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Can taking a rookie early win you a Championship?

I have seen fantasy owners, myself included, take the rookie gamble, and come up big. Usually I have been in the back of the pack (picks 9-12) and felt risk-versus-reward worth taking, even though the odds are against you. More often than not, that rookie is not going to payoff for you. Why? Well, for one, the college schedules are only 12 games long. If you are fortunate enough to get a rookie stud on your roster, they always seem to wear down as the season goes on.

Then there is the processing rule – how long does it take for the player to get it together mentally from the college game to the professional game? Backs seem to be able to make the jump the easiest. They are handed the ball and can use their natural instincts to get the job done a lot of times. It’s not as much a thinking game to hit the hole running, hauling butt and dodge anything that tries to bring you down.

Now for wide receivers and quarterbacks it’s a little different ball game most of the time. There is the three-year rule for wide receivers, and no, it’s not just a myth. If you typically take the statistics on wide receivers and do the math, they take up two full years, in general, to get used to the harder hitting, faster defensive backs, new playbooks and some new guy throwing them the ball. Thus, the three-year rule is born. I feel it’s about the same for quarterbacks also, two-to-three years to process the throws, schemes, speed, etc.

I do feel the pressures have increased dramatically for rookies to put out quicker. Teams want to win now. Not down the road, or in two or three years, but again it’s all about processing information. Of course there’s always a rare freak of nature that comes along in a blue moon, like a Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Peterson etc. They are just gifted and they are going to produce right out of the gate. I feel it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. If you can just find one of these, you deserve it. It’s like hitting the lottery.

That all said, don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place to take a rookie, and in the right place a rookie can put you over the top for your fantasy football championship. Most owners will take a rookie way too early, or draft two or three rookies early in a row. If that’s the case you can laugh all the way to the bank (a royal flush will beat four aces every time, even if one or more are wild cards). What I’m saying is, if you’re betting, bet on the sure thing. There’s a saying – “know yourself and your enemies and you can win a thousand battles without a loss, but don’t know your enemy and you’re going to lose.” So, know your players, especially if you’re going to risk your fantasy year on a rookie. I spend some serious time knowing my players. Here’s a breakdown on this year’s crop.

1. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati – No three-year rule on Green to adjust to the NFL. By far he’s the best wide receiver in this class. He’s Dez Bryant, just without the bad boy image. This guy was born to play as a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. Green has a long frame, body control and hands that say, ‘give me the damn ball.’ He’s a natural. Expect frustrated defensive players, as this guy can totally dominate a game. The best thing is his situation is that the Cincinnati core is getting long in the tooth. This guy will catch some balls this year, whether it’s Carson Palmer or his heir apparent Andy Dalton throwing him the ball. They will be glad to have this big guy. He would make an excellent third or fourth wide receiver on your team. At his current average draft position of the seventh to eighth round, he has tremendous upside and will produce more and more, I feel, as the season goes on.

2. Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans – I was totally shocked, to see this guy going to the Saints. As of now, before free agency, they have Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Christopher Ivory and Julius Jones. It was hard to figure out. I thought the very last thing they needed was another back in the mix. I finally figured it out though. What has hurt this team the last few years? They can’t keep a healthy back on the field down the stretch. Problem solved with Ingram. In fact, the Saints wanted him bad enough to move up in this year’s draft and give up their first- and second-round picks to get him and solidify that position for years to come.

I like this guy. He reminds me of Emmitt Smith, an overachiever type. He’s not blazing fast (he ran a 4.62 at the combine) so he won’t take it to the house for you a lot, but if you need that extra yard he will get it for you. He has great vision and great change of direction. He runs low and breaks tackles, and he has great hands. He’s been going about the late fourth round, early fifth round in mock drafts. I feel that’s a little high, due to the fact that he’s definitely going to be in a running back by committee situation. The Saints have just way to many weapons, and if you have drafted any of their players in the last couple years, you know what I mean. It’s hard to get much fantasy value when there only so many balls to go around. That said, I do feel like Ingram will have a good late season run, but I’m not risking anything but backup material for him.

