Evaluating rookies from a fantasy perspective is always a crapshoot, this year more than ever, given the NFL's labor unrest and the related fallout. To begin with, until free agency commences we won't have a clear idea of the opportunities available for most rookies. Once that happens, they likely will be hard pressed to get up to speed quickly and grasp their teams' playbooks. Another factor will be the varying degrees of player conditioning - young and old alike - in the wake of the lockout. A rash of inactivity-related muscle pulls/strains/tears could create unexpected opportunities for the Class of 2011.
Cam Newton Panthers -- Auburn (6-5, 248) The Panthers swung for the fences on the supremely gifted, but unpolished Newton with the top overall pick in the draft. He's big, strong, mobile and has an excellent throw- ing arm. How well and how quickly he transitions from the college game to a pro-style offense is the wild card here, as are perceived character issues. On physical tools alone, though, he has superstar upside. That's not something that likely will be realized this season, however, and Newton's only worth heavily targeting in dynasty leagues, or as an in-season pickup if he gets the keys to the Carolina offense and can do some damage with his wheels as a rookie.
Blaine Gabbert Jaguars -- Missouri (6-4, 234) It's time for David Garrard to start dusting off his resume, maybe not for immediate use, but by drafting Gabbert 10th overall, the Jaguars have clearly identified their quarterback of the future. Gabbert is a "he can make all the NFL throws" player, but like all young signal-callers he has big adjustments to make to the pro game, perhaps more so because he played in a spread offense at Missouri. Scouts suggest he's well-equipped to do so, though, given his makeup.
Jake Locker Titans Washington (6-2, 231) The Titans' selection of Locker eighth over- all all but officially closes the door on the Vince Young era in Tennessee. Locker is a premium athlete with mobility and a strong arm, but he'll need further refinements for his passing accuracy to catch up with his athleticism. Steve Young, to whom some compare Locker, was not built in a day, and the Titans' new franchise quarterback won't be, either. Don't be surprised to see the team sign a veteran quarterback (not named Rusty Smith or Kerry Collins) to start this year, as opposed to rolling with Locker before he's ready.
Christian Ponder Vikings -- Florida State (6-2, 229) It's unclear who, if anyone, the Vikings will add as the season approaches, but at press time the uninspiring Joe Webb is Ponder's main impediment to a Week 1 starting gig. Ponder lacks a rocket arm, but he's a heady player, whose quick release and mobility are assets, as are his leadership and poise. Whether he starts immediately remains to be seen, but the Vikings clearly have faith in his ability to add some needed stability to the quarterback position. Our guess is he ends up being one of the first rookie quarterbacks to start an NFL game this season.
Andy Dalton Bengals -- TCU (6-2, 215) The Bengals view Dalton, whom they drafted in the second round, as a quarterback to groom behind starter Carson Palmer. Of course, Palmer is unlikely to return, given his trade demands, so Dalton could actually compete with Jordan Palmer and Dan Le Fevour for immediate playing time. Critics say Dalton is undersized and lacks upside, while his supporters highlight his leader- ship and intangibles, traits he'd need to rely on heavily if the Bengals are forced to roll with him in Week 1. In any case, rookie wideout A.J. Green and 2010 first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham are talented young players with whom Dalton can earn his stripes.
Colin Kaepernick 49ers Nevada (6-5, 233) The athletic Kaepernick gives new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh a quarterback to develop out of the gate, presumably behind Alex Smith, assuming Smith returns. Kaepernick can already get it done with his legs, but he needs to be groomed on the intricacies of the team's west coast offense, a process that will take time but one that could produce a draft- day steal.
Ryan Mallett Patriots -- Arkansas (6-7, 253) We're guessing concerns over Mallett's character will subside in the coming months as he gets up to speed on the Patriot Way and quietly learns the NFL ropes as an understudy to Tom Brady. Mallett has plenty of detractors, but with no pressure to step in and rescue a franchise, he'll have time to round out his game, which has holes, at the pro level. Already blessed with great size and a cannon arm, Mallett would do well to mimic Brady's ability to sidestep pressure and make the correct reads. Easier said than done, but our view is that New England is a great landing spot for him, where he will either give the Patriots a talented insurance policy for Brady or perhaps serve as trade bait once the grooming process is complete.
