This was a fairly deep draft class in terms of the skill position players, but overall it wasn't exactly a stellar one, so we needed things to shake out well if we were to see legitimate improvements in the fantasy landscape.
But I can't say with confidence that we got what we wanted in most cases.
There were still some positives, but for the most part, the movement in terms of players seeing their stocks rise or decline was subtle. Most of the players who saw their stock go up after the draft were naturally QBs, but there were a few other fantasy commodities that benefited from the draft.
Here's my list of the top-10 risers.
1. Matt Hasselbeck/Jake Locker (QB, Ten) – While we really haven't seen a complete offense here in quite some time, we can't say that's due to a lack of trying, since the Titans have now invested a No. 1 pick on a skill player in four of the last five years. We're still looking at an offense that is great on paper and merely intriguing in reality, but you have to love the weaponry they're supplying for these QBs. Hasselbeck is the starter, and he'll likely play Week One. But unless he's lighting it up and they are winning – which is possible, but their defense is shaky – there's a decent chance we're going to see Locker before Thanksgiving. It's not a clear situation for fantasy, but if you're looking for upside at QB and can afford to stash him away, Locker clearly has a lot of it due to his skills and due to what potentially is a sick receiving corps. Even if they surprisingly part ways with Nate Washington, the addition of Kendall Wright gives the team another serious playmaker with vertical ability, and Locker has a rocket for an arm. Wright is also good protection for Kenny Britt, should he have any setbacks with his recovery from knee surgery (he's in good shape right now). But if Britt is back, Washington stays, and if TE Jared Cook continues to show progress, the Titans are absolutely loaded at receiver now. Hasselbeck should produce here as long as he's the guy, but while I fully comprehend how Locker is still a work in progress and needs to deliver the ball accurately to his receivers on a consistent basis, I just love his physical tools, intangibles, and upside – and I'm even more intrigued now that the explosive Wright has been brought into the fold.
2. Kevin Kolb/John Skelton (QBs, Ari) – While WR Michael Floyd landing in Arizona may not be the greatest thing for fantasy, it's not that bad, and it's fantastic news for these two QBs. With the Cardinals, Floyd can settle comfortably under Larry Fitzgerald's wing (Floyd, like Fitzgerald, is a Minnesota guy and was lobbied for by Fitz), so we'll likely see some good things from the rookie in Arizona as he starts from Day 1. He's big and physical, and he moves well for his size. Playing with an elite receiver like Fitzgerald will likely result in some single coverage for Floyd, and his addition will also move wideouts Early Doucet and Andre Roberts down the depth chart, which is for the best, since both players can be effective from the slot and would be miscast as starters on the outside. The Cardinals actually had a greater need on the OL, which continues to be a concern for these QBs. But there's enough talent now at the skill positions to push the starting Cardinals QB into serious fantasy relevance. And luckily for the Cardinals, they were able to grab in the fourth round a player in OT Bobby Massie, who was considered to be a likely second-round pick. He probably slid for a reason, but they may have solved an issue at RT with Massie, which would also be good news for these QBs. They also gave themselves some depth at G/T with Senio Kelemete in the fifth round, so at least they're not ignoring their OL anymore. If the job is clearly Kolb's this summer, he'll certainly be an interesting backup candidate. Even if that's the case, in deeper leagues with available roster spots, Skelton could be worth a late pick because he's clearly going to push for Kolb's job, and he might be better suited to take advantage of these two key receivers than Kolb. No matter how you slice it, the Cardinals QB is more appealing now based on the addition of Floyd, who may go down as the best wideout from this draft class. If they can avoid key injuries, they will definitely score points, no matter who they start at QB.
3. Alex Smith (QB, SF) – The planets aligned for Smith last year, and he took the team to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance. He played very well in the team's run-based offense, one that allowed the team to stay on schedule and ahead of the down. They wisely threw a lot of shorter passes, but Smith did sling it with confidence, and he did throw well at times with bodies around him, which was a good sign. But clearly, they're looking for more production from their passing game, and their focus this offseason has been speed at receiver. They've undoubtedly addressed their inability to get vertical with the additions of free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and, of course, with the surprise first-round selection of A.J. Jenkins, whom the team reportedly timed at an excellent 4.31 in the 40 at the combine. The 49ers obviously love Jenkins, which isn't a shock to us, since we had him ranked as the fifth-best rookie WR in 2012 heading into the draft (he was the fourth off the board). Jenkins has the ability to play inside or outside, so this receiving corps is a lot more dynamic, explosive, and versatile. I highly doubt I'll be going "all in" on Smith as a great fantasy backup option, but there's no denying his impressive body of work in 2011, the receiver upgrades in 2012, the savvy guidance he receives from their coaches, all which make him a lot more intriguing. This is a more complete and versatile offense, and Smith should be (finally) ready to take advantage of that.
