The nation's most popular job fair was held over the weekend. The NFL draft places careers and reputations on the line during three intensely pivotal days in late April. This major industry is instantly infused with a new crop of talented employees. One pick can influence a team, and even the league, for years.
While fantasy drafts aren't nearly as scrutinized as the NFL's version, they still do hinge on gauging the talent pool and the marketplace for investments. The good thing is that we have several months to prepare for our fantasy drafts. Given that 253 players just joined the league out of college, and a good number more will sign on with various teams as undrafted free agents, it's the ideal time to evaluate just what impact this new class of fantasy defenders might have.
Individual defensive leagues often demand that each team rosters linebackers, defensive linemen and defensive backs, so we'll evaluate the incoming freshmen by these three positions.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers: With the ninth overall pick, the Panthers added the most coveted 'backer in the draft in Kuechly and one of the most pro-ready talents in the eyes of many scouts and talent evaluators. During his incredibly productive college career at Boston College, he enjoyed a 33-game double-digit tackle streak (the longest in FBS during 2009-11) and tallied an insane 552 total tackles in his three years for the Eagles. The real question for our purposes is what can we expect from Kuechly in the Panthers' 4-3 scheme? While the Panthers have two productive and established linebackers in James Anderson and Jon Beason, the Panthers' heavy investment in Kuechly suggests that he'll be an immediate on-field factor for the team. Kuechly's combination of size and athleticism affords defensive coordinator Sean McDermott the freedom to plug the rook in at any of the three starting 'backer positions. With the ability to shed blockers well with his hands and instinctive closing ability, don't be surprised if Kuechly wins the job as the middle linebacker, as we've seen incumbent middle man Beason move to the outside before. Drafting Kuechly as your second linebacker, no matter what starting role he earns come September, is a solid investment in redraft leagues. In keeper and dynasty leagues, we could be looking at a young Zach Thomas here, so draft him high and accordingly in these situations.
Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers: In many ways 2011 was the "Year of the Rookie" in the NFL, in large part thanks to Cam Newton's brilliant first run through the league (and many end zones). But it was also a special year of debuts on the defensive side, namely for Von Miller and Aldon Smith, who tallied 11½ and 14 sacks, respectively, in their first seasons donning the crest. Another 3-4 outside linebacker with similar potential to collapse pockets and hunt signal-callers is Ingram, a talent out of South Carolina drafted with the 18th pick by the Bolts. Ingram has a unique and stocky build in the mold of James Harrison, and thankfully also possesses the speed and lateral agility that have made Harrison such a menace over the years. With the Chargers desperate to revive their pass rush, expect Ingram to start on the outside opposite savvy vet Shaun Phillips immediately with free rein to pursue the backfield for that guy who throws the ball. Ingram brings breakout potential and will come at the cost of a depth linebacker in drafts.
Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots: This young duo was drafted to help revitalize Bill Belichick's depleted front seven. Jones shot up boards in the weeks leading up to the draft thanks to his rare blend of size, speed and amazing wingspan. Comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul certainly didn't hurt, either. To be fair, Jones remains somewhat raw, and like Pierre-Paul, could face some transition time as a rookie. Expect Jones to line up as an outside 'backer and possibly even play some with his hand on the ground as Belichick learns how to play with his new toy. Also expect Jones to have some value as a twilight pick in fantasy drafts with the potential to emerge as a big-play sack threat as he, and the season, matures. Hightower is an intriguing player for an inside linebacker role, who could have a more immediate real and fantasy impact this year. Hightower makes for a nice depth addition with the potential to emerge as a fantasy starter.
Other notable rookie linebackers: Courtney Upshaw should see the field right away in Baltimore and could take some of his draft angst out on opposing QBs. There are few better landing spots for his skill set, and a solid blend of tackles and sacks could be the result. … Mychal Kendricks is a rangy and instinctive 'backer who should see the field on the strong side for the Eagles. Expect a nice tackle clip with the potential to gain some value as an outside blitzer thanks to his elite speed. … Lavonte David is another instant-impact talent who will fit nicely manning the outside lanes in Tampa's 4-3. … Zach Brown could become a valuable source for tackles on Tennessee's young, but talented, front seven. … If he can find the field early for the Browns, James-Michael Johnson could emerge as a solid inside 'backer in deeper leagues.
Mark Barron, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs needed help all over the field, and adding the draft's top safety is a key start to rebuilding the roster. As a proven leader in Alabama's complicated defensive scheme, Barron should thrive as a starter from day one in Tampa. He's capable of supporting the run in the box and capping off lanes to opposing tailbacks. Barron reminds many of the Saints' Roman Harper, in that he's an instinctive stopper and quality hitter in the run department, with enough skills in coverage to stay on the field no matter the scenario. Consider Barron as your second defensive back with the potential to provide DB1 production.
Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings: Smith brings quality size and respectable athleticism to the field for a Vikings team that was starved for talent in the secondary. He can likely man either safety spot, but would be best served playing the strong spot, relying on his versatile abilities to support the run and provide competent coverage to help the Vikings improve on their porous defense. Draft Smith in the later rounds as a depth addition with upside.
Other notable defensive backs: The Cowboys' bold move to net Morris Claiborne could prove to be an impact move that resonates for the next decade given his potential to become a true shutdown corner, but for fantasy purposes, it's difficult to endorse him as an immediate investment. The transition period for corners is traditionally a bit more severe than for linebackers and safeties, for example. In deep leagues and keeper formats, there is certainly value here. … Stephon Gilmore of Buffalo could provide some added value in the return game for leagues that reward such production. … If George Iloka can net a starting gig in Cincinnati, he could be the breakout rookie of the entire class, both from a real and fantasy perspective.
Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks: It's not wise to expect much from a fantasy perspective from first-year linemen. Historically it's a position that requires more time and grooming until production meets potential. There are, of course, exceptions, and Irvin might be one in that he'll likely get a solid share of work as an end in the Seattle system. While many draft pundits concluded that Irvin was a reach by the Seahawks, don't do the same in your fantasy drafts, and wait it out on Irvin as a twilight selection or even a free-agent target in the early weeks of the season.
Notable defensive linemen: Fletcher Cox will likely serve a stronger real role than a fantasy one, but given his ability to get deep into the backfield in college he could become a nice depth addition for leagues that specifically roster the DT position. … Andre Branch is a bit raw but could see the field early in Jacksonville given the dearth of pass-rush talent on the current roster. … It's too early to tell how Chicago will use Shea McClellin, but if he does see some time as a 4-3 end in the Bears' system opposite of Julius Peppers, some nice sack numbers could emerge. … The jury is still out on whether Nick Perry will stand up or play with a hand on the ground for Green Bay, but given that the Packers might toggle him to figure this out on the field, his value as a hybrid fantasy commodity could materialize.