As the old saying goes, success is always found where talent meets opportunity. Nowhere is that statement truer than in fantasy football. A player can have all the talent in the world, but the only way he becomes a fantasy success is if he is able to get on the field.
This is a very important point when considering rookies in redraft leagues. We can debate the most talented rookie running back or wide receiver until the cows come home, but the most successful fantasy rookie will always be the one given the best opportunity.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the teams that offer the most potential for fantasy rookies in redraft formats.
1. Cleveland Browns
This is tough because there could be as many as five rookie starting quarterbacks Week 1, but of the host of quarterback-needy teams, Cleveland offers the most early fantasy potential for one simple reason: Josh Gordon.
The most telling stat of how good Josh Gordon was last season is 223.5. That is how many fantasy points Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell combined to score last season in only 14 games with Josh Gordon. Extrapolated over a full season, that point total would have made the Cleveland quarterback the 13th best fantasy quarterback last season, and by the way, at least two of those quarterbacks are not even NFL-caliber players.
There are some concerns, though.
Brian Hoyer played well in his limited time last season, so there is a small chance Hoyer wins a camp battle and opens the season as the starter in Cleveland.
Also, OC Kyle Shanahan’s offenses have finished in the top 10 in pass attempts every season except the one when he coached rookie Robert Griffin III. Washington finished 30th in pass attempts that season. Did he change his offensive philosophy because of RGIII’s skill set or because he had a rookie quarterback under center? The answer to that question could determine how many passes Cleveland’s rookie actually gets to throw.
Even so, the upside offered by Josh Gordon is too alluring to pass up.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans are an obvious choice because of their depth chart. It is extremely unlikely the Texans’ plan is to begin the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum as their starting quarterback. They are going to take a quarterback somewhere in the first two rounds, and they will want that player to be under center Week 1.
It does go farther than opportunity, though. The Texans have a solid receiving corps, the potential for a good running game, and a coach in Bill O’Brien that worked well with young quarterbacks while at Penn State. Look for O’Brien to establish the running game and put his young quarterback in a position to succeed.
That may not lead to fantasy stardom, but a Mike Glennon-like 12-to-13 fantasy points a week is not out of the question for whoever lands in Houston.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville falls just below Houston on this list because of weapon and depth chart concerns, but they still offer an interesting landing spot for a rookie quarterback.
One potential obstacle for an incoming rookie will be the presence of Chad Henne. Henne has proven to be a serviceable if not spectacular NFL quarterback, and Jacksonville may decide to roll with Henne for a while rather than throwing a rookie into the fire.
There is also a lack of weapons around the Jacksonville quarterback. Toby Gerhart offers a steady but unspectacular option in the backfield, and the ongoing suspension of Justin Blackmon leaves the pass catching corps uninspiring at best.
Sleeper – Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings may not offer an immediate starting upside, but they are one of the more interesting landing spots for the right rookie quarterback. They have a decent line, one of the best running backs in the game, and solid weapons outside. More importantly, Norv Turner is a great offensive coordinator that consistently gets the most out of his offensive talent. Matt Cassel will likely begin the season as the starter in Minnesota, but whichever rookie the Vikings select has a great shot to put up numbers if given the opportunity.
1. Tennessee Titans
The best landing spot for a rookie running back is hands down the Tennessee Titans.
The depth chart in Tennessee is set up perfectly for a rookie back to come in and dominate the carries. The current lead back is the plodding Shonn Greene who averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, and behind him is the even ploddi-er Jackie Battle. A good running back should find little resistance on his way to the top of that depth chart.
The real question is how may carries will that rookie get when he reaches the top of the chart? New coach Ken Whisenhunt oversaw a San Diego offense that ranked 6th in the league in rushing attempts in 2013. Before that, however, Whisenhunt’s Arizona teams were consistently at the bottom of the league in rushing attempts. Was San Diego’s commitment to the run a product of Mike McCoy or Whisenhunt changing his philosophy?
