Linemen and defensive backs were the story of Day One of the NFL’s new three-day, prime-time format. Six offensive linemen and eight defensive linemen were among the 32 selections, along with seven defensive backs and three linebackers. That left just eight first-round draft slots for “skill” position players, making the first-day fantasy pickings relatively slim.
But “slim” doesn’t mean “non-existent”; here’s a look at the fantasy players drafted in the first round and an early breakdown of what might be expected from them in both redraft and dynasty leagues.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams (1.1)
The Rams are actually well-equipped to set their franchise quarterback up for success, with a decent offensive line and a solid running game. Using some later picks on receiver help—say, Friday’s first selection on Golden Tate or Arrelious Benn—would help as well. That said, fantasy owners know the drill on rookie quarterbacks by now. Even when a more NFL-ready quarterback walks into a better situation with a stronger supporting cast—think Matt Ryan in Atlanta—the results at best barely register on the fantasy radar. Adding a receiver on Day Two would upgrade Bradford’s dynasty prospects, and there’s no denying his upside, but right now Bradford is virtually ignorable in redraft leagues and a minimum two- or three-year investment in dynasty formats.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills (1.9)
Seattle passed on Spiller with the sixth pick, perhaps hoping he’d still be on the board when they selected again at 14; instead, the Bills jumped on a back with Chris Johnson-type speed. Sadly, the comparisons—at least initially—should end there; Johnson played on a run-first team with a solid offensive line, while Spiller will ply his trade behind a young, inexperienced, and underdeveloped group of blockers. The expectation is that Marshawn Lynch will be sent packing, leaving Spiller to share the workload with Fred Jackson—and the Bills didn’t spend a top-10 pick to give C.J. the junior portion of the touches. But while Spiller has electric speed and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, he’ll have to use most of his moves just to get back to the line of scrimmage. There’s upside, to be sure, but Spiller should be at best a third or fourth fantasy back in redraft leagues. Long-range, Spiller projects to be the cornerstone of the Buffalo offense; assuming they can put some sort of line in front of him, he could be looking at production reminiscent of the great Barry Sanders: a whole lot of YouTube-worthy two-yard gains, with a smattering of 80-yard touchdown runs. That’s certainly not a bad top end.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers (1.12)
The predraft expectation, at least here, was that Mathews would be the back to end up in the most favorable fantasy situation; it took the Chargers climbing 16 spots in the first round to make it happen, but with Spiller already off the board and at minimum the Texans at #20 looking for a back San Diego made the move. The Bolts have already become Philip Rivers’ team, so Mathews won’t be walking into LaDainian Tomlinson’s numbers. However, Darren Sproles is best in small doses so the rookie is likely looking at 15-plus touches per game to start his career. In a productive offense like San Diego’s, with Sproles not exactly a goal-line option and Mathews the most complete back in this class, that should position him solidly as a strong third or maybe even No. 2 fantasy back in redraft leagues. In dynasty leagues, having seen how the Chargers use talented backs, Mathews is quite simply the no-brainer first overall pick in your dynasty rookie draft.
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals (1.21)
A tight end going in the first round means it’s time to dust off the annual “Why You Avoid Rookie Tight Ends” numbers. Dating back to the 2000 draft, a total of 14 tight ends have been selected in the first round. Average rookie year numbers for this group: 323 yards, two TDs. Only once in the past decade has a rookie tight end scored more than three touchdowns in his first NFL season (Heath Miller, six in 2005) and only twice has a rookie tight end topped 500 yards (Jeremy Shockey, 894 in 2002; Dustin Keller, 535 in 2008). So while Gresham may enter the league with both talent and opportunity, he’s fighting an uphill battle against history. At minimum it will take the Bengals a while to figure out where the tight end is located; Cincy TEs have ranked 30, 30, 31, 27, 28, and 25 at the position in fantasy scoring over the past six seasons. He’s nothing more than an “all the other TEs are gone and I waited until the last round to get mine” flier in redraft leagues; dynasty leaguers can take a longer look at his upside, but rosters would have to be pretty big to warrant carrying over a tight end who doesn’t project to be a fantasy contributor of the Antonio Gates-Dallas Clark ilk.
