2013 was the first time in 49 years that no running back was selected in the first round. This year they not only waited until the second round again, but the very first back was not selected until the 54th overall pick in the draft - ten spots deeper than any other in history. There is simply no denying the move to being a passing league and the devaluing of the running back. Granted - the Seahawks and 49ers met in the NFC Championship game with Seattle later winning the Superbowl and both were the only teams that ran more than it passed last year. No matter. Throw the ball a lot. That is the NFL directive.
A dozen wide receivers were drafted in just the first two rounds and nine of those went before any running back was selected. There were even seven tight ends taken in the first three rounds.
Last season we witnessed the previous rookie stars of Doug Martin and Trent Richardson stumble significantly but Eddie Lacy, Zac Stacy and Le'Veon Bell all produced great stats and Montee Ball appears to be getting his turn this season. That wasn't enough to prod any NFL team to step up and grab an early back. None of the rookie wideouts of 2013 amounted to a difference maker except for the 3.14 pick of Keenan Allen.
Here's the first look at the Top 12 fantasy rookies as of the end of the draft. And until training camp opens and the pads go on - you just cannot be sure about any of them. A few will soar and a few will flop. And a few not mentioned will surprise. The morning after the draft, here is the starting point for fantasy expectations for 2014 value.
1. RB Bishop Sankey (5-9, 209 - Washington) Tennessee Titans 2.22
What is not to like about landing on a team that recently parted ways with Chris Johnson and yet has little more than Shonn Greene on the roster? Sankey is a perfect replacement though without the blazing speed of Johnson. The Titans are going to continue to use a committee backfield and Greene will play the heavy role. But Sankey should end up with the most work of any rookie back. He comes to the NFL after a heavy workload in a pro-style offense at Washington where he was one of the best backs in the country. Solid all around runner who resembles Giovanni Bernard in many ways.
Fantasy Expectation: Sankey is the early favorite for most productive rookie running back as both the first back selected and with probably the most favorable backfield situation of any rookie. He may never offer the workload volume that say Jeremy Hill or Carlos Hyde may one day deliver but for the first season, he's the most attractive rookie back.
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2. WR Sammy Watkins (6-1, 211 - Clemson) Buffalo Bills 1.04
This pick looked even better after the trade sent Stevie Johnson to the 49ers and immediately set up Watkins as the #1 receiver in Buffalo. Watkins not only was the consensus best wideout in the draft, the delta between him and the rest of the class is fairly big. He's in the category of "can score on any given play" thanks to great hands, smooth and quick moves and speed to make the difference. He's dangerous enough that he'll likely be used as a receiver, a returner and even an occasional runner. He left Clemson with 23 school records and caught 101 passes last season for 1464 yards and 12 touchdowns. Has world-class speed and open field ability that will ensure a high volume of passes even as a rookie.
Fantasy Expectation: Even though E.J. Manuel is not yet an elite quarterback, Watkins is both the best receiver in this year's draft and goes to a situation where he's certain to be the primary receiver. There is no question which rookie wideout looks like the best bet for 2014 and that standing will likely continue for years to come. Watkins brings an all new level of excitement and production to Buffalo.
3. WR Mike Evans (6-5, 231 - Texas A&M) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1.07
While Evans won't likely has as many catches as Vincent Jackson, he may end up with nearly as many yards and could lead the team in touchdowns. He's a beast who brings tight end size to the wideout position. He has the speed to do damage in the open field and averaged 20 yards per catch last year. But his size allows him to consistently pick up extra yardage while smaller defensive backs try to bring him down. At 6-5, Evans can make catches all over the field and will be a touchdown sponge in the endzone where he is deadly on fade routes or just plain throw it high and let him come down with it. He should make for a formidable #2 in Tampa Bay even as a rookie.
Fantasy Expectation: Evans was a big reason why Johnny Football could scramble around and yet still find someone to catch the ball. Not to mention that Evans was drafted well in advance of Manziel. He brings in such a powerful combination of size and ability that he has to be considered the second best receiver from this year's class and one that will help bring the passing attack to a new level for the Buccaneers.