Hopefully it was a change in philosophy, and even if it was not, it is unlikely Whisenhunt puts too much in the hands of quarterback Jake Locker. That means 275 carries is a real possibility for whoever is the lead back in Tennessee, even if it is a rookie.
The Titans should be the first team to choose a running back in this draft, and whoever that player is should be the first rookie off the board in redraft leagues.
2. Baltimore Ravens
It might seem odd to see the Ravens this high on this list, but the reality is they have some serious problems at the top of the running back depth chart.
The first and most glaring issue is Ray Rice’s legal concerns. They likely will not land him any jail time, but he certainly has earned some type of suspension from the league. When that suspension will occur is unclear, but it is coming.
More importantly, Rice was a disaster last season and showed all the signs of a running back in decline. There is a chance the hip injury Rice suffered early last season was the reason for the decline, but with a ton of miles on Rice’s legs, it is more likely he is on the way down.
If Rice falters, Bernard Pierce would likely be the next man up, but he comes with issues too. Pierce is theoretically a good fit for the zone blocking scheme new OC Gary Kubiak will employ, but he is coming off January shoulder surgery that could limit him in camp. He also was not a very good back last season. Pierce only averaged 2.9 yards per carry and really did not look any better than Rice on tape in 2013.
So, when it is broken all the way down, Baltimore actually could be a decent landing spot for a running back that fits well into a zone scheme, and it would not be surprising if the Ravens target that player in round three or four.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Browns invested in former-Texans RB Ben Tate this offseason and obviously plan to give him the lion’s share of the carries in 2014. The real question is can Tate’s body handle the load? Considering Tate has only played 40 of a possible 64 games in his career, the safe bet is no.
If Tate cannot escape injury next season, the table is set for a rookie back to be very successful in Cleveland. The combination of Dion Lewis, Fozzy Whittaker and Edwin Baker does not engender confidence, and there is little chance any of those backs would be able to hold off a talented rookie in camp battle for number two running back duties.
Whichever back Cleveland selects will almost certainly win the number two duties out of camp and will almost certainly end up starting for an injured Tate at some point in the season. That makes Cleveland a great landing spot for a rookie back.
Sleepers – Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears
The Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears carry the same value as a sleeper landing spot. Both have premier lead backs that will assuredly carry the load when healthy, but both Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson have struggled with health at points in their career. With basically no one behind Peterson in Minnesota or Forte in Chicago, each represents a decent sleeper landing spot for a rookie running back.
1. Carolina Panthers
This is the easiest call of the draft. The Carolina wide receiver depth chart is pathetic, and any wide receiver they select should immediately find their way into the starting lineup. In fact, it would not be a shock if the top-two receivers for the Panthers next season are rookies.
Carolina might wait until the second round to select the receiver, but whoever they pick will likely be the first rookie wideout selected in redraft leagues.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay became a great landing spot for a rookie wide receiver the second the Bucs traded Mike Williams to Buffalo. That trade left a huge hole opposite Vincent Jackson the Buccaneers are likely to fill early in this year’s draft.
The only question will be how many targets the rookie will garner. New coach Lovie Smith’s offenses have not been renowned for their adventurousness, and new OC Jeff Tedford did not run a high-volume pass offense while he was at Cal.
Even so, any rookie Tampa Bay selects has a decent shot at 90+ targets against almost exclusively single coverage. That is good enough to be relevant in even the shallowest of redraft leagues.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are not a high volume passing team and have a lot of talent at the skill positions, so projecting a rookie wideout to have a good season in Philly may seem odd. It is less odd, however, when considering the lack of certainty at the top of the Philadelphia depth chart.
Riley Cooper had a fantastic season in 2013, but he will be hard-pressed to recreate that season in 2014. The fact is Cooper is simply not that good an offensive threat, and without a weapon like DeSean Jackson opposite him, there is a real question about how effective he can be.
Jeremy Maclin is a very talented wide receiver, but will he be the same player just a year removed from a torn ACL? The answer is probably no, and that potential ineffectiveness is compounded by the fact that Maclin has only played a full 16-game season once in his five-year career.
