Little is as exciting as a rookie for the best of all reasons – you just never know. Until the pads go on and the whistle blows, we cannot be sure if a player is the next Hall of Famer or just another expensive bust. Last year proved as exciting as any for the freshman class and yet proved to be contrary to conventional wisdom. It was not a season of just rookie running backs making the biggest marks.
Instead we were treated to Sam Bradford beating Peyton Manning to become the most productive rookie quarterback in NFL history. Six other first-year quarterbacks also started at least one game. Wideout Dez Bryant was red hot in Dallas until his injury and 4.03 pick Mike Williams of Tampa Bay ended with an eye-popping 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski gained 546 yards and scored ten times to tie for #1 among all NFL tight ends.
2010 did not witness the traditional one or two rookie running backs bursting on the scene as a top rusher though Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best both turned in several impressive games. There is one certainty about 2011 that we can hang our fantasy hats on – we won’t really know until we know.
The first season of head coach Chan Gailey did not produce rookie magic when they selected the first running back last year – 1.09 pick C.J. Spiller who was often injured and never effective. But there is no chance that the Bills will dip back into the well for another back and Ryan Fitzpatrick has a lock on the quarterback spot. The wideouts were led by Steve Johnson who had a break-out season of 1073 yards and ten touchdowns and the Bills threw 20 scores to the position in 2010. The Bills draft has to consider defense primarily since the offense is entering a promising year two of the rebuild.
There’s a good chance that the Dolphins will select at least one or more draft picks with fantasy value. Chad Henne never made good on the promise of 2009 and could be replaced. Ronnie Brown will leave in free agency and leave a void behind that seems almost certain to be filled from the draft. Ricky Williams will hang around for one more year before retiring so tailback is one of the more interesting jobs in Miami for 2011. Brandon Marshall was added last year at a much higher cost than his play warranted but the receivers are at least good enough for now.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The Pats are always loathe to burn high picks on anything besides defense though using the rare 2.10 on tight end Rob Gronkowski last year certainly worked out well. The running backs were refreshed in 2010 by promoting BenJarvus Green-Ellis and picking up Danny Woodhead from the Jets but both were originally undrafted players anyway. Randy Moss was sent packing during the season but picking up Deion Branch for his second tour means no need to farm the college ranks for anything other than more defensive players.
NEW YORK JETS
Mark Sanchez delivered the goods in 2010 though a bit inconsistently. Beyond him much of the passing offense could be in transition. Shonn Greene has earned his place as a starter and LaDainian Tomlinson still has one more year on his contract. But Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Brad Smith are all free agents who may leave for greener pastures. Only Jerricho Cotchery enters 2011 under contract and he’s been the least effective starter. This team is a definite watch to see if they take an early plunge on a wideout in the draft or seek to fill spots in other ways.
Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco is in place, and unless the Ravens choose to deal Willis McGahee or let potential free agent Le’Ron McClain walk in the offseason there’s depth behind Ray Rice in the backfield. Last April Baltimore addressed the future after 10-year veteran tight end Todd Heap with third- and fourth-round picks Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta; expect them to do something similar in 2011 at the wide receiver position. While Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason were still productive, all 157 receptions and 17 touchdowns by Baltimore wideouts went to players age 30 or older.
Carson Palmer showed glimpses of his old form in 2010, enough that the position isn’t an immediate need—though the Bengals could use a mid-round pick on a quarterback to be groomed behind him. Terrell Owens won’t be back, and even though Cincinnati picked up Chad Ochocinco’s option he’s no lock to return either; strong late-season showings by Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell suggest the Bengals will be just fine without the diva receivers. Running back Cedric Benson is a free agent, so the Bengals may opt to go a different direction with an early pick to replace Benson or a later option to compete with Bernard Scott for his job.
New coach, same questions: do the Browns have their quarterback of the future in Colt McCoy, and have they armed him with enough weapons to succeed? Peyton Hillis had a breakout season but wore down towards the end; the return of a healthy Montario Hardesty should give Cleveland enough depth at the position that it’s not a priority. In 2009 the Browns spent a pair of second-round picks on wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, yet they still lack playmakers at the position. Cleveland’s tight ends are all over 30 or free agents, so a quality security blanket for McCoy could be in the offing as well.
