Three Up and Three Down: Sophomore Edition

In the majority of fantasy leagues a year ago, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was drafted as an afterthought, a late round pick, or even scooped up after his inaugural Week 1 performance. And that draft selection or pickup ended up turning many owners into fantasy champions. But that was last year, and no one could have predicted that Newton would run ramshod over the entire NFL and become fantasy’s rookie darling.

A year later, what are we to make of Newton’s first year success, and what about his 2011 draft peers? Some of last year’s fabulous freshmen are in for a rude sophomore letdown, while others will vault into fantasy stardom and help lead you to the fantasy promise land.

So who’s for real, and who’s yesterday’s cornmeal? First up are three sophomores due for regression, from the "I Peaked Freshman Year, And It’s All Down Hill From Here" tier, after the jump:

DeMarco Murray – All the Oklahoma product did last year was rush for 5.5 yards per carry, good for third in the league behind the freakish Newton and Fred Jackson, after taking the lead role for the Dallas Cowboys from an injured, ineffective, and, at times, totally inept Felix Jones. Murray is now the main man in Jerry Land with Felix providing a change of pace in the backfield, but don’t forget that Murray has his own checkered past of injuries. Just last year, he let down fantasy owners by missing the final three weeks with a broken ankle, and I wouldn’t count on a squeaky clean medical sheet going forward. With a shorter list of elite runners to choose from, some one is going to reach for the stars and take Murray too early, and that owner shouldn’t be you. He’s a solid No. 2, but not a surefire No. 1.

Cam Newton – I’ve already mentioned Captain America Cam in this piece, and you’ve probably already read plenty about him this offseason. But this writer is not "all in" with Newton in 2012. Off the field, Cam will be fine. A starting quarterback in the NFL can snap his fingers and, poof, beautiful women. Well, maybe not Joe Flacco. Shave that unibrow already. On the field, Newton will have a hard time duplicating the eye-popping numbers he put up in his rookie campaign (4,051 yards passing, 706 yards rushing, 35 total scores, including 14 on the ground). Heck, Madden gamers might have a hard time putting up those stats. Add in Mike Tolbert, who thrives in short-yardage and goal line situations, to an already crowded backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and you have a recipe for teary-eyed Newton owners expecting a repeat of 2011. That’s a salty, not sweet taste. I like Newton, but don't pay for last year's stats.

Mark Ingram – Unless you’ve lived under a really big rock for the past six months, surely you’ve read all about the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect Vince McMahon to script to get us all to watch the XFL again. I’m a little leery of anything New Orleans outside of Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, and that goes for their second year running back, too. Ingram only put up 474 yards with a 3.9 average while scoring five times in his rookie year, leaving many owners grumpy and wanting more. I suspect owners will once again reach for Ingram given the Saints high-powered offense, but you’d be wise to stay away. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles figure to be a big part of the offense once again, leaving little work for Ingram. Ingram could slump worse than he did in his rookie season, which would make this not an S.O.S., but an S.S.S., a super sophomore slump.

With the slumps out of the way, we move on to the "I’m Only Getting Better, Give Me That Cheddar" tier.

Torrey Smith – The Baltimore Ravens wideout was 16th in the league with 16.9 yards per catch, ahead of established speedsters like DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace, all while hauling in 50 catches for 841 yards and seven scores. The previously mentioned unibrow wonder, Flacco, targeted Smith 95 times, and that number could rise this year. Anquan Boldin led the team with 105 targets in 2011, but his days of being an elite go-to receiver are slipping away. If Flacco is in a pickle, expect him to throw it deep to Smith, and you’ll reap the yardage and deep-score rewards. Smith should have no problem topping 1,000 yards and at least matching his touchdown total from a year ago.

Kyle Rudolph – Although Rudolph had a yawn of a rookie season (26 catches, 249 yards, 3 scores), it’s not entirely his fault. Kyle’s rookie hazing lasted halfway through October as the Minnesota Vikings continued to throw out an overweight and overmatched Donovon McNabb each week, crushing every Vikings fans’ hopes and dreams with every McNabb pass thrown straight into the ground. Still, Rudolph managed to average 9.6 yards per catch when it was all said and done, and McNabb has since been released. Last year’s starter, Visanthe Shiancoe, who was targeted 70 times between McNabb and Christian Ponder, is now gone, and those targets are all Rudolph’s now.

Jacquizz Rodgers – Somehow, 30-year old Michael Turner is still leading the backfield charge for the Atlanta Falcons despite being handed the ball for 300-plus carries in three of the past four years, including the last two. Turner actually boosted his yards per carry from 4.1 in 2010 to 4.5 in 2011, but I wouldn’t bet on that trend continuing. Rodgers is a quick and shifty runner, and if used in a similar fashion as Sproles is in New Orleans, watch out. Turner is a likely candidate to hit the IR at some point this year, and Rodgers could get hot and play a nice complement to Matty Ice in Atlanta.

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