May 23,2013

NFL Rookies Debut for Sponsors and Your Fantasy Team

For the 19th consecutive year, the NFL Players Association threw their version of a debutant ball for 40 carefully selected rookies from the 2013 draft class. The NFL Rookie Premiere, which began in 1995 and was created primarily for trading card companies, is now a four day event full of intro and info sessions.

Not only do these newbs sign autographs and take photos for Panini and Topps, they also rub shoulders with representatives from top brands like Pepsi, Nike, and EA SPORTS. It’s not all flashbulbs and handshakes though. The incoming class of athletes also attend seminars about the business of football, and learn lessons about marketing and personal branding.

In an interview with Cynopsis Sports, Keith Gordon, President of NFL Players Inc. stated that the NFL Rookie Premier, “is a great way (for marketers) to get in on the ground floor and help an athlete establish his brand and grow the two brands together.”

Which got me thinking… wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of fantasy football equivalent? A way for team owners to “preview” the season’s draft class and have some sort of clue before heading into drafts? Many sites, like Dynasty Football Warehouse, have lists of rookie rankings, which are very helpful, but still don’t allow us the opportunity to see these players’ whole value.

Unfortunately, a Fantasy Football Expo for Rookies (or vets, for that matter) doesn’t yet exist. In the meantime, however, I wanted to uncover some hidden gems amongst this rookie class and shine a light on some lesser known or less-than-immediate fantasy prospects. Not the Geno Smiths, Giovani Bernards, or Le’Veon Bells of the world, but the guys who are ranked and rated, and were invited to the NFL Rookie Premier… but don’t receive a significant amount of discussion or air time.

The four guys below – a different player at each position – make up my Middle of the Pack, Must Watch List.

QB – Tyler Wilson

After an impressive junior year at Arkansas, in which Wilson became only the second Razorback in university history to pass for 3,000 yards, things got grim. His head coach, Bobby Petrino, was fired, his three most trusted receivers took off, and his o-line crumbled. All of this culminated into a less than stellar senior season for the once rising star. Still, scouts praised his arm strength, accuracy, and mental toughness.

So who better to take a chance on the “Teflon Tough” rookie than the Oakland Raiders, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. Reports out of Oakland claim that Wilson is having a heck of a mini-camp and is likely to give perennial back-up Matt Flynn some real competition for the starting job.

I like Wilson’s chances. The Raiders have a young coaching staff who, I have to imagine, would rather develop a new talent that they can take credit for than pin all of their hopes on a player who’s been in the league five seasons, but has only started two games. Plus, what do the Raiders have to lose? They’re the Raiders! Developing a new team and image behind a pink-cheeked underdog with great leadership skills is the best thing that could happen to this franchise.

While I do imagine Flynn will get “Wilson-ed” for the second year in a row, I would caution fantasy owners from going all-in on his replacement immediately. Even though the rookie has Chumbawamba-like endurance, the Raiders o-line is about two injuries away from qualifying for federal disaster relief. That being said, if you’re looking to create depth at the QB position in a dynasty league or want to stash a flyer to root for in the fall, move on the season’s newest Wilson.

RB – Marcus Lattimore

I know, I know, I know… Marcus Lattimore hasn’t exactly flown under the radar, but since Jim Harbaugh basically came out and said the 49ers didn’t plan on starting the rookie until 2014 his ranking on dynasty charts has plummeted. I understand the rationale, but I’d personally prefer to take a chance on Lattimore next season versus someone like Eddie Lacy… who’s likely to be in a competition or timeshare with Jonathan Franklinthis season.

Before dislocating his knee cap and tearing THREE ligaments this past October, many experts surmised that Lattimore would be a first round pick. The severity of his injury, however, prevented teams with an immediate need from gambling on the Gamecock. That was until the San Francisco 49ers (who, in my opinion PWNED this year’s draft) decided to stockpile talent like an offshore account in the Cayman Islands.

San Fran’s “1%” approach has created a best/worst case scenario for Lattimore… and dynasty enthusiasts. While he won’t get to start immediately, the rookie now has the opportunity to properly heal and immerse himself in the 49ers’ system. Furthermore, he gets to do all of this sans pressure and under the tutelage of veteran back Frank Gore. In a rather “convenient truth,” Gore reached out to the rookie shortly after his injury, explained that he had also undergone two major knee surgeries, and encouraged him to both rehab hard and keep his chin up. The fact that Lattimore took his teammate’s advice (his recovery has been ahead of schedule and he was even able to workout for scouts before the draft) and that they now have a pretty cool bond leads me to believe that the fantasy gods are planning a grooming. Of course, potential is always a fickle mistress, but Lattimore’s upside and the San Fran offense are too good for me to not to gamble on the rookie and his bionic knee.

WR – Stedman Bailey

Why is it guys named Stedman always play second fiddle? Graham has been Oprah’s #2 for decades and Bailey can’t seem to escape Tavon Austin‘s shadow. While I’m sure the first Stedman is in a better financial position, the second Stedman seems to be doing pretty well for himself. After spending three years at West Virginia on the field with fellow wide receiver Tavon Austin, Bailey was drafted by the St. Louis Rams… 84 picks behind his college buddy and teammate. The two are now competing for a starting spot along with second year receivers Chris Givens and Brian Quick.

The major knock against Bailey is his size. At only 5’10” and 193lbs, he’s at a disadvantage when compared to other outside playmakers like Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson. Seeing as Austin is a shoe-in for the slot position, Bailey is going to have to prove that he can hang on the outside. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that he will. In fact, draft guru Mike Mayock has said that Bailey was an “underrated player [due to] the presence of Tavon Austin.”

What I like best about Bailey is his consistency and reliability. He’s got great hands and a gritty competitive spirit. He may not dazzle with freakish measurables, but he’ll get the job done time and time again. As a fantasy owner, I’m more interested in a player’s ability to produce on a weekly basis than their presence on some sort of highlight reel. I’d be shocked if the Mountaineer didn’t overtake Quick for the starting job. Assuming that happens, I expect Bailey to shed his sidekick status and flex his fantasy potential.

TE – Jordan Reed

For fans, locating the perfect football-viewing position can be a laborious process. Once mercifully identified, however, it feels OH so good. Similarly, athletes can sometimes struggle to find that juuuuust right football-playing position. Rookie Jordan Reed is one of those players. After two years of trying his hand at every offensive position from quarterback to wide receiver to running back, Reed finally found his groove at tight end in his junior year at the University of Florida. While his playing style wasn’t necessarily conventional it was impressive. In fact, he ended his college career as the Gators’ leading receiver.

Now he has to bring that gusto to Washington. With Fred Davis still nursing an Achilles injury and Logan Paulsen firmly cast in the role of understudy, Reed has the opportunity to see some real playing time in his first year as a pro. Unfortunately, he pulled a quad and has a bone bruise in his knee so he wasn’t able to participate in the Skins rookie minicamp. Still, Davis only signed a one-year year deal, which means if he doesn’t bounce back in 2013 there’s a good chance the vet will be looking for a home outside of DC in 2014. Reed absolutely needs to stay healthy and work on his blocking, but if he can do those two things the fantasy ceiling on this kid is sky-high.

At this point in the season there are too many variables for me to fully endorse Reed. That being said, serious fantasy owners will want to keep an eye on his progress during the Skins training camp, which officially opens on July 25th. Given the rookie’s undeniable athleticism, experience at various positions, and sure hands I’m loving his break-out potential. It’ll take some doing, but my bet is that the former Gator – who NFL scouts have compared to Aaron Hernandez – will be lighting up the middle for Washington sooner rather than later.