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NFL Rated Rookies: Thomas and Ingram atop the fantasy ranks

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Thomas

This is, for obvious reasons, a ridiculous time to produce NFL fantasy ranks. Free agency is on hold, as is the league itself. But at least the draft is complete, so we have a few murky, half-formed ideas about the needs and strengths of each franchise. We can also begin to speculate about the statistical contributions various NFL rookies will make in 2011, assuming there's actually a season.

Thus, each of the Yahoo! experts was recently asked to rank this year's draft class for fantasy purposes. Below you'll find our early NFL rookie composite rankings, based on contributions from Brandon Funston, Brad Evans, Scott Pianowski, Michael Salfino and myself. We shouldn't need to remind you that first-year skill players make an impact in the fake game every season, and the real gems aren't necessarily top-of-draft selections. Think LeGarrette Blount, Jacoby Ford, Aaron Hernandez and Mike Williams in 2010. This year will be no different. Let's rank...

1. Daniel Thomas, RB, MIA — Miami traded three draft picks to Washington — a third, fifth and seventh-rounder — in order to move up to No. 62 overall, where they nabbed Thomas. He's an every-down back from Kansas State, a physical yet fluid runner with legit receiving skills. The 230-pound Thomas broke the plane 30 times over two seasons at K-State, gaining a total of 2,850 yards on the ground (5.2 YPC) and another 428 through the air. Naturally, he has some Wildcat experience on the resume. And then there's this...

A team-issued bio says Thomas has "pro-caliber arm strength" while noting he was originally recruited by Kansas State as a quarterback.

"At Kansas State, they had me throwing a lot, so I feel like if I'm called to do that, I can definitely do it," Thomas said. "I'm good for three or four passes."

But don't be too distracted by the gimmick potential here. Thomas is a talented runner and he'll get a serious workload — remember, both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are free agents. Thomas may not have high-end speed, but the rest of his skill set is solid. Check the tape (and please enjoy the soundtrack). In each of the past three seasons, Miami has finished among the top-third of the league in rush attempts. There's a clear opportunity for Thomas to achieve every-week starting status. -Behrens

2. Mark Ingram, RB, NO — Don't be fooled by the logjam in the New Orleans backfield. The Saints traded up to pick Ingram and the incumbents are easy to discredit. Christopher Ivory doesn't have the full skill set to be a starter; the Saints don't trust Pierre Thomas to handle a heavy workload; Reggie Bush can't run between the tackles (and makes too much money. If he won't take a cut, he's probably gone). Ingram isn't going to give you a lot of breakaway runs, but he's a consistent pile-mover and a versatile runner, and his blocking and pass-catching skills render him usable in all situations. He's also the type of body you want at the goal line, someone who can make a positive gain even when the hole doesn't develop. Ingram steps into one of the NFL's best and most stable offenses and he'll be facing defenses that are primarily concerned with Drew Brees and the passing attack. Add it all up and the Alabama product will probably be a weekly fantasy starter right away. -Pianowski

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LeShoure

3. Mikel Leshoure, RB, DET — Loyal Arcade readers will roll their eyes about me singing the praises of yet another Illinois running product. Over the years, much propaganda about Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall has been spewed. But Leshoure deserves to be hyped. Though not nearly as talented, the Illini's other No. 5 is more NFL ready at this point in his career than Mendenhall was, primarily due to his plus execution against the blitz.

When carrying the ball, Leshoure is a runaway bull, strong enough to carry tacklers for sizable gains. Last year during his junior season, he broke Mendenhall's single season school rushing record (1,697 yards), averaging a robust 6.0 yards per carry. Leshoure's speed is far from elite — he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the Combine — but his ankle-breaking stutter-step, versatility, burst to the corner and size are reminiscent of Arian Foster (Visual evidence here). Overall, he's an ideal thunder back in Detroit's one-cut system. His lone knock: An upright running style that could lead to occasionally nicks and scrapes.