There’s little if any immediate work for the Steelers to do with their primary offensive players; any selections they do make on that side of the ball would be to address their offensive line or depth behind Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, and Mike Wallace. Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El are both on the wrong side of 30, so if the Steelers sneak in a skill position pick on draft day it’s likely to be earmarked for the receiver position.
With Andre Johnson locked up long-term and Arian Foster coming off a breakout season, all the pieces seem to be in place; expect the 2011 draft to be about complimentary pieces. Jacoby Jones is a potential free agent, so targets opposite AJ could be Houston’s primary skill-position priority. Owen Daniels could also test free agency, but backup Joel Dreessen played well in his absence and could hold down the fort if necessary. The Texans could use some roster insurance behind Foster and Matt Schaub, but offensive depth will take a back seat to defensive upgrades on draft day.
Injuries tested Indy’s depth this season, and a ninth straight postseason appearance suggests the Colts passed. The Colts could mine for more receiver help if medical reports on Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, and Dallas Clark suggest they won’t be ready for the start of the 2011 season, but Indy has had enough late-round (Pierre Garçon) and undrafted free agent (Blair White) success to go that route instead. If Joseph Addai leaves via free agency, the Colts may turn to the draft to find a complement to 2009 first-rounder Donald Brown, who’s had limited flashes of NFL success.
Running back shouldn’t be a question mark assuming Maurice Jones-Drew’s knee surgery goes well; Rashad Jennings was a capable late-season fill in. Following a breakout season the Jaguars are expected to bring back tight end Marcedes Lewis. Elsewhere, however, questions abound. The already wafer-thin receiving corps could lose Mike Sims-Walker and Jason Hill to free agency, so expect a wideout to be at or near the top of Jacksonville’s priority list. Quarterback David Garrard is on the wrong side of 30, and his heir isn’t on the roster; this could be the draft to find an option to groom.
With Vince Young on his way out of town, Tennessee’s quarterback of the future isn’t on the current roster—and stopgap Kerry Collins is a potential free agent, so the quarterback of the present might not be there, either. That will be the Titans’ top priority; queued up directly behind a quarterback is someone for him to throw to. Kenny Britt is a stud and Jared Cook should step in for potential free agent Bo Scaife at tight end, but the Randy Moss experiment didn’t work so the new quarterback will need targets and Britt will need some help. At least the Titans still have Chris Johnson and capable backup Javon Ringer.
A coaching switch always throws change into an offense and the Broncos will be shifting from their pass-heavy attack of 2010. Kyle Orton stands to be traded in the offseason and the disposition of Tim Tebow will depend on the new coaches. But short of making a change at quarterback, the rest of the offense is set with Knowshon Moreno mostly under-used among a unit of running backs that ranked bottom five in carries (323), rush yards (1175) and rushing touchdowns (7). All wide receivers are under contract and are bound to be used less this year. Quarterback remains the only possible change.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The offense remains in good shape with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. No team had more carries (500) from their running backs or more rushing yards (2,416). Matt Cassel cemented his place as the starter and Dwayne Bowe comes off his breakout season with 1,162 yards and 15 touchdowns. There is a need for a better #2 wideout on this team since Chris Chambers faltered but Dexter McCluster stands to inherit more work than a rookie would. This offense may seek a new wide receiver but his role would not be significant in any case.
The new regime in Raiderland will focus on generating more offense and that helps all the fantasy prospects of the Oakland players. But Michael Bush is a free agent and needs to be replaced considering the fragility of Darren McFadden. Bringing in Jason Campbell in 2010 did nothing to generate a passing game and the wide receivers combined for the least number of catches (112) in the league. The team needs a franchise quarterback and a possession receiver but previous attempts to secure both in the draft have failed miserably. The most interesting draftee would be a running back to pair with McFadden.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Not much room in this offense for a new kid since Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson will dominate the passing game. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are free agents who may not be retained. Patrick Crayton and Seyi Ajirotutu would just step up again if needed while former first rounder Craig Davis has finally worn out his welcome. Ryan Mathews missed four games from his rookie season in 2010 but ended on a high note and will shoulder more of the load this year. Darren Sproles was a franchise player in 2010 and won’t be back. His replacement would be the only draftee that might have fantasy value this year.
