By James LoPresti
Lead Fantasy Writer
I took a gamble on him in the third round. Though being mocked by my draft buddies, I took another flyer in the fifth. They were risky picks. Despite what team sources were saying, the truth is that neither were assured a full-time role. If they succeeded, I knew I’d have a solid chance to compete for the fantasy playoffs. If they were a bust, I’d be hearing it from the league mates the rest of the year. For the last pick, I chose a wide receiver, just to fill depth, though I expected him to land on the waiver wire within a week.
Drafting rookies for fantasy is hit-or-miss. It’s similar to how the NFL works. Most fizzle, some provide depth, but nothing earth-shattering. A select few make a true impact. When I drafted Trent Richardson in the third, Doug Martin in the fifth, and T.Y. Hilton in the final round, I was drafting on faith…faith that how they played in college would translate well to the NFL.
Each year, April’s NFL draft (next year, May, ugh!) is one of the highlights of the offseason. After the top picks, the head-scratchers, and draft-day trades, just about everyone has an opinion on their teams’ picks and how they will impact rosters going forward. The same can be said for fantasy analysis. The players that are drafted into favorable situations are the ones on everyone’s fantasy radar. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were obvious choices in 2012. But what about Russell Wilson, Alfred Morris, and Colin Kaepernick (who didn’t get his chance till week 10)?
There’s always going to be rookies who fly under the radar on draft day. All it takes is an injury to a starter (Kaepernick’s case), or a strong training camp for them to show coaches they offer more incentive than veteran players (Wilson, Morris). Here’s a list of guys to key an eye out for when drafting:
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: Of all the rookies, Ball is considered by most pundits to have the best chance to take over the starting running back job by week 1. With Willis McGahee gone, and Knowshon Moreno recovering from offseason knee surgery, only second-year speedster Ronnie Hillman is opposing Ball. However, Ball fits Denver’s smash-mouth style better than anyone else on the roster. The Doak Walker Award winner (nation’s top RB) carried the ball an average of 23 times a game during his senior season, amassing 1832 yards and 22 touchdowns. At worst, he’ll share carries, but because of his size and strength, he’ll likely receive most of the red zone touches. My prognosis: He’s in an ideal system with Peyton Manning at the helm. His durability and strong hands make him reliable, and his nose for the end zone leads me to believe he will have a strong rookie year. Draft him as early as round 3.
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams: Barring a preseason injury, he’ll be starting in the slot week 1. The Rams traded up for him, so you can bet they’ll incorporate him into the offense as much as possible. However, his durability is an issue, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. He’s 5-foot-9, 174 pounds, and that’s probably being generous. His college numbers are also skewed – including screens, 78% of his receptions were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Additionally, he’ll be competing for touches with speedy second-year receivers Chris Givens and Brian Quick, as well as newly acquired tight end Jared Cook. Austin is electric with the football in his hands, but temper your expectations. Forecast: 45 catches, 760 yards, four touchdowns.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Bell is the proto-typical bruising running back Steelers teams are known for using. He was a workhorse at Michigan State, but at times, had trouble hitting the hole and converting short third and fourth down attempts. Still, at 244 pounds, Steelers’ coaches are saying he is capable of being a three-down back. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer squandered chances to become the full-time starter, and though their below-average play could be attributed to a poor offensive line, Bell’s blocking skills and soft hands give him the advantage going into camp. Prediction: A healthy offensive line and a solid passing attack will open up holes for this grinder – 1,006 yards, nine touchdowns.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati OC Jay Gruden has said he plans on using a two tight end offense with Jermaine Gresham and Eifert each being heavily involved. Two tight end systems have been effective recently, most notably Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as the duo of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Be careful drafting Eifert as your starting tight end, but he should produce enough to warrant a roster spot. Projection: 55 catches, 670 yards, five touchdowns.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: Quick trivia – Who was Green Bay’s leading rusher last season? (The Packers used five over the course of the year) – If you guessed James Starks, (like me) you would be wrong. It’s former University of Hawaii running back Alex Green. Of the five backs the Packers used, Green was the only one to carry the ball more than 100 times! With Lacy, the Packers get a hard-nosed wrecking ball who has the size – 5-11, 230 pounds – to run between tackles and the stamina to be an every-down back. The knock on Lacy is that he doesn’t have break-away speed, and he fought hamstring issues his senior year at Alabama. He’ll also have to contend with fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin, though he seems more fit in a third-down role. Observations: Lacy is in prime position to receive most of the carries, including those in goal-to-go situations, which in an offense as prolific as Green Bay’s, should be many, many opportunities. In early mock drafts, he’s being selected after Ball and Bell, and could prove to be a bigger steal come draft day.
Aaron Dobson, WR, New England Patriots: When you’ve got Tom Brady, it doesn’t matter who the receivers are. If Brady can have a Pro Bowl year with the likes of David Patten and Troy Brown at wide receiver, he can do it with anyone. New England brought in Danny Amendola to serve as a Wes Welker clone, and as of today, Dobson, Julian Edelman, Kamar Aiken, and Michael Jenkins are in the mix for the No. 2 role. Edelman has the most experience in New England’s system, but Dobson overmatches him in size and skill set. He stands 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he was clocked at 4.40 at the NFL Combine. The Boston Globe reported July 27 that Dobson began working with the first team during practice and saw time on the outside and in the slot. With the status of Rob Gronkowski up in the air for week 1, Dobson could be a viable fantasy option from the get-go. He’s looking like a great value pick late in drafts.
Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Bernard might be my favorite rookie to watch in the preseason. He’s assured a role in the offense, and he’ll be a PPR (points per reception) machine, but he’s stuck behind the law firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, for full-time carries. And, as crazy as it sounds, he shouldn’t be. He’s arguably the most versatile running back in this year’s class. At 5-foot-8, 202 pounds, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry over his two seasons at North Carolina, caught 92 passes, and returned two punts for touchdowns his senior season. He has burner speed, makes quick cuts, and has the size to run between the tackles. I expect Bernard to begin the year in a 60-40 split, with Green-Ellis nabbing most of the goal line carries, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he explodes off the scene and takes over the starting role by midseason. Prediction: He’s a must-grab handcuff to every Green-Ellis owner, and a solid flex play for players in PPR leagues.