Immediate fantasy impact

Mike Harmon
Yahoo! SportsApril 26, 2004

I know we're just getting settled into fantasy baseball with new players grabbing at-bats and innings throughout the big leagues. But I would be remiss if I didn't pause for a moment to recognize the next crop of superstars coming into the NFL.

The overload of information, analysis and highlights for each selection makes your head spin. I feel as though I've watched a year's worth of games in the last two days. But even with all of that footage, the TV coverage doesn't show enough highlights of the defensive players. I get through it by letting myself believe that it's an extended Arena League game.

This year's rookie crop features the latest quarterback of the Manning dynasty, Philip Rivers and big Ben Roethlisberger. A record number of receivers were drafted in the first round, complemented by a scary number of underclassmen (and Mike Williams and Maurice Clarett didn't even get a chance). Running backs weren't as numerous, but those selected will likely see time as rookies.

I'll heat up the talk on fantasy football early this summer, but for now, let's take a look at several players to keep on your fantasy radar. For the purposes of this discussion we'll stick to the offensive side of the ball. And oh yeah, there's the obligatory offensive lineman included, but it's my list.

Eli Manning, New York Giants: So, the Giants got their man. I'm still confused as to why they needed to push so many draft picks to San Diego, but I guess acts of charity can extend even to the draft. Manning dominated at Ole Miss and brings a great pocket presence. He will have a number of solid options to choose from on offense. Jeremy Shockey returns from injury and Tiki Barber will look to forget about 2003.

The writing is on the wall for Kerry Collins in New York. But what about "The Bachelor?" Forget about it, the Giants didn't make this deal for Eli to be the understudy.

Robert Gallery, Oakland Raiders: I always have to find a way to get an offensive lineman on the list. Decimated by injuries in 2003, the Raiders needed help on the O-line and used the No. 2 pick to draft the behemoth from the University of Iowa. His selection immediately boosts the value of the Raiders backfield. Rich Gannon will receive the protection he lacked early last season before being lost for year.

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: Dennis Green reunites with the University of Pittsburgh star and Minnesota Vikings ball boy. Too bad you can't sign a guy who is shagging balls for you in training camp. Well, now they'll work together again. With 2003 selections Bryant Johnson and rookie of the year Anquan Boldin already on board, the addition of Fitzgerald will make life a little easier for Josh McCown. The Cardinals still need to address the running back position, but they should be set at wideout for years to come.

Look for big things from Fitzgerald in 2004 out of the gate. He'll make the catches across the middle, but can run the deep route as well. Things are looking up in Arizona.

Kellen Winslow, Jr., Cleveland Browns: Forget about the attitude and fiery temper, this guy can play. Butch Davis and company dealt to get themselves a playmaker. He's a big target for Jeff Garcia and the type of safety valve that made Garcia successful in San Francisco. However, until the Browns figure out their backfield situation, success downfield will be mitigated. If he starts as a tight end for Cleveland, his fantasy value rises tremendously.

Lee Evans, Buffalo Bills: This was a bit of a surprise at the 13th pick, as he'd been projected to go in the late first or early second round. But you can't teach speed or heart. Evans was a big-play receiver for the Wisconsin Badgers and will help solidify the receiving corps for Drew Bledsoe. He'll compete for catches with Josh Reed. Look for him to shine on special teams as a rookie.

Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: This guy is hardly a consolation prize for the Chargers. Standing over 6 feet 4 inches, Rivers can see the whole field and takes advantage of an above-average arm. It's not clear whether the Chargers are ready to give up on Drew Brees or how Doug Flutie figures to be in the mix, but Rivers has the talent to contend for the starting job this year.

Roy Williams, Detroit Lions: Lost in the hoopla of the underclassmen coming out was Texas wideout Roy Williams. All this guy did was catch 28 TDs for about 3,000 yards with the Longhorns. Steve Mariucci needed more firepower to aid young Joey Harrington's development. Williams will team with Charles Rogers, Detroit's No. 1 pick in 2003, to form a formidable receiving duo in the NFC North.

Reggie Williams, Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars needed receivers to help utilize the cannon of Byron Leftwich. Jimmy Smith was the lone receiver definitely on the Jaguars' depth chart before the draft. Grab the pen and fill Williams' name in on the other side. He enjoyed tremendous success in the pass-happy Pac-10 conference and will translate that to the NFL. Unlike the other teams that drafted receivers in the early rounds, Jacksonville has a steady back in Fred Taylor. That balance will help Leftwich put up big numbers in 2004, and that means great things for Williams.

Rashaun Woods, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers cleared house at wide receiver this offseason, trading Terrell Owens' to Philadelphia and letting Tai Streets go to Detroit. Woods will fit in nicely with the rebuilt 49ers offense and team with Brandon Lloyd to form a formidable duo. In year two of Dennis Erickson's regime, look for an open offense led by the arm of Tim Rattay.

Kevin Jones, Detroit Lions: Detroit liked what it saw in Artose Pinner down the stretch in the 2003 season, so much so that the Lions released James Stewart. But that didn't keep them from drafting the former Virginia Tech standout. He'll compete with Pinner for the starting job in camp, but this reeks of a backfield-by-committee situation.

Julius Jones, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys needed to add another head to an already crowded backfield, so they brought in the former Notre Dame product. Bill Parcells was clearly not enamored with the play of Troy Hambrick, so the door opens for Julius Jones to steal the starting role. With the addition of Keyshawn Johnson, things are looking up in big D. Now it's just a question as to who takes the snaps. But we'll talk about that as the season approaches.

Darius Watts, Denver Broncos: Denver got some good news earlier in the week with the announcement that Shannon Sharpe would return in 2004. They immediately improved the wide receiver corps with the addition of the former Marshall star. With the retirement of Ed McCaffrey, Watts has a shot to come in and see significant playing time early. He will compete with Ashley Lelie for the number two slot opposite Rod Smith and stands to snag a handful of TD passes from Jake Plummer.

Devard Darling, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens clearly needed some help at wideout to balance the efforts of Jamal Lewis. They acquired Kevin Johnson from the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that's a minor improvement. All Darling does is make big plays. Kyle Boller needed a receiver that can go up and get the ball. His prayers were answered with the addition of Darling.

Chris Perry, Cincinnati Bengals: With the trade of Corey Dillon, the Bengals found themselves an insurance policy at tailback with the addition of the former University of Michigan star. Perry had a monster year in 2003 with the Wolverines and will press to play in year one. Looks like Rudi Johnson will have some competition from the rookie.

Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams: The Rams were positively giddy that Jackson was available to them. He provides great insurance in the event that Marshall Faulk's knees act up this season. The former Oregon State star rushed for over 1,500 yards this past season and displays a great mix of power and speed. Who better to learn from than Faulk?

So, there's a short list of potential impact rookies for the upcoming season. With the number of free agents currently on the market and the expected salary cap moves on the horizon, it's a cloudy picture as to which of these players will get to shine this season.

We'll keep an eye on the comings and goings as camps open and the position battles begin.

In the interim, I'll get back to the NBA and NHL playoffs and see if I can't hire some trainers to get my baseball players off the DL.