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Cullen: Offensive rookies to watch in the NFL

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Scott Cullen
8/13/2013 5:28:30 PM
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Entering any NFL season, there is uncertainty about just how much a player might produce, but the greatest uncertainty is reserved for the rookies, those first year players so full of promise in the draft, or minicamp or even early in training camp, but it's never a sure thing until the games count for real.

Last year, the rookie class brought difference makers right out of the gate. Much of the attention focused on quarterbacks, as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson turned their teams into winners, but rookie running back Alfred Morris may have been the one that had the most fantasy impact.

Griffin III passed for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns, running for 815 yards and seven more touchdowns and was one of the top handful of fantasy quarterbacks. Luck threw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns, adding five more touchdowns on the ground. His 18 interceptions made Luck less appealing than RGIII, but he was still a viable starter for fantasy purposes.

Wilson was a third-round pick, so not as hyped as the top two picks in the draft, Luck and Griffin III, but there was little doubt that Wilson was immediately ready for the challenge. His 3,118 passing yards was okay, but 26 passing touchdowns and four more rushing touchdowns made Wilson a low-end fantasy starter. Three rookie quarterbacks producing at a high level and Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin, a late first-round pick, merely gained 1,926 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns.

However, Morris was a sixth-round pick running back playing for a team that had cobbled together a running game the previous two seasons with the likes of Roy Helu, Ryan Torain and Tim Hightower. Who knew that unheralded Morris would run for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns, ranking second in both categories? As a late-round pick in fantasy drafts or, in some cases, a waiver pickup after 96 yards and two touchdowns in Week One, Morris may have been the most influential rookie in 2012.

Not all rookie classes are created equally. In 2011, Cam Newton was a fantasy goldmine as other rookie quarterbacks struggled and none of the rookie runners impressed, but receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones had an immediate impact.

In 2010, Rob Gronkowski had 10 touchdowns for the Patriots, making him the best of an uninspiring first-year crop.

So, recognizing how much uncertainty is involved when it comes to first-year pros, who are some of the offensive freshman candidates to have an eye on for 2013?

Eddie Lacy (and Johnathan Franklin), RB, Green Bay - Lacy, a second-round pick, and Franklin, a fourth-round pick, face the challenge of upgrading the Packers' running game. While the passing game is going to be front and centre as long as Aaron Rodgers is directing the offence, Lacy and Franklin are an upgrade on the mediocrity that has marked the Packers' ground game in recent seasons as Dujuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks have seen much of the action in the backfield.

A powerfully-built back who gained 1,511 yards from scrimmage and scored 19 touchdowns as a junior at Alabama last season, Lacy could be in position to score, and run out the clock when the Packers have the lead this season and, provided he wins the starting job, Lacy could be one of the better bets for production among rookie runners.

Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh - A big runner who fits the mold of physical backs that the Steelers have lined up in recent seasons, Bell is an upgrade in terms of skill. He gained 1,960 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns as a junior at Michigan State last season and there appears to be a real opportunity available to Bell to play a prominent role in a Steelers offence that is undergoing some personnel changes.

Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati - Drafted in the second round out of North Carolina, Bernard racked up 31 touchdowns and 3,333 yards from scrimmage in two years with the Tar Heels. He has a more-established veteran, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, ahead of him on the depth chart, but Bernard will push for more than a reserve role.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston - Being the number two wide receiver for the Texans hasn't been a terribly productive spot, but Hopkins presents a whole new threat. He's not a burner, but Hopkins has good size, which should make him a red zone threat (he scored 18 touchdowns for Clemson as a junior last season).

So long as Andre Johnson is Matt Schaub's first choice in the passing game and Arian Foster commands a lot of touches in the backfield, there is a ceiling on how much Hopkins can produce as a rookie, but as he gains the trust of Schaub and the coaches, Hopkins could warrant consideration in deeper leagues.

Aaron Dobson, WR, New England - Considering the Patriot's depleted receiving corps, second-round pick Dobson could see a lot more action than might have been anticipated coming out of Marshall having never gained more than 700 yards in a season. He's a big target who can make a spectacular catch and if he earns a starting job with the Patriots right off the bat, Tom Brady could drag enough production out of Dobson to make him a viable fantasy player.

Montee Ball, RB, Denver - Ball ran roughshod over the Big 10 while at Wisconsin, gaining 4,131 yards from scrimmage and scoring 61 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons, but the second-round pick remains locked in a battle with second-year back Ronnie Hillman (who is almost a year younger) for the Broncos' starting job. If Ball could move into a starting role, even with the Broncos' pass-oriented offence, that would mean opportunities for him to score.

Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis - The highest-drafted skill-position player, taken eighth overall out of West Virginia, Austin is on the small side, but was a multi-faceted threat in college, gaining 1,932 yards from scrimmage (including 643 rushing yards on 72 attempts) with 15 touchdowns as a senior.

The Rams' passing game is a work in progress and Austin may need some time before he develops into a consistent threat out of the slot or across from deep threat Chris Givens, but he's worth tracking as your fantasy draft approaches.

Geno Smith, QB, N.Y. Jets - If he can't beat out Mark Sanchez for the starting job, and an ankle injury isn't helping his case, then Smith obviously isn't going to provide much value, but Smith was so productive (8,590 passing yards and 73 passing touchdowns the last two years at West Virginia) and accurate (completing 71.2% of his passes last season) that he should find his way onto the field at some point this year and then we'll see if he can make the Jets' offence any more competent.

Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota - Not only is Patterson a receiver who can run (25 carries for 308 yards at Tennessee last season), he's a big target (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), who just may give the Vikings a viable passing game to complement running back Adrian Peterson.

With an unproven quarterback and the aforementioned Mr. Peterson lugging the rock, don't place unreasonable expectations on Patterson, but he's one to watch, especially if veteran wideout Greg Jennings gets hurt.

E.J. Manuel, QB, Buffalo - When the Bills drafted Manuel 16th overall out of Florida State, it appeared to be a bit of a reach on an undeniably-talented, but not necessarily high-end prospect. However, Manuel completed two-thirds of his passes in college, passing for 41 touchdowns over his last two seasons with the Seminoles and going to the Bills presents an opportunity.

The plan figured to be to have veteran Kevin Kolb and Manuel compete for the starting job, maybe giving Kolb the early action until Manuel was ready to take over. With Kolb suffering a knee injury in camp, Manuel started the Bills' first preseason game, completing 16-of-21 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown. That's a lot of short passing, and the ground game is likely to be Buffalo's relative strength offensively, but Manuel could win a starting job.

Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati - Having accumulated 113 receptions over his last two seasons at Notre Dame, Eifert may be over-qualified to be the Bengals' No. 2 tight end, which is where he figures to fit with Jermaine Gresham already on the roster. The Bengals will likely use more double tight-end sets to take advantage of their first-round pick's skills, but Eifert may not get enough looks to be a featured performer as a rookie.

Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego - Drafted in the third round out of Cal, Allen stands to benefit from injuries to the Chargers' receiving corps. With Danario Alexander out for the season and Malcom Floyd out at least until Week One of the regular season, Allen has the opportunity to earn trust and build a rapport with quarterback Philip Rivers.

Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo - A second-round pick out of USC, Woods has a chance to start, or at least play a significant role at wide receiver for the Bills. Woods' appeal is limited by the fact that the ground game may be Buffalo's focus and the possibility that he'll have a rookie quarterback, but he's worth having on the radar, particularly in the event of an injury to Stevie Johnson, the Bills' top receiving threat.

Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh - A speedster who ran track at Oregon State, Wheaton was a receiver who also carried the ball a couple of times per game for the Beavers, coming up with 1,386 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns last season, leading to the Steelers drafting Wheaton in the third round.

With Mike Wallace leaving for Miami, there is room for a new starter opposite Antonio Brown at wide receiver and fourth-year wideout Emmanuel Sanders appears to have the inside track on that job, but Wheaton could force his way into a more prominent role.

Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia -A second-round pick out of Stanford, Ertz caught 69 passes for 898 yards and six touchdowns as a senior for the Cardinal and while veteran Brent Celek is at the top of the depth chart, if the Eagles are going to operate an up-tempo offence, Ertz can be a weapon in an Eagles passing game that could use more threats.

Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, New England - An undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati, who didn't put up big numbers in college (1,077 yards, four touchdowns over his last two seasons), Thompkins has been an early revelation for the Patriots, who are looking for some players to step up in the passing game. Dobson may be more likely to have immediate success, but Thompkins is forcing his way into New England's receiver discussion.

Zach Sudfeld, TE, New England - It says something about the state of the Patriots' offence that two undrafted rookies have a chance to produce. Sudfeld, a 6-foot-7 tight end out of Nevada is a late bloomer of sorts. He had two career catches and spent six years in college, due to two redshirt seasons, before breaking out as a senior with 45 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns.

Obviously, there have been changes with the Patriots at tight end in the wake of Aaron Hernandez's release and Rob Gronkowski's offseason surgeries, but maybe Sudfeld has a chance to emerge as a first-year player. Whether he will have enough of a role to warrant taking ahead of more established fantasy options will likely be a matter to consider on the waiver wire early in the season.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Eddie Lacy (Photo: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
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