While, in some respects, the 2012 draft is a lot clearer than last year's lockout edition, there are still a lot of things to sort out with this year's group. Everyone knows the top prospects who have separated themselves from the pack – Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill at QB, Trent Richardson at RB, Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd at WR – but, with the exception of a weak TE class, this year's skill positions present impressive middle-round depth, making the draft unpredictable and ranking the second and third-tier players almost impossible. That's particularly the case at WR, where a mix of deep threats, slot receivers, and big possession receivers are vying for Day 2 consideration (Rounds 2 and 3) and potential fantasy value as rookies.
As always, the true fantasy value of rookies can't be gauged until they're actually drafted, as we need to be able to understand where they fit into their teams' 2012 plans. However, extensive pre-draft research, with the help of our Greg Cosell, Adam Caplan, and Matt Brown, gives us a good sense of how the draft may play out and who the early favorites are for production as rookies and in the long run.
We'll be lucky if 10 rookies make an impact this year, but that's a good starting point, so let's take a look at the ten best bets to produce as rookies in 2012.
1. Trent Richardson
Alabama | Height: 5-9 | Weight: 228
Fantasy Analysis: You never want to call someone a perfect prospect. After all, every player has some kind of flaw or something to improve. But if you're looking for an NFL running back at the college level, look no further than Richardson. He's the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson, and he's without question the best RB in this year's class, one capable of stepping into a starting lineup right away and being an every-down back. He's the total package.
Richardson is a powerful, compact runner who can run over defenders but also make them miss with deceptively quick feet and excellent lateral agility. He runs low to the ground with balance and a low center of gravity, making him almost impossible to arm tackle. He picks up the tough yards between the tackles, but he's also dangerous when he gets to full speed out in the open field, because, again, he can run a defender over or make a defender look silly with a juke. On top of all that, Richardson is a willing blocker in the passing game, and he's produced as a receiver, sometimes even running downfield routes for Alabama.
Finding flaws with Richardson's game is mostly nitpicking. The only negative people will point out in terms of his skill set is his lack of straight-line speed, but that shouldn't be a big issue. Just because he's not a home-run hitter doesn't mean he won't be a successful sustaining runner. The lateral agility and power are more important. Other than that, the only concern is a knee issue, but the procedure he had before the combine was considered routine and minor. He'll be fine.
Despite the lack of interest teams now have in taking RBs early, it's hard to see Richardson falling out of the top six picks. Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis are all possible landing spots, and it also wouldn't be surprising to see someone trade up. He'd be a lock to start in Cleveland right away, and he'd also likely supplant the unreliable LeGarrette Blount in Tampa.
Relying on a rookie RB can be a risky proposition in fantasy football, but Richardson has similarities to Peterson, who ran for 1341 yards as a rookie despite sharing a backfield with Chester Taylor. That's not to say Richardson will duplicate those numbers, but he's almost certainly going to have a lot of fantasy value because he fits any system. Back in 2007, Peterson was being drafted in the 3rd or 4th round of fantasy drafts, and regardless of which team drafts Richardson I'd be more than okay taking him that high.
2. Robert Griffin III
Baylor | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 223
Fantasy Analysis: Let's get one thing out of the way: Straight up comparisons between Griffin and Cam Newton are not accurate. Griffin is different from Newton, most notably in that he's not nearly as big and is more of a sprinter as a runner, while Newton is powerful. In that respect, Griffin may not be as dangerous for fantasy in terms of rushing numbers because he probably won't be as effective as a runner around the goal line. However, Griffin's running ability can't be discounted as we head into the 2012 fantasy season. He's an explosive and quick runner, and he'll be able to do things in the NFL that Michael Vick did early in his career. He's as explosive or agile as Vick, but he has the ability to be a dangerous runner in the open field, plus, unlike Vick early in his career, Griffin is a passer first and then a runner. Rushing numbers can always provide a huge boost to QBs for fantasy, as we've seen with guys like Tim Tebow. But, the Tebow comparisons end there because Griffin also has all the tools to be a successful passer. In fact, he was a better natural passer than Newton on the college level.