4. RB Jeremy Hill (6-1, 233 – LSU) Cincinnati Bengals 2.23
This could be a great pick or a wasted one - it all depends on how well Jeremy Hill stacks up against BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals already have Giovanni Bernard as the speed back so there's no reason to expect that Hill can become the full-time rusher. But Green-Ellis provides the short yardage and inside running for the Bengals and his two seasons there have both produced sub-4.0 yard rushing averages. Last year was only 3.4 yards per carry on 220 runs. Bernard has almost all the receptions from the backfield and stepped up to around 15 to 20 touches per game by the end of 2013. The rest of the work went to Green-Ellis. Hill comes over as an accomplished runner from LSU where he set the SEC record with a 6.9 yards per carry average. He is rated as one of the most talented of all rookie backs.
Fantasy Expectation: Hill brings in a far more accomplished pedigree than Green-Ellis and should see work this year if not win the #2 job outright in training camp. He's a big-time rusher and should become the goal line runner as well. His lack of receptions will impact his fantasy value and with Bernard there, Hill's production will always be capped.
5. WR Brandin Cooks ( 5-10, 189 - Oregon State) New Orleans Saints, 1.20
Giving Drew Brees a wideout who runs a 4.33/40 seems sort of unfair to the rest of the league. Cooks is smallish in stature but won the 2013 Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver playing for the Oregon State squad last year. All he did in 2013 was to catch 128 passes for 1730 yards and score 16 times. Will be just a 21-year-old rookie but is a dynamic runner in the open field and not afraid to play over the middle.
Fantasy Expectation: Marques Colston is already 31-years-old and Lance Moore is gone. No doubt Kenny Stills will experience the biggest leap as a receiver to fill the #2 spot but Cooks could still produce as a rookie in this elite passing offense. Most likely is a season of inconsistency where he'll turn in a few very nice efforts but become lost in many other games. But any highly talented wideout playing with Drew Brees demands tracking in training camp.
6. WR Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240- Florida State) Carolina Panthers 1.28
Not unlike Mike Evans, Benjamin brings tight end size and power along with more than adequate wide receiver speed. He comes to the NFL after helping Florida State win a national championship while scoring an ACC best 15 touchdowns last year. He offers a huge target that catches almost everything and who can out-leap and out-muscle the smaller defensive backs. He lacks top end speed but ends up in a situation where he will become the Panthers #1 receiver at some point since Steve Smith left. The Panthers had a motley crew of wide receivers until Benjamin was selected and he will become the main connection for Cam Newton.
Fantasy Expectation: Benjamin finds himself in a great situation since the Panthers receiving corps are so thin. The team still prefers to run the ball more often and Cam Newton has never thrown more than 24 touchdowns in a season. But Benjamin should quickly become the primary receiver.
7. RB Terance West (5-9, 225- Towson) Cleveland Browns 3.30
The Browns brought in Ben Tate as the starter but there's nothing solid behind him and Tate has never played a full 16 games in any of his three seasons. West has prototypical size for an inside runner and can take a pounding while dishing out the same. He played at a smaller college but scored 83 times in three years and is comfortable when used heavily. Less accomplished as a blocker or receiver, West is a very solid runner and can provide the "big heavy" role in an offense.
Fantasy Expectation: West has to work his way into being the #2 back during training camp but should pass up Edwin Baker and Dion Lewis. That would make him the handcuff for the Tate owner and the Browns are upgrading their offensive line. Barring an injury to Tate - which does usually happen - West will remain a roster stash.
8. WR Jordan Mathews (6-3, 212- Vanderbilt) Philadelphia Eagles 2.10
The Eagles parted ways with DeSean Jackson but Mathews is no replacement. Jackson is small and fast at 5-10 and 175 while Mathews is a bigger possession receiver at 6-3 and 212 pounds. A four-year player at Vanderbilt, Mathews turned in over 1300 yards in each of the last two seasons and owns the SEC record for career receptions (262) and receiving yards (3759). He's actually a better fit for the Chip Kelly offense than Jackson was and offers a big target who runs precise routes and is experienced and intelligent. And mature. He'll compete against Riley Cooper to become the #2 receiver behind Jeremy Maclin. As that offense continues to improve from last year, Mathews will become a part of what should be a very productive passing attack.
