The early rounds of the 2011 NFL draft could provide numerous fantasy relevant players positioned to burst onto the scene and reward those owners willing to gamble on first year. Last year's draft saw first rounders Ryan Mathews, CJ Spiller and Javhid Best struggle for the most part in their rookie year (although all of them showed flashes). The fear is generally that rookies wear down in the 2nd half of the season, so targeting first year starters after round 4 is advisable to minimize risk. This year's crop of rookies includes RBs that could be primed to take over starting jobs in New Orleans, Miami and Arizona as well as two big name WRs (AJ Green and Julio Jones) that went among the top 10 picks in April.
Finding late round under the radar players can be the difference in whether or not your fantasy players are cleaning out their lockers during weeks 14-16 (fantasy playoffs). In this article we take a look at players on the cusp of breaking out based on being in situations where the starter is injury prone, in the final year of a contract, or just not that talented. If you plan to hoist your league's version of the Lombardi, the true fantasy mastermind will monitor the progress of these players in training camp and preseason action to see if they are showing glimmers of potential that could make them true diamonds in the rough.
You can spend countless weeks in your makeshift war room, burning out the batteries in your coach's clicker as you pour over game tapes prepping for your draft, but it is important to realize that fantasy success is somewhat reliant on lady luck. So roll the dice on these up and comers and although some of the less informed may mock you during the draft, you'll likely be the one laughing all the way to the bank as you collect your fantasy riches and become the envy of your league.
Greene has failed to emerge as the workhorse back the Jets expected when they traded up in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft to select the Iowa alum. He has been stuck in a time share with Tomlinson, but initial reports from the Jets' camp suggest that Greene could see a major increase in workload in his 3rd NFL season. In 2010, Greene finished with 185 carries for 766 yards and only 2 TDs as LT dominated the red zone. He'll need to impress in camp as the Jets boast a crowded backfield (including rookie Bilal Powell, who could be a deep sleeper if Greene fails to grab the job). For now, we expect 220+ carries for Greene and a chance at coming close to 1,000 yards running behind one of the better O-lines in the game. The presence of Joe McNight and LT limit Greene's upside in PPR leagues (only has 16 catches in first two NFL seasons). It's worth noting that unless he gets the goal line action, Greene will be limited to being a low-to-mid RB#2 in most fantasy leagues. This is a situation to monitor in the preseason.
Ronnie and Ricky are free agents and struggled in 2010 as the Miami run game finished 21st in the league (103 YPG) with only 8 rushing TDs. The run game lacked explosiveness as evidenced by only five plays of 20 yards or more. With Chad Henne under center again, the Dolphins needed to upgrade the run game if they plan to improve an offense that averaged only 17 PPG. Miami traded back into the bottom of the 2nd round to select their potential week 1 starter in Kansas State's Daniel Thomas. The 6 ft, 228 pounder has an upright running style that will need to be adjusted, but he has the power to become a 20 carry RB1. In two seasons at K-state he amassed 30 rushing TDs while averaging over 5 YPC. He posted 8 100 yard games in 2010 (including two 200+ yard performances). He has the potential to become a lower end RB2 in his rookie season depending on whether Miami adds a veteran RB via free agency.
The Chiefs' lack of a legit weapon opposite Dwayne Bowe was a death blow in the playoff loss to Baltimore. Bowe was held without a catch as he faced constant double teams. Chris Chambers earned $5.9 million in guarantees last year to catch 22 passes for 213 yards. With the 27th overall pick in April's draft, KC opted to roll the dice on the questionable character (but freakish skill set) of Pitt WR Jonathan Baldwin. The Pitt alum has the size to succeed at the next level (6'4", 230 lbs.) and should create matchup mismatches in the red zone. He has great straight line speed, but his size seems to hamper him at times, particularly in his inability to get in and out of breaks. He is unpolished, but is primed to start from Day 1 opposite Dwayne Bowe. QB Matt Cassel lacks accuracy on the deep ball (completed only 25% of his passes over 20 yards), which makes Baldwin best drafted as a WR4.
According to the NFL network's Charley Casserly, from recent drafts only Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson were better prospects than AJ Green. The Georgia alum possesses the complete package for a wide receiver: size, speed, agility, athleticism, and hands. The only possible deficiency would be strength. AJ Green will surely fill out his 6'4", 212 lb early in his pro career and he will need to in order to overcome aggressive NFL corners. The 4th overall pick will start from Day 1, but there will be considerable growing pains because of the uncertainty/inexperience at QB with fellow rookie Andy Dalton likely to be under center. With the likely departure of TO and Ocho, the Bengals will be looking to replace over 1,700 yards receiving from 2010. Green and Jerome Simpson are the likely week 1 starters if Ochocinco is given his walking papers. Despite the adjustment to the NFL game and questions at QB, Green can be considered a solid WR3 in his rookie season with the potential to become a top 25 WR by the end of his rookie year.
With James Jones set to hit free agency and Donald Driver's career in obvious decline (enters next season at the age of 36), K-State alum Jordy Nelson should be in the starting lineup for the Super Bowl champs come week 1. In three NFL seasons, Nelson has failed to top 600 yards in any one season and has a total of 6 TDs. The Pack's 4th WR last season could easily emerge as their 2nd leading WR this year (if he can hold off rookie Randall Cobb). Catching passes from Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers should result in Nelson finishing his 4th NFL season as a top 40 fantasy WR, making him a decent option as a WR3 in 12 team leagues.