Unlike Andrew Luck, Griffin's biggest challenge will be transitioning from a spread offense that usually had him working out of the shotgun, throwing quick passes and long passes with a lot of success. It helped that Griffin worked with potential first-round pick Kendall Wright at WR, but Griffin had an amazing 2011 season for Baylor. He has a stronger arm than Luck, and he can effortlessly flick the ball downfield with both velocity and accuracy. He also has good touch on his passes, so there are no limitations to his passing whatsoever. Also impressive was how he showed a willingness to hang tough in the pocket with bodies around him and look down the gun barrel, which cannot be taught. There's no doubt that the transition from a spread offense could have some bumps, but Griffin is an impressive person who will be coachable and has the football intelligence to adjust to the pro game.
It's almost a lock that Griffin will be the No. 2 overall pick to the Redskins, who pulled off a big trade with Griffin in their sights. Griffin is even reportedly studying their playbook already. The Shanahans know how to use mobile QBs, and he'll probably have more weapons in Washington this year than Luck will have in Indianapolis. In the long run, Luck may be the better player, as he appears to have truly rare mental abilities as a quarterback. But Griffin is smart too, and his physical tools are elite. Even if he struggles a bit with his passing as a rookie, Griffin's ability to take off as a runner and make big plays with his arm should give him solid fantasy value.
If there is a downside to him it's his thin frame, one that could lead to injury if he winds up running a bit too much (like Vick does). He did alleviate concerns about his height at the combine, at least. Speaking of injuries, he did suffer a torn ACL in a 2009, but he's performed well on the knee the last two seasons. The other potential red flag is his transition from the spread offense, but that transition is becoming more and more moot in today's NFL, and the Redskins should be a solid fit because of the experienced coaching. Considering his upside as a passer and his possible production as a runner, Griffin will absolutely be worth a later pick as an upside fantasy backup.
3. Doug Martin
Boise State | Height: 5-9 | Weight: 223
Fantasy Analysis: Much of the attention at Boise State went to QB Kellen Moore over the last few seasons, and for good reason. After all, he's one of the most efficient and effective quarterbacks in college football history. But Martin is far and away the better pro prospect. Moore's success managed to overshadow Martin's back-to-back 1000-yard seasons in a balanced and explosive Boise State offense, and now Martin is poised to enter the league as someone who could develop into an every-down back. Martin doesn't have elite speed, but he has the body at 223 pounds and the strength to go along with deceptive quickness to be a sustaining runner on the NFL level. He also occasionally returned kicks in college – including a touchdown in the team's bowl game last December – and he runs with good vision and some lateral agility that can make him difficult to tackle. Additionally, Martin produced as a receiver, so he brings a complete game to the table and may be the most versatile back in this draft.
Martin appears to be creeping up draft boards, and it is possible that he'll emerge as the No. 2 RB, although David Wilson and Lamar Miller are in the mix. Martin could make a pretty quick transition to the NFL, as his game translates well, and his compact running style looks a bit like Emmitt Smith. That's not to say he'll come anywhere near that level of production, but he has the same body type and running style, plus he has the running mentality of an NFL feature back, as he consistently attacks downhill and fights for yards. As a complete RB, Martin would fit well in the second round with a team like the Bengals or Jets. Or, he could be snatched up by the Giants, who lost Brandon Jacobs and continue to deal with Ahmad Bradshaw's foot issues. As always, Martin's fantasy value as a rookie depends on the situation he ends up in, but he has the skill set to make a pretty smooth transition from college to the pros.
4. Andrew Luck
Stanford | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 234
Fantasy Analysis: For most of the last few seasons, it has been assumed that Luck would be a No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, and it appears that nothing has changed. In fact, his availability in this year's draft allowed the Colts to do the unthinkable and part ways with Peyton Manning, who has been the team's franchise QB for more than a decade and will go down as one of the greatest players in NFL history. There is some debate about whether Luck or Robert Griffin III is the better QB prospect, but Luck is essentially a lock to be the top pick, meaning he will replace Manning and start right away. Luck is as pro-ready as QBs come. He spent three years as a starter in a pro-style offense at Stanford in which he took snaps from under center, worked off the run game, and frequently utilized the TEs. For the first two years as starter, he was tutored by current 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh, and Luck also boasts a strong football pedigree, as his father, Oliver Luck, played quarterback for the Oilers and West Virginia University in the 1980s. He's completed over 70% of his passes each of the last two seasons, and while his numbers aren't gaudy because of Stanford's balanced offense, he has a history of methodically and efficiently beating opponents.
