by Eamonn Donlyn
Talk about a loaded question.
Trying to gauge the current rookie card market is like trying to figure out a 10 different rubix cubes with 10 different color patterns. Long gone are the days of one or two rookie cards. A quick search in the the football cards section on eBay for 'Andrew Luck rookie card', results in over 14,000 sold listings between November 2012 and January 2013. But rather than try to identify individual cards for you to target, we'll give you some guidelines on what to look for, and some players whose 2012 NFL rookie cards might be cheap enough now to offer growth potential.
To begin with, players like Luck can obviously be worth the investment, if you can find value. Buying at the right time is very important, so it is best to wait until the 'off-peak' times to purchase. Whether that is when a players performance is down, during the off-season, or when another player takes the spotlight for a time, we'll let you decide. But crafty investors know how to time the market (or simply day-to-day timing when purchasing in eBay auctions etc.). Luck hasn't been a bargain but monitor the market closely to spot bargains.
Overall, the key is to look for short prints, less than /500 as a requirement and under /100 if you can find or afford it. In addition, clearly autos and game used/jersey cards, or the combination of all of the above is paramount. Because there are so many options in the market, reading about the sets after they've been out for 3-6 months, and monitoring eBay and other sites for market values is the simple answer. Look closely at the card from a long term perspective, and consider which type will be able to stay in condition over a longer period of time.
It doesn't seem like any rookies can 'fly under the radar' anymore if they've had even one quality game, but the first name on sleeper list, is Justin Blackmon. Now, while he still isn't an unknown by any means (and isn't dirt cheap either), he only showed flashes of the brilliance that made him the top WR in the draft. AJ Green and Julio Jones are clearly the heir apparent to Calvin Johnson in the receiving ranks int he coming years, but Blackmon may just be right on their heels in a year or two. While people nowadays expect immediate production from rookies, the receiver position usually takes 3 years to fully develop a young player. In addition, Blackmon might not have the best QB situation for the next year or two, but you never know how things will play out, as he obviously had a good rapport with Chad Henne at times throughout his rookie campaign. Buy now before Blackmon's stock rises quickly over the next few years.
Michael Crabtree has taken a couple years and new QB to blossom, but if you had bought low on him you'd be feeling pretty good right now as he slowly emerges.
Blackmon is a good example of situational investing. Is he still a risk? Of course, there's no guarantee his talent will come to fruition and he's had some off the field issues. But Crabtree and Dez Bryant have shown that it does take some time to hit your stride in the NFL, even with loads of talent. We're also not looking for short term investments.
Ryan Tannehill is another consideration. We're not quite sold on him as a future star just yet, but because his stock will be overshadowed by RGIII, Luck and Russell Wilson, you might consider buying in anytime you find great value. He definitely showed more tools than expected in his rookie season, and quietly broke Dan Marino's rookie passing yardage record for Miami. He doesn't quite have enough weapons to help take him to the next level just yet, but that might make this the perfect time to stash a few of his attainable cards.
Next up, Robert Turbin, running back of the Seattle Seahawks. Turbin has the potential to be a prototypical every down back in today's game. He will get another year or two to learn from Marshawn Lynch, but as the league has shown, two backs are needed to share the load. Turbin's pass blocking needs to improve, but he may be one of the next backs to slowly move into a rotation and look for a starting gig in 2014 or 2015. Buy now, while he is a relative unknown with potential, but don't overpay or break the bank to get him. If you want to hedge your bets, you can consider finding a combo card, like the Topps Platinum pictured here that Turbin shares with Russell Wilson. That way you at least have a 50/50 shot at long term success, and maybe a double bonus!
Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears is one other name that showed some flashes this season that might turn into star potential in the coming years. He was too injury prone and raw to grab too much attention, but getting to watch Brandon Marshall work everyday can't hurt. Same as the others, considering buying low now (he's the lowest prospect of this list, we're not sure on him just yet), but feel free to move on him if you see injuries as a consistent problem over the next year or two.
Overall, finding the right value is clearly the key with fresh rookie cards. Because the market can shift very quickly with young players, you don't want to commit too soon on an issue that has just hit the streets, but you don't want to wait too long either. Obviously, any time you can get your hands on a 1/1, you'll have a tough decision on when to consider moving it, and when to hold on to it for the long haul. We might not have a crystal ball, but all the players on this list have shown some potential, and they aren't on every collectors radar following their rookie seasons. Hopefully these tips will help you evaluate the 2012 rookie class, and identify some future stars that aren't quite obvious.
Hobbyist Eamonn Donlyn is a former ESPN writer and producer who currently works in broadcast marketing. He lives in Hawaii.