At first glance, this year's NFL draft may look like a wash for fantasy owners. But just because there are no running backs expected to be drafted in the first round (and possibly the first two rounds) of the draft, don't think that there aren't excellent fantasy football rookies entering the league. Remember that there were no running backs drafted in the first round last season, and yet, Eddie Lacy finished the season as a top-10 fantasy scorer at the position; LeVeon Bell, Giovani Bernard and Zac Stacy were all fantasy starters, too.
Before we dig into some of the players expected to make the greatest fantasy impact no matter where they land, let's discuss this draft class a bit. First, like mentioned above, this will likely be the second-consecutive season that a running back will not be drafted in the first round. Marcus Lattimore looked like a top-10 pick before he blew out his knee two years ago. But the NFL trends are changing -- more teams center their offense on the passing game or utilize the running-back-by-committee plan. Also, there's plenty of talent found in the middle rounds of the draft.
We know there are several NFL starters at the quarterback position ready to be plucked -- but not necessarily a superstar. We shouldn't expect an Andrew Luck, Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III out of this group. (Then again, Russell Wilson was a third-round pick in 2012.)
Wide receivers, like quarterbacks, have gotten more love in their rookie seasons, with players like Keenan Allen, A.J. Green and Julio Jones pacing first-year pass-catchers. Interestingly, this is usually a better group to look at for their sophomore seasons -- rather than their third years, as the fantasy industry had grown accustomed.
Finally, tight ends are like catchers in fantasy baseball -- they have more to deal with in their first years, usually, so fantasy success usually evades them for at least a year. Buccaneers TE Tim Wright paced first-year players at the position, and he was still 13th in fantasy scoring among all tight ends. So even the best rookie tight end was a fantasy backup.
<em>Obviously, without knowing a player's eventual team, it's difficult to say how well a rookie will or won't do in his first season. But we're a couple weeks away from the NFL </em><em>d</em><em>raft, and nothing's more fun than prognosticating!</em>
<strong>1. Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State</strong>
Hyde has actually drawn comparisons to Lacy, especially as a tough back that can take hits between the tackles. <a href="https://nfl.si.com/2014/04/07/si-64-nos-54-50-carlos-hyde-kyle-fuller-bradley-roby/" target="">SI's Doug Farrar points out</a> Hyde is the first running back to ever run for over 1,000 yards on an Urban Meyer-coached team.
<em>Possible </em><em>d</em><em>estinations: New England, Tennessee, Jacksonville</em>
<strong>2. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson</strong>
With the quarterbacks shuffling back and forth in most prognosticators' minds, Watkins is the only fantasy player essentially guaranteed a spot in the first five picks of the draft. Watkins has already been compared to A.J. Green, who we mentioned as one of the best fantasy rookie receivers since 1990.
At just 6-foot-1, he doesn't have the size of some of the other rookie receivers of note, but no one questions whether he's the best at his position for the draft. However, because he'll be a high draft pick, he'll likely go to a team with a questionable quarterback situation, which may impact his fantasy prospect. Watkins can get deep in a hurry, and will help any team's passing game.
<em>Possible destinations: Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay</em>
<strong><a href="http://nfl.si.com/2014/04/22/2014-nfl-draft-top-64-sammy-watkins/" target="">FARRAR: WR Sammy Watkins ranks No. 9 in the SI 64</a></strong>
<strong>3. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington</strong>
Sankey is a strong back with great speed and excellent hands. He improved his already high stock at the NFL combine, and fantasy owners love to hear comparisons of Sankey to Bernard. He's also an adept pass blocker, so he'll see the field quickly, as opposed to some past rookies that have had trouble keeping the quarterback off his back. Those in PPR leagues will likely target Sankey a little higher than standard leagues, however.
<em>Possible destinations: Atlanta, Baltimore, N.Y. Giants</em>
<strong><a href="http://nfl.si.com/2014/04/03/2014-nfl-draft-top-64-jimmy-garoppolo/" target="">FARRAR: Sankey has the ability to read gaps and quickly find open spaces</a></strong>
<strong>4. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M</strong>
You've been hearing the accolades for a couple seasons now, after Johnny Football became the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy. He runs like Tim Tebow, throws like Drew Brees and carries himself like Joe Namath. Then again, he hasn't taken one NFL snap yet, so let's tap the brakes on the Hall-of-Famer and future Hall-of-Famer comparisons. Fantasy owners only need to hear the Tebow comparisons to get excited about a rookie season that will no doubt be full of broken-play runs and scrambles that extend plays well beyond their average life span.
