Commentary

Can you trust Bengals rookies?

Updated: August 29, 2011, 1:41 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

What can we expect from the Cincinnati Bengals' rookie passing combo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green?

When the sun set on the Cincinnati Bengals' 2010 season, it looked like things would remain fairly dark for quite some time. After all, if the team could manage to scrape out only four wins with veterans like Carson Palmer, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco in the huddle, then what chance would there be for a new batch of drafted recruits to do any better in 2011?

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Starting from scratch, the team drafted wide receiver A.J. Green out of Georgia with the No. 4 overall pick, and then used Round 2 to bring TCU quarterback Andy Dalton into the huddle to help get the ball to him. Under the best of circumstances, it would be asking an awful lot of this pair to have standout rookie seasons, but Dalton and Green simply have far too many things working against them.

First of all, they are not simply coming into a stable system with a supporting cast that can help ease the transition from the college game to the pro ranks. Jay Gruden, who is also a rookie of sorts as he makes his debut as an NFL offensive coordinator, plans on running his spin on the "West Coast offense" -- a far more complicated playbook than simply "hand it off to Cedric Benson twice and then throw it to the open guy" would be.

Now add in the lockout, which prevented either newbie from even taking more than a cursory glance at the playbook before being thrown to the wolves of live game action, and we're talking about even more of an uphill climb for this pair to struggle with than any QB-WR combo in recent memory.

Historically speaking, how hard is it for a rookie combo at these key offensive positions to make a splash? Since 1980, only 17 rookie quarterbacks had a debut in which they threw for 2,500 yards. Of that select group, just seven also managed to throw at least 16 touchdowns.

Certainly, we've got some elite talent in this group, and yes, four of these quarterbacks are of recent vintage. However, let's add some perspective to this discussion. The bar we are setting here is quite low.

Which NFL quarterback threw for just a little bit more than 2,500 yards with 16 touchdowns last season? Shaun Hill of the Detroit Lions. Yes, in the past three decades, only seven rookie quarterbacks have managed to be as good as Shaun Hill.

How about rookie wide receivers? Looking back over the same time, we find that only 37 neophytes were able to reel in 800 receiving yards in their first seasons. If we add in a required minimum of just six touchdowns, we're down to 21 players.

Again, this isn't exactly a Mount Everest milestone we've set here. Last season, reaching this tier meant you were in the neighborhood of Pierre Garcon and Deion Branch, basically a borderline third wide receiver in a 10-team PPR-league. And keep in mind that neither of those guys had a rookie gunslinger under center. Garcon had Peyton Manning, and Branch, after languishing with the Seattle Seahawks at the start of the season, got most of his fantasy value once Tom Brady starting heaving the ball his way.

Having a rookie quarterback makes it nearly impossible for a rookie wide receiver to have a huge impact. In the list above, only two had rookies throwing them the ball: Eddie Kennison (Tony Banks) and Kevin Johnson (Tim Couch).

In fact, only four other rookie connections had both the quarterback and wide receiver start even 10 games over the course of that first season for the pair. The results were not all that impressive.

Given the steep learning curve ahead, the historical unlikelihood of immediate impact, and not to mention a second-half schedule that features the usual four games with defensive stalwarts Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, perhaps the projected stat lines for Green and Dalton are even a little too optimistic.

Still, this team is going to throw the ball, and Green is certainly the best downfield option in a very young huddle, with Jordan Shipley, Andre Caldwell and Jermaine Gresham all 26 years of age or younger. Even lead running back Cedric Benson, for all his years in the league, hasn't yet reached the ripe old age of 30.

This team could well be an excitingly fun "wing it and fling it" offense that has weeks when it lights up the scoreboard. Of course, that style of play also may yield a string of goose eggs just when your fantasy team can least afford them.

I'd pass on the passer here, except in the deepest of leagues (or perhaps if you have the roster room in a dynasty league). As for Green, how can I completely ignore a fellow A.J.? While I certainly would want to make sure I had a pair of trustworthy wide receivers in the fold before considering Green, once the draft moves into the territory of Roy Williams, Braylon Edwards and even former Bengals star Chad Ochocinco himself, it may well be time to give the kid a chance.

After all, sometimes rookies -- especially ones with as much raw talent as A.J. Green -- actually do manage to make history.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.