Fantasy rookie class of 2012
What a difference a year makes.
A scant 365 days ago, we were all lamenting the impending nuclear winter known as the Great NFL Labor Stoppage of 2011. They held a scouting combine in Indianapolis per usual last February, but we all knew it would be the second-to-last official NFL event for a good long while (last April's NFL draft would be the last). College kids ran around in their underwear and many of them got drafted, but then they sat on their tuchus all summer and wound up missing out on minicamps and suffering through foreshortened training camps.
Some rookies barely noticed. Cam Newton, a controversial No. 1 pick last April, was immense from the get-go, a fantasy stalwart and a ray of sunshine for a bedraggled Carolina Panthers franchise; A.J. Green and Julio Jones were as good as advertised by their top-10 draft statuses; DeMarco Murray had a spectacular run before breaking his leg; Roy Helu made a major fantasy dent. Other supposed potential impact rookies were disappointments (think Mark Ingram, Daniel Thomas and Jonathan Baldwin) or got hurt right away (Mikel Leshoure and Ryan Williams come to mind). Can we blame the NFL's labor impasse? It certainly may have contributed.
But that's all behind us now. And with all this labor peace, surely the skill position workouts we witnessed Sunday were a veritable harmonic convergence, right?
Well, not really. But instead of a looming lockout, this year the combine was beset by star players who didn't fully participate. Stud QBs Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III didn't throw, and a potential first-rounder, Ryan Tannehill, couldn't do any drills because of foot surgery. Potential top-five pick RB Trent Richardson didn't run because of a knee scope, and potential top-five pick WR Justin Blackmon didn't run because of a hamstring tweak. That's right: four out of five possible top picks respectfully abstained.
But that's alright. Plenty of potential draftees did run, jump, throw and catch. Now, how many of the kids who worked out this weekend will influence 10-team fantasy leagues this fall? Not many. In fact, you'll rarely go broke if you just refuse to draft rookies altogether. Still, the combine is a good chance to learn kids' names and get a sense of what folks are saying about them. And definitely, it's a good chance to get more familiar with the kinds of underhyped college players we don't get to see on an average Saturday. Think of Chris Johnson out of East Carolina, running a beastly 4.24 40-yard dash at the '08 combine. Think of Mike Wallace out of the Ole Miss running 4.33 that same day. Steve Johnson (Kentucky), Tim Hightower (Richmond), Denarius Moore (Tennessee), Vincent Brown (San Diego State) ... it's good when you learn these kids' names, because it can make you more willing to pull the trigger if and when their NFL stars begin to rise. As long as we keep things in perspective, reviewing this weekend's workout results can be useful.
Here, then, are highlights from the skill position workouts in Indianapolis.
2011 Rookie Review: There was Newton, and there was everyone else. I'll be the first to admit I dramatically undervalued the '10 Heisman Trophy winner, scoffing at his passing accuracy and his lack of experience in a pro-style offense. Turned out it didn't matter. Newton rushed for an insane 14 TDs and began his throwing career with back-to-back 400-yard games. He tied Tom Brady in fantasy points. Wow. Andy Dalton was a surprise Week 1 starter and had some good moments; he faded badly down the stretch but wound up tied for 15th in fantasy points among QBs. For context, Sam Bradford finished 20th in that category during his rookie season. Christian Ponder started from Week 7 forward for the Minnesota Vikings and also had a few OK moments, but not much your fantasy team got excited about. Blaine Gabbert started 14 games and somehow managed only 101 fantasy points, which is embarrassing. Jake Locker was promising in short spurts, and T.J. Yates saved the Houston Texans' bacon for a while. But the story was Newton. What an incredible season.
• Andrew Luck (Stanford) is almost certainly going No. 1 overall. He didn't throw at the combine, but he ran a respectable 4.67 40 and led all QBs in the broad jump. The Indianapolis Colts are playing coy, but Luck will be starting for them Week 1. He'll be helming an organization that needs a head-to-toe makeover without a ton of proven weapons, so expecting him to do much for fantasy teams right away is probably unwise. But he'll be the team's new marquee player.