Jahvid Best will still be heavily involved in the Lions' gameplan. However, the former first rounder's questionable durability and exceptional receiving skills should lead him to work exclusively on passing downs. Leshoure is bound to receive 13-18 carries per game, including all goal-line touches. If Matthew Stafford can remain upright, creating exploitable situations for the run, Leshoure should develop into a top-end RB3 in 12-team leagues capable of 1,150 total yards and 6-9 touchdowns. Pound the orange Kool-Aid in the middle rounds. -Evans

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Jones

4. Julio Jones, WR, ATL — He's an inch shorter than A.J. Green, but jumped four inches higher at the NFL Combine and also posted a sub-4.4 time in the 40. Most importantly, he has a proven QB in Matt Ryan. He'll likely need to be drafted on quality rather than quantity at the position, given that Roddy White will soak up a solid majority of wide receiver targets. Atlanta's pass percentage on first down and overall was about league average. But that rate should increase given that the Falcons are very likely to regress from last year's 13 wins. (That goes for all high-achieving teams, as the accepted formula is six wins for every team to start, plus .25 wins for every prior year victory — meaning 10.25 for the 2011 Falcons). Jones has the size and stature to play better in the red zone, replacing Tony Gonzalez as the primary weapon there. He should be drafted as a weak 3/strong 4 wideout, meaning his upside is about one slot higher (weak 2/strong 3). -Salfino

5. AJ Green, WR, CIN — On draft night, speculation was that the Bengals drafted Green as an olive branch to disgruntled QB Carson Palmer, who says he has enough money in the bank for the rest of his life — which is too short to play one more minute in Cincinnati. But the next day, with their second round pick, the Bengals drafted QB Andy Dalton. There's just too much uncertainty at the position to make a significant fantasy investment in Green. Don't be suckered in by comparison's to fellow 6-foot-4 receiver Randy Moss. You'll go broke quick banking on rookie wideouts to be anything approaching that. Note also that Green ran a not-so-special 4.5 40, a step slower than Moss in his prime. In standard formats, he's a run-of-the-mill No. 4 receiver. -Salfino

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Williams

6. Ryan Williams, RB, ARI — The Cardinals had Williams rated as the 15th best player in the draft. They had plenty of seemingly greater needs than running back, yet they opted for Williams anyway. That tells me that they plan to make Williams their guy as soon as possible. Beanie Wells has been about as erratic as they come in his short tenure in Arizona, and it's clear that he's not going to win a coaches award any time soon. In fact, Williams' arrival could be the beginning of the end for Wells in the desert.

As for Williams, watch his tape and you'll see that he easily passes the eye test — patience, great vision, full-speed change of direction and strong legs that make it hard to take him down. On draft day, after the Cardinals picked Williams, Jon Gruden couldn't stifle a gasp as video rolled of Williams making one gravity-defying cut after another. Williams is a complete back, top-to-bottom, and assuming Arizona adds a competent QB in free agency to help expand the box, Williams is going to impress from Day 1. If he curbs his fumble issues, he's my choice to be the best back of this class. -Funston

7. Roy Helu, RB, WAS — You basically can't find a scouting report on Helu that fails to describe him as a solid one-cut runner, an ideal Shanahan back. (The first sentence from Rivals, to cite one example: "Can stick his foot in the dirt and go.") Given the quality of the competition in Washington, the 6-foot, 220-pound Nebraska rookie has a clear opportunity to emerge as a featured ball carrier. Helu was a monster at the NFL Combine, particularly in the speed/agility categories, but some will argue that his tangibles are more impressive than his intangibles. He was an effective committee back at Nebraska, and could fill a similar role for Washington. -Behrens

After Helu, we were really all over the place in our ranks. Ten additional rookies received top-10 votes, none near the top of anyone's board. Here are the honorable mentions: RB DeMarco Murray, DAL; RB Shane Vereen, NE; WR Jon Baldwin, KC; RB Delone Carter, IND; QB Cam Newton, CAR; TE Lance Kendricks, STL; WR Leonard Hankerson, WAS; WR Randall Cobb, GB; QB Jake Locker, TEN; RB Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL.

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