Day 1 short on fantasy factors
For the second straight year, the NFL draft's first round featured a cavalcade of interior linemen and defensive stalwarts and only eight skill-position players. Let me say that again: Out of 32 teams, exactly eight picked players who will do the insignificant work of, y'know, like, touching the ball.
Don't these teams understand fantasy football at all?
I kid. Obviously, this is the new NFL, one where the bigger, less visible players are safer for a general manager's job health. It's easy to trod out these 350-pound man-mountains and sell them as impact players at their respective positions. And there's no question today's NFL requires talented guys in the trenches. Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson and Aldon Smith might be difference-makers at their positions, but the Bills, Cardinals and 49ers still have unanswered questions at quarterback, questions I don't think Marc Bulger will be able to answer as a free-agent signee. That's not to say an NFL team should draft a signal-caller when it is convinced nobody available is any good. But let's face it: Someone among the legion of QBs who'll be drafted after the Bills took Dareus will wind up being a strong starter. Either Buffalo just didn't trust itself to be able to tell which one(s) or it was willing to risk that the guy it really wants would fall to it in the second round. But as any team who might have coveted Tim Tebow last year found out, good things don't always come to those who wait.
For fantasy, this presents interesting challenges. We have to try to see through the GMs who are protecting themselves by staying away from skill players early, abide by the GMs who aren't and try to figure out if a player fell because he's bad (and thus destined to be not very useful in fantasy) or because people don't want to take as many chances on skill guys as they used to. After all, if you could figure out what a good pro halfback looks like when he's in college, you wouldn't wait. You'd draft Jamaal Charles in the top 10 (he went No. 73 in '08). You'd draft Ahmad Bradshaw in the first round (he went No. 250 in '07). You'd draft Frank Gore in the top five (he went No. 65 in '05).
I admire the Falcons for having the courage in their convictions to deal a boatload of picks away and move up to grab a wide receiver they like. The Titans and Vikings are getting blasted Friday morning for selecting QBs "too early," yet at least they took a shot at remaking the skill positions which matter most. The Saints benefited from a sudden RB-phobia and got a really good running back late in the first round. And some very good skill players will fall to Friday and Saturday because some player personnel folks don't quite know what to make of them. Their indecision will be some bolder teams' (and fantasy owners') bounty.
Let's take a look at the skill guys who did go Thursday night. Let's see what their prospects look like for 2011 and how their selections affected the skill players already on their respective new teams.
1. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers. Remember when Jimmy Clausen was a good NFL prospect? Those were the days. The Panthers became the third team since 1970 to use top-50 picks on QBs in back-to-back years, apparently admitting last year was a big mistake and they want a re-do. I haven't totally given up on Clausen (statistically speaking, John Elway's first season in Denver was comparable to, and probably worse than, Clausen's in Carolina), but the Panthers have. Some folks think Carolina will go sign a veteran to start ahead of Newton this year while the first overall pick learns the terminology and field-reading skills necessary to the pro game, but you'd have to believe that, as with Tebow last season, Newton will get at least a few starts. Actually, Newton's fantasy prospects this season are a lot like Tebow's. Any small value he'll give you will come from his feet, not his arm. Tebow had five rushing touchdowns last season, so let's make that the over/under for Cam. The "entertainer and icon" has a lot to prove in terms of work ethic and leadership, but there's no question he's a huge man with lots of physical skills. If the Panthers could ever actually bring themselves to sit him for two years, a la Steve McNair, I think they could turn Newton into a Ben Roethlisberger type. But the pressure will be great to use him early. As for Clausen, he's held hostage for now. If he winds up going somewhere else with a legit chance to win a job, I'll take note.
4. A.J. Green, WR, Bengals. Guess Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell won't be fantasy stars next season after all. With Terrell Owens definitely gone from Cincinnati and Chad Ochocinco a likely roster casualty, Simpson, in particular, was looking like a potential factor in the Queen City. In the final two games of the regular season, he had 18 catches for 247 yards and three scores. But Green is three inches taller, 15 pounds heavier and (according to their respective combine times) a little faster than Simpson. He also has a big-stage, SEC-playmaking pedigree (23 TDs in 27 career college starts) that Simpson, who played at Coastal Carolina, can't touch. There's every reason to suspect the polished Green can start early on in the season, and perhaps even lead the team in receiving yards. Of course, the big question is who'll be throwing it to him. Carson Palmer swears he'll never wear a Bengals uniform again. There's a suspicion Cincy will take a QB at No. 36 overall Friday (Andy Dalton?), but that wouldn't exactly send Green's fantasy stock spiraling. We'll have to see what the Bengals wind up with under center after the musical chairs stop this summer. If they have a competent veteran, Green could verge on top-30 status as a fantasy wideout. If not, he'll scarcely be draftable.
6. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons. Jones' fantasy loss is Atlanta's gain. Unlike Green, who went to a team to which he figures to contend for a No. 1 job right away, Jones has Roddy White clearly established as the top dog in the Dirty. That means Jones doesn't have a prayer in the world of leading his team in targets, or even coming close, considering Tony Gonzalez is also still on hand. He becomes a candidate for a Jeremy Maclin-style rookie year: a clear second-banana role, with a tippety-top upside of maybe 50 receptions (given the Falcons' strong running game, probably fewer than that). In football terms, though, this looks like a touchdown. The only thing Michael Jenkins' defenders could hang their hat on was that Jenkins is a great downfield blocker, but so is Jones, and Jones is almost exactly Jenkins' size but is a much faster, scarier player to defend. He's also known as a terrific, really smart kid, which bodes well for his ability to crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later. He almost certainly won't be a fantasy starter in most leagues, but he'll be draftable. He means good things for Matt Ryan, who's a borderline fantasy starter in 10-team leagues, and maybe for Michael Turner, though I'm worried about Turner's drop-off at the end of last season. The most interesting impact here might be on White. As I wrote last summer, it's sometimes tempting to proclaim that the acquisition of a plausible No. 2 receiver is an automatic positive for the incumbent No. 1, since defenses will have to respect the other side of the field more. But can we really say with a straight face that if Jones becomes a weapon White will lead the entire NFL in targets, as he did last season (with 179)? I don't think so. I'm not downgrading White in a major way here, but I'll probably push him down a spot or two from his current No. 3 on my '11 fantasy receiver draft board.
8. Jake Locker, QB, Titans. My Facebook friends know that Thursday morning I actually mocked Locker to the Titans, though, as I'll discuss in a moment, I never thought he'd be the No. 2 QB taken. Locker has a chance to be fantasy's top rookie signal-caller this season because he's far more pro-ready than most of his compatriots, and he lands on a team with a huge "Vacancy" sign on the position. Vince Young really is gone. Rusty Smith isn't a big-time prospect and proved in a spot-start last year that he's nowhere near ready. If you were taking bets about whether Carolina or Tennessee is more likely to sign a stopgap veteran to hold down the position for its new rookie QB, you'd pick Carolina for sure. That might leave Locker as the leader in starts and attempts among all first-year QBs. Now, that doesn't mean it'll be completely smooth. Tennessee is transitioning to a new offensive system (under coordinator Chris Palmer, who admittedly did pretty well with another University of Washington alum named Mark Brunell), and outside of Kenny Britt (might be facing more legal troubles) the team doesn't have a ton of receiving talent. Plus Locker has well-known baggage: a 55.4 career completion percentage in college. As much as I love Jon Gruden's passionate defense of Locker -- which includes the assertion that he was getting chased and beaten up and had to throw away more than his fair share of passes, which hurt his completion rate -- I've seen enough of Locker to know he left a lot of plays on the field at U-Dub. Sure, Brett Favre improved his completion rate from college to the NFL, but few players do. Either way, rookie QBs are never fantasy gold, so you won't be using Locker to win your league title this year.
10. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jaguars. David Garrard rushed for five TDs last year and set career-highs in TD passes (23) and completion percentage (64.5). But he also threw a whopping 15 picks, many of which were Jacksonville killers, and he takes so many hits that his durability is constantly in question. And when he woke up Friday morning, he was no longer the Jags' future at his position. Shockingly, Gabbert dropped below Locker, and Jacksonville couldn't resist. They traded up with the Redskins (giving away their second-rounder) to grab an interesting combination of arm, footwork and passing anticipation. To begin the season, there would seem to be no question Garrard is the starter. But how long will that last? How long will Jack Del Rio, a coach perennially on the hot seat, be able to abide one of Garrard's cold streaks? I have to believe Gabbert will start a game by midseason, if only because Garrard gets hurt so frequently, and then all bets are off. If the kid succeeds, the job is his. Of course, whether he'll succeed is open for debate. He's coming from a shotgun-based, spread collegiate attack and was jittery in the pocket, often scrambling at the faintest sign of pressure. In what's supposed to be a high-octane attack a Missouri, Gabbert had 16 TDs and nine picks in his final season. As with all the other QB first-rounders, you're advised not to even consider Gabbert in a re-draft fantasy league. The bigger news is that Garrard's stock is in the toilet now, too.
12. Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings. I had Ponder going at No. 10 to the Redskins, so again, I'm much less shocked about this pick than many of the draft-night experts appeared to be. Need met opportunity for the Vikes, who lose Favre and Tarvaris Jackson and don't think Joe Webb is anywhere close to being starter-ready right now. That gives Ponder as good a chance as Locker to lead the rookies in pass attempts, and it means those two guys probably need to be ranked highest among rookie signal-callers (at least until you factor Newton's possible rushing-TD chops). New Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is a West Coast guy through and through, which meets Ponder's abilities well. He has an average arm but great accuracy, as his career 61.8 completion rate at Florida State indicates. I like this pick. The biggest worry you have about Ponder is his health because he had three surgeries on his throwing arm in his final two seasons in Tallahassee. Indeed, the Trent Edwards comparisons seem scarily apt, as Edwards was also a middling-armed, injury-prone kid coming out of Stanford. The Vikings hope the difference with Ponder is Adrian Peterson and some strong weapons at wideout. Remember Sam Bradford's rookie year under Pat Shurmur's dink-and-dunk offense last year in St. Louis? That's probably a best-case scenario for Ponder this season, and even that kind of stunk for fantasy. Bradford played every snap and finished only 20th in fantasy points.
26. Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Chiefs. Baldwin jumps into a situation that's something like Jones' in Atlanta. Kansas City has an established No. 1 receiver, Dwayne Bowe, and was tired of seeing him double-teamed. So the Chiefs get a complementary player for the other side. Unfortunately for Baldwin, the difference between his situation and Jones' is that the Falcons passed on 53.7 percent of their offensive snaps last year (putting them in the middle of the NFL pack), while the Chiefs threw it 46.1 percent of the time (making them the league's most run-oriented team). So even if Baldwin overcomes his baggage, his usage upside is very limited. And don't count on Baldwin "getting it" right away. At Pitt he was known as a lazy player who never dominated the way his huge (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) frame said he should. He's not a top-end burner and doesn't run good routes. He isn't quick out of his breaks, and when a play breaks down his instinct isn't to come back to the ball. Of course, Baldwin is a big upgrade over whatever the Chiefs might otherwise have fielded as their starting split end, and he's instantly an attractive red zone candidate. We're not quite looking at a Dez Bryant type of effect on Miles Austin, but I think this does negatively affect Bowe. He had 19 targets inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season and nine inside the 10, numbers that figure to go down if Baldwin makes his way into the lineup. I feel better than ever about leaving Bowe outside of my wide receiver top 10 for this season.
28. Mark Ingram, RB, Saints. This is utterly insane value for a kid who, on talent alone, should've been a top-15 pick. In my opinion, it comes down to many GMs being scared to fail with high-profile skill guys. If they bust drafting a left tackle or defensive end, they can keep their jobs. But people remember the busts you draft at QB, RB and WR, and never let you forget. So now the RB-needy teams in this draft will take some kid in the fourth round, and he'll never really pan out, and the GM will say, "Hey, what did you expect? We took him in the fourth round!" Meanwhile, fortune favors the bold, and I say Ingram was a wonderful pick. Sure, his knee is a risk factor. Sure, he doesn't fit the Chris Johnson/Jamaal Charles mold of game-breaking burners. But he's a wonderful, frightening runner in traffic and always finds the gaps that move the chains. I grant you, if Ingram's ceiling is the guy we saw during his junior year, that's a problem. But he was battling a knee injury. The Heisman-winning sophomore campaign is what I remember. Anyway, he lands in a crowded New Orleans backfield, though according to Reggie Bush's tweet Thursday night ("It's been fun New Orleans") it's probably about to get a little less crowded. Trading one Heisman winner for another, the Saints get substantially bigger and tougher and, in Bush, rid themselves of a guy whose salary ($11.8 million for 2011) came nowhere close to matching his impact or health. So assuming he'll be elsewhere, what will the workload look like in the Big Easy? Well, Sean Payton has never loved Pierre Thomas in the red zone, so I say Ingram is instantly the TD-maker here, as Chris Ivory has much to prove returning from Lisfranc surgery and having a screw implanted in his ankle. Thomas has pretty much proven his body doesn't hold up to full-time work, so he'll get his 200 touches from scrimmage and Ingram will probably come in just under that. Neither is a fantasy starter, but you know what? If I had to draft one of them for a fantasy league today, I'd probably take Ingram.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy, and follow him on Twitter at @writerboyESPN.