BY DAVID KOMER
Ryan Matthews: AP
The NFL went Hollywood with its inaugural primetime draft debut, boasting twists, turns and a cliffhanger of an ending with Round 2 of the red-carpet trilogy continuing Friday. On Thursday the Big 12 ruled, two running backs' fantasy stock went sky-high, a third landed in a fantasy purgatory and Tim Tebow's draft party rocked more teal shirts than a typical "Night at the Roxbury" SNL skit .
From a fantasy perspective, Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews and Cal running back Jahvid Best emerged from Thursday as the headliners, while Clemson ultra-back C.J. Spiller - the biggest name of the top tailbacks -- landed in fantasy Siberia.
Ryan for R.O.Y.: Assuming he stays injury-free, Mathews is the ultra-early pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and would be a solid fantasy fourth round pick in 8-10 team leagues, possibly as high as the late third round in larger 12-14 team leagues. He's an ideal RB2 for any fantasy squad as the Chargers replace former Chargers' and fantasy legend LaDainian Tomlinson. The 5-11, 218-pound yardage machine will be up for it, with a perfect blend of strength and speed. Despite playing a non-BCS caliber schedule, he churned out 1,808 yards leading the nation in rushing with 150.7 yards per game last fall and steps into a ready-made offense. The Chargers have passing weapons galore, and coach Norm Turner has been an offensive guru for years, ever since building his reputation with the Cowboys and some guy named Emmitt Smith.
Even better, Mathews won't have a ton of pressure on him solely, with Darren Sproles there for a change of pace and able to step in on passing third downs. If you can draft Mathews in the fifth round or later come this August, run, don't walk, to your draft's dry-erase board!
The "Best" option: Meanwhile, in Best, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz just got his poor man's Chris Johnson. Schwartz saw first-hand what a home-run threat like Johnson did to revitalize Tennessee's offense when he served as the Titans' long-time defensive coordinator. Best's durability is a question mark, but his ability to quicken the pulse isn't. As a sophomore he ranked third in the nation in yardage and scored seven touchdowns of 60-plus yards. One of the fastest backs in the draft with 4.3 speed, Best would have been a top 10-15 pick had it not been for back-to-back concussions against Arizona State and Oregan State, the second of which featured a freak fall causing him to miss the last four games of the season.
The Lions have zero competition at running back and all but spelled out their commitment to Best by aggressively trading up to snag him, rather than let the Colts or Saints weigh offers from tailback needy teams or worse yet, wait roughly 19 hours to see if the Rams would auction off the first pick of the second round to the highest bidder overnight. Kevin Smith is coming off a knee injury and prior to that, had done nothing to impress while Maurice Morris is a career second banana. The Lions may upgrade their line further this weekend, but already have, with a trade for Seahawks guard Rob Sims earlier this week.
Take Best in the fifth to sixth round and in larger leagues, consider him late in the fourth. He's a solid RB2 but a better RB3 based on the Lions' assumed improvement. Jinx alert: If Best can stay healthy, he may well be the best back of this draft.
Getting Buffaloed: Despite the Raiders' sneaky Rolando McClain pick, the night of shocks and surprises started, in my mind, with Buffalo snatching Spiller at No. 9. The Bills looked like the last team to be a landing place for the Clemson product, already boasting Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. The Bills' displeasure with Lynch was well-known, with his off-field incidents, but any already-damaged trade stock he may have had, just dropped through the basement with this newfound logjam.
A one-man highlight show, Spiller goes to a team virtually devoid of talent, and heading into this weekend, boasting sizeable holes at quarterback, offensive line and wide receiver -- any of which would have been arguably better served at No. 9. Spiller's fantasy stock took a major hit in the process. In keeper leagues and long-term protection leagues, I'll recommend him. Otherwise, it's hard to envision him getting enough touches to be a reliable week-in, week-out fantasy contributor. Jackson and Lynch already shared the dreaded "backfield by committee" tag, and now the Bills' backfield reaches nuclear family status. In most leagues, Spiller falls into an early-late round category, probably around the 9th round or lower as a RB4 or RB5. Although he'll be the favorite to win the job, it might take longer than expected, possibly until 2011, when the backfield position clears up. But, should the Bills jettison Lynch, Spiller's stock moves up with only Jackson to fend off for carries. He becomes an RB3 and 6th to 8th-round pick.
Catch this: Character was the only reason Georgia Tech's Demaryius Thomas was the first wide receiver off the board. Denver only passed up Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant due to the varied reports of "erratic behavior" and diva rumors, which had to make the Broncos think he was this close to one day doing sit-ups in his driveway.
After dealing with Brandon Marshall's ups and downs, the last thing Denver wanted was another high-maintenance receiver. But the Broncos reached a bit for Thomas, who, despite being timed in the 4.38, range in the past, has been limited with a broken foot suffered in February and unable to really run in his position drills leading up to the draft. Still, at Georgia Tech in Paul Johnson's triple-threat offense, Thomas got to chase three bombs a game (otherwise known as the only times the Yellow Jackets threw the ball) and usually came down with two catches and 100 yards.