All the pieces were in place for a playoff run last year and while that never materialized, the same unit returns for 2011. Dez Bryant was a success and means that Roy Williams will be a cap casualty along with Marion Barber. Miles Austin re-signed last year and was productive until Tony Romo left for the season. Jason Witten is signed through 2011 so the only splash the Cowboys will make in the NFL draft for fantasy interest will be running back and receiver depth. With such desperate needs in the secondary, all else will take a backseat in this draft.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants are set with Eli Manning and the wide receivers that not only welcome back a healthy Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith but also Plaxico Burress if the team opts to retain his rights when he is released from prison in June. But Kevin Boss needs to be re-signed and more importantly, Ahmad Bradshaw is a free agent. Should Bradshaw leave, the Giants would raid the NFL draft for depth and perhaps a replacement back to be the primary in New York since they no longer want to rely on Brandon Jacobs. Last year the Giants produced top five stats in carries (443), rush yards (2,131) and rush touchdowns (17). A new running back in the mix would immediately be fantasy relevant.
The Eagles are already in great shape going into 2011 and just need to choose between either free agent Michael Vick or Kevin Kolb since both want to be starters. The rest of the team is in great shape with LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin already fantasy stars. Other than positional depth, the draft won’t need to address any fantasy areas.
Outside of tight end, every skill position on the Skins could be different in 2011. HC Mike Shanahan is noncommittal towards either Rex Grossman or Donovan McNabb at quarterback. There is no guarantee any running backs will return from last year when Shanahan tried to churn through no-names and cast-offs with marginal results. The only productive wideout was Santana Moss who becomes a free agent. There are so many needs here that the draft could not fill them all, but will definitely be used to fill as many as they can. The first three rounds should all be fantasy relevant picks.
The skill positions are relatively set in Chicago, though the entire offense would benefit from the Bears spending a bucketload of picks on their offensive line. Chester Taylor isn’t getting any younger so Chicago might be looking for a complement to Matt Forte, but that hardly seems a priority. The Bears absolutely fell apart when Jay Cutler went down, and with both Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie ticketed for free agency this would be an opportunity for Mike Martz to get a quarterback he can groom to back up Cutler.
The Lions have used first-round picks over the past four years to put in place their franchise quarterback (Matthew Stafford), go-to receiver (Calvin Johnson), and playmaking running back (Jahvid Best); now it’s time to fill in the gaps around them. Johnson has already made noise about walking at the end of his contract if the Lions don’t start winning; Detroit could prepare for that possibility as well as give Megatron some help by adding a complementary receiver opposite him. The current plan is to let Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris compete for the right to share the workload with Best, but neither is a sure thing.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers are two-deep at quarterback, unless they turn Aaron Rodgers’ backup Matt Flynn into draft picks via trade this offseason. They also have James Jones and Jordy Nelson in line to replace Donald Driver—though it’s worth noting that Jones is a potential free agent—and will get Jermichael Finley back from injury heading into 2011. With both Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn slated for free agency, Green Bay has backfield questions: Will Ryan Grant return, and can he stay healthy? Is James Starks as good as his playoff performance suggests? If everyone is back, does a four-headed RBBC have any fantasy value?
Adrian Peterson is set at running back, but questions abound just about everywhere else. Did the Vikings see enough from Joe Webb to consider him their quarterback of the future, or will they draft one and sign or trade for a short-term fix? Even if potential free agent Sidney Rice stays, the receiving corps behind he and Percy Harvin is thin enough to warrant draft-day attention. Both Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser are north of 30 years old, and since young quarterbacks tend need the security a good pass-catching tight end provides that could be a position of need for the Vikings this April as well.
The Falcons have their own set of triplets in Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White; any skill position picks will be focused on depth and complementary players—with the exception of tight end. Tony Gonzalez is wrapping up his 14th NFL season, so Atlanta will want to roster his successor sooner rather than later—maybe with an early-round pick. Both of Turner’s backups, Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood, can be free agents and if both walk Atlanta will need running back insurance. White could also use help on the other side, something Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas haven’t been great in providing.
Opening day starter Matt Moore ended the year on IR and is a free agent; second-round pick Jimmy Clausen was the lowest-rated passer in the league. Will a new coach opt to start over again with a quarterback of his own choosing? Whoever winds up under center for Carolina will need targets; 10-year veteran Steve Smith hasn’t played a full 16-game slate since 2005, and the three wideouts Carolina picked up in the 2010 draft combined for just 75 catches and four TDs. Even if DeAngelo Williams leaves via free agency, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson proved capable of handling the ground game workload.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Drew Brees has a plethora of receivers at his disposal—16 different Saints caught a pass this season—so even if potential free agent Lance Moore looks for greener pastures elsewhere it’s unlikely New Orleans needs to add to this bounty. Their backfield, on the other hand, could require significant attention. Pierre Thomas, Ladell Betts, and Heath Evans are all free agents and Reggie Bush is due $11 million in the final year of his contract. They could roll with Chris Ivory again, but even if they do they’re likely to to add running back depth on draft day.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs have perhaps the best young set of triplets in the NFL in Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, and Mike Williams. Moreover, they have young receiver depth in Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter, and Dezmon Briscoe, so Freeman won’t be lacking for targets. However, Tampa Bay hasn’t been comfortable giving Blount much third-down or goal-line work, so with Carnell Williams slated for free agency they may be looking for a complementary back. And while Kellen Winslow is only 27 his knees just qualified for AARP benefits; a young pass-catching tight end is about the only weapon this offense is lacking.
The wheels fell off in 2010 when the Cards cycled through four different quarterbacks who proved they were not Kurt Warner and that was after giving up on Matt Leinart in August. The receivers remain good enough with Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and the promising Andre Roberts. The rushing game never had a chance in 2010 with no real passing threat. Beanie Wells hitched a ride on the Bust bandwagon but the Cards have not given up on him and will seek other positions in the draft. The Cardinals are on the hunt for a franchise quarterback and the earlier they select him the higher the expectations.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
New head coach Jim Harbaugh is installing a west coast offense and Frank Gore will supply the power run game and Anthony Dixon provides enough as a backup. But the offense needs a highly accurate franchise quarterback that is the hallmark of Harbaugh offenses. Both Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan remain the starters who have not met expectations but who should blossom in the new offense if a suitable quarterback can be acquired. Even if a veteran quarterback is brought in, the 49ers will look for a young gun to groom because a Harbaugh offense is all about who is under center.
The first year of Pete Carroll reached the playoffs but in 2011 he won’t stand pat on the roster. Matt Hasselbeck is a 36-year-old free agent and another veteran is likely to be brought in to challenge Charlie Whitehurst in camp. The draft should serve up a quarterback as well. Marshawn Lynch played well enough late in the season and into the playoffs to secure a spot but the Seahawks will keep the committee and look to add someone new since Justin Forsett has run his course in the new offense. Between Mike Williams and the youngsters already on the roster the receivers are good enough for this season. Seattle should draft a quarterback and even a running back but will likely focus on the defense in the early rounds of the draft.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Sam Bradford has made a case for rookie quarterbacks after his stellar freshman year but the Rams still need plenty of support to take advantage of him. The 27-year old Steven Jackson needs a speedy change of back to help keep him fresh and the draft will be a heavy consideration. Mark Clayton will be re-signed as long as his torn patellar tendon heals but this unit needs more help. Bradford made a sub-average wideout unit look serviceable and the Rams will take a step forward with both veteran and rookie receiver additions.