The NFL Draft is more than three months away, and your fantasy drauction day even further out. But now that the underclassmen have made known their intentions to either turn pro or return to school, it’s time to get to know some of the rookies you’ll want to be aware of next fall—maybe sooner, if you’re in a dynasty league or hold a separate rookies-only draft.
With that in mind, here’s a quick get-acquainted session with the underclassmen who opted out of their college days, focusing on the “skill” position players fantasy folks tend to focus on.
If this draft was to be a seniors-only affair, there may not have been a quarterback selected on Day One. However, all four quarterbacks who are leaving school early have a chance to hear their name called on Saturday.
The cream of the crop is Matt Stafford of Georgia. He has everything the pro scouts look for physically—size (6-3, 236) and a cannon arm—plus he has the leadership/winner’s mentality intangibles that oftentimes separate the Ryan Leafs from the Peyton Mannings. Stafford isn’t quite as polished as, say, Matt Ryan was coming out of school; then again, we said the same thing about Joe Flacco last year. Stafford will go in the first round, probably within the first three picks.
With Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and Tim Tebow all opting to stay in school, Mark Sanchez decided to leave USC for the NFL despite just one season as the Trojans’ full-time starter. Sanchez has the prototypical size (6-3, 225) pro scouts seek in a quarterback, and his efficiency (a 34:10 TD-to-INT ratio, a 65.8 completion percentage, a 164.6 quarterback rating) suggests he can make the necessary throws. While he may have benefited from another season at Southern Cal, his potential should land him a spot in the first round.
The next two quarterbacks on most draft boards, Josh Freeman of Kansas State and Ball State’s Nate Davis, are more developmental projects who could go in Round Two but are more likely to hear their name called early on the draft’s second day.
Like the quarterback position, running backs were looking at an extremely slow Day One of the draft until the underclassmen joined the fray. It’s possible Javon Ringer or James Davis could slip into the top five, but at minimum the top two backs and quite likely the first five runners off the board will be underclassmen.
Knowshon Moreno will give Georgia another first-rounder and likely be the first back selected. The NFL comparison he’s drawn is to Clinton Portis, which isn’t a bad player to be compared two. Moreno offers a pretty complete package with good speed and vision, adequate size, and underrated receiving ability. In the right situation, he’s capable of being an every-down back right out of the gate.
Moreno’s competition for the top spot is Ohio State’s Chris “Beanie” Wells, whom fellow Buckeye and two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin called the best back in Ohio State history. Wells is bigger (6-1, 237) and compares to a Larry Johnson-type runner, though he was a backup as a freshman and missed three games due to injury this year so he doesn’t come to the NFL with quite as much mileage. Wells still has plenty of speed and athleticism and could surpass Moreno in the rankings—maybe to become the heir to Jamal Lewis in Cleveland.
Pittsburgh’s LeSean McCoy and Iowa’s Shonn Greene should be the next two backs off the board. At 5-11 and 210 McCoy is similar in size to Moreno, and he’s been every bit as productive in his two years with the Panthers. Greene is more of a Jonathan Stewart type, carrying 235 pounds on his 5-11 frame but also possessing enough speed to get outside. And if you want production, all Greene did was rush for triple digits in every game for the Hawkeyes this season.
Both backs could slip into the bottom of the first round but are more likely to find a home early in Round Two, where they should be joined by Connecticut’s Donald Brown. Brown flew below the radar his first two seasons before busting out with 2,083 yards and 18 touchdowns. His measurables won’t blow anyone away, but he’s proven to be a workhorse and could easily step into at least a job-share role in the NFL.
The other two underclassmen to declare early for the draft are Wisconsin’s P.J. Hill and Alabama’s Glen Coffee; both are projected to be late-round picks.
Once again, the pickings were slim at this position until the underclassmen declared; as many as seven could hear their name called on Day One, while only three seniors seem destined for a similar fate.
Last year no wideout went off the board in Round One; this time around, Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree leads a class that could see as many as six first-round picks. The two-time Biletnikoff winner has the size (6-3, 214), speed (4.54 40) and most importantly play-making ability to be an impact receiver in the NFL. Having drawn comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald and Braylon Edwards (I assume that comparison was to Edwards’ playmaking ability and not his dropsies), both of whom were top-three selections, Crabtree should be the first wideout off the board and could go in the top five.
