Draft 2013: Impact Rookies

Adam Levitan
May 8, 2013
Draft 2013: Impact Rookies
Adam Levitan ranks the 20 rookies most likely to have a fantasy impact this season. Eddie Lacy came in at No. 3

When evaluating a rookie class for a Dynasty draft, it's all about talent and durability. Re-draft fantasy leagues, however, are a totally different animal. We need talented players, but more importantly we need ones that will have a chance to contribute right away. At positions such as quarterback and wide receiver, that doesn't usually happen.

Last season was a bit of an aberration at the quarterback spot. Three rookies (Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson) finished among the top-10 at their position. Running back was truer to historical form as Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson ranked second, fifth and ninth respectively. There were no wideouts or tight ends among the top-10 fantasy scorers at their positions.

With that in mind, let's get to the very promising 2013 class. This is how I'd rank the rookies if we were drafting today:

1. Montee Ball, RB, Broncos
At first glance, Denver’s depth chart looks crowded. We’ll see how long that lasts. Both Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno are candidates for release at some point before Week 1, which would leave Ball as the top dog. Undersized 2012 third-rounder Ronnie Hillman has been pegged as a simple change-of-pace option. Ball’s absurd 924 carries at Wisconsin aren’t a short-term concern, and they might not be a long-term concern either. Kevin Smith flamed out in the NFL after 905 NCAA carries, but LaDainian Tomlinson (943 carries at TCU) and Ray Rice (910 carries at Rutgers) are pictures of durability.  John Elway is already comparing Ball’s running style to Terrell Davis’.

2. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell didn’t jump off the screen while at Michigan State, failing to show much lateral quickness while averaging 4.99 YPC. But he always falls forward, plays well in the passing game and packs a punch at 230 pounds. The Steelers haven’t been shy about letting the world know he’s going to be their new workhorse. Check out these quotes from the week after the draft:

“This is a big guy that can play like a big back, and yet also can get outside some and catch the ball,” OC Todd Haley said. “(He’s) a three-down back, which is big for us.”

Haley also said Bell has “Eddie George physical traits. … He looks like a workhorse back. He’s not a guy that you’d shy away from giving it to him 30 times per game.”

Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are just complementary pieces at this point. Bell doesn’t have the most talent among this year’s rookie runners, but he has the clearest path to touches.

3. Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
Once regarded as the obvious No. 1 running back in the draft, Lacy slipped to No. 61 overall and watched three backs go before him. We have to ask why. During the free-fall, PFT reported that Lacy’s slide arose “from both injuries and a perception that he lacks the passion necessary to play pro football at a high level.” In the draft’s aftermath, it was revealed that the Steelers “wouldn’t touch” him because his big toe had been fused during a 2012 surgery. Perhaps the Packers themselves weren’t completely sold on Lacy’s durability, as they traded up to steal UCLA RB Johnathan Franklin at No. 125 overall.

All that is the bad news. The good news is that Lacy played in all 14 games for Alabama after the surgery, averaging 6.48 YPC on 204 totes. He’s also an ideal fit as an early-down pounder in the Packers’ scheme. Before Cedric Benson went down last season, he was averaging 14.2 carries per game. Lacy is infinitely more explosive than CedBen and is also better at the goal line. If he’s truly 100 percent as he claims he is, there’s solid RB2 appeal here in non-PPR formats. The Packers’ offense will generate a ton of potential plunges for Lacy from inside the 5-yard line. Double-digit touchdowns are well within reach.  

4. Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
The Bengals finally gave up on Bernard Scott, identifying their desperate need for big-play back. Enter Bernard, who was the first running back off the board thanks to his 6.7 YPC at North Carolina last season and 4.53 forty at 202 pounds. He’s a gifted athlete whose fantasy appeal down the road is far greater than it is in 2013. For now, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is going to handle the majority of early-down work and short-yardage chances. Bernard projects to mix in and get a series or two to himself each half. Expect something between 170 and 210 total touches this season.  

5. Tavon Austin, WR, Rams
This is the most explosive, dynamic, game-changing rookie. Drawing comparisons to Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb, the 5’8/174 Austin lands with a Rams offense that is desperate for weapons. He’ll immediately take over as the slot receiver and will also get some touches out of the backfield and on returns. But in re-draft (rather than Dynasty), the emphasis will always be on running backs. It’s easier for them to pick up the system and immediately produce. Austin will also be fighting with a suddenly talented pass-catching corps of Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Brian Quick for looks.

