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Fantasy football focus: Ten things to watch at the NFL draft

Photo: John Biever/SI

If Alabama's Eddie Lacy is drafted early, he may become the most sought after rookie in fantasy.

The NFL draft is like Christmas: For fans and media, the anticipation can be as good or better than the real thing. Meanwhile the prospects feel like elves: They just want to get it over with and stop having the media dissect their skills.

Regardless, it would be wise for fantasy footballers to DVR the endless hours of draft coverage this weekend. We all stand to learn something about this draft class, from the Griffin-like early-rounders to the Morris-like late-rounders.

To prep you for the annual must-see TV festival that begins Thursday night, we break down the top 10 things fantasy football owners need to know heading into the draft.

1. Will a running back be drafted in the first round?

Fantasy experts love analyzing running backs. But this year, we might have to wait until the second day of the draft. There's a high chance that a running back might not be drafted in Round 1 for the first time since 1963. (Keep in mind, there were just 14 teams drafting that year.)

Alabama product Eddie Lacy would probably have been a first-round pick if not for reports of his suspect work habits and poor 40-yard dash times. If the aging Pittsburgh Steelers didn't have so many holes, they might have been inclined to select the best back on the board at No. 17. The Cincinnati Bengals, reportedly not sold on BenJarvis Green-Ellis as an every-down back, might have considered drafting a runner four picks later at No. 21.

If either of those two run-oriented teams selects a back in the first couple of rounds, we will have our most sought-after rookie fantasy pick. Though if Lacy is drafted Thursday night, we might need to be wary based on past Tide backs Trent Richardson (3.6 yards per carry) and Mark Ingram (3.9) not quite living up to their draft hype.

Here are the top 10 running backs to watch:

1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama 2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin 3. Andre Ellington, Clemson 4. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA 5. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina 6. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina 7. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford 8. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State 9. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State 10. Kniles Davis, Arkansas

2. When will Marcus Lattimore be drafted?

If South Carolina's Lattimore were healthy, he might have gone in the top 10. Instead, Lattimore suffered a gruesome knee injury this past fall -- for the second time.

He's declared that he will be ready to go by Week 1. If you saw his injury, you probably doubt Lattimore's claim. But, heck, Willis McGahee needed a knee reconstruction after his national championship injury and still wound up going in Round 1 to the Bills at No. 23 in 2003.

Right now, Lattimore will be a great story if he is even drafted at all. He will certainly open training camp on the PUP list and he might not even play a down in 2013. Regardless, he's that good of a talent, and fantasy owners will have to watch.

If Lattimore is picked in the first three rounds, it means that team is confident in his ability to become an elite talent again.

3. Geno Smith to the Jags?!

In every draft, the quarterback is the most talked about position. Even when left tackles are projected to go No. 1 overall, the conversation inevitably drifts to the quarterback -- or how to protect him, at least.

The fact that five rookie quarterbacks started in Week 1 last year, and the fact that we have seen some of the biggest rookie quarterback seasons in history the past couple of years (Cam Newton, RGIII, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson), mean the endless talk warrants the air time and our attention.

The most exciting quarterback prospect of this class is West Virginia's Geno Smith, regardless of when he's drafted. Ignore the hyperbole of Smith being a "gimmick" or the next Akili Smith: Geno is the one true high-ceiling passer this year. Imagine him with the Jaguars, throwing to the talented likes of receivers Justin Blackmon and 2012 fantasy revelation Cecil Shorts.

He would be a viable late-round pick as a backup fantasy quarterback. Those receivers are potential starters and if the well-hyped Smith is throwing them passes, he might even be capable of a 3,500-yard, 20-touchdown rookie season.

Here are the top 10 quarterbacks to watch (only three of whom likely project as Week 1 starters):

1. Geno Smith, West Virginia 2. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse 3. Matt Barkley, Southern California 4. E.J. Manuel, Florida State 5. Landry Jones, Oklahoma 6. Mike Glennon, North Carolina State 7. Tyler Bray, Tennnessee 8. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas 9. Zac Dysert, Miami (Ohio) 10. Ryan Griffin, Tulane

4. Will Tavon Austin be drafted by a team that can pass?

Geno's West Virginia teammate Austin is widely regarded as the best playmaker in this draft, a class that has been criticized as one of the worst in a decade by some. Austin's problem is that he might be too talented for his own fantasy good. He might be picked too early.

The teams with good fantasy quarterbacks select in the second half of the first round. Austin is not projected to make it that far, which could hamper his development and his Year 1 fantasy potential.

Also, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Who deserves more credit for the Mountaineers' big plays, Smith or Austin?

Baylor prospects RGIII, Kendall Wright and Josh Gordon all look like future fantasy stars after their rookie years, but are talented groups like that the norm or the exception? Austin and Geno's draft position might give us an idea.

Here are the top 10 wide receivers to watch:

1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia 2. Keenan Allen, California 3. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee 4. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson 5. Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech 6. Robert Woods, Southern California 7. Justin Hunter, Tennessee 8. Terrance Williams, Baylor 9. Markus Wheaton, Oregon 10. Stedman Bailey, West Virginia

West Virginia and Tennessee have two wide receivers and a quarterback in the top 10. USC has one wide receiver and one quarterback.