Hot on the heels of a dazzling display in the national championship game—on a bum ankle, no less—Florida’s Percy Harvin is the only underclassman wideout under six feet tall. But as the Rams, Broncos, and Eagles proved last year with their selections of Donnie Avery, Eddie Royal, and Desean Jackson, there’s plenty of room in the NFL for a smaller guy with wheels. Harvin has some Reggie Bush qualities to him as well: while he wouldn’t be an every-down back in the pros he could handle a few handoffs per game. His injury history is a concern, but Harvin’s playmaking skills should still net him a spot in the first round.
A team worried about Harvin’s injury history or smallish stature might turn to Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin, who lists a couple inches taller and a few pounds heavier but just two thousands of a second slower than Harvin in the 40 (and that’s not using the 4.32 he’s supposedly been clocked in). Ultra-productive in two seasons with the Tigers—if you call setting the NCAA freshman mark for all-purpose yardage (fifth best ever), then besting that total as a soph and scoring 33 touchdowns in two seasons “productive”—Maclin can make an immediate impact in the return game and projects to be a standout wide receiver as well. He could easily go off the board before Harvin and is unlikely to slip out of round one.
At least another trio of wideouts will be selected before Day One is through. Hakeem Nicks broke all the school receiving records at North Carolina before heading to the pros, fresh off a monster bowl game in which he caught five balls for 181 yards and three touchdowns—in the first half alone. He’s not a burner, but the 6-1, 210-pounder has the hands and body strength to draw comparisons to the likes of Chad Johnson and Anquan Boldin—and that’s certainly not bad company.
LSU’s Brandon LaFell is 6-3 and 210, similar in stature to Nicks, and maybe a shade faster. He also enjoyed a productive, yet abbreviated, college career that included a national title in 2007 and 929 yards with an SEC-leading eight touchdowns last season. LaFell noted when he made his declaration for the draft that he wasn’t hiring an agent and would use the full 72-hour window to perhaps change his mind and return to the Tigers. If he doesn’t, he should be a Day One selection and potentially one of the first five wideouts off the board.
Maryland’s Darius Heyward-Bey is the wild card of the bunch. The former Terrapin has good size (6-2, 206), but what really catches scouts attention is his blazing speed. He’s still a bit raw in terms of route-running and his performance in his final season at Maryland was inconsistent at best. However, a 40 time in the 4.3s would certainly capture the eyes of multiple teams willing to use a first-day pick on his tantalizing upside.
Rutgers’ Kenny Britt could also sneak into the first day, as the 6-4, 215-pounder capped a productive three-year college career by becoming the Big East’s career receiving leader. However, concerns about his inconsistent hands could drop him to early on Day Two.
Rounding out the underclassmen wide receivers are BYU’s Austin Collie, Virginia’s Kevin Ogletree, Boise State’s Jeremy Childs, and Ohio State’s Brian Hartline. All are expected to be, at best, late Day Two selections.
There are plenty of quality seniors in this year’s crop of tight ends, but underclassmen James Casey of Rice and Jared Cook of South Carolina both have a shot at being first-day selections. The versatile Casey did a three-year stint in the Chicago White Sox farm system before moving on to Rice, where he once played seven different positions in one game. He was primarily a wide receiver last year for the Owls, but his 4.68 40 and 6-4, 235-pound frame suggest he’d be more of a Dallas Clark-type tight end in the NFL.
Cook is a little bigger (6-5, 240) and a little faster than Casey, and a strong showing at the combine could shoot him up the draft board. He presented matchup problems playing in Steve Spurrier’s offense for the Gamecocks, and after relying more on athleticism than technique there may be an adjustment period as he transitions to a true NFL tight end role. That said, what NFL team wouldn’t want a tight end whose size, speed, and hands prompted his college coach to compare him to Calvin Johnson?
Arkansas’ Andrew Davie also declared early for the draft, primarily because after spending four years in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system before enrolling in college he’s not getting any younger. He is projected to be at best a late-round selection.