He has a quick, compact, and effortless delivery, he has unbelievable football intelligence – which is where the Manning comparisons come in – and he also has very good mobility. His arm is not nearly as strong as Aaron Rodgers, but he has similar mobility to Rodgers in that he can easily elude the pass rush, deliver accurate throws on the move, and pick up yards on the ground when needed. The negatives with Luck are relatively minor. There were some times in college when he didn't react well to pressure, which is something to watch for as we move along. Like any QB, he'll make some poor decisions on throws downfield, and his pure arm strength is good but not as strong as guys like Rodgers or Griffin. In fact, our Greg Cosell says there is only a limited sample of Luck making snap throws on intermediate or longer routes. Still, he can put the ball anywhere on the field, as he's an excellent timing-and-rhythm passer who also worked well throwing downfield off play-action. His time spent with Harbaugh and his experience making pre-snap reads should help him make a very quick transition to the NFL, and he should be a starter in this league for a long time.
There's little reason to think he won't become a productive fantasy QB. Of course, we also have to be cautious with him right away in his rookie season. The Colts are in total rebuilding mode, and there are big questions about his supporting cast. The most important thing could be the offensive line, as a good O-line will help allow new OC Bruce Arians to manage him properly, yet the Indy OL isn't exactly solid right now. So, while Luck may be the best overall player in the draft, it's likely that Griffin, who is a better runner and should have a better supporting cast, is the better fantasy player in 2012. But Luck is an elite prospect who may have the best mental makeup of any QB prospect in years, and he has all the tools to be successful for a long time in the NFL. The only real question we have is whether or not he'll be an elite producer like Matthew Stafford or just a very solid one like Matt Ryan. He's not as gifted as a thrower as Stafford, but he has more raw talent than Ryan, so he will likely be in between.
5. Justin Blackmon
Oklahoma State| Height: 6-1 | Weight: 207
Fantasy Analysis: Is Blackmon going to be as good as Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson? No, probably not. But few are. Blackmon does have big-time receiver ability, and it's quite possible that he'll be able to perform on the same level as someone like Hakeem Nicks. He's a better prospect coming out of college than Michael Crabtree, for example, and Crabtree was very highly regarded. Blackmon is only 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, but he plays a lot bigger than that, and while he doesn't have elite speed, he's fast enough to make plays anywhere on the field. That's what he did at Oklahoma State, where he often looked like a man amongst boys.
In 2010 as a sophomore, Blackmon had 100 receiving yards in every game he played, and he finished third in the nation with 121 catches in 2011. In a good Cowboys offense with Brandon Weeden at QB, Blackmon was pretty much unstoppable. He's a physical receiver who can beat jams at the line, and he has great ball skills downfield and in the red zone. In the intermediate area, he's a polished route-runner who can change directions quickly, and while he will drop a few too many passes, he can come up with circus catches in traffic and has strong hands. Blackmon's quickness and explosiveness aren't elite, so he's not a perfect prospect, but he was incredibly difficult for college defensive backs to match up with, both before and after the catch. He's tough to bring down and also has some elusiveness. Plus, he's a pretty strong blocker, so he has the tools to make an instant impact in the NFL and possibly become a movable chess piece who can be used at every receiver position all around the formation.
We're not 100 percent sure he'll be able to win on all the routes in the NFL, but he's a very good prospect. He's just not a freak of nature. Although it's not a lock because his size and speed are a little less than advertised, Blackmon may still get picked in the top 10 overall, making Minnesota, Cleveland, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Carolina, and Buffalo all possible landing spots, with the Rams looking like the most likely destination. In any of these places, he'd be able to step in right away, and his fantasy value could be tied to his QB. He'd be a big get for any of these teams, but Sam Bradford in particular could use an infusion of talent at WR.
6. Kendall Wright
Baylor | Height: 5-10 | Weight: 196
Fantasy Analysis: Yes, 40-yard dash times can have some value, but in the case of a guy like Wright, forget it. Wright clocked in at a disappointing time at the combine, and while he erased doubts by running in the 4.4s at his pro day, there shouldn't have been doubts to begin with. On tape, Wright has frequently proven how fast and explosive he is, in addition to catching 108 passes last year in Robert Griffin III's Heisman-winning season for Baylor.
