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Fantasy Guru: Martin Ranks as Top NFL Rookie

Posted Jul 8, 2012

Your fantasy football draft is rapidly approaching, and if you’re looking for a rookie that can give you mid-round value, you may not have to look any farther than Bucs RB Doug Martin

The sixth round, maybe the seventh…that’s where fantasy football players began jumping on the top rookies on the board a year ago.  It was admittedly a little harder to judge this issue in 2011, because the labor impasse had kept all of 2011’s high-profile draftees off the field from April through late July.  Even without much offseason evidence, fantasy footballers waited a half-dozen rounds, then began jumping on the likes of Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green.


Of course, a year later we all know that former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the first overall pick in the NFL Draft but a late-round flyer in most fantasy drafts, was the rookie to have.  Nearly 5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns combined through the air and on the ground, Newton proved to be a number-one quarterback, fantasy-wise, for a price far less than one would pay for Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.


That’s the lure of rookies in fantasy drafts, obviously.  It’s a gamble, and the fact that the top rookies usually don’t go in the first few rounds is a reflection of how infrequently that gamble pays off.  If it works, however, it can be the best risk-reward play of the year for fantasy football owners.  Ingram was a late first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and for fantasy football players who exited the first five or six rounds with a shortage of backs, he seemed like the perfect answer.  In reality, when it was all said and done, Ingram was the 43-ranked running back in a typical fantasy scoring system.  Green and Jones ended up being much better investments; they were the 14th and 18th-ranked receivers at the end of the year.


So which rookies should you target this year in your fantasy draft, and how early?  If you knew Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III was going to have a Newton-like campaign, the answer would be easy.  Luck went first overall in the NFL Draft this year, and Griffin second, but it’s not likely either one will be picked in the first two rounds – just like Newton wasn’t picked anywhere near that early last year – because rookie passers are rarely strong fantasy plays.


On the other hand, rookie running backs often make a big impact, as the Bucs’ LeGarrette Blount did in 2010.  In the grand scheme of things, Blount is a fairly minor example – more important, from a fantasy standpoint, because he was an undrafted player – but some backs have jumped right into enormous fantasy significance.  Adrian Peterson had 1,341 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in his debut in 2007.  Willis McGahee turned in 1,128 yards and 13 scores in 2004.  LaDainian Tomlinson hit the ground running in 2011 with the first of eight straight seasons of at least 1,000 yards and 10 TDs.


There may not be a Tomlinson in the 2012 draft class this year, or a Newton for that matter.  Most analysts would have said the same thing last year, however.  NFL rookies will always be featured prominently in fantasy drafts – perhaps not until five or six rounds in – and that means it’s worth trying to figure out which player or players is the best of the bunch.


According to one fantasy football guru on NFL.com, that player is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Doug Martin.


Martin, the versatile running back out of Boise State, was the 31st player selected in the 2012 NFL Draft.  The Buccaneers traded up from early in the second round in order to get in position to grab Martin.  Some have compared his running style to Jacksonville Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew, though any such rookie comparisons come with the obvious caveats.


The fantasy football expert in question is Matt Smith, one of a half-dozen voices NFL.com has called into play to try to make sense of this year’s fantasy landscape.  In a recent exercise of “bold predictions,” Smith suggested that Doug Martin is the rookie player all fantasy owners should be angling for this year.  Here’s what Smith had to say:


“Doug Martin will be the highest-producing rookie in 2012. It's all about fit and circumstance. Martin reminds a lot of people of Maurice Jones-Drew. A competent three-down back that can handle a load between the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield, and block his butt off in protection. The Buccaneers have a decent schedule, and new coach Greg Schiano loves to lean on the run. Factor in Josh Freeman's 22 INTs last season, and they'll lean on the run while setting up play-action passes for Vincent Jackson and Freeman to make that investment worthwhile.”


Smith also thinks that Atlanta running back Michael Turner is burned out, that new Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall is in for a huge season and that we will see a Michael Vick more circa 2010 than 2011 in 2012.  How you feel about those projections may influence how optimistic you are about Smith’s projections for the Buccaneers’ rookie back.


No one predicted Newton’s ridiculous rookie campaign, of course, and it remains to be seen whether any of the players drafted this past April will be of much use in fantasy leagues.  Is it a gamble worth taking?  If you want to take a chance on Doug Martin, you may have to do it in the sixth or seventh rounds.  The payoff could be big.


Click here to sign up for fantasy football on NFL.com.