Mark Ingram Saints -- Alabama (5-9, 215) The Saints traded up to acquire the 28th pick from New England and draft Ingram. Scouts love the patience and vision Ingram displays as a runner, some even daring to compare him to the great Emmitt Smith. Ingram is not a burner, so his home-run ability might be limited, but he can be an effective workhorse back, given his elusiveness and ability to hit the hole. That said, with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory still around, and Reggie Bush still property of the Saints at press time, Ingram enters a crowded backfield. As a result, while Ingram might be the most talented rookie running back, his short-term value might be eclipsed by a handful of backs with more immediate and clear-cut opportunities. Keep an eye on offseason developments, as the Saints likely will shed Bush (unless he restructures his deal), and Thomas is hardly the most durable player even in the best of times.
Ryan Williams Cardinals -- Virginia Tech (5-9, 212) While it's too early to write off Beanie Wells, the Cardinals certainly put him on notice by making Williams the second running back picked in the 2011 draft, 38th overall. Williams was slowed by injuries last season, but when healthy, he boasts a nice blend of power, speed and instincts. Unless Wells, who's had knee problems, regains his power and explosiveness, expect Williams to lead the Arizona running attack down the road. In the short-term, however, he will have to share work with Wells and possibly Tim Hightower and/or LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Daniel Thomas Dolphins -- Kansas State (6-0, 230) While there were four running backs drafted before Thomas, he may end up with the best Week 1 situation of the lot, as the Dolphins quite possibly are ready to move on from the duo of Ronnie Brown and Rickey Williams, both impending free agents. If Miami doesn't add a player like DeAngelo Williams once the free-agent frenzy ensues, then it's conceivable Thomas will have a clear path to the featured role. He's equipped for it too, as he's a powerful downhill runner who is strong between the tackles and effective from in close. As a bonus, Thomas has experience in the "Wildcat" formation.
Mikel Leshoure Lions -- Illinois (6-0, 227) Detroit continues to assemble young weapons to surround Matthew Stafford, welcoming Leshoure to a backfield that added Jahvid Best last season. At 57th overall, the Lions may have gotten themselves a steal, as some viewed Leshoure as the top back in this year's draft. As for his potential workload this season, look for a timeshare with Best that combines Leshoure's between-the- tackles prowess with Best's explosiveness on the perimeter. Leshoure is much bigger and far more physical than Best, and as a result would seem to be the logical choice around the goal line. Moreover, Best had a hard time staying healthy last season - not a new development for him - and if he were to go down again at any point, Leshoure's value in the Lions' promising offense would skyrocket.
Delone Carter Colts -- Syracuse (5-9, 225) Carter might be a nice fantasy find this year despite being the 11th back picked in April's draft. Joseph Addai has had trouble staying healthy, and Donald Brown has yet to live up to his first-round billing. Further, the Colts, who bolstered their blocking by drafting a pair of offensive linemen with their top two picks, are looking for answers around the goal line. They may have found their man in Carter, whom team vice chairman Bill Polian calls a "slam-bang kind of runner." He's a break away from making a fantasy splash, and after seeing the Colts tear through running backs in 2010, it's not hard to envision a scenario in which Carter gets a shot to carry the load at some point in his rookie campaign.
Roy Helu Redskins -- Nebraska (5-11, 219) Sleeper alert. Coach Mike Shanahan loves turning random players into stud running backs, and Helu, the 105th pick overall, might have a chance to be his next if the injury-prone Ryan Torain gets hurt again this season. Helu fits the bill because of his ability as a "one-cut" back, an ideal trait in Shanahan's zone-blocking system, which used to routinely churn out 1,000-yard backs. Helu has good size, but is an upright runner, with durability concerns himself. On the plus side, he has an element of speed that, Shanahan said, reminds him of a young Clinton Portis.