Griffin and Wright formed arguably the most dangerous duo in the country, frequently connecting for easy plays but also doing damage in the short area. Wright is the most explosive receiver in the draft, getting to top speed quickly and easily running past defenders. Aside from catching passes downfield, he's particularly dangerous on short throws that get him the ball on the run, as he's dynamic after the catch with quickness and burst. He's also very quick and explosive laterally and has natural quickness in and out of his breaks, so he's not just a deep threat. He's somewhat tough to evaluate at times because he ran by defenders for big plays that looked so easy in the Big 12 last year. Obviously, he's not going to have as many easy plays in the NFL as he did in college, but he clearly has the athletic ability to be a deep threat at the pro level, perhaps in a similar manner to Steve Smith.
Wright should be a first-round pick, and while there is a learning curve for him in terms of route-running – especially coming out of Baylor's spread offense – his speed and quickness alone should allow him to contribute as a rookie. His biggest issue is that he's just over 5-foot-10, but he can be lined up anywhere (inside or outside), so he's versatile and seems to fit in well with the direction NFL passing games are going (a lot of action inside). Wright can be a big time vertical threat from the slot, which is very intriguing.
The Browns and Texans in particular would benefit from adding Wright to the mix in the 20-30 range in the 1st round of the draft, as they both need some speed at the No. 2 WR spot to increase their big-play ability. We'd certainly rather see Wright with Matt Schaub than Colt McCoy, though, so we'll have to see what kind of situation Wright falls into. Either way, he's a versatile player who can put pressure on defense by running vertical routes from anywhere on the field.
7. Michael Floyd
Notre Dame | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 220
Fantasy Analysis: Various questions have followed the supremely talented Floyd throughout his career, but he's put together an impressive offseason and is poised to be the No. 2 WR taken in the draft, possibly in the top 15 overall.
One of the bigger receivers available at 6-3, 220 pounds, Floyd is a physically imposing player who looks pretty similar to Dwayne Bowe as a receiver (although Floyd is a little more fluid). His football speed is far from elite – although he did alleviate some concerns with a 4.47 40-yard dash at the combine – and he's not a game-breaker. But he's a physical receiver who can be tough to handle anywhere on the field, and even if he doesn't get a lot of separation he can beat smaller defenders to the ball for big plays because of his impressive ball skills, good hands, and excellent body control. And while he may lack top speed, he does have deceptive speed, so he has a chance to make vertical plays in the NFL. Combine that with his excellent red zone potential, and there's a lot to like about Floyd, who is also a good blocker.
The major concern with Floyd has been character issues. He's dealt with multiple problems related to alcohol, resulting in his suspension for Notre Dame's 2011 spring practice. However, he had no issues in his senior season, and it appears that he's set to come off the board early despite the character questions. He is not quite as polished as Justin Blackmon in that he needs to become a more precise route-runner, so it's possible he won't make as big of an impact early. But Floyd clearly has the skills to be a fantasy producer and a starting WR in the NFL, and the Bills, Cardinals, Jets, and Bengals are all potential landing spots within the top 20 picks. With any of those teams, he could step in as a No. 2 WR alongside a more proven No. 1 (Steve Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Santonio Holmes, and A.J. Green), and he could be really dangerous in the red zone.
8. David Wilson
Virginia Tech | Height: 5-10 | Weight: 206
Fantasy Analysis: Wilson got his chance to shine in 2011 after he had previously been buried behind Ryan Williams and Darren Evans in a loaded Virginia Tech backfield in 2010. All he did in his first season as full-time starter was finish fourth in the nation in rushing yards, showing excellent speed and balance as a runner. Wilson runs pretty hard, and he occasionally made some really impressive runs. He's smaller than the other top RBs, but he is still big enough to succeed in the NFL, and he does have natural power and good downhill instincts. He's a good straight-line runner with some elusiveness and creativity, and he's a smooth runner with the ability to subtly change gears and get to top speed. Our Greg Cosell sees him as being effective in either a power running or zone scheme, which is a positive.
One problem with Wilson is that he appears to look for the big play a little too often and has some issues with vision, and while looking for the big play can lead to success on the college level, it will be harder to be consistently productive on the NFL. Wilson is probably best off as part of a RB rotation initially, but he has the skill set to develop into a featured back. He just needs to get some NFL carries under his belt, as he started for only one year in college. Plus, he also needs to become more polished in the passing game, where he's raw as a route-runner and his hands, while solid for the most part, could be more consistent, plus he could be a better blocker.
