It’s that time of year again. Preseason has just begun to roll out its meaningless contests and coaches around the country are exulting their players. Everyone is in the best shape of their career and the recently drafted rookies are drawing comparisons to MJD, CJ2K and any other string of letters/numbers you want to put together. Of course, when all teams are undefeated, the optimism rains like a monsoon. With draft day fast approaching, it’s time to take a hard look at the incoming rookie class and see who might be a difference maker on your fantasy squad this coming season.
> The Running Backs
Trent Richardson – The Browns jumped up one slot to draft Richardson third overall. Peyton Hillis got shipped out of town after his crisis of conscious last season, and Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya were clearly not the answer to the Browns backfield. Richardson will get a ton of touches to spearhead the Browns offense. The quarterback-receiver situation is at best murky, and the Brownies really have no one else to step up to produce. He’s the highest touted running back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson in 2007. As with any rookie, you have the risk involved of not knowing how his game will translate to the pros, but Richardson is probably the safest of the rookie picks given his body of work at Alabama and the situation he falls into in Cleveland. He should be coming off the board at the end of round one or the beginning of the round two.
Doug Martin – Man, did LeGarrette Blount fall off a cliff in 2011? After rumbling for 1,007 yards in what looked to be a breakout season in 2010, he followed it up with a paltry 781 last year. He can’t block, pass protect or move the chains. Greg Schiano’s new regime thought so highly of Blount as to draft his replacement in the first round in Boise State’s RB Doug Martin. By all accounts, Martin has impressed in camp. Schiano has thrown around comparisons to Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. While it’s way too premature to just give him the rushing title much less compare him with some of the best backs in the league, Martin does have a chance to be special. The aforementioned Blount should see his carries cut drastically as Martin serves as the Bucs workhorse back. I easily see him coming off the board in round three or four.
David Wilson – Virginia Tech’s David Wilson couldn’t have asked for a sweeter situation to be drafted into. The New York Giants are coming off a Super Bowl win and have shipped Brandon Jacobs to the 49ers. Now, there is no question that Ahmad Bradshaw is the Giants lead back heading into 2012 season, but Kevin Gilbride will probably give Wilson 6-10 touches per game behind Bradshaw. The word out of camp is the staff is impressed by Wilson’s explosiveness and that he is probably a more talented runner than Bradshaw. The big ding on him is his poor pass protection abilities. Wilson is an intriguing stash that could carve out a meaty piece of the offense as the season matures.
Isaiah Pead – The Rams aren’t exactly putting Steven Jackson out to pasture at this point, but there is no denying that Jackson’s days as the workhorse back are numbered. Isaiah Pead is the heir apparent in St. Louis as the Rams invested the 50th pick of the draft in him. I don’t see Pead as much of a point generator in 2012, as Jackson won’t allow Pead to get on the field to threaten his job. If S-Jax goes down or if the sunset of age starts to set in, all bets are off. Drafting Pead makes the most sense in dynasty formats or for those looking to handcuff Jackson.
Ronnie Hillman – I don’t see Lance Ball or Jeremiah Johnson seriously threatening Hillman for the Broncos primary backup role to Willis McGahee. Right now Hillman is the change-of-pace back, but McGahee has a lot of miles on those legs. There have been some rumblings among the talking heads that Hillman could unseat McGahee as the starter this year. I think that is a tad farfetched at this point, and only realistically see him as an option for the those wielding McGahee on their roster.
> The Quarterbacks
Robert Griffin III – The members of Redskins Nation are wetting themselves with the dreams of greatness RG3 is sure to bring. The Redskins paid a king’s ransom to secure his services back in April, and there is no doubt that he’s carrying around the burden of being the savior of the storied franchise. Cam Newton blew up fantasy expectations last season, becoming a Michael Vick who could pass as well as stay on the field. Many are seeing visions of Newton in Griffin. He won’t use his legs nearly as much as Newton, but Griffin is a more polished passer. His numbers at Baylor say he can be a star at the next level, and he has a capable supporting cast surrounding him in Fred Davis, Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss. I think with the risk RG3 represents you are looking at him coming off the board somewhere between the 10th to 15th quarterback selected. He’s definitely has a neon boom or bust sign wildly blinking above his head.
