I love the NFL draft because it creates some clarity for team depth charts and most importantly brings new talent into the league. This year, thanks to the lockout, the draft takes on more importance than any other over the past 24 years I've been following the draft, because there's been no free agency or trades, thus resulting in NFL teams applying need based selections more than I can remember in past drafts.
For fantasy leaguers this year's crop of skill position talent is deep, it lacks the immediate star power due to a lack of wide open starting roles but that's as much a result of the NFL moving towards a committee situation at running back and a plethora of three & four wide receiver sets that distribute production among a greater number of players on each team. So don't be fooled, this year's RB class is strong and very deep, more so than the quarterback class that was overdrafted, in my opinion, due to a lack of personnel movement from the lockout. That said both the QB and WR classes are above average, and in two years we'll look back at this overall crop of players and rate them towards the top of production against other classes.
This year's rookie pool has a consensus number one player (Mark Ingram) but selections two through thirteen could flip flop depending on news / developments over the next four months. So keep your hears open to comments by coaches and player signings (if free agency opens up) to determine the best opportunities.
One last note, the below rankings are for a dynasty specific fantasy league format. If you're in a seasonal, redraft format, you'll want to increase the value of guys like Julio Jones, AJ Green and the 2nd round selected RB's who will all see a lot of playing time early and drop quarterbacks who likely will be sitting / learning for a portion of the 2011 season. Remember NFL teams don't select players in the 2nd or 3rd rounds with the thought of having them sit on the bench or exclusively contribute to special teams, those selections are expected to play a primary role and fantasy leaguers shouldn't lose sight of that.
Top Fantasy Football Rookie Rankings for 2011
- RB Mark Ingram (NO, #28 overall) - Very talented, complete back is the surest thing for fantasy leaguers. He may be entering a crowded backfield and may not be the most productive fantasy rookie in ’11 but he will be one of the most productive over the next three years and has the potential to be a fantasy star. Let’s sort it out a bit, HC Sean Payton has said that he sees Reggie Bush as more of a weapon on special teams and sets, not as a regular, so his value probably won’t be hit too hard (RB4ish) assuming he’s kept, then Pierre Thomas is coming off an injury plagued season. He’ll keep his third down and change of pace role in ’11. After those two the team has undrafted rookie Chris Ivory, but keep in mind that Ingram is more talented than all these guys, so expect him to get plenty of touches in a prolific offense. I see Ingram as a RB2 and Thomas a RB2 but in limited games played in ’11 but with Ingram ascending to a clear RB1 in ’12 (if not sooner).
- RB Ryan Williams (ARI, #38 overall) - He’ll start off as a change of pace and third down type of guy behind Chris “Beanie” Wells but expect him to get more touches as more versatile, dynamic back in an offense that will rely heavily on controlling the ball due to a mediocre quarterback play. Wells value takes a hit (RB3) and Tim Hightower is now a special teams player, while Williams enters as a situational player (RB3) to start with upside to develop into a RB1.
- RB Daniel Thomas (MIA, #62) – The Kansas State product is an underrated runner who reminds some scouts of Steven Jackson for their size/speed ratio and running styles. Thomas has been incredibly productive the past two years and brings a well rounded game (good running between tackles or counters; good receiver out of the backfield) to Miami. With both Miami’s top two backs unsigned, unrestricted free agents (and both getting up in age), Thomas steps into Miami as the defacto starter and likely could end up as the most productive of all the rookie backs. He doesn’t have the elite running ability of Williams or Ingram, but his situation couldn’t be better (RB3+) and reminds me of Matt Forte in ’08 who went at around the same spot to a similar situation after a productive but relatively quiet college career.
- QB Cam Newton (CAR, #1) - Newton has the highest fantasy (and real) ceiling in this draft, hence the first overall selection. So he’s a boom or bust type pick, in redraft leagues he’s much further down this list, but for dynasty type leagues he goes this high b/c of his total package (running & throwing) and upside are too high. In ’11 he’s a QB3 but has the potential to develop into a “next gen” type quarterback and a QB1.