5. Will the Patriots pick a wide receiver in the first two rounds?

Carrying on the conversation of receivers and their passers, I can imagine that the Patriots will draft one of the top three receivers above to start with Tom Brady. He is the lone top-five fantasy quarterback who truly needs an outside receiver from this draft.

Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan have plenty of great targets already in place. Brady is dealing with a half deck of oft-injured targets: Rob Gronkowski (multiple arm surgeries), Aaron Hernandez (shoulder surgery), Danny Amendola (various injuries) and Donald Jones (undisclosed illness). The odds of those guys being healthy together for 16 games are very, very low. To cap it off, Wes Welker has taken his slot work to Denver to work with Manning. So, if the Pats go for a receiver in Round 1, look out for a potential 70-catch, 1,000-yard, six-touchdown instant rookie success.

No matter which receiver goes first, the one the Pats pick may be the most intriguing in fantasy.

6. Will the Ravens pick a wide receiver in first two rounds?

If you read this column last week, you know the Ravens are certainly going to be looking for the next Torrey Smith. With Anquan Boldin now in San Francisco, Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss just can't be considered starters for this team. The defending champions will certainly be considering a receiver, if not multiple receivers, in this draft.

Say what you want about Joe Flacco, but he's a Super Bowl champion and he did help Smith instantly make an impact in fantasy as a rookie. Whomever the Ravens pick at receiver can start immediately. If the Pats don't pick a receiver, the Ravens' receiver pick stands to be the most intriguing rookie wide receiver in fantasy.

7. What about the defensive problem children?

If you watch college football, you probably hope your favorite NFL team will get a talent like Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, former LSU corner Tyrann Mathieu or Alabama corner Dee Milliner. Those guys looked like early first-round picks at the BCS level.

Now, the pre-draft process has made them huge risks.

If Te'o can overcome questions about his toughness and fictional relationship, if Mathieu can overcome drug and character issues and if Milliner can avoid the trainer's room, they can each be potential defensive monsters for their respective NFL teams.

Before the draft process, these might have been the most intriguing three defensive names in college football. If they go earlier than the skeptics have them falling, you might want to jump on their Defense/Special Teams in fantasy.

8. Can Luke Joeckel ignite an offense?

If a team takes a left tackle like Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel or Central Michigan's Eric Fisher with a top-two pick, it's looking to give the offense a shot in the arm.

The quarterbacks and running backs in Kansas City and Jacksonville just might be getting a big boost, which would be most exciting for Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. However, if the Jags pick a lineman, you cannot ignore Maurice Jones-Drew's potential.

If Joeckel goes No. 1 overall to the Chiefs, we'll have to consider Charles an early pick this fall. And if MJD proves healthy and the Jags wind up with a tackle and quarterback Smith, the sad-sack franchise just might have an offense that is fantasy worthy.

9. Will Ryan Nassib be the first skill-position player picked?

If you have paid attention to mock drafts, you know Syracuse's Nassib might be the first skill-position player picked. Seriously?

A recent scout called this quarterback "undraftable." Some grades have Nassib as the fifth-best quarterback. Some say he's no better than a fifth-round talent.

Yet, the Bills and new coach Doug Marrone (from Syracuse) might be picking Nassib at No. 8 overall. No one knows Nassib better than Marrone. If the Bills pass on Nassib early in Round 1, it should be a signal that Marrone isn't confident enough in Nassib as an NFL starter.

Why? The Bills still could pick Nassib in Round 2, right?

Well, the quarterback is the one position you draft -- read: reach for -- out of need. If Nassib could truly be an NFL starting quarterback, he's plenty worth the eighth overall pick. If Nassib hits, no one is going to regret reaching for him early.

If he is not an NFL starter, why bother picking him at all -- in Round 2 or otherwise? The Bills already have a backup quarterback in Kevin Kolb, and they can use Kolb as a stopgap at the position while addressing their other holes.

Marrone's Bills are going to give us an indication of Nassib's NFL potential. If Marrone passes on him -- even once -- don't bother with Nassib in fantasy. Joe Philbin told us the same thing with Matt Flynn, his backup quarterback in Green Bay. The Dolphins passed on Flynn in free agency and he proved incapable of beating out a third-round rookie, Wilson, in Seattle.

10. Is Tyler Eifert going to the right situation?

Last but not least, we come to the tight ends. It was a position of busts and frustration in fantasy last year, but there are actually two premium prospects in this class capable of going in Round 1: Notre Dame's Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz.

Eifert could be a fantasy starter, if not an immediate star -- in the right situation. Pittsburgh made Heath Miller a fantasy monster last year in coordinator's Todd Haley's "dink-and-dunk" (Ben Roethlisberger's bitter words, not ours) offense, so that may work for Eifert.

Miller is coming off a major knee reconstruction, and he'll almost certainly open camp on the PUP list. Like Lattimore, there is scant hope he'll play in 2013. The Steelers have a TE-friendly offense without a starting tight end. Eifert in Round 1, or even Ertz in Round 2, will be intriguing for fantasy owners.

Here are the top five tight ends to watch:

1. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame 2. Zach Ertz, Stanford 3. Travis Kelce, Cincinnati 4. Vance McDonald, Rice 5. Jordan Reed, Florida

There are myriad other angles for fantasy owners to watch, but that's what makes the NFL draft so riveting. Get those DVRs ready. And since looking back at old drafts is always fun, here's a look at my 2012 pre-draft story and 2011 pre-draft story.

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