- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Some fine defensive talent was selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Morris Claiborne probably will be a pretty solid cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. Fletcher Cox may present a devastating inside-outside combo on the defensive line for the Philadelphia Eagles. Mark Barron may be a thumper of a safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But you're a fantasy football connoisseur. You know what you want. You want to hear about the skill-position guys.
But it's interesting. Including Thursday night, in the past three drafts, skill-position players have been nearly as scarce as a track suit in a first-rounder's draft-night wardrobe. (The 2012 draft was the first I attended in person, and let's just say that several kajillion silkworms did a fine job decking out these behemoths.) In each of the past two drafts ('10 and '11), eight skill-position players were taken. On Thursday night, that number was 11 (the final three coming with the final three picks). NFL general managers clearly believe that: (A) they can often piece together their RB and/or WR corps without spending first-round picks; (B) the risk associated with reaching for (and thus paying a lot of money to) a player destined to get pounded because he has the football in his hands isn't worth it; and/or (C) the big men who either protect or disrupt said ball carriers are tough to find.
What does this mean for fantasy? I don't think it means much. Just because Lamar Miller didn't get selected in Thursday's first round doesn't mean he won't be an intriguing draftee for fantasy this summer. Heck, DeMarco Murray went in last year's third round, but he wound up as the highest-rated rookie running back for fantasy in '11 and will be considered a top-10 fantasy back in some circles this year. As always, fantasy value isn't about where NFL teams place you in a hierarchy of other positions, and it isn't even only about raw skill. It's about a sweet blend of luck, ability, relative rank and team need. And that's why fantasy is so fun.
So let's look at the skill guys who were taken in Thursday night's first round:
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: I'm not going to spend a ton of time on the first two picks, because KC Joyner did a thorough and exceptional job breaking them down. Suffice it to say that although Luck has a high career upside, it's going to be a bumpy sleigh ride in '12. The Colts' roster just isn't good. They're moving from light-and-quick to heavy-and-tough on defense without the personnel in place to do so, they have big questions on the offensive line and at wideout, and there's no special talent at running back. If he stays healthy, Luck will take his lumps and exceed 2,000 yards passing, but probably not 3,000. Dynasty leaguers are allowed to take him first among '12 rookie quarterbacks. Redraft-leaguers would be crazy to do so.
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins: Again, check out KC Joyner's story for a detailed assessment of Griffin. The question first and foremost on fantasy players' minds will be whether Griffin is the second coming of Cam Newton. Can he rush for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns the way Newton did in '11? And can he hold his own in the passing game à la Newton? The very fact that we're having that discussion means that Griffin is much more worthy of a speculative fantasy pick this season than Luck.
Of course, while Newton is 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Griffin is 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds, so expecting him to be a Cam-esque Mack truck is probably folly. But based on their overall, apples-to-apples combine workouts, Griffin is a substantially scarier athlete. He's faster, he can jump higher, and he did all the quickness drills better. Frankly, Michael Vick is an apt comparison, and all fantasy owners remember that Vick rushed for nine scores back in '10 and eight in his first full year as a starter back in '02. It's yet to be proven that a QB in this mold can be a consistent NFL winner, if only because they tend to get crunched and miss games. That's why if I were the Colts, I'd have taken Luck, too. But for fantasy, at least for this year, you want Griffin.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns: Let me just get this out of the way: Richardson should be the first rookie off the board in all fantasy drafts this summer. It probably shouldn't be close. He will almost certainly have the clearest path to touches, as injury-prone Montario Hardesty and underwhelming Chris Ogbonnaya are the only things standing in his way. And he's more talented than any of the other first-year backs. He's a great combination of power and knee bend with enough speed to get chunks when he bowls over tacklers. However, Richardson will be the recipient of a lot of hype this summer. People are already comparing him to Adrian Peterson. And if you could be guaranteed of getting Peterson, even with the Browns, you'd take him in a heartbeat to be your No. 1 fantasy running back. But I don't think he's AP. He's got the power, but I don't see that level of burst. He doesn't make you miss the way AP does. And listen, that's not a very harsh criticism, as I think Peterson is a potential Hall of Famer. For fantasy, my worry is that Richardson will toil behind an offensive line that, beyond left tackle Joe Thomas, just isn't very good. I don't think the QB situation with Colt McCoy and the Browns' other first-round pick Thursday night (more on him in a moment) is good. And I think their receiving corps is terrible (and I'll think that even if they try to address it on Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft).