<em>Possible destinations: Cleveland, Houston, Minnesota</em>
<a href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/nfl/news/20140422/2014-nfl-mock-draft-jadeveon-clowney/" target=""><strong>BANKS: Mock draft 4.0 -- Manziel drafted at</strong><strong> </strong><strong>No. 4 by QB-desperate Cleveland Browns</strong></a>
<strong>5. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona</strong>
Carey, who led the nation with 1,929 yards in 2012, has proven to be a workhorse running back for the Wildcats, but it's unsure whether that can translate to the NFL. There aren't many NFL-ready running backs coming out of Rich Rodriguez's system, according SI's Farrar, <a href="http://nfl.si.com/2014/04/04/2014-nfl-draft-position-rankings-carlos-hyde-headlines-running-back-class/" target="">who ranks him as the second-best running back</a>. With 349 carries last season, it's tough not to think of former Lions RB Kevin Smith, who was run into the ground with UCF in his final college seasons. But in his rookie season, he has plenty of fantasy value as a possible every-down back.
<em>Possible destinations: Arizona, Atlanta, Cleveland, Tennessee</em>
<strong>6. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn</strong>
Anyone that watched him rack up 195 rushing yards on 34 carries against FSU in the BCS title game should be excited about Mason's NFL prospects. He's on the smaller side at 5-foot-8, but plenty of small running backs with tenacity and the ability to break tackles like Mason have seen success as an NFL rookie.
<em>Possible destinations: Baltimore, Oakland, Minnesota</em>
<strong><a href="http://nfl.si.com/2014/04/07/si-64-nos-54-50-carlos-hyde-kyle-fuller-bradley-roby/" target="">FARRAR: Mason ranks No. 54 in the SI 64</a></strong>
<strong>7. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M</strong>
After Watkins, Evans stands out as the best of the rest among rookie wide receivers. With Mike Williams in Buffalo, the Bucs have an open slot for Evans to step right in and become their wide receiver of the future. Interestingly, he's been compared to the Bucs' current star receiver, Vincent Jackson. Meanwhile, the Bills could also surprise many taking Evans to pair with Williams, with rumors of them possibly moving Steve Johnson to another team.
<em>Possible destinations: Buffalo, Minnesota, N.Y. Giants, Tampa Bay</em>
<strong>8. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina</strong>
Ebron has already been compared to Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski as a possible superstar tight end with great athleticism and hands. With the current NFL trend of targeting big tight ends in the end zone, Ebron may fit in quickly with an offense lacking that player. However, it's tough for tight ends to make a fantasy dent in their rookie season; in the past five seasons, the only rookie tight ends to score over 75 fantasy points were Gronkowski (114) and Aaron Hernandez (92).
<em>Possible destinations: Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Green Bay, N.Y. Giants, N.Y. Jets</em>
<strong><a href="http://nfl.si.com/2014/03/25/2014-nfl-mock-draft-blake-bortles-2/" target="">BURKE: "It would not be all that surprising to see Ebron put up the top receiving numbers of any rookie next season."</a></strong>
<strong>9. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville</strong>
His stock has gone up and down more than nearly anyone else in this draft, yet, he was the consensus No. 1 draft prospect during his entire senior season (save for DE Jadeveon Clowney). He's a very good pocket passer with great accuracy, quick feet and the ability to evade pass rushers, drawing comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Sam Bradford.
<em>Possible destinations: Arizona, Cleveland, Houston, Tennessee, Minnesotak</em><em>e</em>
<strong>10. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, FSU</strong>
If you're looking to build a fantasy team on your Xbox or Playstation, add the 6-foot-5 beast of a target in Benjamin. He snatches the ball out of the air in nearly every contested throw, he has the size to become a great red-zone target, and he was drawing pre-Combine comparisons to Calvin Johnson. While he's not as polished as fantasy owners would hope, with bad routes and plenty of inconsistency, those are all things that can be taught. You can't coach his size and speed, and he can play outside or in the slot -- with tight-end blocking size.
<em>Possible destinations: Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Seattle</em>
<strong><a href="http://nfl.si.com/2014/04/15/2014-nfl-draft-si64-ha-ha-clinton-dix-kelvin-benjamin-odell-beckham-jr/" target="">FARRAR: Benjamin's ability to dominate when it's time to score may make him a first-round pick</a></strong>
<strong>Players who just missed the top-10 cut</strong>
? Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks is a little bigger than Tavon Austin, and he plays similarly -- and he ran a 4.33 40 at the NFL Combine to lead all wide receivers.
? UCF QB Blake Bortles is a pocket passer that will likely end up on a horrible team with plenty of question marks around him. He doesn't have the legs of other recent rookie quarterbacks that help him rack up fantasy points other ways
? USC WR Marqise Lee has NFL size and speed, with a very good track record, and he'd be a top-three WR in any other draft class
? Georgia Southern RB Jerick McKinnon ran the 40 in an eye-opening 4.41 seconds at the Combine. He's small, strong and incredibly athletic. Watch where this relative unknown ends up for one of your late sleeper picks.