the pill into tight windows and, at times, has shown adequate touch on loft tosses. Most alluring, he possesses size (6-foot-4, 222-pounds) and athleticism to execute efficiently, particularly as a runner, inside the red zone. Think of him as a poor man's Cam Newton, a passer who could finish in range of 3,800 combined yards (600 rushing) with 20-22 total TDs. 

David Cobb, Ten, RB (103.3, RB41) – Minion-like at 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Cobb is a stocky between-the-tackles grinder who is destined to generate touches on early downs and at the goal-line. He's a tortoise on the second level (4.81 40-yard) and isn't especially athletic, but his low center of gravity, patience, excellent pass pro skills and adequate hands should keep him on the field at least 40 percent of the time. As of now, Bishop Sankey is the odds-on favorite to start Week 1. He's a bouncy rusher with plus receiving skills, though, as his 3.74 YPC from last year shows, he's a suspect interior runner. The Titans boast a respectable offensive line and Mariota's rushing ability should only boost the ground game, but the overall situation is far from stellar. Still, Cobb is a roster-worthy, post-100 flier capable of 800 combined yards with 5-7 TDs. 

KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON ... 

Jay Ajayi, Mia, RB, Breshad Perriman, Bal, WR, DeVante Parker, Mia, WR, David Johnson, Ari, RB, Maxx Williams, Bal, TE, Dorial Green-Beckham, Ten, WR, Philip Dorsett, Ind, WR, Devin Funchess, Car, WR

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