6. Johnathan Franklin, RB, Packers
As mentioned above, the Packers took Franklin just two rounds after they took Eddie Lacy. We also documented Lacy’s injury concerns. But even if the Alabama star stays healthy, there will be a role for Franklin as the “lightning” member of the backfield. Graded by many analysts as the draft’s second-best back, Franklin has 4.49 wheels and can play on third downs. He’s going to surprise a lot of folks in Green Bay that are already placing him in Lacy’s shadow.

7. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Hopkins has been handed the starting “Z” job on a silver platter. He literally has no competition for the position vacated by Kevin Walter. So the only question that remains is how much can he produce while playing every snap opposite Andre Johnson? Well, Walter posted a 41/518/2 line on 68 targets last season. Hopkins is faster, runs crisper routes and does more after the catch. Therefore, he’ll get more looks from Matt Schaub and produce more with them. I wouldn’t be shocked if Hopkins outscores Tavon Austin as a rookie.

8. Zac Stacy, RB, Rams
How are the Rams going to fill Steven Jackson’s shoes? With a committee comprised of four guys you’ve probably never heard of. I’d consider 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead the solid favorite to start, but Stacy, Daryl Richardson and maybe even Terrence Ganaway are going to be in the mix as well. Stacy is an all-around back that lasted until the fifth round because he lacks burst. Still, we can’t rule him out of this open competition. He averaged 5.72 YPC over two seasons while running behind an undermanned offensive line against SEC competition. Stacy was routinely hit behind the line of scrimmage.

9. Aaron Dobson, WR, Patriots
The Patriots use very distinct positions for their pass-catchers. Danny Amendola is the “Z” and will be backed up by Julian Edelman. Aaron Hernandez is the flex tight end and Rob Gronkowski is the “Y” tight end. The “X” spot is where it starts to get really interesting.

Last year, Brandon Lloyd was the every-down X. He struggled badly to get on the same page as Tom Brady, but came on late for a 74/911/4 line. Most importantly, he saw a hefty 130 targets. Now that Lloyd has been dumped (and attracted no attention on the open market), the position is open.

The leading candidate is Dobson, a former 6’3/210 basketball player turned sure-handed wideout at Marshall. He only has to beat out smallish burner/fellow rookie Josh Boyce and Molasses Mike Jenkins. If Dobson can impress in the offseason and secure the every-down role, the upside will be tantalizing. Check out Field Yates’ full breakdown of Dobson here.

10. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings
Patterson was the No. 29 overall pick in the draft because of his freakish upside – not his ability to be a difference-maker right away. He spent just one year at Tennessee after transferring from JUCO and is extremely raw as a route-runner. There’s already speculation that the Vikings will have to force-feed him the ball, meaning quick-hitting screens, bubble passes and reverses. Patterson figures to initially play behind Jerome Simpson at the “X” spot in two-wide sets, leaving his re-draft appeal a bit speculative. 11. Mike Gillislee, RB, Dolphins
Gillislee is a bit of a project after spending just one season as a featured runner at Florida. He did run a 4.55 forty and projects to hold his own in NFL pass protection right away. That alone could be enough to unseat current backup Daniel Thomas, whom the current coaching staff is really down on. Thomas has averaged 3.53 YPC in his two-year career and fumbled five times. Lamar Miller is the clear-cut feature back, but has just 51 career NFL carries. There’s room for another back to have a role.  

12. Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs
Here’s a deep sleeper. Kelce, the younger brother of Eagles C Jason Kelce, slipped to the third round of the draft because of character concerns. A 6’5/255 monster with better athletic measurables than Tyler Eifert or Zach Ertz, Kelce has a legit shot to beat out Tony Moeaki and Anthony Fasano for the starting gig in Kansas City. Note that Brent Celek racked up 5.98 targets per game over the last four years while playing for Andy Reid – and those Eagles’ offenses had far more talent.

13. Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
When Stanford’s Ertz torched Oregon for an 11/106/1 line last season, Chip Kelly was watching. The Eagles used the No. 35 overall pick to snatch the fluid pass-catcher, who is too big for corners at 6’5/249 and too fast for linebackers at 4.76. Ertz is more athletic than first-round tight end Tyler Eifert and has a clearer path to playing time. Brent Celek could be released and Clay Harbor is backup-caliber at best. The fact that Ertz is inept as a blocker is actually a good thing for fantasy owners – Kelly knows the kid’s role.

