By John Evans  @evansjo5

We’ve gotten to that point in the NFL season where coaches whose teams are not candidates to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February want to know what they have. It’s time to play the rookies and see what these kids can do! Already, we’ve seen auditions by Bryce Brown (a star is born!) and Ryan Lindley (maybe he should consider accounting?), among other first-year players.

Last year, Stevan Ridley came on strong at the end of his first year and this season, savvy fantasy owners rostered Ridley when Law Firm took his practice to Cincy. That’s worked out rather well. But who’s next? All fans of the imaginary game need to know who should be on their radar so the lethargy of late fall/winter doesn’t have us asleep at the wheel. (On a side note, please be sure to take a cab home if you guzzle gallons of spiked eggnog this holiday season.)

Because I’m a fan of symmetry and these articles beg for it, I’ll give you one player at each skill position whom you should be monitoring in Weeks 14 through 17. These guys might wind up on your dynasty team via trade and, in redraft formats, be sure to put them on your do-not-forget list for 2013.




Terrelle Pryor, Raiders

Yes, I know Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) is a second-year guy, but I’m a Raiders fan, so cut me some slack (been a rough year). Some say Pryor might be a better move tight end than a passer. But a lot of great quarterbacks were originally recruited to play other positions, somewhere along the line, so give him some time to develop his skills. He has all the physical tools required to be the new and improved, 21st Century quarterback. We can pretty much forget about the strong-armed statues who put down roots in the pocket. With the kind of athletes rushing the passer these days, no offensive line is good enough to keep a slow-footed quarterback upright and effective for long.

Pryor has the strong arm, but equally quick feet. In the NFL of tomorrow, a mobile QB might be the ONLY kind of QB. Take a look at the game of guys like Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, etc., etc. We have no tape to tell us Pryor is that magnitude of a talent, but he’s definitely a specimen. And I liked what I saw from the former Buckeye in the 2012 preseason, for what it’s worth (if you don’t look good against vanilla defenses, try bowling).

Russ Lande, one of the best draft gurus around, had this to say about Pryor coming into the NFL: “Pryor is a special athlete who has consistently shown the ability to make game-changing plays with his arm and legs. His remarkable combination of quickness, athleticism, size and speed enables him to avoid sacks and buy second chances.”

I don’t know, doesn’t that sound like the kind of guy I just described as the QB of tomorrow? Raiders coach Dennis Allen has promised we’ll see Pryor this season, and I don’t doubt that we will. The Raiders are now 3-10 and have nothing to play for but tomorrow. Carson Palmer will be 33 years old next season. It’s important to know how early in the 2013 NFL draft the team needs to invest yet another pick in the quarterback position. Of course, JaMarcus Russell is available. (I kid.)




LaMichael James, 49ers

Let’s stay by the Bay, shall we? NorCal’s other NFL team is in much better shape than my beloved Raiders, but impressive young back Kendall Hunter was recently lost to injury. If quarterbacks are becoming mobile as a rule, receiving backs are at least “in vogue” these days. It’s a passing league, folks, and everyone wants a Darren Sproles on the roster. LaMichael James (Oregon) has 4.3 speed, hands and elusiveness in the open field. He definitely fits the bill.

James was a proven college play-maker, but he’s barely sniffed the field at Candlestick Park. Why? Well, for one thing, he’s small. 5’8, 194 makes you a specialist because you can be a short bell cow back, but you can’t be short AND light if you want more than 10 or 15 touches a game. Rookies often struggle in pass protection, and James didn’t have to do much of it in college. But indications are he’s made strides there and he’s at least a willing blocker.

Captain Comeback aka 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has indicated that James’ time is coming, and as soon as Week 14. After all, what does the coaching staff need to see from Brandon Jacobs? They know he can throw his helmet into the stands. Meanwhile, James is shifty in the screen game, dangerous on draw plays, and a good fit for the zone-read running plays Colin Kaepernick has been executing.

Incumbent back and all-around bad ass Frank Gore has complimented the rook for becoming more patient and letting holes develop, something Gore excels at despite his straight-ahead style. It’s always nice to have a good role model to follow. Keep an eye on the former Duck and don’t be surprised if James breaks some big plays before the playoffs begin!



Marvin Jones, Bengals

I might have picked the Raiders’ rookie receiver Juron Criner to write about if I had a more intriguing quarterback than Terrelle Pryor, as I don’t want this article to be TOO Raiders-centric. So keep an eye on Criner but Marvin Jones (Cal) is well worth a look, too.

In case you didn’t know, the scouting report on Jones is pretty glowing. A prototypical outside receiver at 6’2, 199, Jones runs a 4.4 40 and is both a vertical threat and a precise route-runner. The irreplaceable Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) calls Jones a technician on the level of former Giant Steve Smith (this is the Steve Smith whose promising career has largely been derailed by microfracture surgery).

As you probably know, all season long the Bengals have had a revolving door at X receiver opposite the unstoppable A.J. Green. For awhile Andrew Hawkins was producing in the slot, but he suffered a knee injury and while he was out, rookie Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers) stepped up in a big way, especially in the red zone. What about Jones? According to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Jones was “coming on like gangbusters” before his MCL tear in Week 7. Now that Sanu has landed on IR, Jones is getting a shot at starter reps as the X receiver.

Sanu was the higher draft pick and has shown more so far but, like Hawkins, Sanu is better suited for the slot. His return doesn’t preclude Jones from a starting role next season. Most NFL teams use three receiver sets frequently and there is ample room for Jones to grow, especially as A.J. Green continues to keep game-planning defensive coordinators up at night.



Taylor Thompson, Titans

This one is more of a stretch, but when isn’t a rosy prediction about tight ends a stretch? The 2012 season has been maddening for fantasy owners juggling tight ends and the freshman class hasn’t done a ton. I do like Dwayne Allen of the Colts (you probably know about him already). But a favorite, Taylor Thompson (Southern Methodist), remains an intriguing prospect.

Right now Thompson is behind Jared Cook on the depth chart. The world is still waiting for Jared Cook to become the next Jermichael Finley. Or perhaps Finley is becoming the next Jared Cook. Regardless, Cook is due for his annual late-season surge and on cue, Cook saw 12 targets against the Texans under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains (if you know how to pronounce his name, let me know). Still, Cook is a free agent in 2013 and given how his year has gone so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cook and the Titans parted way this off-season.

Though a converted defensive end (and all conference at that position), Thompson played tight end before SMU switched to a run and shoot in 2008 (no TE). He’s one of those phenoms many people have compared to Rob Gronkowski. As far as I know, those people maintained a straight face when they said it. At 6’6, 259 lbs., Thompson has the size but also the speed — he ran a 4.5 40. The kid’s raw, but so was Jimmy Graham. Take a shot on Thompson and see if 2013 is his breakout year.

Whether you’re closing in on a championship or rebuilding, you gotta look ahead and try to get your mitts on The Next Big Thing. So pay close attention to the last few weeks of the regular season and get a jump on the competition! Good luck.