Rookies always bring excitement to the table with regards to fantasy football. Good draft value and an exciting balance of youth and unknown can complement the veteran stalwarts of one's squad. Some are poised to make significant contributions to their teams right out of the gate, while others emerge from relative obscurity into household names by the time December arrives.
The 2014 NFL season was another year littered with productive rookie players across the map such as Odell Beckham Jr. , Kelvin Benjamin, Jeremy Hill and Mike Evans. Those four names present a small sample size from the 2014 landscape, as several of their contemporaries managed to make notable impacts of their own last season.
Legendary basketball coach Al McGuire used to say "The good thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores." On that note, here is a quintet of rising sophomore stars who are ready to shine in 2015:
1. Devonta Freeman
Some had tipped Freeman to make a big splash as a rookie with the Falcons last season. While that didn't quite happen, the 22-year-old did manage to appear in all 16 games for Atlanta, running for 248 yards and a touchdown on 65 carries. He also carved out a role on passing downs, catching 30 balls for 225 yards and a score. Atlanta's ground game, as a whole, struggled to generate much consistency throughout 2014, often playing from behind and relying on a patchwork unit up front with many injuries across the offensive line. The 2015 season brings change with it in Atlanta. Out goes Mike Smith and in comes Dan Quinn with Kyle Shanahan tabbed to coordinate his offense. Steven Jackson is no longer around, after the team chose to cut the veteran back last week, leaving Freeman seemingly atop the Falcons' depth chart at present. Under Quinn and Shanahan, the Falcons will install a zone blocking scheme which will play into Freeman's strengths. Good vision and quick feet with the ability to make the right cut upfield and break tackles are a few of those traits which can help Freeman excel in the new system, and having improved in pass protection throughout his rookie year, it stands to reason that the Florida State alum could be in for a decent spike to his workload.
When asked whether or not he felt Freeman could fill the role as a full-time back, general manager Thomas Dimitroff replied, "Yes, no question." The Falcons still have Jacquizz Rodgers and hope to bring back veteran Antone Smith, but they are very high on Freeman for 2015. Look for him to separate from the rest of the pack in training camp.
2. Eric Ebron
A 21-year-old bristling with athleticism and upside, Ebron endured a bit of a stop-start rookie campaign in Detroit, appearing in 13 games and compiling a 25-248-1 stat line. Injuries and the mental side of the game held Ebron back at times as a rookie, but entering year 2 in offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's scheme, the former North Carolina tight end has a chance to make a big leap in 2015. Brandon Pettigrew got most of the work as the Lions' in-line option in heavier packages, while Joseph Fauria got some work in the red zone which also hindered Ebron's workload last year, but with the mental aspects of the game corralled, the former Tar Heel should be well placed to take advantage of a bigger role in Detroit's passing game. The Lions love to throw it, and Lombardi hails from the Sean Payton coaching tree, where he helped oversee the development of one Jimmy Graham. Ebron obviously has a ways to go to get to Graham's level of production, but the skills are there to work with, and Matthew Stafford won't shy away from having another weapon to throw to and exploit mismatches all over the field with Calvin Johnson outside. Ebron is much more of a 'move' tight end than a classic, in-line player, but with the game evolving and Detroit's affection for passing, there is a lot of upside here. General manager Martin Mayhew is as high on Ebron as anyone inside the Lions' organization.
"Certainly I would expect better production next year," Mayhew said. "He’s certainly capable, he certainly has the ability. I think he’s going to be better the second year in our offense. I think a lot of our players are going to be better the second year in our offense and think he’s one of them. I do expect more from him.” Our own Kurt Turner has Ebron ranked as his 19th tight end heading into the spring.
