Five rookies made impressive debuts during the 2013 season, with four freshman tailbacks finishing the year among the Top 20. Eddie Lacy was the cream of the crop, but LeVeon Bell, Giovani Bernard and Zac Stacy also contributed meaningfully to their fantasy squads.
Keenan Allen was the only rookie receiver worth owning, which is one more than the quarterback and tight end positions had to offer. Geno Smith, anyone?
So what are we to make of this year’s newcomers?
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.
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Does the rookie 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 due to nagging injuries?
With these variables in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2014 and assess its members’ likelihood of shining during their inaugural seasons.
GIVE THEM A CHANCE
These four should be on your draft-day radar.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Titans. Only Shonn Greene stands between the Washington standout and a starting job. Sankey is neither exceptionally fast nor powerful, but he is a versatile runner with good hands. He could yield goal-line touches to Greene and/or Jackie Battle, so don’t invest a premium pick.
Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers. Johnny Manziel made him a rich man in just one season, and Josh McCown can now make him a star. The 6-feet-5, 230-pound wideout should be a
red-zone beast and will benefit from frequent double coverage on Vincent Jackson. He’s my preseason pick for rookie of the year.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills. The fourth overall pick out of Clemson will be a day one starter; and with Stevie Johnson now a 49er, Watkins should quickly become E.J. Manuel’s favorite target. The quarterback’s development will be the rookie’s biggest hurdle, along with the Bills’ run-centric offense.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers. No team needs a young wideout to produce immediately more than Carolina. Cam Newton has an entirely fresh cast of receivers this year, so the first-round pick will have ample opportunities to shine. Benjamin is recovering from a minor knee injury and has late-round flier written all over him.
LOOK, BUT DON’T TOUCH
It’s important to know these guys, just in case they soar more quickly than expected.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns. Everybody has an opinion about Johnny Football, and someone in your league is sure to draft him several rounds too high. Of course he’ll win Cleveland’s starting job, but with a dearth of receivers and a steep learning curve, his fantasy exploits will be few and far between this year.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings. The starting job is his for the taking, but he has a lot to prove before he’ll be worth fantasy consideration.
Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals. Assuming he overtakes BenJarvis Green-Ellis sooner than later, Hill will become Giovani Bernard’s insurance policy. He also could be a goal-line poacher in his backup role.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers. The Ohio State bruiser should start the season as Frank Gore’s backup, though LaMichael James (elbow) will try to wrest the spot away upon his return. Nevertheless, if the 31-year-old Gore goes down, Hyde is arguably the best equipped to step into the lead role.
Andre Williams, RB, Giants. Likely to win the backup job behind Rashad Jennings, Williams may also get plenty of goal-line work. But he’s not a receiving threat, and his blocking ability is suspect.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons. If he moves past Jacquizz Rodgers on the depth chart, he’ll have potential value as Steven Jackson’s handcuff.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints. He is unlikely to win a starting job this year but should be on the field plenty. Even so, rookie wideouts rarely produce big numbers in New Orleans. Cooks is more likely to emerge in his sophomore year, while Kenny Stills gets his chance this season.
Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars. The USC product should work his way into the starting lineup quickly, but this is Jacksonville. His ceiling is low.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles. With Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper manning the outside, Matthews is projected to play in the slot. Barring an injury, the second-round pick from Vanderbilt is unlikely to produce consistently in his rookie campaign.
Odel Beckham, Jr, WR, Giants. He’ll spend his rookie season playing understudy to Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle in an offense that struggled mightily in 2013. The Giants have high hopes for the former LSU star, but he will have little value in redraft leagues. A preseason hamstring injury isn’t helping.
Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos. Big and fast, Latimer couldn’t have gone to a more receiver-friendly team. That said, he has a talented trio of wideouts ahead of him, so his opportunities will be limited. Check back next year.
Eric Ebron, TE, Lions. Detroit didn’t spend the 10th overall pick on a tight end they don’t intend to use. But Brandon Pettigrew is still in the picture, meaning Ebron is likely to be brought along slowly. He should not be selected in redraft leagues, but keep him on the radar as a potential midyear acquisition.
Nate Freese, K, Lions. Assuming he wins the kicking competition, Freese will be the mop-up man for Detroit’s high-powered offense. He could prove to be a midseason waiver wire gem.
Ladd Biro was named Football Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association for two consecutive years (2010, 2011) and was a finalist again in 2013. Follow all his advice daily at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com), on Facebook and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).