Fantasy football rookies: Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell top targets
The 2013 NFL draft reflected the fact that teams cannot win in today's NFL without protecting the quarterback and putting pressure on the opponent's quarterback. The first seven picks were either offensive or defensive linemen, and 18 total -- nine offensive and nine defensive -- were taken in the first round. As such, skill position players were squeezed out of the first round. Running backs were entirely shut out, and just five skill players heard their names called by Roger Goodell in round one.
While the pool of fantasy-relevant rookies is shallower than it has been in years past, it still features a handful of impact players at the top who could break out in their first season in the league. Certainly running backs Montee Ball of the Broncos and Le'Veon Bell of the Steelers (Go B1G) project as fantasy starters. However, they'll likely be the only rookies starting Week 1 in most fantasy leagues. There are also few intriguing rookies to target in your draft's endgame, but this season will be nothing like 2012 was for first-year players when Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and T.Y. Hilton all starred for their fantasy owners.
• Montee Ball, Denver Broncos: Ball was the third running back selected in the draft, going 58th overall to the Broncos. While that may have bruised his ego a bit back in April, he couldn't have ended up in a better spot. Peyton Manning is a wizard when it comes to putting his running backs in good spots, as we saw most recently with the left-for-dead Knowshon Moreno last season. Ball ran for 3,753 yards in his final two years at Wisconsin, and set an NCAA record with 67 career touchdowns, which means he's perfectly capable of impacting this offense right away. Ronnie Hillman and Moreno will be involved in the offense, and the Broncos showed a tendency last year to play the hot hand. Ball's the most talented of the trio, and the patient running style he honed in Madison suits him perfectly to Denver's attack. He'll end up separating himself from Hillman and Moreno.
• Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: Speaking of landing in the perfect city, Bell exudes Steel City qualities. He's a tough, bruising back, who does his best running between the tackles, harkening back to the days of Jerome Bettis. Bell proved to be adept in pass protection at Michigan State, something that's just as important to coach Mike Tomlin, which should help make him a three-down back. In addition to running for 2,741 yards and 25 touchdowns in last two seasons in East Lansing, Bell caught 67 passes for 434 yards. Like Ball, he'll be a fantasy mainstay.
• Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: You may not remember this, but it was actually Bernard, out of North Carolina, who was the first running back selected in the draft, at No. 37 overall. He was great in two years in Chapel Hill, running for 2,481 yards and 25 touchdowns, and catching 92 passes for 872 yards and six scores. The presence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Cincinnati limits his upside, but you don't take running backs in the second round of the NFL draft to sit them on the bench all year. Bernard will have a serious role in the offense, and it could grow if he outperforms the underwhelming BJGE. File this name away for somewhere around your 10th or 11th pick. It could pay off in a big way.
• Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers: Lacy had a monster junior year at Alabama, running for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns on 204 carries. The Packers have been looking for a back since the days of Ryan Grant, and while Lacy could be that guy, there are reasons to be dubious. First, the team also selected Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round (we'll get to him shortly). Second, no matter who lines up in the backfield with Aaron Rodgers, this is a pass first, pass second and pass third team. Any running back who succeeds in this offense will have to be a weapon catching the ball, and that did not prove to be a strong suit for Lacy in Tuscaloosa. He'll need to hold off veteran James Starks to get the goal-line carries if he is to make an impact in fantasy leagues this year.
• Johnathan Franklin, Green Bay Packers: The Packers tabbed Franklin 60-plus picks after Lacy, but we've got a full-fledged battle for the starting position on our hands. Franklin exploded in his senior year at UCLA, running for 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns on 282 carries, good for 6.1 yards per carry. He added 33 receptions for 323 yards, and that's what could help put him ahead of Franklin. His pass-catching skills make him a threat in Green Bay's offense, and given how often this team is going to put the ball in the air, that may be enough to tip the scales in his favor. Keep an eye on this for the next couple weeks. Both will play, but whoever wins the starting job is worth bumping up your cheat sheet.
• E.J. Manuel, Buffalo Bills: We're only a couple weeks into training camp, but it certainly appears E.J. Manuel already has a leg up on Kevin Kolb. To listen to coach Doug Marrone and GM Doug Whaley is to hear constant praise for the Florida State product. He completed 68 percent of his passes as a senior, finishing the year with 3,392 yards and 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He got 8.8 yards per attempt, and also ran for 310 yards and four scores. The Bills are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot this year, but they do have some intriguing skill players in Manuel, C.J. Spiller and Steve Johnson. Manuel has the skills and weapons to break into the fantasy consciousness. At the very least, he's a high-upside guy worth taking a shot on as a backup.
• Geno Smith, New York Jets: The writing was pretty much already on the wall for the Mark Sanchez era in New York. When the team selected West Virginia's Smith early in the second round of the draft, that writing was bolded, underlined and italicized. Sanchez may still end up starting Week 1, but Smith has been impressing the coaching staff in camp, while the veteran is saying things like this. Moreover, Smith got the start in the team's first intrasquad scrimmage over the weekend. He put up huge numbers in college, throwing for 11,353 yards, 8.1 YPA, 97 touchdowns and just 19 interceptions his last three years. Like Manuel, he's intriguing. Unlike Manuel, he doesn't have great weapons at his disposal. Give him a look late in your draft.
• Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams: Austin, Smith's college teammate, was the first skill-position player taken in the draft, going to the Rams with the eighth overall pick. He topped 100 receptions each of the last two years, catching 114 balls for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. He'll have a chance to contribute from day one, starting for a team that is desperate for a playmaking pass-catcher. He ran a 4.28 40 at the combine, and will likely do most of his work out of the slot. He's a key piece in the now-or-never year for Sam Bradford. He makes a solid No. 4 receiver for fantasy owners.
• DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: Like Austin, Hopkins will have a chance to start Week 1. If he can lock down the job opposite Andre Johnson, the Clemson product could be a sneaky pick late in drafts. He looked like the best receiver in the country at times last year, and finished the season with 82 receptions, 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns. Houston has a reputation as a team with an explosive offense, but they've failed to develop a second receiver alongside Johnson all these years. He has worked primarily with the first-team offense in training camp, and looks primed to be that receiver for whom the Texans have been searching. He's well worth a late-round flier.
• Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals: Eifert is the only rookie tight end with a chance of making his presence felt in fantasy leagues this season. He fits the mold of the new-age tight end, measuring 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, and running the 40 in 4.68 seconds. He had 140 receptions for 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns in his three-year career at Notre Dame, and his size and athleticism translate perfectly to the NFL. The Bengals already have an established tight end in Jermaine Gresham, but they wouldn't take Eifert with the first pick if they were just going to let him serve as Gresham's understudy. Look for a lot of two-tight-end sets, similar to what we've seen from the Patriots the last few seasons. Eifert could be worth a late-round selection, and he'd become a starting option in most leagues if Gresham were injured.