Looking at the NFL Draft with a fantasy eye

Fantasy football drafts won’t fire up in earnest for a few more months, but now that the real draft is over, it’s a good time to take a look at the rookie class and try to identify those players that have the best chance to make an impact in 2009.

At any position, a rookie’s value can be estimated with the following equation:

Value = Talent + Opportunity + Readiness

Talent is probably the tougher of the three to judge, but luckily we can leverage the work of those scouts and coaches who just put a ton of time into putting together their draft boards. A first rounder is probably a little better than a second rounder, a second rounder is probably a little better than a third rounder, and so on.

Opportunity is (usually) pretty obvious. If a team has a big hole at running back and they draft one in the first round, the chances are pretty good that he’ll be the team’s leading rusher by the end of the season.

Readiness has more to do with position than anything else. Year in and year out, running back is by far the easiest position for a rookie to excel. The big hurdle is pass blocking, so if they can get that down, they’ll see a lot of playing time. Just hand them the ball and let ‘em run. Rookie wide receivers have a tougher time finding success early on, but there are usually one or two guys each year who crack the top 30. Last year, it was Eddie Royal and Desean Jackson. In 2007, it was Dwayne Bowe. In 2006, it was Marques Colston. Larry Fitzgerald, Lee Evans and Michael Clayton thrived in 2004. The list goes on.

Generally speaking, very few tight ends and quarterbacks make a substantial fantasy impact in their rookie seasons. In 2008, Matt Ryan had the best season for a rookie QB in years, and he finished #16 amongst quarterbacks, making him only a decent backup in most fantasy leagues.

So it’s best to focus on the running backs and wide receivers. Here are a few guys to keep your eye on…

RUNNING BACKS

Knowshon Moreno looks to be the odds on favorite to lead all rookies in rushing, though the Denver backfield is crowded with Correll Buckhalter, LaMonth Jordan, Ryan Torain and Selvin Young fighting for carries. Still, the team burned a first round pick to get him, so they obviously plan to use him. He’s a great all around back and an underrated receiver…Chris “Beanie” Wells joins Tim Hightower in the Arizona backfield. Hightower seems to be more of a short-yardage guy, but don’t rule out the Cards utilizing a RBBC. Wells has had a few nagging injuries throughout his career, but he hasn’t missed much time. His competitiveness has been questioned, though he’s a superb natural runner…Shonn Greene isn’t explosive, but he runs hard and is a patient runner. He has Thomas Jones and Leon Washington ahead of him, but those are two guys that could be overtaken if he plays extremely well in the preseason…Bernard Scott is a sleeper in Cincinnati. Cedric Benson is the starter there and Chris Perry was just cut, so it’s feasible that Scott could overtake Benson if he falters, on or off the field. Scott is a good all around back from a small school (Abilene Christian) who could surprise some people…Most of the other guys drafted early on are going to situations where they’ll likely be unable to overtake the starter unless there’s an injury of some sort. Donald Brown (IND), LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Glen Coffee (SF) fall into this category.

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Fantasy Football Impact Rookies

In the realm of fantasy football, using early picks on rookies is usually a dicey proposition. It’s not often that a rookie comes into the league and is able to quickly establish fantasy relevance, though a few players do break through every season. Typically, a few running backs make an immediate impact, as that is the easiest position to transition to from college. In 2007, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch were drafted for the sole purpose of taking over their team’s running game, and they both went on to have successful seasons. Even an undrafted rookie like Ryan Grant can have an impact if he finds the right situation. (I was lucky enough to snatch him off the waiver wire before he went on his 10-game train ride to fantasy stardom. I went on to win the title in that league despite disappointing performances from two of my keepers – Shaun Alexander and Marvin Harrison.)

Last year’s wide receiver crop was a bit thinner. Dwayne Bowe was the top rookie, finishing in the top 20 in most scoring formats. This was an upset considering all the fantasy owners that were drooling over Calvin Johnson’s intangibles before the season started. James Jones and Anthony Gonzalez flirted with fantasy relevance, but otherwise rookie wideouts didn’t make much of an impact in 2007. But every year, it seems like there’s one or two that become starter-worthy. (Who can forget Marques Colston’s 2006 campagin?)

So let’s take a look at this year’s top fantasy rookies and see who’s likely to make an impact.

RUNNING BACKS

1. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (pictured)
Stewart is a power back and that’s the Panthers’ style. DeAngelo Williams has been something of a disappointment, so if Stewart runs well during the rest of the preseason, it’s not inconceivable that he could earn a starting role. However, durability is a concern with Stewart, so it is more likely that the Panthers will split carries to keep him fresh and injury-free.

2. Darren McFadden, Raiders
Due to his combination of strength and speed, some compare the #4 overall pick to Adrian Peterson. McFadden joins Justin Fargas and Michael Bush in the Raider backfield. Fargas had something of a breakout season in 2007 and Bush is running very well in camp, but McFadden will still get his touches. The team has said they’d like to use McFadden like the Saints used Reggie Bush in his rookie season. Oakland won’t want to wear him out, so this looks like a RBBC for the time being.

3. Matt Forte, Bears
The Bears drafted Forte in the second round to shore up a struggling running game. Cedric Benson was a bust, but the offensive line has been suspect for a couple of years now, so there’s no telling just how much Forte will help Chicago’s ground game. He has looked solid in the preseason, and should be a solid RB3 in most fantasy leagues.

4. Kevin Smith, Lions
Smith is one of the more promising rookies simply because the Lions don’t have any other good options at tailback. Tatum Bell and Brian Calhoun haven’t made their mark, so it’s Smith’s job to lose. He has had durability and character issues during his career, so there is some question as to whether or not he can hold up to the wear-and-tear of a 16-game season. Still, given the lack of competition, he’s an intriguing middle-round fantasy pick.

5. Chris Johnson, Titans
The diminutive speedster seems to be earning a bigger and bigger role as the preseason wears on. LenDale White will get most of the work between the tackles (and, presumably, around the goal line), but Johnson will see a lot of work in the passing game and as a change-of-pace back.

6. Ray Rice, Ravens (pictured)
With Willis McGahee coming off of knee surgery, and Rice impressing in camp, there’s a real possibility that the rookie starts at tailback in Week 1. There are rumblings that the team is none too happy with McGahee’s (lack of a) work ethic, so Rice’s value is enhanced in keeper or dynasty leagues.

7. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
The Steelers raised some eyebrows (including Willie Parker’s) when they drafted Mendenhall in the first round. For now, they see him as a complement to “Fast” Willie, but he should eventually turn into an every-down back. The writing is on the wall for Parker; it’s just a matter of time before Mendenhall takes over as the Steelers’ feature back.

8. Steve Slaton, Texans
Ahman Green is hurt. Big surprise. Chris Brown is hurt. Big surprise. Somebody has to carry the ball in Houston and Slaton is second in line after Chris Taylor. Slaton has better speed, but Taylor is a little more physical. If Green and Brown continue to miss time, we might be looking at a Taylor/Slaton RBBC in Houston.

9. Felix Jones, Cowboys
Jones is the “lightning” to Marion Barber’s “thunder,” but this isn’t a timeshare. Barber is the main back, and Jones will be used to spell him and to add some punch out of the backfield in the passing game. Barber owners should definitely target Jones as a handcuff in the late-middle rounds.


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