Fantasy owners who rode Vince Young or Maurice Jones-Drew to a playoff berth last season know just how valuable rookies can be in fantasy football. The problem is, for every Jones-Drew there are several players (think LenDale White in 2006) who are highly touted before the season but fail to make a significant dent on the fantasy landscape.
Much of a rookie's chances for success depend on where he lands in the draft. Middle-round players with an opportunity to start are often more valuable than high-profile first-rounders buried on the depth chart.
For example, Kansas City took Larry Johnson in the first round in 2003, but he sat behind Priest Holmes and managed just 85 rushing yards in six games. On the other hand, Domanick Davis, who was the 101st overall pick that season, stepped into a shaky Houston backfield and totaled 1,382 yards and eight touchdowns.
With that in mind, we will take a look at the top players and analyze who stands the best chance to make a fantasy impact in 2007.
JaMarcus Russell (LSU, 6-6, 255): Russell heads the quarterback class and all signs seem to indicate that Oakland will grab the big gunslinger with the top overall pick. Russell is less polished than Brady Quinn, but his tremendous arm strength reportedly has the Raiders brass drooling over his potential. His jaw-dropping Pro Day performance left some onlookers declaring his arm stronger than that of any current NFL quarterback. Russell might start slow in Oakland - especially if Randy Moss, Jerry Porter, or both depart this offseason - but he has the physical tools to become a fantasy force within a few years.
Brady Quinn (Notre Dame, 6-3, 224): After several weeks of watching his stock drop, Quinn turned in a strong performance at the Irish's Pro Day, elevating him back into the discussion at the top of the draft. He brings strength and toughness along with good intangibles and arm strength, but can occasionally get erratic with his throws. Detroit or Cleveland could snag Quinn with the No. 2 or No. 3 picks, but if he slips past the Browns he might fall to Minnesota or Houston with picks No. 7 or No. 8. Quinn's experience in Charlie Weis' pro-style system could allow for a smooth transition to the NFL as a rookie if he lands in the right situation.
Drew Stanton (Michigan State, 6-3, 226): Stanton could potentially be great, but inconsistency plagued him throughout his collegiate career. He has the tools needed to succeed in the NFL - size, arm strength, competitiveness - but must prove that he can harness those tools on a consistent basis. He probably won't have much fantasy value in 2007, but could eventually develop into a starter.
Troy Smith (Ohio State, 6-0, 222): Smith's less-than-ideal height and disappointing 40-yard dash time (4.7) at his Pro Day have likely dropped him to the middle rounds. The Heisman Trophy winner has displayed good on-field speed and elusiveness, and his accuracy improved as he matured (a 30-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2006). Teams like Carolina or Philadelphia, which have veteran signal-callers but are looking for a young quarterback for the future, might target Smith. His chances of seeing significant playing time in 2007 are low, but his decision-making and athletic ability should provide him with a chance to start in a year or two.
Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma, 6-2, 219): There's a lot to like about Peterson. He runs with power, quickness, and explosiveness. However, Peterson never made it through an injury-free season in college, making his durability a valid concern for some clubs. Cleveland might select him at No. 3 despite the recent signing of Jamal Lewis, who is not considered a long-term solution. The teams picking after the Browns don't have major voids at running back, but if Peterson slips past Cleveland, we might see a team move up to take him. Regardless of where he winds up, Peterson has a chance to be an excellent NFL runner if he stays healthy, and could develop into a viable fantasy option in his rookie season.
Marshawn Lynch (California, 5-11, 218): Lynch is likely to get snatched off the board sometime during the first half of Round One. Green Bay is frequently mentioned as a possible destination for the Cal product, considered to be a powerful runner who is difficult to take down. With Ahman Green leaving the frozen tundra for Houston, Lynch would have a golden opportunity to become the Packers' feature back. Buffalo is also in need of a running back after trading Willis McGahee and could target Lynch with the No. 12 pick.
Michael Bush (Louisville, 6-2, 251): Bush is one of the most interesting prospects at any position in this year's draft. He was expected to be a Heisman Trophy contender in 2006, but broke his leg in Louisville's season opener and missed the rest of the season. His terrific combo of size, speed, and patience has NFL scouts praising his potential, but many teams will likely be hesitant to pull the trigger on a player coming off a major injury. Bush will probably come off the board in the second round, but will have first-round value if he is able to return to his pre-injury form. Keep your eye on him as a possible fantasy sleeper.
Antonio Pittman (Ohio State, 5-11, 198): Pittman's lack of bulk will scare some teams away from the Ohio State product. However, Pittman possesses tremendous patience and uses his good balance to break tackles, both inside and outside. Many teams filled their running back vacancies through free agency, but expect Pittman to come off the board near the end of Day One and provide solid production wherever he lands. He probably doesn't have the size to be an every-down back in the NFL, but should be a serviceable role player.