Makeup call: As the kids like to say, huge props to ESPN's Ed Werder, who, in the aftermath of the Bryant pick, offered that the pick served as an "admission of failure" by the Cowboys' brass regarding the Roy Williams trade. Bryant joins a potent passing attack with Tony Romo, 2009 fantasy breakout star Miles Austin and standout fantasy tight end in Jason Witten. Williams has been a dog in Big D since Day 1, and the Bryant pickup could signal the end of days for him.
Bryant missed nearly all of last year, embattled with eligibility issues regarding contact with an agent, but as a sophomore dominated college football with 87 catches, 1,490 yards and 19 touchdowns. Bryant gives the Cowboys another weapon and depending how quickly he picks things up and matures, will be the end of Williams.
Both receivers will no doubt be compared and forever linked. I like Bryant better because he'll be in a better offense, while Thomas is more of a project despite having less competition. Either would be fine as a late-round pick and WR5 or lower.
Cincy gets smart: When it comes to pass catchers, the Bengals' drafting of Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham was solid as they come. If Gresham can stay healthy, he could be one of the best tight end prospects since Vernon Davis. The former Sooner upgrades the passing game immediately, giving the Bengals possibly their best tight end since Tony McGee. As a fantasy prospect, he's a nice late-round flier pick whether in tight end required leagues or not.
The Rams' Sam: At No. 1 Sam Bradford makes a nice fit for a rebuilding Rams team that seems a century, rather than five years, from the "Greatest Show on Turf" days. St. Louis gets a face for its franchise and running back Steven Jackson gets some help in the backfield, whose arm will stretch defenses while promising receiver Donnie Avery develops. But a few nagging questions continue, as thanks to one individual workout, Bradford catapulted from possible first rounder to sure-fire top 5 pick. The fact that he hailed from a gimmicky pass-happy Oklahoma offense that two years ago ran up the score to 50 every week for kicks and was injured twice this fall, was almost forgiven overnight. For fantasy purposes, always avoid any rookie quarterback on draft day, especially in rebuilding situations (see: Stafford, Matt) In keeper leagues, draft away but be aware of the fine print. Jackson might find the going rough as defenses give up the pass in favor of stacking up against the run. His stock may slip slightly, but he should be getting used to fending for himself following last year's collapse of the passing game.
The Smartest Guy In The Room: It speaks to Denver coach Josh McDaniels' cockiness that in lieu of picking an actual player who can make an immediate impact at No. 25, like defensive or offensive line (you know, actual needs), that he takes Tim Tebow. Even in fantasy keeper leagues, I would advise Tebow go late, let alone an actual draft. Let's see, after jettisoning Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall in successive years, in their place the Broncos are looking at Tebow and Thomas -- hardly replacements. It's hard not to love what Tebow brings in intangibles and leadership, but to take a developmental prospect that early seems like a massive reach. It also muddies the Denver QB position even further with Kyle Orton and newly acquired Brady Quinn (the point of which, was what again?) looking like little more than place-holders as McDaniels cultivates his experiment. Even if Tebow becomes the de facto red-zone quarterback or Wildcat specialist for the Broncos, I wouldn't even touch him in basic scoring leagues.
The Big Uglies: Six offensive linemen went in the first round, with Washington getting it started at No. 4 with tackle Trent Williams. If Mike Shanahan is going to rehab the moribund Redskins' running game and keep Donovan McNabb upright, this had to happen. The Seahawks and Steelers took steps to refurbish their once formidable running games with their picks, while the Packers made a pitch to keep theirs going strong. But the biggest o-line plunge was taken by the 49ers, who with two picks being spent on Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, strengthened themselves in the trenches more than anyone. The 49ers' young (and downright scary) offense has good reason to think big in 2010.
Ranking rookie fantasy prospects thus far ...
1. RB Ryan Mathews -- Will be featured back in a ready-made offense
2. RB Jahvid Best -- Explosive, with zero competition to be No. 1
3. WR Dez Bryant -- The best receiver in the draft ? if his mind is right
4.* RB CJ Spiller -- Bills' backfield a crowded one, move him up two spots if there's movement
5. TE Jermaine Grisham -- May really help Carson Palmer, Ochocinco
6. QB Sam Bradford -- Intriguing talent; still needs pass catching help
7. WR Demaryius Thomas -- Raw; Broncos' passing game may regress with no Marshall
8. QB Tim Tebow -- If the QB thing doesn't work out, could he replace TE Sheffler?
It's easy to see why the Lions squeezed into the 30th pick of the first round with the quality at running back dwindling. The offensive position closest to drying up next is quarterback. Headed into tonight, don't expect Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy to have to wait long -- although there are worse fates I suppose than watching the draft with Erin Andrews. Cleveland, Buffalo and Oakland would all be prime spots for either one, and after Clausen and McCoy, the quality falls off the table.
Receiver looks far and away to be the deepest offensive position remaining with Golden Tate, Arrelious Benn and Damien Williams leading the way.
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