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos (1.22)
It wasn’t exactly a banner draft year for wideouts, though at least this year saw two go off the board in the first round. After kicking Brandon Marshall to the curb, the Broncos stopped flipping first-round picks long enough to draft his replacement in Thomas, who has been quiet during the predraft run-up due to a broken foot that prevented him from working out for teams. Thomas also has questions about his NFL readiness after playing in a triple-option offense that didn’t ask him to run many NFL routes. However, as evidenced by their later pick of Tim Tebow the Broncos aren’t looking to field a conventional NFL offense; in fact, many of the loose routes Thomas ran at Georgia Tech are similar to what McDaniels’ Patriots offense asked Randy Moss to do. Let’s not compare Thomas to Moss, but physically at least Thomas has shades of Calvin Johnson. He’ll need time to get healthy and adapt to the pro game, but rookie receivers are only slightly more dependable for fantasy production than rookie quarterbacks so in redraft leagues Thomas is on the fringe of draftability. Dynasty leaguers, however, have to like the opportunity McDaniels is providing for his quarterback and top target to develop together; if you’re a Tebow fan and think he can translate his success to the NFL, then you can go ahead and be giddy about Thomas’ dynasty league prospects as his go-to guy.
Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys (1.24)
Jerry Jones still hasn’t forgiven himself for passing on Randy Moss lo those many years ago, so here’s his stab at redemption. Bryant enters the league with plenty of physical talent but just as many questions about his attitude and commitment—echoes of the talk that surrounded Moss when the Vikings plucked him out of Marshall in 1998. Bryant doesn’t have Moss’ freakish speed, but if the Cowboys can keep him focused he’ll be a tantalizing option for Tony Romo opposite Miles Austin. Initially he may find himself battling Roy Williams for playing time as well as Austin and Jason Witten for Romo’s attention, so Bryant is likely no better than a WR4 heading into the season. But Jones doesn’t like to look foolish (cosmetic surgery aside), and Bryant will be given every opportunity to succeed—if not immediately, then in the very near future. If you’re seeing Bryant as the next Moss, rising above the question marks to put up rock star numbers, he’s a high-ranking dynasty pick. If you think Bryant is just the next Mike Williams or Hart Lee Dykes... well, then you’ve probably already stopped reading.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos (1.25)
Landing in Denver is an ideal situation for Tebow; Josh McDaniels is one of the few NFL coaches with a successful track record of running a spread-type offense in the pros. And with his job and legacy hinging on the Tebow-to-Thomas combo coming out of this draft, McDaniels will do everything in his power to make it work. He turned career backup Matt Cassel into a multi-millionaire, so expecting something similar from his work with the athletically gifted Tebow is hardly far-fetched. That said, unless Denver opts to use him as a goal-line fullback this year Tebow is a flat-out wasted pick in redraft leagues. He’ll need at least two years to get his game NFL-ready, and as evidenced by the scouts’ split decision on him it’s hardly a given he’ll get there; the upside is something along the lines of what Vince Young is producing in Tennessee, which has some fantasy value so long as the rushing touchdowns and yardage don’t go away as he leaves the college game behind. But much like the Broncos, if you’re feeling Tebow you can land your future franchise quarterback at a discount now; you just have to exercise a great deal of patience.
Jahvid Best, RB, Lions (1.30)
With Jimmy Clausen staring them in the face at #30, the Vikings blinked and traded down and out of the first round. That left the Lions to add a little sizzle to their offense in the form of Best, who has drawn comparisons to one of Motown’s favorite sons, Hall of Famer Barry Sanders. You have to assume Best has jumped through all the necessary medical hoops with regards to his neck and concussion issues, and with Kevin Smith still working his way back from a serious knee injury there’s an immediate opportunity for Best. Worst-case he’ll be sharing touches with Smith and handling third-down duties on a team that will likely have to throw to stay in games; best case, of course, he’ll be performing so well by the time Smith is healthy that the Lions won’t bother turning their backfield into a committee. Given that the Lions’ running backs ranked near the bottom of the league in fantasy productivity last year, don’t set those initial hopes too high; Detroit still has plenty of questions along their offensive line, and Smith still lurks to steal carries. But Best isn’t a bad option as a third or fourth back in larger PPR redraft leagues. His dynasty future is somewhat brighter, with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson looking to provide Detroit with at least the semblance of an offense for the foreseeable future. Some offensive line help on Day Two would be nice, but Best’s prospects are at least as bright as you could expect for a member of the Lions.