• Robert Griffin III (Baylor) made the St. Louis Rams very, very happy. The Rams own the draft's No. 2 pick, and after Griffin ran a 4.41 40 (crushing Newton's 4.59 from last year and posting the third-fastest QB time since 1988), there's every reason to believe multiple teams will pay a king's ransom to trade up to draft RG3. As I mentioned, Griffin didn't throw, but he ran fastest and jumped highest, re-emphasizing what an incredible athlete he is. Now, let's be real: Newton is 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, and RG3 is 6-2 and 223. So it's not surprising Griffin would be faster, and he's probably not going to be the every-week rush-TD machine Newton was in his rookie year. But this guy is going No. 2 in the draft, and like Luck, he'll start Week 1. Plus, he might be a better fantasy bet because he has a better chance at consistent rushing production.
•Since Griffin, Luck and Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) didn't throw, Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) was probably the only potentially fantasy-relevant signal-caller in '12 who was throwing out on the field in Indy Sunday. Weeden turns 29 in October and spent four years playing minor league baseball, which is the major knock against him: How many years will you get if you commit to this guy? Scouts say Weeden has trouble staying locked on his first target and thus might not be ready for prime time right away, but his intangibles are off the charts. You can only see so much on TV, but Weeden looked good passing, floating only a couple throws.
Other names who'll probably get drafted in April include: Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) looks like a West Coast QB with good smarts and accuracy but middling arm strength. He reportedly showed excellent mechanics and accuracy in throwing drills. Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) is a 6-7 former basketball player who sat out throwing drills this weekend and who started only 15 collegiate games and played in 25. As such, he's really raw. Russell Wilson (Wisconsin) measured shorter than 5-11, which may doom him to backup status in the NFL despite his tremendous success this past season. B.J. Coleman (Chattanooga) sat out the throwing drills because of a broken pinkie finger. He has prototypical size and arm strength, but his mechanics are reportedly a work in progress. Nick Foles (Arizona) is slow (5.14 40) and, according to reports, didn't throw well in drills. Case Keenum (Houston) and Kellen Moore (Boise State) have major uphill climbs to prove that they aren't simply too small and without arm strength to play in the pros.
2011 Rookie Review: Once again, there was probably too much excitement for not enough production among the rookie running backs. In '09, three rookies (Knowshon Moreno, Beanie Wells and LeSean McCoy) finished among the top 50 backs (Moreno was highest at 18th). In '10, five rookies did so (Jahvid Best, Ryan Mathews, Chris Ivory, LeGarrette Blount and Keiland Williams, with Best highest at 23rd). And last season saw five rookies among the top 50 RBs: DeMarco Murray (111 fantasy points, tying him for 30th), Roy Helu (105; 33rd), Mark Ingram (75; 43rd), Kendall Hunter (69; 48th) and Daniel Thomas (62; 49th). In summary, in the past three years of incredible hype and bluster about rookie rushers -- to which I've sometimes contributed, but hopefully not heavily -- not a single rookie running back has finished higher than 18th at his position, and that was Knowshon Bloody Moreno, who, let's just say, hasn't endeared himself to fantasy owners (or Denver Broncos fans) since. And that says nothing of second-round picks Ryan Williams (torn patellar tendon), Mikel Leshoure (torn Achilles) and Shane Vereen (just not good). Indeed, recent history says beware of drafting rookie RBs for your fantasy team.
• Trent Richardson (Alabama) didn't run because of a knee scope; he's considered a possible top-five pick, and some scouts have referred to him as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Like his former teammate Ingram, Richardson is sometimes compared to Emmitt Smith, but that may mostly be because Richardson went to the same high school as Smith. And I think Peterson is a sloppy comparison because they have different body types, and my feeling to this point is that Richardson won't feature the breakaway speed young AD did (though we'll see how he runs at Alabama's pro day). Recent comparable: Buffed-up guys with excellent all-around skills who bring about 230 pounds to the table are tough to find, no question. But I've also seen people calling this guy Earl Campbell. Sheesh, talk about high expectations. Richardson will probably wind up somewhere on the spectrum from Jonathan Stewart on the higher end to Marion Barber on the lower end. Of course, maybe one day those comparisons will look foolish. Hey, maybe The Tyler Rose really is Richardson's best-case scenario. But in that case, he's headed to the Hall of Fame.
