Many rookies spend their first season in the NFL getting their feet wet, adjusting to the speed and tempo of the league while still producing some middling-to-low fantasy numbers. There are, of course, exceptions to any rule and there is a list of rookies who burst on to the fantasy scene with exceptional fantasy production – Dan Marino, Randy Moss and Earl Campbell come immediately to mind. Last season had its share of bumper crop rookies that stepped right in and announced their arrival as fantasy stars – Cam Newton, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu and Torrey Smith were all high-level fantasy producers.
Just beneath that list of rookie fantasy studs are the players that we will examine in this article. Players who may have flashed some fantasy potential but failed to make the jump to the NFL as seamlessly as their rookie brethren mentioned above. Players who, as they enter their second season in the NFL, are poised to have breakout fantasy seasons, making the jump on to fantasy draft boards for the 2012 season. Examining where ability meets opportunity and then opportunity turns into solid fantasy production. Currently flying under the radar, these players can be excellent late-round fantasy draft selections that help carry teams to championships.
Lance Kendricks, TE, St. Louis: Kendricks burst onto the fantasy scene in 2011 by amassing 11 receptions, 155 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging 14.1 yards per catch. Oh wait, that was all in the preseason. So, while none of those stats helped fantasy squads they certainly put Kendricks front and center on tight end rankings heading into the 2011 season. Fantasy owners, along with fantasy pundits were all expecting Kendricks to carry over his preseason domination into the regular season and be a fantasy force. After all, he is an athletic, 6-foot-3, 250-pound beast who has the ability to create mismatches over the middle as well as down the field. What is there not to love about the kid?
The regular season would begin, Kendricks would drop a sure touchdown pass from Sam Bradford in Week 1 and things would unravel from that point on. Drops would plague Kendricks throughout his rookie season, and an injury to fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui would see his role change from receiving option to having to block more for the Rams. Kendricks would also suffer a foot sprain in a November contest against the Arizona Cardinals, which would hamper his production for the remainder of the season. After showing so much potential in the preseason, Kendricks would finish his rookie season with only 28 receptions, 352 yards and no touchdowns. Ooof! Not exactly the fantasy campaign that folks envisioned for Kendricks in his rookie year.
Fast forward to the 2012 offseason. The Rams have brought on board former Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher to turn around the franchise, and he, in turn, he has brought offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to revamp the offense. Fisher has been staunch in his support of third-year quarterback Sam Bradford and the team has begun to assemble a mixture of young receiving talent that they feel will be the core of their passing game for years to come. Rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens will join a receiving corps for the Rams that has an average age of 24. This unit will grow together and Lance Kendricks remains the tight end option in their passing attack.
Schottenheimer has already stated, “We really liked Lance back in New York when we looked at him. I think he’s got a chance to be a terrific player.”
Fisher also chimed in, “Lance played well last year. Lance learned a lot of football last year. He can get open, he can make plays. He can do some things. We’re kind of looking forward to getting him involved in this offense.”
The Rams have not given up on Lance Kendricks and neither should fantasy owners. The 2011 season was a debacle for the entire team, with Bradford struggling through a high ankle sprain and journeymen quarterbacks Kellen Clemens, A.J. Feeley and Tim Brandstater all taking turns under center. Throw out the stats from last season and look back at how Bradford looked to the tight end in his rookie season of 2010 – he completed 70 balls to the position for 697 yards and seven touchdowns. Despite his struggles with drops as a rookie, Kendricks does possess decent hands and has the speed to get open, and Bradford will look his way often. He has been slowed in minicamp by an undisclosed injury that has been reported as “not serious” and his health status should be monitored closely as training camp unfolds. Providing he is a full participant in training camp and the preseason, Kendricks is a solid TE2, with definite No. 1 fantasy tight end upside for the 2012 fantasy season.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle: One thing is for certain, Baldwin is not a man lacking in confidence as he prepares for his second season in the NFL. Take this quote from back in February for example, “I want to be known as the greatest receiver who ever played the game.” He then spoke to hoping for a larger role for 2012, “(And) it’s going to be hard to do that strictly out of the slot.”
Those are lofty goals for the undrafted free agent from Stanford. While his chances of becoming the greatest receiver to ever play the game may seem remote, it is unwise to overlook this kid. Doug Baldwin not only made the Seahawks roster as an undrafted free agent in 2011, he also went on to lead the team in receiving. He registered 51 receptions, 788 yards and four touchdowns. He also returned a kick last season for 37 yards, highlighting his versatility for the Seahawks.
Playing larger than his diminutive stature, 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, Baldwin is a tireless worker who managed to put together an impressive college career at Stanford where he totaled 96 receptions, 1,360 yards and 13 touchdowns. Fantasy owners who picked him up last season following his Week 1 four-catch, 83-yard, one-touchdown game, then rode him out for the season, are not surprised to see Baldwin listed here. However, with an average draft position currently sitting around the 165-170 region, and Baldwin being ranked in the low 50 range of wide receivers, he is an awesome fantasy pick a round or two above these numbers.
Look at the Seattle receiving corps. It is a swirly group of for certain. Sidney Rice is coming off of two offseason shoulder surgeries and has played a total of 15 games in the past two seasons. Fantasy owners continue to cling to his marvelous 2009 season when he teamed with Brett Favre to finish as a Top 10 fantasy wide receiver as a reason to continue to draft him. News flash … Brett Favre is finally retired for good (we hope) and Sidney Rice remains damaged goods. Mike Williams had a resurgent season in 2010, putting up 65 catches for 751 yards and two touchdowns (yeah, he was that bad that 751 yards and two scores is considered a high water mark) and people were back on board the Williams bandwagon. In 2011, water found its level and Williams returned to being his underachieving, injured self. His totals regressed to 18 receptions, 236 yards and a single score in 12 games. News flash … Mike Williams is an out-of-shape underachieving receiver and will continue to be just that.
Golden Tate flashed some potential late last season, posting a career-high five catches in Week 17 against Arizona. However, on those five receptions he totaled only 46 yards, and for his two years in the league averages only 10.9 yards per reception. He is currently nursing a broken hand but is expected to be able to fully participate in training camp. Early reports are that Tate will be given an opportunity to win the starting wideout position opposite Sidney Rice. News flash … Golden Tate is a sloppy route runner, lacks proper pass catching technique and is missing valuable organized team activities and minicamp reps. While this next sentence will get all the Sidney Rice supporters in an uproar, praising his athleticism, size, great hands and body control, I will simply say this in response. None of that matters when he is standing on the sidelines in his warm ups. Doug Baldwin is the best wide receiver in Seattle. Do not fall asleep on him come fantasy draft day and be ready to select him as early as the 10th round as an excellent No. 3/flex option with WR2 upside.