Alex Green Packers -- Hawaii(6-0, 225) The addition of Green makes Brandon Jackson redundant but gives the team quality depth alongside Ryan Grant, who is returning from an injury, and late-season revelation, James Starks. Like so many of his peers, Green needs one or two things to break his way, but he's a punishing back, who is adept at catching passes, traits that could help him see immediate playing time for the Super Bowl champs.
Shane Vereen Patriots -- Califonia (5-9, 203) Vereen's role will largely depend on the health of those surrounding him in the Patriots backfield. Benjarvus Green-Ellis (an impending free agent) and Danny Woodhead are the
projected returnees, with Green-Ellis having demonstrated last season that he is capable of grinding out tough yards while Woodhead is a productive change-of-pace option. Rookie Stevan Ridley adds a power back to the mix, but if Vereen can shed the perception that he's strictly a third-down back - and we think he can - he could be the one the team turns to if Green-Ellis starts slowly. In any case, the latest home-run threat out of Cal is among a handful of rookie backs this season who are a break or two away from making a fantasy splash.
Demarco Murray Cowboys -- Oklahoma (6-0, 213) Murray is an explosive speed back in the mold of Cowboys running back Felix Jones, but his selection gives the team depth and flexibility in the event of an injury to Jones or Tashard Choice. Murray enters the NFL with some durability concerns, and while his initial role might not be heavy, he figures to parlay his receiving skills into playing time. In any case, Marion Barber could be looking for employment elsewhere when the dust settles.
Taiwan Jones Raiders -- Eastern Washington (6-0, 194) Jones' role in 2011 will hinge on the health of the backs ahead of him, Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, a restricted free agent who is expected to return to Oakland this season. Jones possesses the sort of speed the Raiders love, as he ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in early April. We'd be surprised to see him get a ton of work in the offense initially. But both McFadden and Bush missed games last season, so Jones could be turned loose earlier than expected, at which point his own durability would be put to the test, given his slight (by NFL standards) frame.
Kendall Hunter 49ers Oklahoma State (5-7, 200) Hunter could leapfrog Anthony Dixon to become Frank Gore's top backup, but his size puts his ability to be an every-down back into question. Despite his lack of height, Hunter is solidly built with a low center of gravity and the vision to find and then hit the hole. Gore remains the 49ers' top back, but he's played 16 games just once during his six-year career and is coming off hip surgery. Don't be surprised if there are weeks this season when Hunter is a viable option - that is if he over- takes the burlier Dixon.
Jacquizz Rodgers Falcons -- Oregon State (5-6, 196) Rodgers gives the Falcons a small, but shifty playmaker to act as a complement to the team's power back, Michael Turner. He in effect replaces injury-prone Jerious Norwood in that role. Depending on whom you ask, Rodgers brings back memories of former Giants back Joe Morris and ex-Falcon Warrick Dunn, not the worst players to be compared to. Note that Jason Snelling remains on hand to back up Turner and likely would be in line for the bulk of the carries - with Rodgers remaining in a change-of-pace role - should Turner go down with an injury.
Johnny White Bills -- North Carolina (5-10, 209) White slots behind Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, but at 133rd overall, he was a nice value pick by the Bills. Every season a handful of teams have to dig deep into their backfield cupboards due to injuries, and White, a tough runner with good hands out of the backfield, is a likely beneficiary should Buffalo be forced to do so this season.
Stevan Ridley Patriots -- LSU (5-11, 225) Having already drafted Shane Vereen in the second round, the Patriots caught most ob- servers off guard by taking the bruising Ridley in the third round. Working against the LSU product is that he enters a crowded backfield that includes Vereen, as well as Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a restricted free agent, who's expected back to head the committee. Kevin Faulk could return as well, but Ridley should help out on special teams right away, and if anything happens to Green- Ellis, he could be the player the Patriots turn to when they need to grind out tough yards.
