This year had a very different sort of draft than usual and the first round served up precious little fantasy excitement as lineman after lineman was drafted. This was the first time in 49 years that no running back was drafted in the first round. But the second round erupted with five of them and by the end of the third round, there's plenty of fantasy hype to shower on the new set of rookies. There is every reason to expect that we will collectively overvalue more than a few of them.
Last season saw five different rookie quarterbacks become the starter for their team and three more had significant playing time - that was freakish. 2013 may not have more than one or two end up under center. Then again four of those were taken in the first round and only one was selected this season. Wideouts are always a bit spotty in performance in their first season and even last year saw only moderate success for any of the four first rounders. Justin Blackmon came around about mid-season but none of the others really accounted for much.
Running backs are always of interest despite the waning value they hold in current offenses. 2012 served up notice that where a player is taken is not necessarily that important since Vick Ballard (5.35) and especially Alfred Morris (6.03) became fantasy starters along with the duo of Trent Richardson and Doug Martin both producing great fantasy stats.
Here's the first look at the Top 10 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.
1. RB Eddie Lacy (5-11, 231, 4.53/40 - Alabama) Green Bay Packers 2.29
Despite falling to be the 4th running back drafted, the needle is certainly pointing up for this Alabama bruiser who finished 2012 with 1,322 rush yards on 204 carries (6.5 YPC) and scored 17 touchdowns. He fell probably on concerns with his health – he was a big back who picked up foot and ankle injuries in college plus a little concern that he has been a workhorse and could wear down earlier in his career. But he is also considered a very tough runner with some moves and is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. More than all that, he ends up in Green Bay where the Packers already mention him as an every down back and he won’t ever face an eight-man front thanks to Aaron Rodgers. But he won’t run 25 times in any game and maybe not even 20 but he will get goal line opportunities. The Packers also drafted the highly ranked Johnathan Franklin who could end up as the complement to Lacy as the smaller, third-down back.
Fantasy Expectation: If Lacy can win a full-time role, his outlook is very high for this season and even just as a scoring back should provide decent fantasy value. The deciding factor in this will be training camp where Lacy will have to prove that Franklin doesn't need much of a role.
2. RB Montee Ball (5-11, 214, 4.59/40 - Wisconsin) Denver Broncos 2.26
Much in the same vein as Eddie Lacy, Ball comes in with upside balanced by long-term health concerns. But he lands in what could prove to be a terrific spot which counts at least as much as anything else. Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011 when he finished with a staggering 307 carries for 1,923 yards and tied the all-time record held by Barry Sanders with 39 total touchdowns scored. Changes in the offensive line did not help Ball as a senior when he rushed 356 times for 1830 yards and 22 touchdowns. There is no debate that Ball is anything less than a natural runner who excels as a workhorse. He merely scored an NCAA record 83 touchdowns in his four years in Wisconsin. But there is a legitimate concern that the heavy load (924 carries) will make for a shorter NFL career and open him more to injuries. The Broncos did opt for Ball over Lacy because he seemed more durable. Chances are good that the Broncos release Willis McGahee and that opens the door for a big rookie season playing in a prolific offense and never facing an eight-man front.
Fantasy Expectation: The Broncos were happy to land Ball who they say can become an every down back for them. But you have to hope they cut WIllis McGahee and shove Knowshon Moreno back under his rock.
3. RB Le’Von Bell (6-2, 230, 4.56/40 - Michigan State) Pittsburgh Steelers 2.16
Bell is a big back who led the Big Ten last year with 1,793 rushing yards and ended with 671 carries for 3,346 yards in his three seasons with Michigan State. He could end up as the next incarnation of Jerome Bettis though the Steelers now run a pass-first offense and are not looking to grind out the carries as they were in the past. He can catch the ball and pass block though and may stay on the field extensively if he can earn the workload in training camp. His downside is his size which limits his speed and has even caused him to wear down later in games. But he won’t carry that heavy of a load in Pittsburgh anyway and best of all – he could end up the leading scorer for the Steelers with all the goal line work.
Fantasy Expectation: This could become exciting if the Steelers will give him all the goal line work instead of splitting the seven rushing scores of 2012 between four runners. Bell is the most talented back on the roster even before he gets his uniform.
4. WR Tavon Austin (5-9, 174, 4.28/40 – West Virginia) St. Louis Rams 1.08
The first qualifier always said about Austin is to “forget the 174 pounds”. That ranks him as one of the smallest players in the NFL and yet this is a guy who ran a sub-4.3/40. He is described as “video game-like” as he has tremendous ability to start and stop; shift laterally and immediately hit the afterburners. He’s destined for work in the slot but could be used on special teams or in any number of trick plays. He compares mostly to Percy Harvin as one of the explosive players that a team just has to figure out how to get the ball into his hands out in space. The obvious hope is that he can provide the Rams (and Sam Bradford) with the play maker that has long been missing in St. Louis. Austin led the country last year with 198 all-purpose yards per game. He is definitely the “new breed” of receiver that is succeeding in the NFL. For an added level of comfort, the Rams later drafted his fellow Volunteer wideout Stedman Bailey.
Fantasy Expectation: Plenty of upside to be sure and can become a cross between Percy Harvin and Danny Amendola if he remains healthy.
