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Grading 15 rookie keepers

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

You don't need Rotoworld to tell you that Sam Bradford has a bright future as a fantasy quarterback.

Ditto Mike Williams and LaGarrette Blount: for the two rookie stars of the Buccaneers offense, the future is now. Heck, forget about next year: Bradford, Blount and Williams make great starters if your league extends into Week 17!

Your fantasy season is probably over, and postseason fantasy leagues are still a week away, so it's time to talk about rookie keepers. Some of this year's rookies are worth stashing away for 2011. Some should just be tossed back in the draft pool. If your league only allows one or two keepers, you cannot afford to keep the wrong guy. The following list grades the 2011 potential for 15 rookies, with a deeper look at why some should be nurtured while others should be abandoned.

Arrelious Benn, C-minus
If you drafted the wrong Buccaneers rookie receiver, take heart. Benn has just eight catches in the last three games, but seven of them netted first downs, including 64 and 43 yarders. With his size, he could still emerge as Josh Freeman's favorite red zone weapon, or as a 60-catch possession complement to Williams.

Jahvid Best: B-minus
Best's future may be as a complementary back and receiver out of the backfield. Best gained two yards or less on 99 of his 161 carries, resulting in a lot of 17-35-0 stat lines. His big play potential is undeniable, and he is worth more in PPR leagues, but the Lions haven't produced a fantasy workhouse back in years, and Best has "committee" written all over him. Still, it's better to keep a potential RB3 than a TE1.

Dez Bryant: A-minus
Before getting hurt, Bryant displayed dazzling big-play ability, had a well-defined role in the Cowboys offense, and most importantly, was a personal favorite of Jerry Jones. The Cowboys loved to use Bryant on receiver screens and other super-short passes, throwing 29 passes to him that traveled less than five yards in the air. Three screens per game can do wonders for a receiver's fantasy potential, and Bryant scored four touchdowns and had a 46-yard run on these short passes. Will the next coach be as enamored of Bryant as Jason Garrett was? As long as Emperor Jones makes the final decisions, it doesn't matter. The only person keeping Bryant from earning a solid A rating is Miles Austin.

Jimmy Clausen: D
The Panthers may want to wait on Clausen, but that doesn't mean you should. The Panthers let Clausen throw tons of short passes to get comfortable in the offense: on passes that traveled five yards or less in the air, he was 74-of-125 for 505 yards. Take those micro-passes out of his statistics, and Clausen completed only 45.3 percent of his throws downfield. Don't blame the offense: Steve Smith only missed one game, David Gettis and Brandon LaFell are solid "C" prospects, and the offensive line was pretty good. The upside for Clausen next year is one of those 2500-yard, 12-touchdown seasons developing quarterbacks often have for rebuilding teams. You don't need that.

Jacoby Ford: D
Ford is fun to watch, and he is worth more in a league with big bonuses for long touchdowns. But he has only been targeted 17 times in the last four games, and waiting around for rushing touchdowns by a receiver will kill you.

Toby Gerhart: C-plus
If you drafted Gerhart as either an Adrian Peterson handcuff or an insurance policy, you have to be happy with the results: he was productive when called upon last week, and he filled his niche as Peterson's change-up back fairly well. Gerhart should fill the same role for next season; keep him, and the guy who drafts Peterson will want to talk trade with you right after next year's draft.

Jermaine Gresham: B-minus
Gresham caught an amazing number of unproductive passes early in the season: he had 33 catches of eight yards or less, only eight of which netted a first down or touchdown. In recent weeks, he has cut loose, with four catches of 20 or more yards in the last three games. It's almost as if Gresham needed two loudmouth nitwits to disappear before he could assume a sensible role in the offense.

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez: B
The problem with these guys is that there are two of them: eventually, one is going to leech catches and red zone opportunities away from the other. Right now, Gronkowski appears to have the edge, but it is nothing worth betting your season on. If you are only allowed to keep one player, think twice before keeping a tight end: remember how replaceable they are. Gresham could easily out-produce both Patriots next year, just because he won't have to split his opportunities.

Chris Ivory: A-minus
According to Football Outsiders, Ivory led the NFL in Success Rate, which is like a batting average for running backs: he had the league's best percentage of move-the-chains type runs. As a power back in an offense that will be great again next year, Ivory will get a lot of red zone opportunities. The Saints will still throw 400 passes per game and use fifty different personnel packages, so be ready for a lot of 12-50-1 stat lines if you keep Ivory.

Ryan Mathews: C
Here's a stat that will strike fear into any fantasy owner: seven red zone carries, zero touchdowns. Mathews looks good on the game tape and is more versatile than the other Chargers running backs, but he is the kind of runner whose touches get whittled away from all sides: Darren Sproles gets the catches, Mike Tolbert gets the goal line carries, and Mathews gets stuck in 15-60-0 purgatory.

Colt McCoy: C-minus
McCoy should develop into a fine NFL quarterback, and his running ability adds some fantasy value, but it's a stretch to project him as anything but a QB3 for 2011. His receiving corps is weak, and once the "plucky underdog" charm wore off, we saw that he was just another rookie with a lot to learn.

C.J. Spiller: D
Spiller hasn't had more than nine carries in a game, and he hasn't distinguished himself as a receiver (30 targets). Fred Jackson is a better all-around back, so Spiller appears stuck in a role as a complementary back and return man for the foreseeable future.

Tim Tebow: A-plus
To be clear, we are talking about fantasy football here. As an NFL starter, Tebow still needs a lot of refinement. As a fantasy prospect, he is all you could ask for. With 18 carries and two touchdowns in his two starts, he's a lock to rack up rushing yards. With Brandon Lloyd leading a receiving corps full of young talent, he has great weapons. And with incredible fan support and a new coach coming to town, he has enviable job security for a young quarterback. Tebow could go 6-10 as a starter next year, but if he's throwing for 200 yards and a touchdown while running for 50 yards and a touchdown every week, you won't care.

Demaryius Thomas: D
Thomas suffered multiple injuries and got lost in the shuffle as Brandon Lloyd emerged as a go-to receiver. Thomas is not a lost cause, and his blocking makes him a great fit in a running-and-Tebow based offense, but that won't help your fantasy team.

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