14. Denard Robinson, RB, Jaguars
As a quarterback at Michigan, Robinson rushed 723 times for 4,495 yards (6.21 YPC) with 42 touchdowns. At 5’10/199 with 4.43 wheels and video-game jukes, he’s reminded some of Chris Johnson. The Jags certainly see it that way, as they drafted him to be a running back and have been lining him up with the first-teamers during rookie minicamps. Maurice Jones-Drew is coming off a Lisfranc fracture and Justin Forsett is a journeyman backup type. Robinson is one to watch closely during training camp as the Jags define his exact role.

15. Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers
Only two-thirds of the “Young Money” crew are left, meaning Wheaton will be counting his cash behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. But there’s a hole at that No. 3 spot, where Jerricho Cotchery is a release candidate, Plaxico Burress is 35 years old and tight Heath Miller is coming off a complete knee reconstruction. Wheaton is capable of both playing the slot and burning up corners on vertical routes. He’s one to watch as an in-season waiver add.

16. Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers
On paper, the Chargers’ top-three wideouts are Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown. We can poke holes in each. Alexander has long been one of the league’s most fragile players thanks to five left knee surgeries, Floyd will be 32 years old come Week 1 and Brown has just 19 career catches under his belt. So Allen figures to get a chance at some point in 2013, but his ability to capitalize is in doubt. He ran a 4.71 forty – the same time as 306-pound Saints third-round LT Terron Armstead.

17. Joseph Randle, RB, Cowboys
DeMarco Murray’s injuries are really piling up. He’s missed nine games in his first two NFL seasons after slogging through nicks for 916 touches at Oklahoma. The Cowboys haven’t been shy about saying they wanted to upgrade on their backup mess, so Felix Jones is gone and Phillip Tanner/Lance Dunbar will battle for a roster spot in camp. Randle will be the No. 2 guy, but he was a fifth-round pick for a reason. He runs upright and shies away in blitz pickup. Even if Murray goes down, Randle is no lock to produce RB2 numbers. 

18. E.J. Manuel, QB, Bills
It seems we’ve vastly underrated rookie quarterbacks that can run lately. Cam Newton was a borderline QB2 when fantasy drafts commenced in 2011 and Robert Griffin III was the 12th quarterback selected in 2012 ADP. Well, it’s time to do it again.

Manuel is just frighteningly raw for a first-round pick and he still has to beat out Kevin Kolb. His accuracy issues have been compared to Jake Locker’s. Also, over Manuel’s final two seasons at Florida State, he rushed just 213 times for 461 yards (2.13 YPC) with eight touchdowns. That counts sacks as negative rushing yards, but note that Newton ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final year at Auburn. RG3 rumbled for 1,334 yards and 18 touchdowns over his final two college seasons.

19. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Bills
When there’s a cluster at a position, it’s often best to simply grab the best talent and let things shake out. That’s the play with Rogers, who shockingly went undrafted out of Tennessee Tech solely because of character issues. As a 20-year-old sophomore at Tennessee, he ripped up the SEC to the tune of 67 catches for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. Multiple substance-abuse (marijuana) violations led him to Tech. If Rogers can keep his nose clean, he has a shot to beat out likes of T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin for the No. 2 job opposite Stevie Johnson. GM Buddy Nix said he had a first- to second-round grade on Rogers.

20. Justin Hunter, WR, Titans
When the Titans traded up for Hunter at No. 34 overall, it was an admission that Nate Washington can’t get it done and Kenny Britt can’t be relied upon in the long-term. The local product is expected to slide right in as the starting “Z” receiver, the spot where Washington averaged 5.6 targets per game last year. NFL Films’ Greg Cosell did call Hunter the “most physically talented wide receiver” in the draft, but it’s hard to get too excited about the No. 3 option in a passing game led by the erratic arm of Jake Locker.

Honorable mention
A) Christine Michael, RB, Seahawks: Michael is talented enough to beat out Robert Turbin for the No. 2 gig. And that would mean a lot of Marshawn Lynch’s impending DUI case results in a suspension.
B) Terrance Williams, WR, Cowboys: Would it surprise anyone if Miles Austin popped a hammy? Williams will battle Dwayne Harris for the No. 3 gig.
C) Robert Woods, WR, Bills: He’s set to do battle for the No. 2 gig, but it’s crowded. See the Da’Rick Rogers entry above for more.
D) Josh Boyce, WR, Patriots: I don’t think it will happen, but there is a chance Aaron Dobson (see above) faceplants.
E) Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals: Stepfan Taylor went 47 picks earlier, but Ellington has more burst and wiggle. Don’t be surprised if he earns carries early on as a change-of-pace option.