- QB Christian Ponder (MIN, #12) – Everybody knows Minnesota is desperate for a QB, they have a super bowl caliber team lacking the most important position on the field. There’s a question as to whether Ponder is that man but consider that he was a four year starter at a top school, was a highly recruited prep who showed growth and has most of the attributes you look for in a pro starter (athletic, accurate, leader), the only thing lacking is great arm strength, but most of the top NFL quarterbacks today lack cannon arms but keep buy on intelligence. Ponder has as good a shot as any of these rookie quarterbacks to be fantasy relevant (QB2) thanks to a solid offensive line, one of the best RB’s in the game and an emerging receiving core. Just don’t expect too much right out of the gate.
- QB Blaine Gabbert (JAX, #10) – Gabbert’s been the scouting communities number one QB prospect throughout this spring, so it was a surprise when he fell to the 10th pick (and the 3rd QB chosen) overall. He has proto type size, strong arm strength, great mobility (ran a 4.6 40) and shows NFL reads, release and footwork. That said he has a lot to work on coming from a spread Missouri offense that didn’t require pro style sets and coverage reads, but by landing in Jacksonville he has the perfect opportunity to learn behind David Garrard. For redraft/seasonal leagues, Gabbert would fall off this list all together, but he maybe the best of these rookie QB’s in ’12 (QB2) but for now don’t expect him to see the field until the end of the year at earliest.
- RB Mikel LeShoure (DET, #57) - He’s not a well known commodity but he put up huge numbers in the Big Ten, is a bellcow type guy (big, fast) with great fundamentals (never fumbled in college, has pro style offensive system experience) entering a team desperate for a featured type of back to complement the speed guy in Jahvid Best. This selection hurts Best’s value (he’s now more of a borderline RB3) while it limits LeShoure’s upside but he still is a good bet to be the more productive fantasy back in Detroit (RB3) in ’11 with upside to develop into a RB1.
- QB Colin Kaepernick (SF, #36) - If you believe in Jim Harbaugh’s coaching ability, then Kaepernick could end up being the best fantasy player of this draft, but it will take several years so for re-draft leagues he’s essentially worthless. Expect the 49’ers to resign Alex Smith and hand him the starting job for ’11 with a hope Kaepernick can develop for ’12 – so only dynasty leaguers should be looking at him.
- RB Roy Helu Jr. (WAS, #104) – Helu Jr. is very talented and one of the most productive backs in college football. According to Football Outsiders Speed Score, Helu is a top talent, regardless, this 4th rounder was selected by Mike Shannahan who has made a career of selecting backs between the 4th & 6th rounds and turning them into fantasy stars. With brittle Ryan Torain his primary competitor for touches, he could be the fantasy rookie of the year (RB3). If this was 2005, Helu would be a top 5 player on this list, so don't sleep on him.
- QB Andy Dalton (CIN, #35) – The Bengals are ready to move on from Carson Palmer, thus Dalton maybe the first rookie QB to start week one. Expect them to rely more on their running game while taking shots at rookie AJ Green, and safe quick outs to Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley to control the ball (QB2).
- QB Jake Locker (TEN, #8) – Locker likely won’t start in ’11, if he does downgrade Titans pass receivers and push Chris Johnson slightly down as defenses will load up the box; however expect Kerry Collins to start (QB3) while Locker (QB reserve+) develops from the bench.
- RB Shane Vereen (NE, #56) – In New England he won’t be true featured back but he has a good chance to be the most productive fantasy performer at RB in New England. He’ll enter training camp as the third down & change of pace guy (think modern day Kevin Faulk) with potential to be the main guy if he plays well (RB4).
- RB Alex Green (GB, #96) – I was tempted to put Green higher on the list b/c of Ryan Grant’s health being unknown and the quality of Green Bay’s offense, but there’s too much competition for touches to ensure he’ll be fantasy relevant this year (RB reserve+).