Kenny Irons (Auburn, 5-11, 198): Irons is the latest product of an Auburn running back factory that has churned out Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, and Ronnie Brown in recent years. A natural runner with good vision, Irons lacks prototypical size and strength. His numbers dropped across the board in 2006 after a stellar 2005 campaign, leading some to believe he could be a one-year wonder. Irons' ability to be a full-time NFL back is debatable, so expectations for his rookie season should be tempered.
Tony Hunt (Penn State, 6-2, 239): Hunt is a typical black-and-blue, grind-it-out Big 10 running back. A punishing runner, Hunt's size and strength make him difficult to take down on first contact. He will never be confused for a speedy runner, and his lack of quickness will probably prevent him from being a star in the NFL. Yet his toughness and durability make Hunt a solid choice for a team looking for a power back in the middle rounds. He could steal some goal-line touches as a rookie and power his way to a few touchdowns.
Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech, 6-4, 225): Considered by many to be the best player in the entire draft, Johnson appears to be destined for NFL success. Think Terrell Owens without the attitude. His ability to make terrific grabs in the midst of double- and triple-coverage stems from his tremendous leaping ability, size, hand strength, and ball skills. Johnson will not drop further than Tampa Bay with the No. 4 pick, but could go as high as No. 1. Remember, Jon Gruden coaxed a 1,193-yard rookie season out of Michael Clayton, so watch out for Johnson if he becomes a Buccaneer.
Dwayne Jarrett (USC, 6-4, 210): Jarrett's solid 6-5 frame and large, soft hands make him a dominant target in traffic and over the middle. However, the USC product lacks elites speed and occasionally struggles to separate from defenders. Depending on how he runs at the Trojans' Pro Day, Jarrett could go in the Top 15 or tumble to the end of the first round. While he likely won't begin the season as a starter, Jarrett could climb into the lineup if he shows he's capable of getting open in the NFL. Rookie receivers rarely make a significant fantasy impact, but Jarrett could begin posting some decent stats by season's end.
Ted Ginn Jr. (Ohio State, 6-0, 180): In terms of pure speed among this year's receiving group, Ginn leads the pack. Few defenders can keep pace with his explosive initial burst. However, physical cornerbacks can often cause trouble for Ginn, who doesn't have the strength to fight through bump-and-run coverage. Even if he never becomes a true No. 1 receiver, Ginn will be a threat to score whenever he is on the field. Receiver-hungry teams like Minnesota, Jacksonville, San Francisco, or Tennessee would love to grab the ultra-quick Ginn in the first round.
Dwayne Bowe (LSU, 6-2, 222): Bowe isn't as polished as some of the other top-flight receiving prospects, but has the potential to become a productive NFL receiver. His size and willingness to be physical allow him to overpower smaller defenders. Despite a lack of exceptional speed, Bowe finds ways to get open, and will likely find a niche as a No. 2 receiver in the NFL. He is raw, so don't expect him to be a major contributor immediately, but look for Bowe to start making some noise near the end of 2007.
Robert Meachem (Tennessee, 6-3, 210): Meachem entered the draft after his junior year, but could have benefited from another season at the college level. For a large receiver he possess good speed, but struggles going over the middle and needs to improve his route running. Meachem will have to become more physical in the NFL, but his ability to create plays after the catch should make him a first-round selection.
Steve Smith (USC, 5-11, 195): An unexpected 4.45 time in the 40 pushed Smith into first-round consideration. He's a smallish receiver and won't blow by anyone with his speed, but Smith's precise route running outshines all of the other first-round prospects. He is polished enough to contribute right away as a slot receiver in the right situation.
Sidney Rice (South Carolina, 6-4, 195): Rice is another early entry who could have been a much higher pick had he stayed in college another year. Rice has excellent athleticism and ball skills, but runs lackluster routes and won't make a lot of plays after the catch. He will take time to adjust to the NFL, so his rookie totals will be mediocre at best. With some development however, Rice could emerge as a viable threat.
Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio State, 6-0, 195): Overshadowed by Ted Ginn in Ohio State's offense, Gonzalez is actually the more NFL-ready prospect. He runs sharp routes and uses his quickness to separate from defenders. Gonzalez won't begin the year as a starter, but his work ethic and willingness to block could give him some opportunities if he lands with the right team.
Greg Olsen (Miami, 6-5, 251): Olsen ran a blazing sub-4.50 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, propelling him to the top of the tight end class. Olsen has the size, speed, and hands needed to make a fantasy impact as a rookie. The Panthers or Bengals might pluck him off the board in the first round to fill their long-standing needs for a superior pass-catching tight end. If given the opportunity to start, Olsen could emerge as a fantasy starter out of the gate.
Zach Miller (Arizona State, 6-5, 258): Miller has the best hands of any tight end in the draft. He runs precise routes but doesn't possess the elite speed that Olsen does. As a likely second-round pick, Miller will contribute as a rookie. However, he might not see enough opportunities to warrant fantasy consideration.
Mason Crosby (Colorado, 6-1, 214): Crosby has an incredibly powerful leg and will be the first kicker off the board on draft day. Consistently accurate from 50-plus yards, Crosby could become an above-average fantasy kicker in his rookie season.
Article first appeared 3/18/07