5. WR Cordarrelle Patterson (6-2, 216, 4.33/40 - Tennessee) Minnesota Vikings 1.29
Aside from the freakishly talented Austin, Patterson was the top receiver on most boards. He set a Tennessee record last year with 1,858 all-purpose yards and scored ten touchdowns in four different ways – receiving (5), rushing (3), punt return (1) and kick return (1). He was a two-time All-American at Hutchinson Community College before transferring and spending just one season at Tennessee. That makes Patterson still somewhat raw but with big-time skills in all facets of the game. He’ll be able to come along more slowly with Greg Jennings already in place as the #1 and may not produce much until 2014 or beyond. The biggest question mark here is not even related to him – how well will Christian Ponder (or Matt Cassel) throw to the newly-signed Jennings, let alone a rookie receiver who needs a little more development?
Fantasy Expectation: Long-term is bright but as a rookie has to win the #2 spot on a team that so far throws neither well nor often.
6. WR DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 214, 4.51/40 - Clemson) Houston Texans 1.27
While he was eclipsed by freshman phenom Sammy Watkins in 2011, Hopkins stepped up as a junior and became the lead receiver for the Tigers with 82 catches for 1,405 yards (school record) and his 18 touchdowns ranked #2 in the nation. He's scored in each of his last 12 games and set a Clemson record with 27 career receiving touchdowns. Hopkins is a complete receiver with nearly no weaknesses aside from a lack of top-end speed. He's a natural pass catcher with a good burst and can often outplay any defender. This should be the first time in franchise history that the Texans will have a #2 wideout capable of developing into a true #1 receiver in the future. This has been the missing element in the offense and can open up the passing game while helping Andre Johnson.
Fantasy Expectation: Gets the benefit of playing across from Andre Johnson but by the same token will never be more than the #2 there unless Johnson is off the field. Great long-term pick that could have fantasy value at least by the end of the season.
7. TE Tyler Eifert (6-6, 251, 4.65/40 - Notre Dame) Cincinnati Bengals 1.21
This three-year starter was the best offensive weapon for the Fighting Irish last year when he ended with 50 catches for 685 yards and four scores. As a junior, he was even better when he caught 63 passes for 803 yards to lead all NCAA tight ends. Eifert lined up as both a tight end and as a wide receiver and became the biggest concern for each defense. He has great hands and can catch in a crowd. His biggest weakness is his blocking which is not why the Bengals are drafting him anyway. He can line up anywhere and is able to beat a jam at the line. While no burner compared to a wideout, he’s fast for a tight end and can add a new element to the Bengals passing game that already used Jermaine Gresham for 64 catches and 737 yards last season. This is a move to give Andy Dalton a more diverse and talented set of receivers.
Fantasy Expectation: Rookie tight ends almost never matter but Eifert was brought on to be a receiver and he's more talented than Jermaine Gresham. 2014 looms brightly for sure but even this year could see him contribute enough to merit fantasy attention.
8. Robert Woods (6-1, 201, 4.42/40 - Southern California) Buffalo Bills 2.09
After being the PAC-10 Freshman of the year in 2010, Woods was a Biletnikoff finalist as a sophomore. He turned in an eye-popping 111 catches for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Trojans in 2011. Woods fell to only 76 catches for 846 yards and 11 touchdowns last year as the offense struggled and even Matt Barkley hurt his stock by remaining there. Woods is prototypical in size and speed and even served as their punt returner. He's been all-around good and even is noted as a blocker in addition to catching everything near him - even when contested by a defender. In the long-term he should develop into a valuable possession receiver and can grow along with the rest of the youngest set of receivers in the NFL.
Fantasy Expectation: He'll line up across from Stevie Johnson since he should have no real competition for the #2 role for the Bills. Eventual potential for being another Anquan Boldin but likely marginal in his first few months as a rookie.
9. QB Geno Smith (6-3, 218, 4.56/40 - West Virginia) New York Jets 2.07
Smith was destined to be a top ten pick and the first quarterback taken at least according to his agent and immediate family. But the Bills surprisingly grabbed the project EJ Manuel instead and left Smith as the annual "twiddle thumbs and smile" quarterback while waiting to hear his name called. Smith threw for over 4200 yards in each of the last two seasons and passed for 42 touchdowns last year with only six interceptions. To his detriment, he ended 2012 on a far lesser note than the red hot start he had with 24 touchdowns and no interceptions over the first five games. He has great tools in the right conditions but was downgraded for having his confidence lowered after last year. Going to the Jets seems wildly entertaining if nothing else. Smith has been prolific in many games and yet one of his weakness has been playing badly in poor weather. And now he'll be in New York. At first glance, he may be the only rookie quarterback who gets significant playing time this season.
Fantasy Expectation: The Jets still have David Garrard, Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, Matt Simms and Greg McElroy on their roster. But they are likely to part ways with both Tebow and Sanchez which leaves Smith as the early favorite to start in week one.
10. RB Giovani Bernard (5-9. 202, 4.5/40, North Carolina) Cincinnati Bengals 2.05
The Bengals made Bernard the first back drafted and the electric runner from North Carolina leaves school with two years of eligibility left. Had he elected to remain, he was expected to become a Heisman Trophy candidate for 2013. Playing in the spread offense last year saw him lead the ACC with 122 rushing yards per game. He missed all of 2010 with a torn ACL and lacks top end speed despite being a smaller player. The early expectation is that he will be a complementary runner to BenJarvus Green-Ellis who would remain the primary rusher and goal line back. That will limit Bernard’s upside at least this year but he’s obviously a terrific back who plays bigger than his size suggests, even when running inside.
Fantasy Expectation: Plays as the complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis that Bernard Scott failed to become.