Rookies generally don't make big fantasy impacts, but every slight bit of knowledge you have on the newcomers will help you better manage the late rounds of drafts and free agency in your fantasy football leagues.
Just because you don't draft a player in August doesn't mean he can't make a difference for you in the months that follow, even if for only a week or two. Putting the right free agent on speed dial can make the difference between a win or a loss when injuries and bye weeks take effect. Tim Tebow and LeGarrette Blount went undrafted in nearly all leagues last year, and Mike Williams was a technical long shot to do much in Tampa Bay, yet all undoubtedly swayed the fantasy fortunes of many owners.
Some teams (New Orleans, Miami) have more fantasy potential among their rookies this year than others (Chicago), but fans of all teams need something to look forward to, so check below to see what each of the 32 has going for them.
Arizona Cardinals: Ryan Williams, RB, Virginia Tech (38th overall)
Williams might be the smoothest runner in the draft. His vision, explosiveness and ability to change direction without losing speed make him a threat to quickly exploit any opening in a defense. Chris Wells is a rare athletic talent himself, but his durability issues should give Williams a good chance to see the field. Williams is worth drafting in most redraft leagues, though probably not until the middle rounds. Of course, a preseason injury to Wells could quickly change that.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama (Sixth overall)
Jones is probably the top fantasy target among rookie receivers. After giving up so many picks to trade up for him, Atlanta has no choice but to make Jones a starter from Day One. Moreover, the Falcons need to get him the ball. He's probably only worth drafting late in redraft leagues, but Jones is someone to monitor for his sheer talent, if nothing else. It wouldn't be shocking if Atlanta threw it more in 2011 to accommodate Jones' presence.
Baltimore Ravens: Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland (58th overall)
Unless Derrick Mason or Anquan Boldin get hurt before the season, Smith won't warrant a look in most redraft scenarios. But in keeper leagues, especially keeper leagues that reward for return yardage, Smith is a good target to stash. The burner is a hard-working playmaker who could turn into a nice player once Mason and/or Boldin are out of the way.
Buffalo Bills: Kelvin Sheppard, ILB, LSU (68th overall)
Paul Posluszny, if re-signed, won't be challenged as a starter, but Andra Davis isn't as safe. Sheppard is a perfect fit for 3-4 defenses, and his abundance of experience at LSU means he'll be ready to step in at a moment's notice. He's a prime IDP investment in keeper leagues, and would warrant a look in redraft leagues if he should be named starter.
Carolina Panthers: Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn (First overall)
Even if Newton isn't the starter this year, he's someone worth monitoring if he does get a spot start or two. His rushing ability is very rare, and he has the build to take NFL hits. As a passer, though, he doesn't have a great supporting cast and shouldn't be expected to do much. His draft value is limited to keeper leagues.
Chicago Bears: Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State (53rd overall)
Paea is certainly a reach as an IDP candidate, though he'd be a reasonable value in leagues that mandate defensive tackle starts. Chicago doesn't have much at the position, and Paea figures to be on the field early and often.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia (Fourth overall)
Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are impeding his progress, but Green could still be worth a late pick in redraft leagues. He certainly should be a top target among rookies in keeper leagues. He's the best receiver prospect since Calvin Johnson.
Cleveland Browns: Greg Little, WR, North Carolina (59th overall)
It will be disappointment if Little can't beat out Brian Robiskie for snaps. The big wideout also has experience as a running back, so him getting carries isn't out of the question. Little's value is primarily limited to keeper leagues for the time being, in any case.
Dallas Cowboys: Dwayne Harris, WR, East Carolina (176th overall)
If Roy Williams ends up taking a hike, Harris has a surprisingly good shot to emerge as Dallas' third wideout. He'll also compete for a shot as a kick and punt returner, and maybe could even get some snaps as a wildcat quarterback. He's not worth taking in redraft leagues, but both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant have had durability issues to this point, and the Dallas offense throws the ball often. Harris could be worth a spot start under the right conditions.
Denver Broncos: Nate Irving, LB, North Carolina State (67th overall)
Here should be one of the top rookie IDP targets this year. Irving was a huge playmaker at North Carolina State and has a good shot to start in Denver's new 4-3 defense. He put up 32.5 tackles for loss his last two years in college, and he figures to make plays in coverage, too.
Detroit Lions: Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois (57th overall)
Jahvid Best is a good player, but he gets hurt too much to hold off Leshoure in the race for the team's feature back role. He might not catch many passes with Best around, but Leshoure has a good chance to get 15 carries or so per game even when Best isn't hurt. Leshoure is worth a look in many redraft scenarios, but where his value will land specifically is still a bit up in the air.
Green Bay Packers: Alex Green, RB, Hawaii (96th overall)
Ryan Grant's health and effectiveness isn't a given, and James Starks just doesn't look like anything special. Green is a big back who is very polished as a pass-catcher and is a great fit for the Green Bay offense. His value is mainly limited to keeper leagues, but keep an eye on him as a free agent in all leagues in case he winds up starting for one reason or another.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, (3-4) DE, Wisconsin (11th overall)
Watt is an intriguing IDP target in leagues that mandate a defensive line position. He's big, athletic and had 61 tackles in 13 games last year. He's unlikely to keep that pace, but that would project to 75 tackles in an NFL season, which is a very useful number for a defensive line IDP. Take special note of him in leagues that provide points to IDPs who deflect passes—Watt gets his hands up as well as anyone.