3. Cody Latimer
Any receiver in an offense quarterbacked by Peyton Manning is always going to have a chance to be special. Even at this stage of his career, Manning is still a maestro, able to get the ball to the right option no matter who that player happens to be. With Wes Welker likely out the door, and tight end Julius Thomas possibly landing a big pay day elsewhere, Denver will need a new option to step up in the receiving department. Emmanuel Sanders managed to plug the gap left by Eric Decker's departure and then some last year, but the Broncos may have the luxury of going in-house with regards to their search for that next playmaker. Cody Latimer could be that guy, and the 22-year-old is surely ready to stake his claim for a bigger role after being limited to just 2 catches for 23 yards as a rookie in 2014. Lattimer played a grand total of just 37 snaps across 8 games as he was buried on the depth chart. However, that should change with Welker seemingly gone, and Andre Caldwell a candidate for release. At 6-2 and 212, Latimer has the size to play and win outside opposite Demaryius Thomas with Sanders in the slot in the three-wide sets which Manning loves to employ. Moreover, new coach Gary Kubiak says he "really, really liked" the Indiana alum in the build up to the 2014 NFL Draft. Kubiak spent last season as the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, and recalled visiting with Latimer ahead of the draft.
"I spent a whole day with him in Baltimore," Kubiak said. "I think a lot of his ability." Manning is expected to return for 2015 as Denver looks to capitalize with their window space trending towards 'shut.' In order to win his quarterback's trust, Latimer will have to make the most of his opportunities in preseason. A foot injury affected his development last spring which may have put him behind the eight ball in terms of playing a bigger role out of the gate, but a healthy Latimer should have every opportunity to emerge as a meaningful option in the Broncos' offense.
Much like his former LSU teammate Odell Beckham Jr. , Jarvis Landry really came on towards the end of the 2014 season. Landry became a PPR machine in fantasy leagues, and emerged as one of QB Ryan Tannehill's favorite targets down the stretch, averaging 7 receptions per game over his last six contests. A physical specimen who plays much bigger than his 5-11 202 frame, Landry has the chance to take those numbers to a new level. With Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson no longer in Miami, Rishard Matthews' roster spot up in the air, and Mike Wallace reportedly on the trade block, Landry is looking poised for a high-volume workload as he enters his second season with the Dolphins. Miami will surely look to address its receiving corps with the hope of putting together a more vertical attack next season, but Landry will still have a giant role to play as an inside receiver capable of getting open and making things happen after the catch and first contact. He does not possess the vertical threat of a Wallace, but slots in nicely as a security blanket of sorts for Tannehill, who Miami hopes will make the next progression as a passer in 2015. Having produced against some of the league's best corners as a rookie last season, expect Jarvis Landry to make that next natural progression of his own as a receiver in year two. Kurt has Landry ranked 28th as we head into the spring.
5. Tre Mason
Mason's career took a few weeks to get going as he came to terms with the mental aspects of the game as a rookie in 2014. Coach Jeff Fisher said the former Auburn standout needed time to learn "how to play without the ball," referencing his need to develop as a pass protector. However, once Mason got into the mix, he was able to showcase his talent, notching a couple of 100-yard games en route to a 179-765-4 line over 12 games. Not too shabby for a player who did not record his first carry until week 6. With Frank Cignetti in charge of the offense in 2015, Mason's arrow is pointed up. While calling plays at the collegiate level, Cignetti has leaned heavily on the run game to the tune of a 46 pass/54 run play call ratio through the years at his various stops. His backs have averaged anywhere from 27 to 32 carries per outing and have been very involved as receivers out of the backfield. In other words, Cignetti ticks all the boxes as an ideal coordinator for Fisher, and an ideal playcaller for a back like Mason. He may not be an every down option with Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham also capable of playing at this level, but Mason has the most upside and big-play potential of the trio. With many question marks sprinkled throughout the Rams' offense such as whether or not QB Sam Bradford can make it through the season healthy, Tre Mason is a player that St. Louis can lean on and build their attack around. Look for him to put together a strong sophomore season. Kurt has Mason ranked as his number 12 running back entering the offseason program.
Names such as Davante Adams, Brandin Cooks, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr will be ones to watch, as the 2014 draft class looks more impressive by the day. The 2015 NFL Draft promises to produce yet another crop of exciting talent, who will have their work cut out for them to match their 2014 predecessors.