4. Alex Green (GB) – While he's probably more of a "holding steady" entry, especially since he's coming off an ACL injury (he's on track to be ready for camp, however), I'm as excited as I've been with Green right now than I've been all year. That's because the Packers have not yet re-signed veteran Ryan Grant and they might not in the coming months. And more important, they did not draft a RB. They had some chances to grab some quality backs, including Miami's Lamar Miller as a great value, yet they passed on all RBs. Whether or not that's an endorsement of Green remains to be seen, but I believe it is. How can it not be? When I asked Greg Jennings earlier this year about Green and conveyed my affinity for the player, Jennings' reply was, "You really know what you're doing, don't you?". Whether or not I do know what I'm doing is up for debate, but I've clearly been onto something with Green for quite some time. I'm sure the Packers will add another back, but it appears as if they have some big plans for the second-year back. I realize they don't run the ball a lot, but Green can catch the rock well, and this is a player who scored 18 rushing TDs in his final year at Hawaii on only 146 rushing attempts. He's a lot more explosive than James Starks.
5. BenJarvis Green-Ellis (Cin) – Well, with free agency essentially over and the draft in the rear view, Green-Ellis clearly remains Cincy's lead back, so you have to recognize that for fantasy. The best FA back available is Cedric Benson, whose days in Cincy are over, so it does not appear as if the team will be adding anyone of note to its backfield in 2012. I'd prefer more juice from my fantasy backs, but there is something to be said for his role as the lead guy and his ability to punch the ball into the end zone from short range, plus this is a very capable offense. OC Jay Gruden has indicated that he wants to go with an RBBC approach, but there's no one else on the roster who should merit a lot of carries. Veteran Bernard Scott should be involved, but he's more of a specialty player and not someone who should get significant touches. The team also used a No. 1 pick on OG Kevin Zeitler, who is a road-grader whose strength is blocking for the run, plus they signed the solid OG Travelle Wharton from the Panthers this year. That helps, since the Bengals OL hasn't been great blocking for Benson the last couple of years. Any extra production in the passing game would be a bonus, and if BJGE is right about his underrated and his underutilized receiving ability, you have to consider him a top-20 back based on that element of his game and his role and ability to score double-digit TDs. He's not the type of fantasy option who will carry you to a title, but you certainly won't be prevented from winning one if you're being represented by the Law Firm.
6. Blaine Gabbert (Jac) – It's no secret that Gabbert was awful last year, but in his defense, he was probably asked to start a little too soon, especially since the offseason was seriously curtailed due to the lockout. And his receiving corps was horrendous. Gabbert has a live arm and good movement and mobility, but his inability to handle pressure in the pocket was incredibly disconcerting. It was so bad that his margin for error even as soon as this year may be small, since veteran Chad Henne is a viable competitor for the starting job. The good news is that Gabbert did show some signs of improvement very late in the season, and it's fair to argue that he might actually stand taller in the pocket if he actually has some strong targets to throw to. The Jags have a poor history of drafting wideouts, especially slower ones, which is a red flag, but there's no question the receiving corps has been upgraded substantially. In fact, it's actually a pretty solid group all of a sudden, thanks to the free agent acquisition of Laurent Robinson, who can be a downfield threat and is excellent in the red zone, and, of course, No. 1 pick Justin Blackmon. The Jags last year emphasized a short passing game, and that approach should work with Blackmon, who will fight for the ball and break a lot of tackles gaining yardage after the catch. Veteran Lee Evans was also added for depth, but with Robinson and Blackmon on the outside, Mike Thomas, who was grossly miscast as their No. 1 last year, can return to the slot, where he can be effective, plus they do still have TE Marcedes Lewis, who caught 10 TDs back in 2010 (although 0 in 2011). Honestly, this passing game still has several red flags, including Robinson's injury history and Blackmon's ability to separate in the pros – not to mention Gabbert's struggles as a rookie – but at least now they have a chance to have a respectable passing game. That's right: I'm saying there's a chance.
