by Russ Bliss (7/4/2011)

Every year the rookie class comes in with a good bit of enthusiasm by the fantasy community. More often than not, these rookies disappoint their first season. I expect it to be no different in 2011, but there are some gems both for this season and beyond. Dynasty leagues look with an eye both on the current season and those yet to come. Identifying players who are likely to have success long term is key to success in dynasty leagues. None of the players I am about to identify are not going to place in the higher tier groupings on fantasy football cheat sheets in 2011, but they can qualify as players to keep in mind as sleepers.

Now with an eye on both 2011 and beyond, I want to give 3 players (1 each at QB, RB, and WR) who were not considered amongst the elite rookie prospects but could be undervalued both season and beyond, and therefore for the 2011 rankings, they will appear low on our fantasy football draft analyzer. It's considered a given that Cam Newton will start right away in Carolina, and that Jake Locker and Christian Ponder will likely start for their teams. These players, along with Blaine Gabbert were all first round picks and their names and situations are well known.

At RB, we know the Saints didn't move back into round one to select Mark Ingram only to not have him be the likely primary RB for them. Mikel LeShoure, Ryan Williams, Daniel Thomas, and Shane Vereen were all selected in round 2 and each of them are expected to fill roles with their teams either as primary RB's, or extensive complimentary RB's right away. Fantasy owners have taken notice and there is enthusiasm surrounding each, even if some of it is guarded.

It has been said that there was a huge drop off at the WR position after A.J. Green and Julio Jones in the April NFL Draft. Both Green and Jones were selected in the first 6 picks of the draft and both are expected to be impact players for their teams right away. After them, opinions varied greatly about who was the next best WR prospect, with each having many questions surrounding him. Since Kansas City selected Jonathan Baldwin late in the first round, he has gotten more attention the several selected in round 2 and later. There is also optimism about Baldwin and the Chiefs after a successful season by QB Matt Cassel. But who else after these 3 first round picks is likely to become an impact player from the rookie WR crop?

It is with these questions in mind that I offer up the following 3 players.

Rookie Sleeper QB: Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers. While it's a foregone conclusion that the 49ers will re-sign Alex Smith to a one year deal once a new CBA is in place, Smith has yet to live up to any of the expectations on the field. His leadership for the team during the lockout has earned him the right to get one more shot at establishing himself as a NFL starting QB, but whether that leadership translates into a more efficient QB in games is in doubt. And ultimately, he has to win back the confidence of the fans. While this is possible, it seems unlikely. If Smith struggles at all, it will not be a surprise to see the 49ers turn to their rookie halfway thru the season. Kaepernick is unpolished, but he has a cannon for an arm, is exceptionally athletic for his size, and works very hard in the classroom. He may have his struggles running a traditional offense and adjusting to sophisticated NFL defenses, but his ability to improvise and keep plays alive with his scrambling could serve him better than many expect. The 49ers could be competing for a playoff spot in a weak NFC West, but if those hopes fade by mid-season, and the fan base is calling for change Kaepernick could be in line to finish the season and provide some surprises. In the Dynasty format, Kaepernick has a very high ceiling as he should be given every opportunity to develop into a quality NFL QB and because of his combination of skills, to go along with his work ethic, I think he would succeed.

Rookie Sleeper RB: Delone Carter, Indianapolis Colts. It's a 50/50 chance that the Colts re-sign Joseph Addai, and if they don't, Carter will be in a position to claim the Colts starting RB job. In that situation, Carter would compete with disappointing former first round pick Donald Brown for the primary RB role and Brown has had his opportunities the last couple of seasons and done little to gain the confidence of the coaching staff. Carter runs with authority and purpose, and is built to handle the load between the tackles in a way Brown has been unable to be successful at.  Even if Addai is re-signed, he has proven to be injury prone and not always effective as a power RB. Carter is a compact bowling ball type of runner who should take over those situations when a powerful RB is needed to get the tough yards, or at the goal line. Beyond 2011, I think Carter will be the guy who helps brings greater balance to the Colts pass-heavy offense. As Peyton Manning gets older, they will need to focus more on having a rushing attack that takes the pressure off of him (similar to how the Broncos handled the final years of John Elway's career). I think Carter's toughness will be what separates him from other potential RB's in Indianapolis the next few years and allow Carter to be a strong fantasy consideration. At the very least in 2011, I expect Carter to dominate the goal line carries and be part of the RB rotation when the Colts are trying to protect a lead late in games. That should be enough for him to be a fantasy RB4 and if he proves to be capable of getting 4+ yards per carry on a regular basis (something both Addai and Brown have struggled to do with consistency) he could carves out an even bigger role in the offense. Two things he will definitely need to work on to become trusted with a more prominent role are his pass protection blocking and his receiving abilities. But I doubt the Colts would have drafted a RB who didn't at least show the upside to do both of those things.

Rookie Sleeper WR: Greg Little, Cleveland Browns. It's been since 2008 that the Browns had a WR catch more than 40 passes. They are desperate for a reliable WR who also has playmaking abilities. Enter Greg Little; a big WR with strong after the catch abilities. He isn't a true deep threat, but considering the lack of a big time arm in current Browns' starting QB Colt McCoy, he doesn't need to be. Little has the size and hands to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic. If not for the suspension he served in 2010 for having improper contact with an agent, it's probable Little would have been a first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and considered to be with A.J. Green and Julio Jones as the elite WR's in the class. Little is likely to start immediately for Cleveland as his only real competition comes from returning starters Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. Massaquoi has the inside track to start opposite Little but he has been prone to drops. Robiskie scored a TD in each of the last 3 games of 2010, but his shown little ability to generate yards after the catch. The Browns need Little to step in and become their #1 WR right away and will give him every chance to bring excitement to Pat Shurmur's west coast style of offense. He may have some struggles his first year as it usually takes some time to get used to the offense, and add in that there have been no off-season programs to help teach him, but no doubting the physical tools and talent are there for him to succeed. Especially on such a team starved for quality production from the WR position. In time, Little could be a solid fantasy consideration. If McCoy develops into a better QB than expected, or if the Browns get a better QB in 2012, Little's upside could be enough to place him amongst the top 15 in future fantasy football WR rankings. The biggest obstacle for him to overcome is the concern about his attitude and seeming sense of personal entitlement.


Check out Russ's article on early 2011 fantasy football sleeper Quarterbacks


Check out Russ's article on early 2011 fantasy football sleeper Running Backs


Check out Russ's article on early 2011 fantasy football sleeper Wide Receivers