Each and every NFL season somebody from the rookie class plays beyond their expectation. Maybe not THEIR expectation but certainly those of the NFL players, coaches, analysts and fans alike. This is why the NFL bestows a Rookie of the Year award on both offense and defense. Well, in recent seasons, incoming college players are proving to be more NFL ready than ever and are excelling for their teams at an alarming rate. Even with the difficulties of the lockout, 2011 saw the emergence of ROY Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, AJ Green, Julio Jones, DeMarco Murray, Titus Young, Torrey Smith, Roy Helu, and even TJ Yates!
This year we will get to witness what quarterbacks Andrew Luck (IND), Robert Griffin III (WAS), Brandon Weeden (CLE), and Ryan Tannehill (MIA) can do when they start under center in Week 1. Running back Trent Richardson (CLE), the Browns’ new franchise corner stone (they hope), should be a feature back right out of the gate—if healthy. Doug Martin (TB) figures to compliment and then overshadow backfield mate LeGarrette Blount’s production. And, of course, the “Save-Us-Now” wide receiver Justin Blackmon (JAC) will look to impress as will Michael Floyd (ARI) as Larry Fitzgerald’s new wing man.
As we head into the final week of the preseason, I’m interested in the rookies, not drafted in Round 1, who are stating their cases to not only make their squads but produce early and often. Think Marques Colston in 2006 or Mike Williams in 2010. The Fantasy Waiver Wire is a very popular (and necessary) way to improve your team throughout the season and annually, like clockwork, first year players will find their way onto the wire (and into your heart.) Keep an eye on the following 10 players, or better yet, (especially in 12-14 team leagues) take a chance on them in the last few rounds.
1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Drafted 3rd round, Pick 12, 75th overall from Wisconsin. Every year there is a rookie with no NFL game tapes for opposing teams to use when game planning. Adrian Peterson in 2008 comes to mind. Arian Foster in 2010. Yes, those ARE running backs. Why did I mention them? At 5’11” and 206 pounds Russell Wilson is that and more for the Seattle Seahawks. Some say that the Seahawks organization “reached” for Wilson in round 3 of the NFL draft. I think, maybe, they knew they were getting a game changer. He brings elements to the run & gun game that Tarvaris Jackson wishes he could. In his first two games this preseason Wilson came in for relief duty and went off. He completed 22 passes on 33 attempts for 279 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. He also rushed 8 times for 92 yards (11.5 YPC) and another score. Wilson started his first preseason game in week 3, and continued to shine, completing 13 passes in 19 attempts for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 58 yards (29.0 YPC.) For my money, it’s a two horse race for the starting quarterback position in Seattle between Wilson and Matt Flynn. Matt Flynn looked like Aaron Rodgers 2.0 in the brief time that we saw him in Green Bay. But in Seattle, he’s played more down to Earth: 17/26 for 102 yards and 1 interception. Wilson, however, has played far better and proven more dynamic as a playmaker. He’s also won his coach’s confidence. UPDATE: Wilson was named the starter for week 1 at Arizona.
2. Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles. Drafted 3rd round, Pick 26, 88th overall from Arizona. Injuries can kill an NFL team’s chances (and, more importantly, your FANTASY team’s chances!) The Philadelphia Eagles know this perhaps more than any other team at the quarterback position. In 2010, Kevin Kolb went down in week 1 with a concussion. Enter Michael Vick and the stellar season that won him Comeback Player of the Year. Well, Vick also has a lengthy history of injuries. He’s missed at least three games in the last two seasons because of this. Fast forward to 2012 where through the first two games of the preseason he played 12 snaps total and completed only four passes due to injuries to his hand and ribs respectively. The Eagles are now resting Vick until week 1 of the regular season. Since backup Mike Kafta has also been sidelined with a hand injury, rookie Nick Foles has done most of the heavy lifting. And he’s playing out of his mind. He demands respect in the huddle and the high octane Eagles offense is giving it to him. Foles has completed 36 passes on 57 attempts for 507 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. I know the “hand cuff” draft strategy normally applies to running backs but, if you draft Michael Vick this year, make room on your bench for Nick Foles.
3. Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins. Drafted 4th round, Pick 7, 102nd overall from Michigan St. Remember the days when the Redskins couldn’t buy a quarterback? Me too, it was last year. My, how the tables have turned. Highly touted #2 overall pick RGIII has garnered much praise from his coaches as well as his teammates. And rightly so. But, not to be outdone, their backup quarterback Kirk Cousins is (quietly) having a great preseason. Look at the numbers: 27 completions in 45 attempts for 338 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. Washington has got to be elated with the depth they now, all of a sudden, have at the quarterback position. Before I get ahead of myself I want to say that there won’t be a quarterback controversy (though it’d be a better one!) like last season. I have a feeling that if Mr. Cousins continues to play this well then the Arizona Cardinals may come calling with some trade proposals. All the Larry Fitzgerald owners just got excited!
4. Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants. Drafted 2nd round, Pick 32, 63rd overall from LSU. Remember last year when Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks seemed to go back and forth with injuries and then there was this guy named Victor Cruz? Well, let me introduce you to Rueben Randle. Granted, Cruz had two stellar preseasons before he broke out with the Giants. But, Randle’s stats do not lie: 5 receptions on 10 targets for 97 yards (19.4 YPC) and 1 touchdown. With that yards per catch average it looks like New York has found its new deep threat. By the way he’s 6’2” 208 pounds. Size, strength, and speed?! Look out! Eli Manning loves to spread the ball around and last season the Giants had the luxury of three dangerous receivers. With Randle, this year looks to be no different.