• The battle to be the second rusher taken in April's draft might come down to Lamar Miller (Miami) and David Wilson (Virginia Tech). They're close in size (Miller is 5-11 and 212 pounds; Wilson is 5-10 and 206 pounds) and they're both former track stars. Miller ran the 40 slightly faster (4.40 versus 4.49); Wilson was better in the more athletic disciplines, such as the jumps and the shuttle. Each is a one-year collegiate starter, and each looked pretty good in pass-catching drills, despite not having caught it much in their respective collegiate offenses. The deciding factor may be the fact that Wilson is a poor pass-blocker at this point in his career and could struggle to get on the field for third downs, at least as a rookie. Plus, he's had fumbling issues. For those reasons, at this point, I prefer Miller for the '12 season, but reserve the right to change my mind. Recent comparables: I see a good amount of Jamaal Charles in Miller, and I mean that positively and negatively. J-Mail is incredibly quick and finds creases, but he's also not a particularly tough runner and is pretty easy to bring down when you catch him. That's Miller, with the caveat that watching his game tape there are times he's not as quick making a decision at the hole as he should be. C.J. Spiller is probably a fairer, less-hyped comparison. In early-down work, Wilson reminds me of LeSean McCoy. Wilson is tougher to bring down than Miller is, and while he doesn't quite have Miller's pure speed, he's a threat to take it to the house when he gets in space. However, as I mentioned, he has a ways to go in pass protection. Eventually he could be McCoy, but don't expect him to dominate in his rookie campaign.
• Doug Martin (Boise State) had a strong combine, bench-pressing 28 reps (tied for most among running backs) and running a 4.55 40 at 5-9 and 223 pounds. He caught the ball 28 times in his junior and his senior campaigns, proving he can be an every-down back, while also flashing some pretty good pass-protection skills. He might not go in the first round of April's draft, but it'll be close, and someone will give him a chance to earn part of a timeshare this fall. Recent comparable: You hear Ray Rice all the time for Martin, but Martin is bigger than Rice and not quite as fast, plus may not quite have Rice's lower-body power. The guy I'll liken him to is Ben Tate, who shot up draft boards in '10 after an impressive combine. Martin seems perfect for a one-cut-and-go, zone-blocking system, the type that Tate (and some dude named Arian Foster) run behind in Houston.
• Chris Polk (Washington) had a disappointing Senior Bowl week and dropped nine pounds before the combine to work on his speed. At 5-10 and 215 pounds, he ran a 4.57, which combined with fair but unspectacular athleticism on display in other drills and at the Senior Bowl might mean he could get drafted as late as the third round. But maybe that's not fair. Given his collegiate resume, Polk seems about as reliable as they come; he had three 1,000-yard seasons in the Pac-12 and back-to-back 1,400-yard campaigns, plus he catches the ball well. If there's a criticism of Polk when you watch tape on him, it's that sometimes he's patient to the point of indecisive at the line. You know the drill in the NFL: Dancers need not apply. Recent comparable: I mean, the dude scored 15 times last season. That should count for something. I think Marshawn Lynch was a similar player coming out of college, though I think Lynch has gotten physically stronger during his pro career.
• You'll find varying opinions on LaMichael James (Oregon). Some say he can be an every-down back and point to the fact that he had three straight collegiate seasons of at least 230 carries. Others look at his size (5-8, 194 pounds) and proclaim him a specialty back. James ran a 4.45 Sunday, which is very good, plus he benched 15 reps, which is solid for a man his size. (Remember, he's benching 31 pounds more than he actually weighs.) Some NFL team will love his production and pass-catching chops, along with the fact that he's a decent blocker, and sign him up to play a supplementary but significant backfield role in his first NFL season. Recent comparable: I'd love to tell you he's like Shady McCoy, but I don't think he'll have as much success between the tackles. Jahvid Best seems like an interesting comparison, though. That's probably James' upside. His downside is Jacquizz Rodgers.
