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Top 15 rookies

Posted: Thursday August 12, 2004 6:29PM; Updated: Thursday August 12, 2004 7:31PM

By James Quintong,

Kellen Winslow
Kellen Winslow hopes to continue the success of recent Miami tight ends like Jeremy Shockey and Bubba Franks.
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Don't automatically look to the first round of the NFL Draft to find the rookies worth having right away. Last year's top fantasy rookie, Anquan Boldin, was a second-round pick, while the top rookie running back, Domanick Davis, was a fourth-rounder who was barely on the radar at the start of training camp.

While talent counts for a lot, opportunity has a lot to do with it as well. If there's an open spot ready for the taking, it doesn't matter if you're a first-rounder or a sixth-rounder.

There are a couple of things to remember about rookies in general:

• Running backs are the best bets to produce immediately, but there are also fewer chances to find a situation in which they can make an instant impact. But find the right hole and the sky's the limit. Just look at Davis.

• The complexities of the NFL passing game, compared to most college programs, mean that wide receivers and quarterbacks will take longer to produce. And while Boldin had a huge year, numbers like Andre Johnson put up (66 catches, 976 yards, four TDs) would be considered very nice.

Here's an early look at the top 15 rookies who have the most potential fantasy value this season.

1. Kevin Jones, RB, Lions: The Virginia Tech product fills a gaping hole in Detroit's offense, and just about anything just over mediocre would be better than the Lions saw last year. With the lack of competition, Jones is the odds-on favorite to be the top rookie running back, and with running backs so coveted, Jones leaps to the head of the class.

2. Kellen Winslow, TE, Browns: Rookie tight ends are usually dicey picks, but Winslow has the talent, swagger and opportunity to make it big. Winslow compares favorably to Jeremy Shockey in his rookie year, although you'd hope he scores more TDs. Plus, Winslow has Jeff Garcia at quarterback, someone who's worked well with tight ends in the past.

3. Tatum Bell, RB, Broncos: Has there been a rookie running back in Denver over the past 10 years who hasn't looked good for at least one game? Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Quentin Griffin were all non-first-rounders and they all had a 1,000-yard season or at least a 100-yard game. Bell appears to be the early favorite to start, given his track record at Oklahoma State, but Griffin, who filled in for an injured Portis last year, and veteran Garrison Hearst are also ready to pile up the yards behind that Denver offensive line.

4. Roy Williams, WR, Lions: With Jones giving Detroit the potential for a good running game, the passing game should open up. Joey Harrington appears to have an arsenal of solid receivers at his disposal, and Williams could be a major benefactor as he and Charles Rogers compete for catches. It could be a nice 1-2 punch for years to come.

5. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals: He has a nose for the end zone, which is great for fantasy owners, and now with Anquan Boldin's injury, he could emerge as the main man. Boldin did it last year as a second-round pick and set a rookie receiving record, so there'll be pressure on Fitzgerald to come close to those numbers.

6. Rashaun Woods, WR, 49ers: He scored seven TDs in one game last year for Oklahoma State. And while Woods was selected after a number of receivers in the first round, he's in a prime situation to succeed in San Francisco, if the quarterback situation improves. With Terrell Owens in Philadelphia and Tai Streets in Detroit, the Niners now have Cedrick Wilson, Brandon Lloyd and Curtis Conway as the main targets. You don't think Woods can break into that rotation? (And if Woods doesn't break through, it could be third-round pick Derrick Hamilton.)

7. Reggie Williams, WR, Jaguars: Byron Leftwich could use more targets other than the aging Jimmy Smith, so the rookie out of Washington could fit the bill. His production tailed off slightly last year after a huge sophomore season, but that shouldn't stop him from putting up big numbers. There aren't many other options in Jacksonville, so the door is wide open for Williams. (Also on the horizon is Ernest Wilford, a fourth-round pick.)

8. Lee Evans, WR, Bills: Drew Bledsoe is still looking for a No. 2 receiver to replace Peerless Price. Josh Reed was a major bust last year, so maybe Evans, who's a couple of years removed from a major knee injury while at Wisconsin, can step in. Buffalo is desperate for a dependable second receiver to help rejuvenate Bledsoe and Eric Moulds.

9. Eli Manning, QB, Giants: For now, Kurt Warner is the starting quarterback, but there are still plenty of doubts as to whether he can hang on to that job, especially after some iffy minicamps. Manning is waiting in the wings as Big Blue's quarterback of the future, and he's got decent targets at his disposal. If Manning has a decent summer, he could be worth having sooner rather than later.

10. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams: Arguably the most complete back in the draft, Jackson found himself in a nice situation in St. Louis behind Marshall Faulk. There's room for Faulk's backup to do some damage, even if just for a brief period, given the veteran's knee problems. Remember Arlen Harris last year? Jackson is likely to be groomed to be Faulk's replacement, so there will be plenty of chances for him to play.

11. Julius Jones, RB, Cowboys: He looked to be in the right situation when the second-round pick was the only viable back in Dallas for most of the spring. However, Dallas then signed Eddie George. But the former Irish star still will get his chances to show off his stuff.

12. Greg Jones, RB, Jaguars: After being an injury risk for a number of years, Fred Taylor has proven to be quite durable recently. But it never hurts to have his backup. Jones, a second-round pick from Florida State, could still see lots of time as a third-down or goal-line back given his size. That potential for short TDs makes him an intriguing prospect.

13. Nate Kaeding, K, Chargers: He probably won't be drafted except in the deepest of leagues, but for now the third-rounder is going to be the starting kicker in San Diego, so he's at least worth watching (and picking up if you need a bye-week fill-in). With the Chargers' offense in flux, there may not be that many scoring situations, but at least there will be some points on a weekly basis.

14. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers: He'll be in the middle of a heated competition with Drew Brees -- if he ends his holdout -- but it might not mean a whole lot even if he wins the starting job. When LaDainian Tomlinson is by far your most effective receiver, something is wrong. David Boston is gone, and you're left with Tim Dwight, Eric Parker and Antonio Gates.

15. Ben Troupe, TE, Titans: Tennessee likes using the tight end, so the Florida product could see considerable action this season alongside fellow Gator Erron Kinney, who likely assumes the starting job from the now retired Frank Wycheck.

Others worth watching

QB: J.P. Losman, Bills; Cody Pickett, 49ers; Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers; Matt Schaub, Falcons

RB: Cedric Cobbs, Patriots; Mewelde Moore, Vikings; Chris Perry, Bengals; Michael Turner, Chargers

WR: Bernard Berrian, Bears; Michael Clayton, Bucs; Keary Colbert, Panthers; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Devard Darling, Ravens; Devery Henderson, Saints; Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Darius Watts, Broncos

TE: Ben Watson, Patriots

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