Fantasy Expectation: He is mature and should merit playing time as early as week one. Mathews can be a very solid all-around receiver and should eventually displace Riley Cooper as the main pairing with Maclin. This offense continues to develop and that makes Mathews worth tracking this summer to see if he can offer as much as WR3 fantasy value.
9. RB Tre Mason (5-8, 207- Auburn) St. Louis Rams 3.11
Mason leaves a tremendous career at Auburn where he ran for 1816 yards last year to break Bo Jackson's single-season school rushing record and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He rushed for 304 yards in the SEC championship game against Missouri and gained 195 yards running in the NCS Championship game. He's a complete running back with proven ability. His only downsides is that he is slightly smaller than a prototypical back (and yet almost exactly the same as Ray Rice) and he's never been asked to pass block. That will limit him to first and second downs until he learns to pick up the blitz. Mason may be slightly smaller than most, but he's been vastly productive as a runner in the SEC.
Fantasy Expectation: Not pass blocking will be a problem until corrected and that might take some time. The Rams are already pretty happy with what they got from Zac Stacy last year who only cost them a 5.27 pick. This season should see Mason become the #2 in St. Louis though there are reports that he may need more wrist surgery prior to training camp and that would set him back learning the offense. Mason likely won't change the role of Stacy this year, but he could make it more interesting in 2015.
10. TE Eric Ebron (6-4, 250, North Carolina) Detroit Lions 1.10
Scouts saw Ebron as one of those rare elite tight ends that only come along every few years. He's far bigger than defensive backs and yet has the speed and agility to make things happen after the catch. He's considered to have such high upside that he can operate as a wide receiver from the tight end position. Having that happen on one of the most prolific passing teams in the Lions makes it even more relevant to fantasy team owners. The reality is that rookie tight ends rarely have a big first season (Rob Gronkowski managed 42-546-10 in his first season while Jimmy Graham only produced 31-356-5).
Fantasy Expectation: No doubt he gets drafted higher than he should this summer from the promise of his situation. He's a very attractive draft and hold in a dynasty league to be sure but for his rookie campaign is not likely to produce starting fantasy tight end stats. Almost no one ever does from that position.
11. QB Johnny Manziel (6-0, 207 Texas A&M) Cleveland Browns 1.22
What you have to remember in redraft leagues is that only about a third of NFL quarterbacks are fantasy starters. Manziel added plenty of spice and interest in the draft (if only by the media) and he goes to a team that desperately needs to improve. But no rookie quarterback drafted this year is expected to just step in and start from week one - at least prior to training camp - and even Johnny Football is no different according to the Browns. But he merits some fantasy interest even as a rookie because he ran the ball so well in college. Potentially losing Josh Gordon has to be catastrophic to the 2014 offensive effort will otherwise rely on only Jordan Cameron and a slew of marginal wide receivers. Manziel's main receiver in college was drafted with the 1.07 pick in the draft and it wasn't because he had Mr. Football's cell phone number.
Fantasy Expectation: Most likely he won't produce fantasy relevant stats this year. The Browns offense without Gordon looks very marginal again and the only real hope here is that Manziel can eventually be give the starting nod and that he delivers with a lot of rushing yardage and scores. That will be the only way he manages fantasy relevance for 2014 since you could argue that he's dealing with the least talented set of wideouts in the league.
12. RB Carlos Hyde (6-0, 230 Ohio State) San Francisco 49ers 2.25
While Hyde looks to only play as the #2 in San Francisco this year behind Frank Gore, he may end up as the most productive back from the 2014 class in the long-term. If you want a power back that can wear down defenses and handle a full load - you want Hyde. He wasn't heavily used as a receiver at Ohio State but has shown more than adequate ability to catch the ball. He's even capable at pass protection though upgrading that skill has to happen when entering the NFL. He's all about ball control offense that likes to grind out yardage and wear down defenses.
Fantasy Expectation: Hyde only has to beat out Kendall Hunter to become the #2 back and that should be a near lock perhaps by the start of the season. This year he will remain as relief and as a complement to Frank Gore and the 31-year-old veteran has not missed a game in over three seasons. But as early as 2015, Hyde could become the primary back in San Francisco and that could be scary good.