- WR AJ Green (CIN, #4) – Green is one of the most polished receivers to enter the NFL in the past few years. He comes from a pro style offense, played in the tough SEC where he was double teamed and he still was productive, week in and out. Green is ready to be featured and will be right off the gate, so he could be a difference maker for fantasy leaguers in ’11 (WR3+).
- RB Kendall Hunter (SF, #115) – SF surprised many by taking a tailback much earlier than expected, with Hunter they added a sparkplug small back who plays like power guy. He’s strong in between the tackles, has very good receiving skills and has shown the ability to block. He looks like a poor man’s Maurice Jones-Drew (essentially not as thick, strong or quick but very good in his own right). Hunter’s fantasy value is unclear, if he shows well at camp and Gore misses anytime, he could be an immediate value but he also could end up as strictly a special teams player as the #3 back on the roster (RB reserve+)
- WR Julio Jones (ATL, #6) – Jones is a difference maker at WR, he’s a great run blocker with explosive run after the catch speed and ability. He’s more athletic than AJ Green but not as great a catcher of the football, however their abilities are both elite so its picking hairs between the two and both should be fantasy contributors by ’12. However Green is ready to be featured and will be right off the gate, so he could be a difference maker for fantasy leaguers in ’11 (WR3+).
- QB Ryan Mallett (NE, #74) – Mallett has elite throwing talent and excelled in pro style offenses at Michigan & Arkansas, if not for off the field concerns (reportedly he smoked marijuana), he would have been a first round selection. He doesn’t have great athletic ability (5.1 40 time), but in New England he’ll be able to sit and learn behind Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer, with at least a year to learn before he ascends to even the primary backup role.
- TE Kyle Rudolph (MIN, #43) – Rudolph is the new generation type of big pass catching tight end with skills. He’s more Jason Witten than Aaron Hernandez which means he’ll earn more playing time immediately and take over for Vincente Schancoe in ’12.
- RB Stevan Ridley (NE, #73) – Ridley is a short yardage type specialist, a plunger who the Pats will likely insert to get tough yards and grind out the clock. With Belicheck’s ability to out scheme other coaches, expect to see him used in create ways but likely not enough to be fantasy relevant.
- RB DeMarco Murray (DAL, #71) – Another early 3rd round selection who will get a shot in Dallas and likely spells the end of Marion Barber’s time in Big D. Murray is a longshot for fantasy relevance in ’11 but T Choice and F. Jones are coming up on contract years and neither has proven they’re capable of being the “man” yet so Murray could end up with the job (RB reserve+).
- RB Taiwan Jones (OAK, #125) – Jones is a speedster, the guy tore up division 2 college football and has all the measurables to succeed at the NFL level (4.3 speed / good hands). This selection could mean the team is ready to move on from unsigned backup Michael Bush and insert Jones as Darren McFadden’s primary backup, if that happens then he’s an intriguing deep sleeper (RB reserve+) as a change of pace type of back.
- RB Delone Carter (IND, #119) – Carter isn’t spectacular but he’s heady and consistent, and with a great offense like the Colts, whoever earns playing time, can become fantasy relevant very quickly. Carter doesn’t have a lot of established talent ahead of him though it’s a crowded backfield so watch this situation carefully over the next couple of months to see if they sign a free agent (RB reserve+).
- RB Jamie Harper (TEN, #130) – I haven’t seen much film on Harper but the Titans liked him enough to use a fourth rounder on him and plan to run the ball at least 450 times this year, assume Chris Johnson gets 350 of those, that leaves a hundred carries (or more) to be given to Harper or incumbent backup Javon Ringer. If Harper can seize the backup role, he will have fantasy value as a spot starter in a strong run offense (RB reserve+).
- RB Jacquizz Rodgers (ATL, #145) – Rodgers dropped b/c of a poor 40 time (4.59) for a small back but what scouts failed to focus on is his quickness and toughness. He’ll compete to be the primary backup and versatile back behind Michael Turner. And don’t let his size mislead you, he’s a tough guy who could conceivably develop into the featured guy in Atlanta if Turner has a big injury or age catches up to him (RB Reserve+).