It was a fantastic experience writing the Fantasy Football 101 Series and I thank you for your participation. It is still early in the off-season, and many of us are still stinging from the NFC Championship game loss, and most of our focus is glued to the protracted labor negotiations that are(n't) going on. With all of that in mind though, as CEO Ted Phillips put it, "Our immediate focus is on preparing for the draft.". With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the draft's top Fantasy Prospects for 2011 (Assuming we have a 2011 season).
Trying to predict which rookies will make a fantasy splash is harder than winning the lottery. If the draft is a crapshoot, then imagine trying to predict specific 1st year accomplishments. With that in mind, we can look at what the teams will look at: who has the physical ability to excel at the next level; who has the track record of football skills and success to move up to the pro level; and what impact different teams will have on the players' opportunities. Remember, success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. Without further adieu, your 2011 draftees in waiting:
Quarterbacks: This is often the hardest position to get real quality production out of rookie year. Even when first year starters have success (Ryan, Flacco, Bradford), it rarely equates to stunning statistics, so its good to temper expectations here. Guys like Blaine Gabbert, Cam Newton, Ryan Mallet, and maybe even Jake Locker, Andy Dalton, or Christian Ponder may find themselves with a real chance to compete for a starting job. That does not mean they will have a chance to be year 1 fantasy starters, however. If you are in a Dynasty League, then this matters more - you are in essence looking for a QB of the future. That will depend on where the QB lands and for now that should guide your focus. I would keep my eyes peeled for whomever the Vikings draft because Percy Harvin, Adrian Peterson, potentially Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe make a good pool of receiving talent and offensive support. Arizona is another place to watch, as Larry Fitzgerald will take a decent QB and drag him to the next level, and Steve Breaston is a nice complimentary piece. If you are in a dynasty league, consider Gabbert, Mallet and Newton as "3rd QB" developmental options. If you are in a short-term keeper or standard league, consider these QBs nearly last in your rankings for backups. One could surprise, but I doubt any hit fantasy success in 2011.
Running Backs: In 2008, we had 1st year studs like Ray Rice, Matt Forte, and Chris Johnson. 2009 was a disappointment with Donald Brown, Beanie Wells and Knowshon Moreno all failing to make a starter impact, but all put up good #2-#3 numbers at some point. In 2010, C.J. Spiller was a fantasy dud while Ryan Matthews and Jahvid Best were oft injured... Still, Best and Matthews put up some decent games and were worth owning as a 3rd-4th option. This year, I would expect Mark Ingram to be an immediate starter, with a hat tip to Mikel LeShoure, Ryan Williams, and DeMarco Murray. Depending on who drafts them, Shane Vereen and Da'Rel Scott may get enough carries too. People tend to overdraft projected rookie starters, so temper expectations, but I think Ingram would be worth a shot as a #3 back on your roster, if not a #2 depending on how your draft falls. If their NFL team looks ready to start them, consider LeShoure, Williams, and Murray as #4 backs and if you go 5 deep, add Scott, Vereen, and Hunter to that list. If you are in a dynasty league, however, you need to upgrade Ingram, LeShoure, and Murray to potential future full-time #1 backs.
Wide Receivers: I think this class will give us something unique: multiple first year starters. A starting wide receiver with a high ceiling will be equal to a #3-#4 receiver for your fantasy roster, however, so don't go drafting these folks early. A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Torrey Smith, Leonard Hankerson, Jon Baldwin and Titus Young will all get significant first year snaps. Consider Green and Jones #3 options, and the rest listed as #4-#5 options. Depending on the team that lands them, Edmond Gates, Greg Little, Terrence Toliver, and Tandon Doss may also see first year snaps, but look at them more as #5-UDFA options. If you are in a dynasty league, this is all about who the "QB of the future" is. We saw the impact a bad QB had on Fitzgerald, so look for any of the first list that go to a team who is set at QB, even if it's a young guy - watch the Rams especially, and the Bears, both of who MAY be looking for long term true "#1 receivers" to go with their QB investments. I would also watch New England, who may be looking for a big time compliment to Welker. If I owned a Dynasty league team, and saw Green, Jones, or Hankerson end up in St. Louis, or a similarly talented player hit Chicago, they would immediately become a priority target for me.
Tight Ends: 2010 showed us Tight End Rookie success in New England and Kansas City. Still, this is a weak class for receiving tight ends, and I have low expectations. I wouldn't draft a rookie TE this year, unless one becomes an instant starter for a team with a good QB once camps shake out. Watch St. Louis, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. If they get a receiving tight end and put him in a starting role, they may be worth having as a backup, in case they become a consistent red zone threat. Watch Kyle Rudolph and Lance Kendricks, but this would be a VERY late draft pick, and probably one I would argue belongs as a FA pick up after they prove something.
IDP: The biggest rookie impacts in fantasy come from Running Backs, but Defensive Players are a close second and fighting more and more for the top spot. Defensive Ends don't usually give much their first year statistically, but Defensive Tackles like Ndamukong Suh can really be nice options. Outside Linebackers rarely warrant drafting, but Middle Linebackers who start year 1 on can be fantasy studs early and often, and defensive backs can really give some good output their first season. With that in mind, let's take a look.
Martez Wilson may be a first year starter at ILB, and if he is, he is likely worthy of a backup role in IDP leagues. Colin McCarthy, on the right team, might be another first year starter. At ILB, both may be in line for 75+ tackles, assuming they start week 1 on. I would draft Marcell Dareus or Nick Fairley as a backup DT this year, and in a dynasty league I might grab them as a starter. Liuget could be another one to watch, but as a backup as well. Stephen Paea may be in the best position, because his run-stopping power may give him the non-sexy, but all important fantasy stats - Tackles
Defensive Backs are a whole new ballgame. Patrick Peterson, Prince Amukamara, Jimmy Smith, and Brandon Harris may all start day 1. Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown are right there too. Those first three (Peterson, Amukamara, and Smith) are long term starters from the get go and deserve to be on teams as the #3-4 DB option. In Dynasty leagues, I'd consider them solid #2's for your roster. I'd take Brown over Williams because of his run support abilities. The Safety class is weak this year, and its stud tackling safeties, not ball hawking ones, that usually end up as the best fantasy options (Ed Reed aside). If you see a 80+ tackle Safety in the draft, feel free, but I do not endorse any from this year's class for Fantasy as Rookie performers.
Final Note: The team these players go to will dramatically impact their fantasy value. Remember, it doesn't matter how good they are, it's how they will fare in 2011 statistically that matters... Except for Dynasty leagues, where you should monitor the long term expectations as well. Either way, keep in mind that your expectations have to be tempered against how you think these guys will perform compared to their veteran counterparts. Six hundred yards receiving is a good rookie year, but is it better than what you can get from veteran players at your #3-#4 spot? With that in mind, watch for a sister article after the draft to look at where guys fit once we know their teams.
Things to come: A Year in Review: 2010 (5 part series), Post-Draft Fantasy Update, Fantasy Football Team Reports (8 part series, by division), Fantasy Football Q&A session