• At 6-0 and 218 pounds, Bernard Pierce (Temple) has a thick, every-down-back body but doesn't really run like a power back. Instead, against mostly inferior collegiate competition, he zigged and zagged, using terrific field vision and lateral quickness, and the question will be whether those skills will translate against much better competition. He ran a 4.49 at the combine but lifted only 17 reps, a shockingly low number for someone with such an impressive-looking upper body. Recent comparable: Pierce scored a ridiculous 27 touchdowns last season, and I think he resembles BenJarvus Green-Ellis. That's not to say he's definitely going to be a devastating goal-line force in the pros. Some folks argue he's too upright and doesn't hit holes hard enough. But if his NFL coaches get him to cut out any hesitation at the line, he might be a TD-maker.
Other names to know include: Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati) was the Senior Bowl MVP, and he had 545 career carries in college. But there will be questions about whether a 5-11, 197-pound back can be more than a change-of-pace specialist. Everyone will be looking for Darren Sproles this year, and Pead can do a fair imitation but isn't quite as quick or straight-ahead fast. Ronnie Hillman (San Diego State) actually fits the Sproles mode well as a runner (he went 4.45 at the combine) but isn't yet nearly the route-runner or receiver that Sproles is. He wasn't a specialty back in college, but that's likely where he's headed in the NFL, at least at first. Robert Turbin (Utah State) is a sleeper I really like, and he was a workout warrior this weekend: He tied for the most bench press reps at 28, and at 5-10 and 222 pounds he ran a 4.50 40. Unfortunately, he's missed two full years with leg injuries, so that's a red flag. But this is a one-cut, zone-blocking specialist who's strong as a bull. Brandon Bolden (Mississippi) had a strong junior year but struggled with injuries as a senior, yet he still had a 14-touchdown season and scored 27 times on the ground in his career. He's only a 4.66 runner, which puts him in the vicinity of someone like Stevan Ridley. Cyrus Gray (Texas A&M) should be a strong special-teams player right away and caught it a ton in college, meaning he could carve out a third-down role early. But at 5-10 and 206 pounds, as with many of the backs in this column, there will be questions about his every-down viability, and Gray has a long injury history. Chris Rainey (Florida) is only 5-8 and 180 pounds but ran a 4.45 and was silky smooth in every receiving drill they had him run at the combine. If you're looking for a Sproles, maybe this is it. Don't be surprised if Rainey rises up draft boards. Tauren Poole (Tennessee), Vick Ballard (Mississippi State) and Terrance Ganaway (Baylor) each did things well Sunday, too.
2011 Rookie Review: Unlike rookie rushers, select rookie receivers have had big-time fantasy impacts over the past few seasons. Go back to '09, when Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace and Austin Collie produced good numbers. Go back to '10, when Mike Williams finished 12th among all WRs. And certainly '11 was no exception, as A.J. Green finished 16th in fantasy points among all wideouts and Julio Jones finished tied for 18th. Heck, Torrey Smith might've been extremely feast-or-famine (five starts with double-digit fantasy points, seven starts with five or fewer), but he finished 22nd at his position. Undrafted Doug Baldwin finished 40th, fifth-rounder Denarius Moore finished 41st and second-rounder Titus Young finished tied for 43rd. Alas, first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin broke his thumb punching Thomas Jones and never got untracked thereafter, second-rounder Greg Little saw the field a bunch but had perhaps the worst hands of any NFL receiver (he had 12 drops, second-most in the league, on 121 targets), and second-rounder Randall Cobb was mostly a special-teamer. So while it continues to pay to invest in early-round wide receivers, making sure you get the right one is obviously paramount.
• Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) participated in the bench press but skipped all other combine drills because of an injured hamstring. When you watch Blackmon's highlight reel of insane catches and powerful moves over the middle, it's easy to understand why people get so excited about him. But is he really a franchise receiver, worthy of a top-five NFL pick? I have to say, I'm dubious. He has amazing hands. He has physical tools to get him free from press coverage. But will he beat anyone deep, or will he be a hybrid possession receiver? Recent comparable: Blackmon gets compared to A.J. Green and Terrell Owens. But Green is 6-4 and T.O. is 6-3. At not quite 6-1 and 207 pounds, Blackmon isn't Calvin Johnson, either, though he pushed around defensive backs like Megatron did in college. All this is to say: I'm not sure what Blackmon will be. OSU doesn't have a great track record of producing star pro receivers (Dez Bryant looks OK so far, but remember Rashaun Woods and Adarius Bowman?). I think Blackmon will at least be Michael Crabtree and, in a less conservative offense, can easily outstrip Crabtree's production. But that's not a reason to reach for him in fantasy leagues.
• Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) and Kendall Wright (Baylor) will battle to be the next wide receiver off the board, and each has a terrific shot at going in April's first round. Floyd was spectacular early in his college career, then seemed to put on weight and didn't quite live up to that initial production, but he slimmed down headed into the combine and posted a 4.47 40 at 6-3, 220 pounds. That's impressive. Wright had the opposite experience; there was buzz that he might run in the 4.3s, but at 5-10 and 188 pounds, he posted only a 4.61 40. Now, because of this, I went back and watched tape of Wright, and this isn't a 4.61 player. In game action, he's quick and a scary player in the open field. But there's little question his performance in Indy didn't help. Recent comparables: Floyd's workout reminds me so much of Kenny Britt's a couple years ago, it's scary. Similar size, similar speed and similar strength. After seeing his stock fade a bit since late in '11, Floyd looks like he's back. As for Wright? No matter how much you scoff at judging players by what they look like running around in their underwear, I think we can put to bed the notion that Wright is Mike Wallace. Could he be Santonio Holmes? Size-wise that feels about right, but boy, here's hoping the kid runs faster at his pro day to put all this to rest.
• I can say without reservation that the biggest skill position winner at the entire combine was Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech). As was the case with Demaryius Thomas, Hill was hidden from view by the Yellow Jackets' option offense and had only 28 catches his junior year and 49 catches during his entire three-season career. But at 6-4 and 215 pounds, Hill ran a nonsensical 4.36 40, submitted the best broad jump among WRs, produced a huge vertical jump and to top it all off made the catch of the combine, diving on a vertical route and coming up with an overthrown pass. Recent comparable: The Thomas comparison is very tempting, though because Thomas was recovering from a broken foot throughout the pre-draft process a couple years back, he never ran for scouts. I hate to do this to the kid, but Hill's performance reminds me of a different Georgia Tech player, Mr. Calvin Johnson. Their speed and athletic prowess in Spandex are resoundingly similar (though Megatron did it with 25 more pounds of muscle on him).
• Reuben Randle (LSU) excites some scouts because, though he has a possession receiver's frame (6-3 and 210 pounds of powerful dude), he ran a solid 4.50 at the combine and has pure athletic potential that rivals some of the better wide receivers that have been drafted in the past few seasons. His production with the Bayou Bengals was fine this past year (53 grabs, 917 yards, eight scores), and that was with some poor quarterback play. So is he a true No. 1 in any offense, or is he more of a West Coast offense guy who'll excel in the red zone and on slants? Recent comparable: Here's another player who gets mentioned in the same breath as A.J. Green, but Green is faster and a bit bigger, though they both appear to have well-above-average ball skills. So I actually think Green isn't a bad upside comp, but I'll say Hakeem Nicks. Clearly, though, as an LSU receiver Randle has some hurdles to overcome (those hurdles are named Brandon LaFell, Early Doucet, Buster Davis, Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson and Josh Reed ... though I guess we'll give 'em credit for Dwayne Bowe).
• Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers) is probably the best pure possession receiver in this draft, but we'll have to wait until April to discover how much that's worth. Certainly, if you're taking a wide receiver in the first few rounds, you'd rather him have a chance at being a No. 1, and that probably isn't the case with Sanu. But this is a kid who caught 115 passes last season, so let's not completely write him off. His upside is limited, but he might be just about the safest wideout on the board. Recent comparable: Some people say Sanu reminds them of Anquan Boldin, but early-career Boldin seemed to get more separation than Sanu does; in college, Sanu really did his thing by bullying and out-muscling opponents. I think someone like Muhsin Muhammad might be a better comp, or maybe we could split the difference with T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Other names to know include: Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) came into this season as one of the favorites to be the top wide receiver drafted, but the Gamecocks had quarterback problems and Jeffery seemed distracted and heavy. He came to the combine at a svelte 216 pounds (he's 6-3) but then surprised scouts by not participating in any drills. A comparison to Seattle's Mike Williams haunts Jeffery, but he has Plaxico Burress upside. Chris Givens (Wake Forest) clocked in at 4.41 40 time, lending credence to the notion that he'll be a slot weapon right away in the NFL, perhaps a la Titus Young or Antonio Brown. Nick Toon (Wisconsin) was a bit smaller than expected (6-2, 215 pounds) but ran well, yet there's little guessing what might happen to him come April. The real question about Toon is a foot injury that bothered him last season and lingered into 2012; the kid could go as high as the second round, but he may also have medical red flags. Like Sanu, Juron Criner (Arizona) projects as a very reliable possession receiver. A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) reportedly helped himself by coming aboard the Senior Bowl roster late and interacting well with pro coaches, and he certainly didn't hurt his cause running a 4.39 Sunday. Tommy Streeter (Miami) was even more impressive, running a 4.40 at 6-5 and 219 pounds. Streeter is a raw project, and Jenkins was an underachiever in college, but speed kills. As a sleeper for NFL teams, I like Brian Quick (Appalachian State). His level of competition will be a question mark until he proves it isn't, but he has No. 1 receiver size and speed potential.
'11 Rookie Review: What we've learned about the tight end position in the NFL is that it's becoming incredibly important to find "move" tight ends who can act like big wideouts and take advantage of mismatches and that the guys who excel in such roles usually aren't rookies. Certainly Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots are the model in this regard, and their rookie season was an exception: Gronk finished fifth in fantasy points among tight ends, while Hernandez finished 10th. But Jermaine Gresham (the No. 21 overall pick in the 2010 draft) still hasn't become a reliable fantasy factor, and Jimmy Graham (a third-rounder that same season) needed to get a year under his belt before he was ready to bust out. In 2011, Kyle Rudolph was the best rookie TE for fantasy (and was the highest-drafted NFL TE), but he finished a miserable 35th at his position. Lance Kendricks -- like Rudolph a second-round pick -- disappeared after a promising training camp, and the likes of Rob Housler, Luke Stocker, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas might have promising futures, but they weren't rosterable during their rookie seasons.
Let's face it: Despite the league-wide thirst for the Next Big Thing at tight end, this isn't a good year for the position. Coby Fleener (Stanford) might have the best chance for a rookie fantasy breakout because he's an accomplished athlete and a good receiver, but he's not a good blocker at all. Fleener didn't run at the combine because he's recovering from a high-ankle sprain, though he did bench 27 reps. Orson Charles (Georgia) is probably the only other TE with an outside chance to find himself in a fantasy-relevant situation this summer. He's not as big as the Jimmy Grahams and Rob Gronkowskis of the world, but he might be as fast (though he didn't run this weekend). Dwayne Allen (Clemson) did run and jump at the combine and didn't do himself any favors, clocking in at a woeful 4.89 and jumping second-worst at his position in both high jump and broad jump. He was a good receiver in college, but there's a potentially alarming lack of athleticism here. Michael Egnew (Missouri) joins a line of Tigers tight ends trying to make it in the league, and the recent track record isn't stellar (Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker come to mind, though I guess the original Kellen Winslow wasn't bad). He's another tweener who'll never be a pro-level blocker, but could develop into a matchup problem in the middle.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.