The uncertainty at the top of the receiver depth chart is a good sign for potential production for a rookie in Philadelphia, but the biggest reason to believe comes down to Chip Kelly’s decision to release Jackson.
Obviously Jackson’s release uncluttered the depth chart, but more importantly it shows Kelly believes he can replace his production. He may try to replace it by using Darren Sproles out of the backfield and more two-tight end sets with Zach Ertz, but someone will have to stretch the field. Cooper averaged 17.8 yards per catch last season, but it was very fluky. He does have the skill set to stretch the field when the defense is paying attention to him. Maclin does not fit the field stretcher mold either.
Expect Kelly to look for that field stretcher early in the draft, and expect that player to have a decently big impact in year one.
Sleepers – San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs
Both San Diego and Kansas City have solid No. 1 receivers in Keenan Allen and Dwayne Bowe respectively, but both teams spent all of last season searching for someone to take pressure off those number one targets. Unless Malcom Floyd is able to come back, San Diego will go into the season once again relying on Vincent Brown to take some of the defensive attention away from Allen. Since that is not going to happen, San Diego could really use a rookie wideout that could come in and provide 80 solid targets. Same goes in Kansas City after the departure of Dexter McCluster. They are relying on the perennially unreliable Donnie Avery to handle No. 2 duties. A rookie could certainly beat out Avery in camp and garner 80-90 targets next season.
1. Green Bay Packers
This is an easy call. The Packers run an offensive scheme that relies on a playmaker at the tight end position, and they do not currently have anyone resembling a playmaker on their depth chart. Andrew Quarless is a good all-around tight end but only averaged 9.8 yards a catch on 32 grabs last season. Brandon Bostick is an intriguing prospect, but he has certainly not proven he can be a consistent pass catcher.
Without many glaring needs on the roster, expect the Packers to go in early on a tight end and give that player a chance to be a factor in 2014.
2. New York Giants
The Giants traditionally viewed the tight end as unessential under former OC Kevin Gilbride, but the arrival of new OC Ben McAdoo and his west coast offense should bring with it a new emphasis on the tight end position. Jermichael Finley had 178 total targets in his two healthy seasons and was on pace for another 90 before being injured in 2013 while McAdoo was in Green Bay.
Fortunately for whichever rookie the Giants end up with, there is no one currently on the roster that deserves to be targeted that often. Newly signed Kellen Davis is a blocking tight end, and third-year TE Adrian Robinson has proven nothing in his injury-plagued career.
The Giants should pick a tight end early in the draft, and that player has a decent shot to make an early impact.
3. New England Patriots
The Patriots were on the vanguard of the tight end revolution in the NFL, but they found themselves lacking pass catching talent at the position last season due to the legal problems of Aaron Hernandez and the injury issues with Rob Gronkowski. It was bad enough that Zach Sudfeld was seriously considered as a contributor in the preseason and Michael Hoomanawanui was targeted 23 times.
That just will not do, especially with Gronkowski coming off another offseason of rehab. They need to find a player that can slot into the “H-back” role into the offense and is reliable enough to carry a receiving threat if and when Gronk goes down to injury. If the Sudfeld saga tells us anything it is they are willing to trust a rookie with that responsibility.
Expect them to target a rookie tight end early in the draft and give that rookie the opportunity to win a significant offensive role in 2014.
Sleeper – Houston Texans
The Texans look set at the tight end position with Ryan Griffin and Garrett Graham, but both of those players are lesser talents than namesakes of the roles they will be asked to fill in Bill O’Brien’s offense. Griffin looks poised to fill the “Gronk” role as an inline tight end while Garrett Graham already said he expects to fill the “Hernandez” role that is more of a move tight end. Both players could be successful in these roles, but Graham especially does not have the type of talent necessary for an offense that figures to utilize the tight end as a big part of their passing attack. It is not a sure thing the Texans pick a tight end in this draft, but if they do, that player would be at least interesting for 2014.