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Rookies Can Help, in Small Doses
If you're relying on rookies to guide you to a fantasy championship, you've got issues. You might as well place a bet on the 49ers winning Super Bowl XL, because the odds are about the same.
That said, San Francisco will probably find a way to win a few games this season, and a handful of rookies could help you win a couple, too. Just don't put yourself in the position of having to rely on them for your success.
The list that follows is heavy on running backs, which have a shorter learning curve than the other skill positions. The good ones can have an immediate impact, provided their offensive line gives them a chance. The Class of 2004 — including Kevin Jones, Julius Jones and, to a lesser extent, Steven Jackson — offers the latest example of first-year rushers who proved to be valuable additions to fantasy rosters.
Rookie quarterbacks? Well, there was that Marino guy. But you'd be hard-pressed to name another passer over the last two decades who was a fantasy force in his rookie year. Alex Smith will not be the exception.
Receivers can provide a spark, but it's much harder to pinpoint which ones will excel from the start. Michael Clayton was a nearly-instant contributor in 2004, and Roy Williams was outstanding when healthy. But highly touted classmates Michael Jenkins, Reggie Williams and Rashaun Woods barely registered a pulse, and others — such as Larry Fitzgerald and Lee Evans — were late bloomers. Braylon Edwards may be the cream of this year's crop, but he'll fly under the fantasy radar in the moribund Browns offense.
What follows are the only rookies worth considering in your preseason draft (unless you play in a keeper league). Others, such as Edwards, Carolina's Eric Shelton and Baltimore's Mark Clayton, bear watching as possible mid-season acquisitions.
Carnell Williams, RB, Tampa Bay: The Bucs have rolled out the red carpet for Cadillac, following a season in which they ranked 29th in the league in rushing yards. Michael Pittman had his moments last year, but he won't do much more than provide an occasional breather for the new franchise back. Rumors of running back by committee are as credible as sightings of John Madden at a salad bar.
J.J. Arrington, RB, Arizona: Arrington has virtually no competition for the starting job and has the benefit of being in camp from Day 1. He's as NFL-ready as his more-hyped classmates, and has the speed-power combination that Dennis Green has been waiting for. Must overcome his reputation as a fumbler, though.
Ronnie Brown, RB, Miami: His three-week holdout cost him critical preseason reps, but the Dolphins are committed to Brown and will immediately plug the draft's second pick into their starting lineup now that he's signed. Ricky Williams lurks, but he must serve a four-game suspension and could be traded before he's eligible to return on Oct. 16.
Cedric Benson, RB, Chicago: Benson's holdout could be more costly than Brown's because the Bears can muddle through with Thomas Jones in his absence. But like Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, Lovie Smith didn't use the draft's fourth pick for a part-time rusher. Once Benson reports, Jones will be lucky to get five touches per game.
Mike Williams, WR, Detroit: The Lions are prepping him for immediate action because they can't count on their starters to remain healthy. Williams is big and ultra-athletic, so he'll be a serious red-zone threat. The only concern is how long it will take him to shake off the rust from having been idle since 2003.
Heath Miller, TE, Pittsburgh: Miller has the chance to be special, particularly since he's stepping into a ball-control offense with no real competition at his position and a young QB that needs a dependable safety valve. Probably not a fantasy starter for a couple of months, but could help in spot duty.
Reggie Brown, WR, Philadelphia: How would you like to be Philly's receivers coach? Terrell Owens is less welcome in the locker room than a staph infection, Todd Pinkston is out for the year and Greg Lewis is as green as his helmet. The door of opportunity couldn't be open any wider for Brown. He's worth a late-round flier.
Mike Nugent, K, NY Jets: The Jets' first draft pick had better do well, or someone's going to be sleeping with the fishes. Nugent has everything you want from a fantasy kicker, except NFL experience and a potent offense. Consider him a bye-week sub with good upside.
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta: With Peerless Price losing altitude by the minute, White has been given a shot at starting right away. While Falcons receivers are the NFL equivalent of fool's gold, this unpolished gem might actually make an honest quarterback out of Michael Vick. He tweaked his ankle in the first preseason game, but the speedy White could prove to be a steal with your final draft pick.
Syndicated columnist Ladd K. Biro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of his columns at latimes.com/fantasyfootball.