Fantasy Gold: The Sleeper Rookies

By: Nicholas Kaminski

Just this last season, we witnessed the emergence of rookies like Russell Wilson and Alfred Morris into fantasy relevance and even dominance. They finished twelfth and eighteenth respectively among fantasy players leading many owners to the championship along the way. Seeing as Wilson was a third round selection and Morris was taken in the sixth. Given the success of past mid-to-late round draft picks like Wilson (3rd rounder) and Morris (6th rounder), it raises the question of who the next big surprise could be.

The correlation between the NFL Draft and fantasy football is largely underrated by many fantasy owners, both new and old. Everyone is always searching for the next big breakout star to give them an edge, and that is sometimes discovered in the form of a rookie. Just take a look at past top performers like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III and the impact that they contributed to the owners that picked them up and you can understand how.

Since the draft hasn’t even happened yet, it is quite tricky to project a breakout player without knowing the opportunities they will be receiving, but certain players just have the potential for success. This is a short list of some of those more likely players to succeed given their overall ability. Players who are projected to be taken in the first round of the draft currently will not be included in this list. The players listed will be projected to be a second day or later selection, or rounds two and on for those less familiar with the draft format. Now let’s look at the sleeper rookies:

Christine Michael, running back out of Texas A&M, is one of the more talented prospects at the position in this year’s class. He sits at 5’10”, 220 pounds, favorable size for his position. His downfall, however, resides in his attitude and propensity for injury. Just as it seemed like his attitude was improving, he slept through two team interviews at the combine. Not quite the behavior expected from a mature professional. He also has already had two major injuries in his collegiate career, breaking his leg and tearing his ACL.

“Then what makes him worthy of this list?” some might ask given his precautions. Well, when healthy, Michael has proven himself to many NFL scouts to have starter capabilities. We have witnessed players succeed after major injuries and attitude problems before. Many people has successfully returned from ACL injuries, such as Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles just last year and players like Vontaze Burfict, a linebacker who led the Bengals in tackles after being undrafted last season due to his personal issues, have shown that attitude problems can be overcome.

His quickness through the hole, paired with his speedy acceleration and lateral agility, makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders. He has great vision and can shrug off the best of tacklers with his violent stiff arms and strong spin moves. This gives him the ability to pick up many more yards after the first hit than some. He also runs nice and low to the ground, which allows for him to make quick cuts in and out of traffic and around defenders down the field. He proved all of this by averaging 5.3 yards per carry in his limited collegiate career. He hasn’t shown as much skill in the pass protection category, though he has enough strength to make improvements in that area.

In addition to his success on the field in college, he had one of the best combines of any prospect, posting the highest vertical for a running back ever with a 43” leap. He also had a solid forty time of 4.57 seconds and had the best three-cone time of any running back with a 6.69, showing that he can move quickly in a straight line and when making sharp cuts. He showcased his strength as well, boasting one of the best bench reps for running backs with 27. Michael continued to prove that he is one of, if not the, most athletic players in this year’s draft class. Though combine performances don’t guarantee success at the next level, ranking in the upper echelon of prospects in all drills certainly means something.

If given a chance in his rookie season, he should find success. He worked very well in a scheme in which he split carries with other running backs, something that has become quite popular among NFL teams. It isn’t too often that a player with his combination of size, speed, and strength comes along, so it should be interesting to follow his story in the NFL. He isn’t someone to be taken in fantasy drafts just yet, but could work his way into your lineups before you know it if he can get an opportunity with the right team.

Another possible breakout star is Markus Wheaton, the wide receiver from Oregon State who impressed scouts by catching 91 passes for 1244 yards and 11 TD last season. Standing at 5’11” and weighing in at 189 pounds at the combine, he doesn’t immediately stand out, but once you turn on the tape, you can’t not notice him. He excels in his route running and overall speed and even stood out in 2013 Senior Bowl practices among other top prospects. He posted a 4.45 in the forty yard dash and 6.8 in the three-cone drill, showing his quickness and agility both vertically and laterally. He also exhibits the ability to adjust to an under or overthrown ball, something that can be very helpful at the next level. One of the places where he shows more willingness than others is in blocking. He was applauded for this at the Senior Bowl practices and has proven effective in his collegiate career.

Wheaton has also shown promise because of his versatility. Just last season, he ran the ball 20 times, totaling 142 yards. Though not standout numbers, it shows that he can function in more than just a pure receiver role, a really valuable quality for NFL teams. The ability to be a threat from multiple angles is something that translates well into fantasy points. Players like Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin are just two examples of players who have found great success in this field of running and receiving. Other lesser name players like Dexter McCluster and Danny Woodhead have also found success with this approach.

When a player has all of the intangibles that Wheaton has, it is recognized. His combination of size, speed, and overall ability in different areas is a very appealing factor when projecting players. He could be used as a duel threat receiver, and though his rushing totals won’t be outstanding, he should definitely be on everybody’s watch list and could even be taken in some deeper leagues depending on the team that drafts him. Of the three players discussed in this article, he is the most likely to have a successful career given his overall competence already and ability to threaten defensive schemes.

The final draft hopeful that you should keep in mind for fantasy football is Arkansas’ quarterback Tyler Wilson. He measures in with a good size for a quarterback at 6’2” and 215 pounds. He doesn’t overly impress with his speed and mobility, though he has enough to elude rushers and make plays. He surely won’t be making any headlines his rushing ability, but could definitely make some with his throwing.

His biggest knock has been his interception numbers. Though he only threw 6 in 2011, he increased that total to 13 in 2012. This was in large part due to the lack of offensive line presence around him. He still managed to get 20+ touchdowns in each starting season despite the poor supporting cast, and he also still managed to complete over 62% of his passes in both seasons. If given a solid starting line in the NFL, the sky’s the limit as to where his stats could go.

Another big knock on his game is in his mid-range throws. This percentage could have been deflated from his having to force throws when under pressure and the subpar supporting cast around him. When you have constant pressure in your face, you are forced to make throws and take hits, which effects the quarterback’s completion percentage and interceptions. However, Wilson doesn’t wilt under the pressure. When someone is coming at him full speed, he still steps right into his throw, something that you need to do to be successful at the NFL level. When a player isn’t afraid to get hit, their throws come out a lot tighter and the chance for interception decreases.This trait is one of the more underrated intangibles when analyzing the NFL capabilities of prospects. The ability to perform when under pressure is something that can’t be tested accurately, but Wilson has been shown to have it in game situations.

A prospect like Wilson, or someone that didn’t have standout statistics in college but has good intangibles, is somewhat polarizing. However, there is no arguing that he has a willingness to lead, which is something that can translate into NFL success. If Wilson does get an opportunity starting somewhere, then he should definitely take advantage of it. Much like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, he will likely have to work his way into a starting role. This makes him someone to pass on fantasy draft day, but to keep an eye on through the progression of the season, as he may bump someone from their starting job. Who knows, perhaps he could even pull a Russell Wilson and do it before the season even gets underway.

Michael, Wheaton and Wilson have the skills to be impact players at the NFL level. If they end up on the right team and get an opportunity, they could affect your fantasy leagues even as soon as next season. Make sure to watch these prospects (and others as well) to get a grasp of their potential and to gain an edge on some of your competition in the fantasy war room. Don’t forget about rookies come time for your fantasy drafts, getting to know these players could be the difference between winning or losing your league.

Follow Nicholas Kaminsky on Twitter @Kamifootball