Richardson will run against defenses that are stacked to stop him, and that's not a recipe for a long shelf life, especially not for a guy who has many big-time collisions each game. I can see Richardson winding up in the NFL's top 10 in carries in his rookie season, and I can see him having some very good games. But I view him as a No. 2 fantasy back right now, and not a particularly strong one at that, because I don't believe the Browns are suddenly ready to score 15 rushing touchdowns in a season. (They had an NFL-low four last year.) Plus, I'll throw in this worry: The Browns need so much help in so many places, I'm concerned that they'll submit Richardson to a massive pounding in his first few seasons while the team still isn't particularly competitive, and sap the best years of his career (which is why I'm against taking a running back this high in the NFL draft). By the time the Browns are ready to be good, I'm concerned that Richardson will be a shell of himself.
5. Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars: On the one hand, you can argue that just about any landing spot for Blackmon was going to put him in an unfavorable position for short-term fantasy value. The squads picking near the top of this year's draft uniformly featured crummy offenses in '11 and have (let's be charitable) question marks at quarterback. On the other hand, it's tough to imagine a worse landing spot for Blackmon. Oh, I'm not that concerned about Laurent Robinson, whom the Jags signed to a fairly large free-agent deal this past winter ($13.8 million guaranteed); Robinson has always been injury-prone and really showed NFL chops only when defenses were focused on other receivers last year in Dallas. No, it's Blaine Gabbert whom Blackmon and his potential fantasy owners need to be concerned about. Gabbert's rookie season was so horrible (50.8 percent completion rate, 147.6 pass yards per game, 12 TDs, 11 INTs, 40 sacks in 14 starts), Jacksonville signed Chad Henne (bleh!) to potentially step in if things don't improve. Plus, I think there's a roaming misconception about what Blackmon's skills actually are. He's not particularly big; in fact, he's the shortest wideout to be drafted in the top 10 since Ted Ginn in '07. He's not a burner. He does have wonderful hands and is great in the red zone. He could be an early-career Anquan Boldin or even a Hakeem Nicks kind of player, or he could be Michael Crabtree. None of those options is awful, but I'd argue that none is worth the No. 5 pick. Blackmon probably will struggle to get very far inside the top 40 wide receivers in fantasy this season, mostly because of his quarterback; later in his career, he easily has skills to get inside the top 20.
8. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins: You won't need to worry about Tannehill for fantasy this year. He's very raw (he was a converted wideout in college), and there's a chance he'll sit behind Matt Moore and/or David Garrard to begin the season, which would be the best thing for him. I'm highly skeptical that this player was worthy of a top-10 pick; he's a good athlete and has a big enough arm to be a legit NFL passer, but he's never shown the ability to read defenses consistently, doesn't have elite accuracy or touch, and at best is a work in progress. Is he a better prospect than Gabbert, who went 10th last season? Honestly, I think they're similar. When people describe Tannehill as a "potential franchise QB," they're talking about physical tools, which he has. But a lot of guys have had those tools and haven't turned into true No. 1 quarterbacks.
13. Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals: For fantasy purposes, this is a tough landing place for Floyd. Larry Fitzgerald is ensconced as one of the game's greatest playmakers, and he's always going to get fed first. Of course, when Fitz and Boldin were patrolling the field together several years ago, each was quite startable for fantasy; alas, some fellow named Kurt Warner was quarterback back then, and now it's Kevin Kolb behind an ultra-shaky offensive line. Floyd overcame his reputation as a mercurial player in his final year at Notre Dame and played consistently well, shedding 15 pounds of excess weight and staying out of trouble off the field. I dig his career prospects, but until someone with better pocket presence than Kolb is under center, and until QB protection isn't such a big issue (Cardinals quarterbacks were sacked 54 times last year, second-most in the NFL), I can't see this offense supporting multiple wideouts as fantasy starters.
There's also the thought that Floyd's skill set overlaps a bit with Fitzgerald's, rather than complementing it; he's a big (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and physical player with great body control, much like Fitz, but isn't a traditional deep threat. It's fair to proclaim that Floyd eventually will help grow the pie for the Arizona passing offense and be a benefit both to himself and Fitzgerald in fantasy leagues. For '12, though, I'll leave Fitz as a clear-cut No. 1 wideout and make Floyd a higher-upside fantasy bench player.
20. Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans. Anyone who's read my Top 100 players for '12 knows that I'm a Kenny Britt believer, and I'm not going to let this selection of Wright rain on that parade. First of all, we tend to overstate the impact of rookie wideouts on NFL teams anyway; it's a steep learning curve for these kids, especially when they come from relatively simple collegiate offenses like the one Wright had at Baylor. Second of all, Wright is no threat to Britt's role. Especially early in his career, Wright figures to be a slot receiver through and through, and potentially a very good one. He's a playmaker. Is he the fastest guy in the league? No. But he might already be one of the 10 quickest. The Titans' challenge will be to get him the ball in space, as the Vikings try to do with Percy Harvin. Now, if plodding Matt Hasselbeck wins Tennessee's starting gig, it'll be tough to get overly excited about multiple Titans receivers. And if Jake Locker wins the job, accuracy is going to be a big-time question. But in either case, Wright can be the QB's best friend, because he figures to do his best work relatively close to the line of scrimmage, where he can help either of these passers. However, with Britt and Nate Washington around, it's hard to envision Wright getting anything approaching double-digit targets each week. He's probably going to fall into the realm of "standard-league flyer" in his first season. But I do think he should be drafted in all leagues, because there's a strong chance he makes four or five game-changing plays in '12, and Britt's durability could get Wright more looks than initially appears likely.
22. Brandon Weeden, QB, Cleveland Browns: I won't bash this pick the way some folks have. The Browns were always whistling past the graveyard with Colt McCoy's popgun arm and were long rumored to be enamored with Weeden. He's the oldest first-round pick in the common draft era (he had a minor league baseball career before playing at Oklahoma State), so his career probably will be shorter than the average QB draftee's, but he's 6-4 and 220 pounds with an above-average passing wing. I do strongly believe that Weeden's age (he'll turn 29 in October) would've meant that Cleveland could've passed on him here, drafted a legit wideout and still gotten Weeden with the fifth pick in the second round. But to some extent, that's quibbling.
In terms of ability, Weeden is a prototypical pocket passer and delivers a strong, accurate ball when he has time. Unfortunately, if he's the Browns' Week 1 starter, it's hard to imagine he'll have that much time: The Browns got McCoy pummeled to the tune of 32 sacks in 13 games last year. And Weeden's rep is that he plays poorly when the pocket breaks down. Heck, given Cleveland's receiving corps -- which may be the NFL's worst -- it's impossible to imagine any Browns QB being fantasy-relevant in '12. But Weeden does represent hope and looks like a strong bet to be the team's Week 1 starter. If he can muster something more via the airways than McCoy did, it could mean good things for Trent Richardson.
