Wednesday, October 8, 2008

2008 - the year of the fantasy rookie

While finishing up the top RB by Strength of Schedule article - which we will talk about tonight on the Thundering Blurb Fantasy Football Show - I noticed something about the RB list I had made.

There were tons of rookies on it. And it isn't just RBs.

When we look back at this year in fantasy football, along with the underproduction and injury plague that has again befallen a portion of the top 10, we may see this as a unique year where a huge portion of rookies at all positions put up stellar numbers.

Whether it be the growing list of rookie RBs who have graced us with exceptional numbers or the very rare wide receiver rookie who has been fairly playable this year, it's definitely been bonus time for many owners who grabbed one of the rooks late in the draft or quickly off the waiver wire.

Steve Slaton, Felix Jones, Matt Forte, DeSean Jackson and to a lesser extent Eddie Royal, Jonathan Stewart, Darren McFadden - all have been more than playable on a regular basis.

Oh and that Matt Ryan fellow does all right down in atlanta, huh? Playable Rookie Qbs - almost as rare as playable rookie WRs.

And by playable, I don't mean they are merely warm bodies for an emergency. No, depending on the league, these guys are playable weekly. Heck in the Fantasy Sportswriters Association league, I can roll out Matt Forte and know each week I am getting great production.

And while Matt Ryan isn't a top 10 QB, he's already in the top 20 in many leagues and is a perfectly legit option in a QBBC. Hell, this year he's been better than guys like Pennington and Carson Palmer while not far behind Peyton Manning and Jake Delhomme.

While Palmer and Manning are certainly having off years, it does point to how research and paying attention to the NFL draft and preseason can pay off.

Matt Forte is a top 5 back in many leagues. Steve Slaton and Chris Johnson haunt the top 10.

How valuable is it to have either of those guys? How much more if you drafted both? In more than one league I took Forte in the 5-8 rounds and then grabbed Slaton very late. It's worked out hasn't it?

We had an inkling that Forte might be worth rostering. He was the sole back in Chicago. They needed to run. Seemed to make sense. That he has turned out to be the immense talent they hope Cedric Benson would be but never was is a shock, but looking at some of the predraft rankings on sites like DraftCountdown.com and the postdraft reactions of guys like Sigmund Bloom at Draftguys.com, you could see he might be something to watch.

But even those of us who pour over tape all off-season have been caught short when it comes to Forte's production.

What does this mean? Is it time to start seriously looking at more rookies than just the odd Adrian Peterson?

It's a fair question. Why has this crop been so productive?

Injury has allowed some players to step up early. In the case of the RBs, we're talking about an unusually talented crop of guys - one of the reason RBs were not being mocked as going early in the NFL draft to teams that needed them (aside from McFadden, Stewart and Mendenhall) is that the RB class was talented and deep. While more Rbs went in the first than was expected (Chris Johnson was a surprise, Felix Jones not as much), many teams waited a round or two and grabbed guys late. These guys had talent, but many fantasy owners looked past them and their situations because 'he got grabbed in the 3rd - he must not be very good'.

A big mistake in many cases. Draft position, as we know, isn't everything.

The dual back system has also helped these guys. Years ago (not even that many), Felix Jones would never have seen any carries unless Mario Barber got hurt. Just wouldn't have happened. But now, teams are willing run out more than one back - sometimes in the same backfield, but at least more often than just to spell a tired stud.

Matt Ryan stepped into a situation that looked bad but wasn't as bad as we feared. They tried to improve the oline. They had a very good running back tandem to take the pressure off him. They knew they had to protect their franchise QB and they did. Also, turns out the WRs weren't as bad when someone could hit them consistently with a pass.

It's very rare for a QB to shine as a rookie. More often than not, if they are in the game their first year, it's because the team is desperate. It has huge holes. They cannot be protected. Ryan is in the perfect situation. It may be hard to repeat.

What we will need to do throughout the season and after it is over, is look at each of these guys in turn and breaking down how they did what they did. Was it opportunity due to injury as with DeSean Jackson? Was it a misjudged oline and an instant starting shot, like Forte? Were they just far better than we knew - like Slaton?

Things to watch as we move into and past Week 6. For sure, we'll all be paying very close attention to these guys and those that follow in the coming years.

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