With the right coaching he'll continue to get better and become a more well-rounded back, and he should earn consideration from teams like Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Cincinnati in the second round. It just may take a year or two for him to emerge as a consistent producer for fantasy, yet he'll probably still be worth a later pick this year for upside, depending on where he's drafted.
9. Coby Fleener
Stanford | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 247
Fantasy Analysis: Given the success of the Patriots with TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, NFL teams could be placing greater value on elite receiving TEs, as, when used properly, they can be incredibly tough to defend. This year's TE class isn't great, but Fleener has emerged as the top prospect at the position with the best chance of coming off the board late in the first round. Fleener averaged a ridiculous 19.6 YPC with 10 TDs last year, and while some credit for his numbers goes to playing with QB Andrew Luck, Fleener is an athletic player who does a great job of getting separation and challenging defenses vertically.
In the pro style Stanford offense, Fleener was moved around the formation, lining up tight and out wide, and the Cardinal frequently used him to attack down the seams. At 6-foot-6, 247 pounds, Fleener has good size, and at his pro day he posted a really impressive 40 time of around 4.45 seconds, according to multiple reports. What made the time even more impressive is that Fleener has been dealing with a minor ankle injury. Normally, durability might be a slight concern, but he certainly helped erase concerns with his pro day performance.
Expect Fleener to make a quick transition to the NFL as a potential movable chess piece who can make big plays and also projects well as a West Coast TE. He's a polished prospect with versatility and is a serviceable enough blocker, and our Greg Cosell has compared him to Owen Daniels. That may not mean Fleener compares to the truly elite, but keep in mind injuries have likely slowed Daniels down in recent years and at his best he was very good. It's hard to predict where Fleener might go in the draft, as a team like San Francisco – with Fleener's former coach Jim Harbaugh – could try to follow in the footsteps of the Patriots and pair Fleener with Vernon Davis.
If Fleener slips into the second round, don't be surprised if the Colts – who have nothing at TE right now – take him and keep him paired with Luck, their presumed first-round pick. Initially he might be better off as a No. 2 TE, but if he's forced to make plays immediately for his new team, he seems capable of doing that right away, especially if it's the Colts.
10. Lamar Miller
Miami (Fla.) | Height: 5-11 | Weight: 212
Fantasy Analysis: Alabama's Trent Richardson is the clear-cut No. 1 RB this year, but the race for the No. 2 RB is pretty close. The vertically explosive Miller is in the mix after he put together a 1200-yard senior season despite playing with a shoulder injury much of the way. The injury resulted in surgery in December, but Miller should be good to go, and he had a good winter, highlighted by a 4.4 40-yard dash at 212 pounds at the combine in February.
While Richardson will be compared to Adrian Peterson, Miller is more of a Chris Johnson type of back. He has pretty good size, but he lacks natural power, and he's not particularly strong between the tackles unless he gets a crease. If he gets room, he has outstanding burst and can be really dangerous if he gets to the second level. Miller is very tough to bring down in the open field because of his speed, although he lacks great lateral agility. So while guys like Trent Richardson and David Wilson fit both power and zone schemes, Miller probably fits best as a one-cut, downhill runner in a zone scheme. Miller may not be overly powerful, but he does at least run hard, so he has a chance to be an every-down back in the NFL with the right team.
As an inexperienced player who entered the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, Miller may not make a huge impact immediately, especially because he has work to do in the passing game. But he still may end up coming off the board in the second round, with teams like Cincinnati (which has two first-round picks), Chicago (if Matt Forte is traded), Cleveland, and Denver among the teams that could target him. At least early in his career, Miller's fantasy value could be tied to his big plays. If he can be patient and get the ball on the edge in space, he can be a really dangerous NFL running back in the right scheme.
Just missed the cut: Isaiah Pead (RB, Cincinnati), LaMichael James (Oregon), Rueben Randle (WR, LSU), A.J. Jenkins (WR, Illinois), and Stephen Hill (WR, Georgia Tech).
John Hansen has published FantasyGuru.com since 1995 and can be heard year-round hosting “SiriusXM Fantasy Football” on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. Follow him on Twitter @Fantasy_Guru