The NFL draft is perhaps the most optimistic event of the year since all 32 NFL teams selected the very best players possible and so far have all the big expectations of them that you do in August when you assemble your fantasy team. It is a time of high expectations despite knowing that about half of all rookies are outright flops and many if not most of them will not be on an NFL roster come September. The majority of those draftees will not even see a playing field in their first season even if they do make the team.
In the world of fantasy football, rookies take on an even less appealing look since redraft leagues are just looking for players that will perform this year and hopefully better than most in their position. That's going to be hard to find since rookies will need to battle past veterans for playing time. Now granted - every year there are freshman players who exceed expectations and that show up on fantasy teams for a reason. We have been especially fortunate in the most recent couple of years.
This is a very early look at the top ten players who hold fantasy interest heading into training camp. All players - rookie or veteran and drafted or undrafted - are worth keeping track of in the summer because every depth chart will be in flux until the final cuts to a 53 man roster. There will be a few surprises and a couple of notable injuries that cause new opportunities. The hype of the NFL draft is now over and the reality of life in the NFL starts. Here's the top ten players before anyone signs their contract or puts on a helmet.
1. RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State (SDC - 1.12)
This one is pretty easy. LaDainian Tomlinson is gone and left a huge hole behind that Darren Sproles could not hope to ever fill. Instead, the Chargers bring this 218 pound, six foot all-around back as the replacement for LT. While Spiller went first because he carried the "freakish skills" tag this year, Mathews was the first and best all-around back taken. The only problem with Mathews is that he is almost certain to be over-valued in fantasy drafts but he has the best situation of any rookie runner.
2. RB C. J. Spiller, Clemson (BUF - 1.09)
Any running back taken in the top ten is an obvious and immediate point of interest. Spiller goes to Buffalo where he will mix in with over-achiever Fred Jackson and under-achiever Marshawn Lynch (himself a 1.12 pick). Spiller undeniable skills and speed and has the homerun ability not unlike the slightly faster Chris Johnson of the Titans. What is almost certain here is a committee system that will incorporate Spiller without asking him to become a fulltime back. The Bills offensive line woes also makes Spiller a bit less shiny and new for being the first tailback drafted this season. Training camp may witness him grabbing a bigger share of the work but regardless, his situation and risk make him one of the lesser desired rookie backs who were drafted in the top ten.
3. RB Jahvid Best, California (DET - 1.30)
The ex-Cal Bear lands in a decent situation. Kevin Smith is recovering from ACL surgery and is no lock to be ready at the start of the season. After him, the Lions only had Maurice Morris so the opportunity to shine does exists for Best. The Lions traded up to snatch him at the end of the first round and coveted him. Had Best not missed much of 2009 with a scary concussion, he likely would have been a top ten pick as he is an electric runner not unlike Spiller. Best also has experience as a receiver and is another "homerun hitter". Best could be a surprise since the concussion is long over and the Lions need help in the running game. He's the best bet for an undervalued running back but let him rip off a few long runs in a preseason game and that may go out the window. Dynamic runner that can help the Lions.
4. WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech (DEN - 1.22)
The Broncos elected to take Thomas over Dez Bryant in some part because Bryant had personal issues while Thomas is a high character guy. The 6'3", 224 pound wideout has the look of becoming a primary receiver in the NFL and the Broncos just dumped malcontent Brandon Marshall. Obviously Eddie Royal will figure in but Thomas could easily be the most productive rookie wideout this year. He has a very nice situation though he'll be potentially held back by a less than stellar quarterback situation for this year at least. Assumedly the Broncos were thinking of the Tim Tebow - Demaryius Thomas connection having made them both first round picks but that will take some time to develop.
5. WR Arrelious Benn, Illinois (TBB - 2.07)
While Benn was only the fourth wideout taken this year, he has some interesting opportunity playing for the Buccaneers. Figure that the team had no wideouts with more than 39 catches or 600 yards and there's tons of room for someone - anyone really - to step up and help one of the NFL's worst passing attacks last year. Hidden in the numbers was Josh Freeman stepping in late season and giving optimism that this year will be different. Benn is a very good, all-around wideout with plenty of size to play an over-the-middle role. It would be no shock if he replicated the success of Michael Clayton's rookie season. It would be surprising if he then crashed and burned liked Clayton did.
6. RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford (MIN - 2.10)
The Great White Hope (Part XXXVII) lands in Minnesota where there is zero chance he will become a primary back (barring injury to Adrian Peterson of course). But the 6', 231 pound runner is considered the prototypical running back in a fullbacks body. He heads to one of the best rushing teams in the league. Chester Taylor is gone after turning in 727 total yards and two touchdowns last year. Gerhart could become a goal line option as well. Besides, it has been exactly 25 years since John Riggins played.
7. WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State (DAL - 1.24)
The Cowboys (AKA Jerry Jones) have long regretted passing on Randy Moss so Bryant was a must have since he brings in nearly the same mixture of talent, size and immaturity as Moss had (though definitely not as fast). Many scouts had him as the most talented wideout in the draft and had he not lied to the NCAA and been suspended most of last year, Bryant would have been a top ten selection if not top five. It is probably not a positive that he has also inherited Michael Irvin's old jersey number. The Cowboys are loading up for 2010 in the hopes of being the only team to ever play in a Superbowl in a home stadium. Bryant could help that out but even in the best case will spend his rookie season behind Miles Austin, Jason Witten and probably Roy Williams. He's more a future pick than the present but could show up if he takes over the slot.
8. QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (STL - 1.01)
The big plus here is that Bradford will all but guaranteed be the starter in week one if only because the Rams have no other real options and Bradford will command such a price tag that he might as well play. But he has a shaky offensive line at best and questionable receivers at the least. There's always the chance he could wildly exceed expectations given the Rams will yet again need to throw in every game. But short of Peyton Manning, rookie quarterbacks almost never perform to the level of being a fantasy starter.
9. RB Ben Tate, Auburn (HOU - 2.26)
The three things going for Tate is that at 5'11" and 220 pounds he has the size to be an every down back, the Texans moved up to grab him in the second round and Steve Slaton has been injury prone and is returning from surgery to a nerve in his spine. Slaton was already a disappointment last season and Tate at least has the opportunity to gain playing time. Well worth a watch in the preseason and a much needed handcuff for the Slaton owners.
10. RB Montario Hardesty, Tennessee (CLE - 2.27)
If nothing else, this was the draft pick that made every Jerome Harrison owner cringe. Recall that the final three games of the 2009 season had the Browns showcasing Harrison with over 32 rushes in each of those games. Harrison cruised for 286, 148 and 137 rushing yards in those final weeks and scored five times. Jamal Lewis has retired and James Davis never really got his chance before injury last year. Hardesty should get some of the between-the-tackles work and be an option at the goal line as well.
There are other rookies of note of course and in the end we may see an undrafted player out play them all. Optimism will never be higher than it is right now and in so many cases, rookies are going to be taken far too early in fantasy drafts this year. But... a few won't and those will be difference makers for your team.