5. Rod Streater, WR, Oakland Raiders. Undrafted Rookie Free Agent from Temple. WHO? Let me repeat myself, WHO?!? 18 receptions for 165 yards (9.1 YPC) on 23 targets in three games. Somebody please let Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bay know who this kid is. Even at 6’3” and 200 pounds, he’s clearly getting open and often. The numbers suggest that Streater could develop into a nice possession receiver to compliment the aforementioned burners. He’s also a PPR gold mine if this kind of production keeps up. I made mention last week that Carson Palmer (with help and sufficient knowledge of the offense) could resurrect expectations in Oakland. Having a big, young, and talented receiving corp along with “Run DMC” in the backfield can’t hurt either. This spells trouble for the AFC West.
6. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears. Drafted 2nd round, Pick 13, 45th overall from South Carolina. Wide receivers are getting bigger and badder these days and the incumbent pick for #2 wideout opposite Brandon Marshall in Chicago is no exception. The knock on Jeffery was his lack of burst off the line, his ability to get open, and even his weight. Well, so far this preseason, he’s silenced all his critics. In three games, he’s gathered 8 receptions from 11 targets for 106 yards (13.25 YPC.) Another candidate to create headaches in the red zone, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeffery challenged Marshall for most reception touchdowns on the team. Once the Bears start scoring touchdowns, that is (something they don’t do until the regular season anyway.)
7. TJ Graham, WR, Buffalo Bills. Drafted 3rd round, Pick 6, 69th overall from North Carolina St. The Buffalo Bills have long been looking for a reliable wideout to play opposite Stevie Johnson and alleviate some of the pressure put on Buffalo’s #1 pass catcher. Donald Jones has a pretty impressive injury history and David Nelson owns the slot receiver position. Graham has looked very good so far on a Bills offense that is still looking to score consistently. He has 8 receptions for 134 yards (16.75 YPC) on 14 targets—second only to Johnson in terms of looks his way. In terms of production, Graham is the Bills leading receiver this preseason. He has incredible speed and is a very intelligent player. In fact, if the Bills’ offense comes out of the gates like it did in 2011, on fire, then TJ Graham should be kept on your waiver wire short list. 3 receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown could be an average stat line for this guy.
8. Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals. Drafted 5th round, Pick 31, 166th overall from California. Can anyone say AJ Green Jr.? At 6’2” 195 pounds, with speed to burn, the rookie out of California is to AJ Green what “Mini-Me” is to “Dr. Evil.” Andy Dalton and the Bengals can only hope that his production mirrors that of Green as well. Through three games in the preseason Jones certainly looks the part, making some big plays: 5 catches on 7 targets for 111 yards (22.2 YPC) and 1 touchdown. With the departure of Jerome Simpson, Brandon Tate steps into the #2 role opposite Green. But you can’t deny the big play ability Jones has been demonstrating. With the improvement of second year QB Andy Dalton and the durability issues of running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, the Bengals will look to air it out (especially when playing from behind against Pittsburgh or Baltimore) and Jones should benefit.
9. Marc Tyler, RB, Green Bay. Undrafted Rookie Free Agent from USC. The rich just seem to get richer, don’t they? Green Bay has added another weapon to their arsenal. Possibly taking a page out of the New Orleans Saints playbook they’ve given themselves a bonafide short yardage back in Marc Tyler. Somewhere FB John Kuhn is going, “Dude, come on!” The Packer backfield is very crowded but Tyler is making a case for a roster spot. Last year’s feature back James Starks is out with turf toe and second year man Alex Green is coming off an injury that kept him out most of his rookie year. Even with the addition of veteran Cedric Benson (who is in all likelihood the Week 1 starter), Tyler has seen lots of game action. “Three-headed monster” be damned because as his stats tell us, 33 rushes for 84 yards (2.5 YPC) and 1 touchdown, Marc Tyler figures to be a touchdown vulture in and around the goal line. He also has 5 catches for 24 yards on 7 targets. I think his skill set and his effectiveness thus far earns him a roster spot. Monitor this situation closely.
10. Jamize Olawale, RB, Dallas Cowboys. Undrafted Rookie Free Agent from North Texas. Amidst all of the hype behind RB DeMarco Murray and his incredible surge during the middle of last season, he’s only had 7 career starts and scored 2 career touchdowns. That being said, he’s poised to start week 1 for the Cowboys. However, Dallas is stockpiling at the running back position because no matter who starts for them they seem to get injured (Murray included.) Felix Jones and Philip Tanner should be in the mix for carries as well but no one has shown as much this preseason as the undrafted Jamize Olawale: 22 rushes for 72 yards (3.2 YPC) and 1 touchdown on the ground and 4 catches for 30 yards on 7 targets. At 6’1” 238 pounds Olawale can play both RB and FB. IF he makes the roster he could pose a threat to the injury-plagued backs in Dallas. He could also be the “Thunder” to Murray’s “Lightning.”
Honorable Mention: Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts. Stephen Hill, WR, New York Jets. Brian Quick, WR, St. Louis Rams. Bryce Brown, RB, Philadelphia Eagles. Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns.