In many cases, the fantasy impact of a team’s 2009 draft is blatantly obvious. Detroit kicked off the draft with their quarterback of the future, then handed him a tight end later in Round One. The Eagles landed a potential go-to receiver, an heir to Brian Westbrook, and a talented tight end who, if healthy, could thrive in their West Coast offense. And the Jets used trades to land a new quarterback and a running back who should take the torch from Thomas Jones sooner rather than later.
Other teams filled a glaring need or two with an early selection. The Bears hope they found a couple targets for Jay Cutler; the Browns did the same for Brady Quinn. Indy found a back to pair with Joseph Addai and a wideout to plug into the slot with Anthony Gonzalez moving into Marvin Harrison’s spot. The Titans (first-round wideout Kenny Britt, third-round tight end Jared Cook), Giants (wideouts Hakeem Nicks in Round One and Ramses Barden in Round Three, plus third-round tight end Travis Bekum and third-down back Andre Brown in Round Four), and Dolphins (Wildcat quarterback Pat White and a couple bigger receivers to augment Ted Ginn) all addressed similar roster deficiencies as well—hardly flying under the radar while doing so.
And then there are a few teams who, at first glance, didn’t do much to improve the fantasy potential of their squad. But a closer look reveals some intriguing developments to keep in mind when constructing those drauction-day wish lists.
It’s tough to be sneaky picking as high as the Jaguars did, but some fantasy folks might gloss over just how important Jacksonville’s selection of tackles Eugene Monroe (eighth overall) and Eben Britton (seventh pick of Round 2) will be. And not just to Maurice Jones-Drew, though upgrading the line at both ends does nothing to damage MoJo’s top-five fantasy pick aspirations; David Garrard, whose 42 sacks last season was more than the previous two years combined, should have more time to throw as well.
Garrard also added a boatload of targets on draft day: Mike Thomas and Jarett Dillard were both extremely productive in college and should factor into the mix as third and fourth receivers working primarily out of the slots; tight end Zach Miller is a former quarterback the Jags can develop at a position where they’ve received virtually nothing in the history of their franchise; and burner Tiquan Underwood may find a spot as the deep threat in a receiver rotation that was wafer-thin prior to draft day.
Finally, the Jags may have stumbled into a real find in seventh-rounder Rashad Jennings. A small-school stud who actually started his career at Pitt before transferring to be closer to home (and an ailing father), Jennings is a 231-pound between-the-tackles hoss who could save some wear and tear on MoJo—and steal a few goal line looks in the process.
It would be easy to play the “improved defense” card here, as Aaron Maybin upgrades the pass rush and Jairus Byrd will factor into the secondary mix from the start. And there’s also the “better offensive line” angle; though the Bills traded away Jason Peters they used the pick to add versatile Eric Wood, then added another multi-positional lineman one round later in Andy Levitre.
But here’s the guy I really like in Buffalo’s draft class: tight end Shawn Nelson. Some mocks had him going late in the first round, but he slipped all the way to the fourth before the Bills snagged him to address a glaring need. His blocking needs improvement, but if Buffalo OC Turk Schoenert uses the position the way his mentor Sam Wyche did it will be Nelson filling the Rodney Holman role. Before your time? Holman was a three-time Pro Bowler who topped 500 yards four times and scored seven or more touchdowns twice. Nelson has the athletic ability to cause matchup problems, especially if he’s coming out of the slot against defenses focused on Terrell Owens and Lee Evans on the outside.
Saint Louis Rams
There’s no question both Steven Jackson and Marc Bulger are thrilled with the addition of tackle Jason Smith with the second overall selection. But that’s not where the Rams’ draft stopped. Their next three picks—particularly linebacker James Laurinaitis—will provide an immediate lift to the defense, which should prevent defenses from teeing off on Bulger and the Rams from abandoning Jackson and the running game.
The Rams’ final three picks all offer future potential for a team that’s clearly in rebuilding mode. Brooks Foster has little in front of him on the receiver depth chart and has the size and physicality to complement speedy Donnie Avery on the opposite side. Keith Null has the size and arm pro teams look for in a quarterback and right now appears to be the Rams’ developmental guy at the position. And seventh-rounder Chris Ogbonnaya steps into immediate contention for the role of handcuff to Jackson—a pretty important job, considering Jackson has missed four games each of the past two seasons.
With the Bengals all over “Hard Knocks” this August, it may be tough for their subtle improvements to stay under the radar. That said, fantasy folks are likely more concerned about the myriad other concerns Cincy faces this offseason: the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the health of Carson Palmer, the mental stability of Chad Ochocinco, the fact that they’re apparently relying on Cedric Benson as their feature back.
But the Bengals used the draft to offset those questions with an influx of help on draft day. For starters, first-round pick Andre Smith will help keep Palmer upright while paving the way for Benson and the ground game; fourth-round selection Jonathan Luigs could also step into the starting line and contribute as well. And if Benson can’t get it done in short-yardage (read: goal line) situations, seventh-rounder Fui Vakapuna is a 244-pound bowling ball who might be a deep sleeper in touchdown-only leagues. The tight end-starved Bengals also stole Chase Coffman at the end of the third round; it’s not difficult to envision him helping to pick up the passing game slack left by Houshmandzadeh’s departure.
Additionally, don’t overlook how an improved defense that added run stuffer Rey Maualuga, pass-rusher Michael Johnson, and punter Kevin Huber could help with field position, not to mention preventing the Bengals from being forced into continuously playing catch-up.
San Diego Chargers
By now you’ve certainly noticed a theme connecting many of the sneaky fantasy draft candidates: upgrades to the offensive line may not catch the attention of the casual fan but oftentimes translate to improved numbers from that team’s “skill position” players. So the Chargers’ addition of a pair of powerful interior linemen, third-rounder Louis Vasquez and fourth-rounder Tyronne Greene, should be viewed as a boon for San Diego’s ground game.
Speaking of that ground game, with LaDainian Tomlinson on the downslope of his Hall of Fame career and Darren Sproles (take your pick) short-timing it as a franchised player or too small to stand up to a full feature-back workload, the selection of Gartrell Johnson in the fourth round certainly raises eyebrows. Johnson played both fullback and halfback in college and could provide the thunder to Sproles’ lightning if the Bolts go with a backfield by committee in the post-LT era. And given his short-yardage ability, Johnson might even be asked to assume that duty immediately in order to preserve what’s left in Tomlinson’s tank.
Also, the Chargers weren’t just making a goodwill gesture in the seventh round when they drafted Demetrius Byrd, the LSU wideout who was involved in a car accident prior to the draft. If he comes all the way back from his injuries Byrd is a mid-round talent the Bolts purchased for pennies on the dollar.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay’s draft echoes another common thread among sneaky fantasy draft clubs: an upgraded defense. B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews will help the Packers flesh out their new 3-4 scheme; the plan, obviously, would be to get the defense off the field more quickly so Aaron Rodgers and the offense can put points on the board.
The Pack also addressed their aging tackles with a pair of mid-round finds. T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith may not start immediately, but they do fit the strong, athletic mold of previous Packer linemen. Meredith in particular had been considered a possible first-round pick at one point, and if properly motivated he could be the solution at either right or left tackle.
Finally, no self-respecting West Coast offense is complete without a productive fullback. Green Bay drafted Quinn Johnson in the fifth round because of his lead blocking acumen but has been more than pleasantly surprised with his ability with the ball in his hands as well. One way or another he should help out the Packer running game this fall, be it as a road grader in front of Ryan Grant or as a goal-line threat himself.
The defending Super Bowl champs didn’t have many issues to address, but there’s still some sneaky fantasy help to be found in the 2009 draft class. Third-rounder Kraig Urbik and seventh-rounder A.Q. Shipley may not immediately fill needs along the offensive line, but both could develop into key cogs in a unit that must do a better job of protecting Ben Roethlisberger.
More obvious fantasy help could come from third-round pick Mike Wallace, who has the speed to replace the departed Nate Washington as Big Ben’s deep threat—which, of course, would lead to more room for Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall to run. And speaking of the ground game, 241-pound bruiser Frank Summers has already drawn comparisons to Jerome Bettis and could work his way into the goal-line mix in an offense that has become too reliant on Roethlisberger and the passing game in that area since the Bus retired.