Andrew Luck – If Richardson is the next Adrian Peterson, Luck has been presented as the second coming of Peyton Manning. Given he replaced the franchise legend in Indianapolis, it is an easy comparison, but it will be hard for the Stanford product to fill those gargantuan shoes. While he is a very intriguing dynasty pick, I’d stay far away from him in normal formats. His supporting cast has been bled this offseason, and remember the first year of Manning in Indianapolis yielded a less than stellar 3-13 record. Consider yourself warned.
Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden – I’ve lumped these guys together because a lot of my comments can be shared across the group. Regardless of the talent any of these guys might possess, none of them are clear cut starters. Russell Wilson may be flashing flickers of promise in training camp, but the Seahawks didn’t drop $26 million on Matt Flynn so he could hold a clipboard. Ryan Tannehill is the future for Miami, but he’ll be scaling a mountain to unseat David Garrard and Matt Moore until the Dolphins’ season is officially a lost cause. Brandon Weeden probably has the clearest path to the top of the depth chart with forever disappointing Colt McCoy and journeyman Seneca Wallace in the running. The biggest issues are his lack of weapons to throw to and the Browns leaning on their shiny new aforementioned running back.
> The Wide Receivers
Justin Blackmon – The Jaguars got their big playmaking wide receiver with the 5th pick of the draft in Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon. The only problem is it took until earlier this week to get him under contract. His DUI arrest in June sent all sorts of red flags up, and the Jaguars evidently packed his contract with provisions nullifying their agreement if he becomes an off-the-field basket case. Regardless, Blackmon wields a real talent that Jacksonville sorely needs. They picked up Laurent Robinson in the offseason, but without Miles Austin threatening offenses and Romo pulling out his bag of tricks, I see Robinson disappointing the Jaguar faithful. Blackmon certainly has the talent to be a star, but he has the albatross of Blaine Gabbert around his neck. Can a receiver be great served up by a mediocre quaterback? We’re about to find out.
Brian Quick – The Rams snapped up Appalachian State receiver Brian Quick with the first pick in the second round after narrowly missing out on Justin Blackmon. Many talent evaluators put the two receivers side-by-side with their abilities, and Quick clearly falls into the better situation in St. Louis. Sam Bradford is a much more accomplished passer than Gabbert, and there is no one standing in Quick’s way to becoming the top receiving threat for the Rams. While Blackmon may have the slight edge on talent, I see Quick outproducing him on the field their rookie season.
Kendall Wright – The 20th overall pick out of Baylor, Kendall Wright joins a solid receiving corp in Tennessee anchored by Kenny Britt and Nate Washington. Matt Hasselbeck has raved about Wright’s talent in OTAs. A minor shoulder injury and a contract dispute kept him off the field for a portion of camp, but he is back and slated to fill in as the Titans primary receiving threat as a multi-game suspension looms over Kenny Britt. With young quarterback Jake Locker finding his groove with the offense in year two, Wright has the tools and the resources to produce during his rookie season.
Rueben Randle – The Giants let the 49ers raid their championship cupboard, swiping Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. The Giants did what all elite teams do and reloaded with promising young talent. Randle steps in under the shadow of Manningham to fill the void. The LSU product has been lauded for his speed and will be a big target for Eli Manning. He looks like the favorite to fill the third receiver slot behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. Manning has shown the ability to spread the wealth, but it will probably take Randle until later in the season to carve out a place for himself behind the elite duo.
Alshon Jeffery – After lighting up the SEC as a sophomore, Alshon Jeffery took a step back his junior year at South Carolina. Weight issues and the quarterback carousel limited his effectiveness. Chicago gave him a home with the 45th pick of the draft. Everyone is in love with his hands, saying they topped those of any receiver in his class. The problem is the depth chart is a little crowded at the moment with new offseason addition Brandon Marshall joining Devin Hester and Earl Bennett on the wings. Going down with a lower leg injury early in minicamp didn’t help his cause either. The large question is how much will Jeffery see the field his rookie year? The Bears receivers were far from fearsome last year so unseating Bennett or Hester isn’t a stretch. He’s one to monitor on the waiver wire.
Mark Runyon is the editor of FootballSchedule.me. For all the latest football news, commentary and schedule information, check out Football Schedule.
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