Indianapolis Colts: Delone Carter, RB, Syracuse (119th overall)
If Joseph Addai doesn't get re-signed, this is perhaps the top fantasy sleeper of 2011. Donald Brown hasn't shown much (if anything) as an NFL runner, so Carter wouldn't have to do much to look good in comparison. He has the balance and quickness to make big plays in Indianapolis' prolific offense. The Addai situation keeps his redraft value in limbo, however.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Cecil Shorts, WR, Mount Union (114th overall)
Shorts will compete with Jason Hill for a starting spot in the Jaguars offense, which makes him someone worth keeping an eye on. Redraft leagues shouldn't draft him at this point, but Shorts has a polished game that could make him useful in the right scenario.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh (26th overall)
Don't draft him in redraft leagues, but keep an eye on Baldwin in all formats this year. He's not far behind A.J. Green and Julio Jones in terms of athletic talent, and he might be the draft's best deep threat. Kansas City's run-heavy offense limits him, but his potential makes him worth monitoring.
Miami Dolphins: Daniel Thomas, RB, Kansas State (62nd overall)
The bruising Kansas State runner has the skill set to play all three downs and do well with them. As a former quarterback, he's also an intriguing threat in the wildcat formation. If Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams don't come back, Thomas will draw consideration perhaps as high as the second round in redraft scenarios, though maybe the third and fourth rounds would be his more likely landing in such a case.
Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State (12th overall)
Bash the pick all you want, but understand that the potential of inheriting Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin on offense gives Ponder a very nice supporting cast in Minnesota. He also has the wheels to make an impact as a runner. Don't draft him in redraft leagues, but keep an eye on him.
New England Patriots: Shane Vereen, RB, California (56th overall)
Vereen won't be worth drafting in redraft leagues, but he has an outside chance of earning a role in the New England offense, particularly as a third-down back. Expect Vereen to battle with Danny Woodhead for snaps while third-round pick Stevan Ridley competes with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama (28th overall)
Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory are always hurt, and none of the three approach Ingram's talent level. Ingram might be looking like a second- or third-round pick in redraft leagues for the time being, as the feature back in the New Orleans offense figures to be a lucrative role for fantasy owners.
New York Giants: Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Troy (83rd overall)
Steve Smith's knee is a big question, and Hakeem Nicks has been injury prone the last two years. It's entirely possible that Jernigan will find himself as the team's No. 2 receiver at times this year, and he's an intriguing player to watch in such a scenario. Jernigan has a lot of big-play ability and is especially worth watching in return yardage leagues, though he's not worth drafting in redraft scenarios.
New York Jets: Bilal Powell, RB, Louisville (126th overall)
Powell is a more skilled runner than Joe McKnight, and the same might prove to be true in regard to Shonn Greene. Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson present significant obstacles to Powell, but expect him to do well if he does get on the field for one reason or another.
Oakland Raiders: Taiwan Jones, RB, Eastern Washington (125th overall)
Darren McFadden and Michael Bush are huge obstacles, but both are also injury prone. If Bush gets traded or the two runners end up hurt, Jones has the speed and receiving ability to make big plays for Oakland.
Philadelphia Eagles: Alex Henery, K, Nebraska (120th overall)
Nothing has been confirmed yet, but Henery's selection in the fourth round could very well mark the end of the David Akers era in Philadelphia. The Eagles offense perennially provided Akers a lot of field goal opportunities, so Henery could be one of the top fantasy kickers in 2011 if Akers doesn't come back.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Baron Batch, RB, Texas Tech (232nd overall)
Batch is a small but athletic back who's extremely polished as a pass-catcher. He's not worth looking at in redraft leagues unless Rashard Mendenhall gets hurt, but he can make an impact, especially in PPR leagues, if Mendenhall should miss any time.
San Diego Chargers: Vincent Brown, WR, San Diego State (82nd overall)
Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Patrick Crayton are in the way, but Brown has a chance to get on the field, anyway. Jackson's contract situation is a perpetual question, Floyd has had durability issues and Crayton is probably just a guy. Brown is only worth watching in redraft leagues for the time being, but the right injury or trade could put him in a prominent role. He should be one of the top rookie targets at wideout for keeper leagues, however.
San Francisco 49ers: Kendall Hunter, RB, Oklahoma State (115th overall)
Frank Gore remains unchallenged in San Francisco but an injury could put Hunter into the starting lineup. The small back is a good athlete with a well-rounded game, and he could be a must-add if Gore misses any time.
Seattle Seahawks: Kris Durham, WR, Georgia (107th overall)
It would likely take injuries for Durham to see the field, but the huge wideout can make an impact if he does get some snaps. He has the size and speed to test defenses deep.
St. Louis Rams: Lance Kendricks, TE, Wisconsin (47th overall)
There are questions about whether offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will utilize the tight-end spot, but Kendricks can definitely help out if McDaniels wants him to. He's a sound enough blocker to be a three-down player, and he's an athletic, natural receiver who can do damage when covered by linebackers. He's someone to watch as a free agent in redraft leagues.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mason Foster, LB, Washington (84th overall)
The Buccaneers don't have a whole lot at linebacker, and Foster is a very good prospect who was extremely productive in college. If Foster can earn a starting spot out of training camp, he could end the year as one of the top IDP options at linebacker.
Tennessee Titans: Jake Locker, QB, Washington, (Eighth overall)
Locker won't be worth drafting in redraft leagues, but he's someone to watch in free agency over the course of the year. He has a fairly good supporting cast around him, and he has the rushing ability to be a useful spot start with the right matchup, not unlike Tim Tebow last year.
Washington Redskins: Roy Helu, RB, Nebraska (105th overall)
Wideout Leonard Hankerson (79th overall) certainly deserves a mention, but Helu has monstrous upside in Mike Shanahan's offense. The big-play threat isn't a durable player, but his performance against Missouri last year (307 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries) shows what kind of upside he has on a game-to-game basis. If Ryan Torain gets hurt, Helu might be a must-add in many formats.