7. Jay Cutler (Chi) – While the Bears did nothing to improve a still-shaky OL, they did give Cutler what could turn out to be a very key weapon at receiver in South Carolina's Alshon Jeffrey. Jeffrey's production was way down in 2011 after a spectacular '10 season due to a shift in offensive philosophy and issues at QB, but also due to Jeffrey playing at a weight that was just too high. Former Bears QB Jim Miller told me over draft weekend that the Bears are excellent in terms of training and working with players to stay slim and trim, and if they can keep Jeffrey down to about 220 pounds, then they may have formed a very dangerous WR duo with Brandon Marshall. Jeffrey is considered a great red-zone threat (17 TDs the last two years), and the team does claim to have timed him at 4.47 at his pro day. This was a key addition because the Bears can't count on Johnny Knox, so there was a gaping hole at their No. 2 WR spot. Now they can team Jeffrey with Marshall to form an imposing duo, and they can use Earl Bennett as their slot receiver, which is his ideal role. I wouldn't expect much from him this year, but Chicago also added in the fourth round an athletic target at TE in Evan Rodriguez, who brings some potential. Cutler has been quietly brilliant the last 1-2 years, so if the OL is decent and Jeffrey comes through, Cutler should challenge for a top-12 finish in fantasy this year. He loves throwing the ball to big, physical receivers, and now the Bears have a great one in Marshall and a potentially good one in Jeffrey.
8. Matthew Stafford (Det) – In reality, Stafford is merely "holding steady," since it's going to be next to impossible for him to exceed 2011's massive production, but there's no disputing the fact that Stafford's situation in Detroit has improved after the draft. They started things off by taking the second-best OT in the draft in Riley Reiff, who can give them great depth at OT this year or even possibly start at LT if veteran Jeff Backus moves to guard. He'll help Stafford most for the long-term, but the Lions OL definitely got better for 2012. Next, they surprised by bypassing a great need at corner to select in Round 2 WR Ryan Broyles, who is coming off an ACL injury suffered in November. Broyles does claim he'll be ready for training camp, but he could be a little slow off the mark (especially if he lands on PUP). While this was a luxury pick, it was understandable, given Stafford's massive potential throwing the football. All Broyles did in his career at Oklahoma was break the NCAA's all-time receiving record, highlighted by a ridiculous junior season in which he posted 131/1622/14. We'll have to see what their plans are for him, but he's a natural receiver who could be a terrific slot guy in the NFL. He could be in the perfect situation, since he can clearly be ultra-productive, yet he might be better off as a complement to a beast like Calvin Johnson, since he's not very big or fast. He'll get on the field at some point, and if that's in 2012, Stafford will have better depth at receiver, which was needed, and yet another weapon in the passing game at his disposal, which he can clearly take advantage of.
9. Philadelphia Eagles Defense (DT, Phi) – I hate to use the two words, but, uh, dream team? Philly was very fortunate to get the best DT in the draft in Fletcher Cox, whom they did move up to acquire. His athleticism and versatility are intriguing, and Cox has the potential to line up at several different spots on the defensive line and bolster Philly's defensive front. When you add into the equation their addition of a solid MLB in DeMeco Ryans and the fact that the trade of Asante Samuel will clearly allow them to cater their defensive backfield to their personnel, with an elite corner in Nnamdi Asomugha and a high-end talent in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and you can easily see how Philly may have swiftly corrected all its problems last year. Heck, thanks to the addition of second round pick LB Mychal Kendricks they may actually be able to cover TEs now. And for all their problems, the Eagles were still tied for first in the NFL with 50 sacks and finished in the top-10 for fantasy in points per game. Expect them to rank higher in 2012.
10. Green Bay Packers Defense (DT, GB) – The Packers are one of the many fantasy defenses that ranked highly despite having some issues in NFL terms. Their biggest problem was clearly their pass rush, and they have addressed that with a savvy pick of DE/OLB Nick Perry out of USC. Perry is an explosive and athletic prospect who has all the physical skills necessary to make an impact at the next level, and he has huge upside. He'll likely play on the other side of Clay Matthews in their 3-4 defense and greatly help their pass rush. That, in turn, will help their fantasy defense. They otherwise went heavy on defense in the draft, most notably nabbing in the second round a first-round talent in DE Jerel Worthy, who could play right away and beef up their defensive front.