30. A.J. Jenkins, WR, San Francisco 49ers: This was the biggest skill-position shocker of the first round for me. Yes, we all read that Jenkins' stock was rising. But most believed "rising" meant he might make it into the second round. That the Niners took Jenkins and passed on Rueben Randle, Stephen Hill, Alshon Jeffery (and others) is a major surprise to me. Jenkins did light up the combine with a 4.39 40-yard dash, which put him in the top five among this year's WR prospects and on par with Julio Jones from last season. But realize that Jones ran that fast at 6-3, 220 pounds. Jenkins is 6 feet even and 190 pounds.
Certainly, for six games of his senior year at Illinois, Jenkins was astonishingly productive: 46 grabs for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. But in his final seven contests, he had 44 catches for 461 yards and one score. And before '11, Jenkins had three 100-yard days in his career. I have to believe that '12 will be something of a feeling-out year for him. The Niners are going to give Randy Moss a chance and also signed shaky-handed Mario Manningham to play alongside Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Considering Alex Smith finished 30th last season among qualifiers in pass yards per game (196.5) and made only 39 throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air all last year and completed 13 of them (by contrast, Eli Manning had 96 such attempts), it's well-nigh impossible to see any short-term fantasy value for Jenkins on this receiving depth chart.
31. Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: When the Bucs were outfoxed by the Browns for Richardson, it appeared perhaps LeGarrette Blount had earned a reprieve. That lasted about three hours. Martin instantly becomes the best fantasy back on the Tampa roster. When folks say he's a "three-down" player, what they're really saying is that he won't get Josh Freeman killed in passing situations the way Blount will, and he can catch the ball quite well, which Blount can't. There are problems on Martin's path to rookie fantasy glory, of course. The Bucs' O-line was below-average in all aspects last year, including run-blocking, and while signing Carl Nicks to play left guard is definitely going to help, in particular I'd want to see better play from right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and former first-rounder right guard Davin Joseph. And even if Nicks is the rising tide that lifts all boats, Freeman needs to play better. Mostly, though, the worry for Martin will still be Blount. For some reason, Blount hasn't been a particularly effective short-yardage runner in his two-year NFL career (he has 18 carries inside an opponent's 10 and only five scores on those runs). But he's a 250-pound wrecking ball, and if he's ever going to carve out a long-term NFL role, it will likely be as a TD maker. And if that happens in '12, Blount's vulture scores are going to limit fantasy glory for Martin (aka "The Muscle Hamster"). He will be drafted in all fantasy leagues, and I think Martin will lead the squad in RB touches. But Blount makes Martin a tough sell as a top-30 fantasy back.
32. David Wilson, RB, New York Giants: When the Bucs traded up in front of the Giants to get Martin, one wonders whether Giants GM Jerry Reese's heart cracked a little bit. I know if I had a choice between Martin and Wilson, I'd take the steady, less-spectacular Martin every time, because I think he's got a productive eight-year NFL career ahead of him. Wilson, on the other hand, has meteoric possibilities but a couple of pretty major red flags. He's a track star who doesn't shy away from contact despite a relatively squat frame, but he's not a natural receiver, he doesn't always get what's blocked because he tries to hit home runs, he fumbles a lot (seven times in '11 alone), and his vision isn't great. Honestly, Wilson is a lot like the man he'll share the Giants' backfield with, Ahmad Bradshaw, though an even better comparison for running style might be LeSean McCoy (without McCoy's tremendous pass-catching chops). With Brandon Jacobs gone and only D.J. Ware and Da'Rel Scott on the roster behind Bradshaw, Wilson is going to get plenty of chances to serve as a complementary back. And because Bradshaw isn't always the picture of durability, that could work into an even larger role. Like Martin, Wilson will be drafted in all fantasy leagues. Unlike Martin, Wilson won't lead his team in RB touches. He'll likely see 8-10 touches per game while Bradshaw sees 15-20, at least to begin the season. But he'll make a few breathtaking, long runs that should whet his fantasy owners' appetites.
Christopher Harris forecasts the fantasy fortunes of the 11 skill-position players taken on Day 1 of the NFL draft.