Bilal Powell Jets -- Louisville (5-10, 207) Powell, a hard-nosed runner, seems like a luxury pick for the Jets, with Shonn Greene slated to start the season as the team's lead back and LaDainian Tomlinson returning to the mix, as well. Powell also will have to compete with second-year man Joe McKnight, so he'll need some good fortune to make a fantasy impact this season.
Jordan Todman Chargers -- Connecticut (5-9, 203) Todman is on track to work behind Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. He gives the Chargers backfield some needed depth of the third-down variety with Darren Sproles likely on the way out.
Dion Lewis Eagles -- Pittsburgh (5-7, 193) Lewis, an undersized fifth-round pick, won't challenge fellow Pitt product LeSean McCoy, but he's a shifty back who could help out in the event of an injury to either McCoy or Jerome Harrison, assuming Harrison even returns to Philly.
Jamie Harper Titans -- Clemson (5-11, 233) Harper is clearly behind Chris Johnson, but he could be an intriguing in-season pickup if he can secure the Titans' No. 2 gig - which we think he will - and Johnson suffers an injury.
Julio Jones Falcons -- Alabama (6-3, 220) Given the staggering price the Falcons paid to move up to select Jones (two first-rounders, one second-rounder and two fourth-rounders), it stands to reason they're going to use him right away. Roddy White is still the team's top wideout, but Jones, a dynamic rookie with excellent size, hands and explosiveness, is already a huge upgrade over Atlanta's other receivers from last year. Expect White to get far more targets, but Jones should make his share of plays as the season progresses.
A.J. Green Bengals -- Georgia (6-4, 211) The talented young wideout is the centerpiece in the Bengals' latest makeover, but with Carson Palmer's future with the organization up in the air, it's unclear who will throw to Green. If the team sends Chad Ochocinco packing - a distinct possibility - Green, who possesses a rare blend of size, route-running ability and hands, figures to have an immediate opportunity to make an impact in both real and fantasy terms as perhaps the best receiver prospect since Calvin Johnson.
Torrey Smith Ravens -- Maryland (6-1, 204) The Ravens look a little long in the tooth at wideout, so drafting a young vertical threat like Smith to grow with QB Joe Flacco is a savvy move. To start with, Smith figures to make his biggest impact in the return game, but he's an injury (to Derrick Mason or Anquan Boldin) away from having a chance to see regular snaps. Ideally, though, he'll serve as an understudy to the accomplished duo above, as his route running could use some work.
Greg Little Browns -- North Carolina (6-2, 231) Although Little missed last season due to an NCAA suspension, he has good size and ball skills, and it could be just a matter of time before he passes both Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie on the Browns depth chart. If Little develops early chemistry with quarterback Colt McCoy, he could surprise as a rookie, though first he'll need to shake off the rust of the long layoff, which the NFL lockout isn't exactly facilitating.
Titus Young Lions -- Boise State (5-11, 174) Young can contribute as a returner immediately, but he also has the ability to develop into a nice complement to star receiver Calvin Johnson, given Young's aptitude for getting open and making plays. The Boise State product figures to overtake Nate Burleson at some point, but first he will need to demonstrate that his rail-thin frame can take an NFL pounding. Once he sees snaps in the Lions offense, however, he stands to benefit from the attention defenses (justifiably) give Johnson.
Randall Cobb Packers -- Kentucky (5-10, 191) Cobb provides the Packers with an eventual replacement for Donald Driver and, in the short term, paves the way for the departure of James Jones. Although Cobb is on the small side, he's an explosive player, who can do some damage in the return game out of the gate. With Driver still around and Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson also in play, the Packers can take their time developing Cobb, so don't count on big fantasy production until his second or third season.
Jonathan Baldwin Chiefs -- Pittsburgh (6-4, 228) The 26th overall pick in April's draft, Baldwin has a Plaxico Burress (in his prime) ceiling, but the Chiefs would probably be happy if he simply developed into a reliable receiving alternative to Dwayne Bowe. Baldwin certainly has the size and skills, in particular as a deep threat, but he has much to prove in terms of attitude, route running and consistency. Given his raw talent and the Chiefs' acute need for another wideout option, Bald- win does have immediate opportunities at hand (limited somewhat by the team's run- heavy approach).