3. Daniel Thomas, RB, Miami – Thomas gets the nod this year as far as rookie ideal situations go. He comes in as a virtual tie with Mark Ingram in my book or at least a close second. Why you ask? Because I believe Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams have seen their better days. Both are free agents this year and I don’t see Miami bending over backwards to try and sign either one. For one, Brown wants a new big contract and the Dolphins don’t think he merits such a contract. He doesn’t have super breakaway speed, and has had his ups and downs just staying healthy. And let’s face it – Williams is just a mirror image of what he once was. He has never been quite the same player since his dope smoking days. He might still be serviceable as a backup, but just not starting material anymore.

So enter Thomas, a powerful every down back, with good feet and a great power burst for such a big guy. He had more than 500 touches the last two years with 2,850 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns. The only big knock on Thomas is that he’s really not a take-it-to-the-house back and he has suffered a few injuries. I still believe this will be his job to lose, just because of situation. And did I mention the Dolphins just happened to draft one of the best center/guards in Mike Pouncey in the first round ahead of Thomas?

So expect great things from this dynamic duo, as they definately should be able to throw some size and weight around and mow down. So look for Thomas at about the middle of the sixth round in most mocks. I think he will probably be one of the best rookie sleepers in this year’s crop, just because of opportunity.

Now it brings me to, what I call the ‘Hail Mary’ section of the rookie class. These are dicey players. Like playing hot potato, you might not want to get stuck holding the bag. These players will have some value this year, but due to veterans already established at the position or the team spreading the wealth too much, they will not have major fantasy roles and not many fantasy points. I’m not saying in the years to come they won’t dominate or become the No. 1 guy. I just don’t feel it’s going to happen big for them this year. Here are some good players for the dynasty league players.

4. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta – Wow is an understatement on this pick. The Falcons gave up their present, their future and the shirts on their back for this guy. Five draft picks in all. It reminded me of years ago when the Minnesota Vikings gave up five players and six draft picks to land Herschel Walker. It’s still considered even today, by most sports writers, as the worst trade of all time, because Walker wasn’t the same player after the trade. Meanwhile, the Cowboys went on to win three Super Bowls.

Now this deal wasn’t as bad as the Dallas deal, and Jones will be good, but if you’re going to sell your soul, don’t you think you should at least get a franchise quarterback or a stud defensive lineman? All that said, Jones has super size and speed, not to mention he’s a tough guy. He ran a 4.39 at the combine even though he had a foot fracture. He even showed up in a walking boot. So with his speed, he’s going to stretch the field for the Falcons. I compare him to a Michael Irvin type or Terrell Owens, only faster. The biggest knock on this guy is situation. The Falcons have a dominant No.1 wide receiver already in Roddy White, and has anyone ever heard of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez?

There are only so many balls to go around, so Jones will only be the second or third option for this team, for this year anyhow, of course barring injuries. Jones has been taken, on the average, about the eighth to ninth round in most mocks, which is way too high for this writer to give up a quality pick, since he’s not going to get enough action to merit the draft average. If you can get him in the 12th round or later, I say go for it, because he does have upside. I, though will take someone more polished and proven in the middle rounds of my draft, because that’s where championships are won.

5. Ryan Williams, RB, Arizona – Williams was a pure stud his freshman year. You don’t get 1,655 yards on 293 carries and 21 touchdowns unless you’re pretty darn good. An all-around back with exceptional speed and superior footwork. Last yeat was not as good to Williams, as he seemed to take a step back, only getting 477 yards on 110 attempts and nine touchdowns. I feel most of this set back was due to his hamstring injuries.

I was surprised he actually decided to declare for the draft after only two seasons and such a poor 2010 effort. But the Cardinals decided to take a shot on him, as the fifth pick in the second round. I think this guy can get it done in the NFL if he stays healthy and can get back to his 2009 form. I think his burst is every bit as good, if not better than Mark Ingram, who was the first back off the board to the New Orleans Saints. He will be a good change-of-pace player for the Cardinals, but feel he will only be second string this year, as Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells, 23-years old this year, and Tim Hightower always seems to get in the mix.

The upside on Williams though, is that Wells can never seem to stay healthy. Of course there’s Hightower to contend with, but he is a lackluster type of back that runs more or guts than ability. So grab Williams, especially if you draft Wells. If Wells goes down again to injury, I feel Williams will take the No. 1 job, run with it and never look back.

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