Leonard Hankerson Redskins -- Miami (6-1, 209) If Santana Moss doesn't return to the Redskins, then Hankerson has a good shot to start Week 1. That makes him a decent sleeper, the sort of player you take with your last-round pick because the potential payday greatly exceeds that of going with an established but mediocre option. Underscoring their commitment to upgrading the wideout corps, the Redskins also drafted Niles Paul and Aldrick Robinson. Of the three rookies, though, Hankerson - a long-strider with good size, solid hands and playmaking ability - is the most ready to contribute.
Vincent Brown Chargers -- San Diego State (5-11, 187) With Philip Rivers behind center, any receiver in the Chargers offense (just ask Seyi Ajirotutu) can make fantasy waves when given the opportunity. Brown gives the team a young possession wideout to develop, and while he's blocked by the likes of Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Patrick Crayton, the "other Vincent" could see opportunities before too long because Jackson's long-term future with the team is murky.
Dwayne Harris Cowboys -- East Carolina (5-10, 203) If Roy Williams doesn't return - and it will take a paycut for that not to happen - Harris has a shot to emerge as Dallas' third wideout behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Considering the Cowboys' productive offense, winning that job would put Harris an injury away from spot-start consideration in fantasy leagues. Either way, Harris figures to help on special teams, and his college productivity suggests he could carve out a nice role as a slot receiver at the NFL level.
Tandon Doss Ravens -- Indiana (6-2, 201) After adding a field-stretcher in Torrey Smith, the Ravens grabbed Doss as well, ensuring that the team has options when Derrick Mason moves on and/or when Anquan Boldin's next injury crops up. While less explosive than Smith, Doss' route-running and all- around game are more polished at this stage, and he has a shot to emerge as a starter for the Ravens once the veterans are inevitably cycled out.
Cecil Shorts Jaquars -- Mount Union (5-11, 205) Coach Jack Del Rio believes Shorts could emerge as the Jags' No. 3 receiver this season, which would put the small-school prospect an injury away from a big-time opportunity in a Jaguars offense short of wideout weapons in the post-Mike Sims- Walker era. Shorts is considered a better prospect than fellow Mount Union product Pierre Garcon, but unless Blaine Gabbert becomes the next Peyton Manning, that comparison is irrelevant.
Jerrel Jernigan Giants -- Troy (5-9, 185) With Steve Smith's injured knee in question, the Giants wisely bolstered their receiving depth by adding Jernigan, a small, but speedy playmaker, who can contribute immediately as a returner or in the slot.
Kyle Rudolph Vikings -- Notre Dame (6-6, 259) Viewed by many as the draft's most athletic receiving tight end, Rudolph represents a nice weapon for first-round pick Christian Ponder. He's coming off a hamstring injury, which is why the Vikings could snag him in the second round, but if Rudolph stays healthy, he could prove to be a steal with incumbent tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan entering the final year of their deals. For now, look for Rudolph to be largely employed in two-tight end sets, but if anything happens to Shiancoe, he'd be worth scooping up.
Lance Kendricks Rams -- Wisconsin (6-3, 243) Kendricks provides budding signal-caller Sam Bradford with an athletic receiving option. A wait-and-see approach is prudent with Kendricks, though, as his all-around game needs some refinement. But he has some upside in an offense that has Josh McDaniels pulling the strings.
Robert Housler Cardinals -- Florida Atlantic (6-5, 248) The Cardinals add an athletic tight end to the mix in Housler, but with the team's quarterback situation fluid, it's difficult to estimate his short-term prospects. It's been a while since a Cardinals tight end has been fantasy relevant, but Housler could emerge as an in- season pickup this year under the right circumstances.
Alex Henery Eagles -- Nebraska (6-2, 177) David Akers led the NFL with 143 points last season, a mark he's been at or near the last three seasons, and if Henery assumes the Eagles' placekicking job (why would they have taken him in the fourth round if that's not the plan?) it's reasonable to assume he'll put up similar numbers behind a strong Philly offense.