At this time of year fantasy owners are stir-crazy over incoming talent. Everyone wishes to predict the next Marques Colston or Steve Slaton -- unsuspecting rookies who proved to be difference-makers. But in their search for gold, fantasy owners often overvalue first-year prospects, not fully appreciating the necessary incubation period for most NFL skill players.
Let it be said that when it comes to impact fantasy rookies, it's not who you are but rather where you are that matters most. In most drafts, the very best skill position players are targeted near the top of the board, and thus end up on teams unable to support them. But when a stud running back or wide receiver falls to a more competitive team it can offer a boost to their fantasy value. Or, a player's fantasy value can get a lift from the right system.
Consider Knowshon Moreno, who was picked higher than many draft experts predicted he would be (Round 1, Pick 12). Moreno is now the property of the Denver Broncos, which, in fantasy speak, means he's as close to a sure thing as it gets. Few Bronco featured backs have failed to make hey over the past decade. Not only are fantasy owners convinced Moreno can continue that trend, but his ability to catch the football should make him a gem in PPR leagues. Had he been selected by the Buccaneers or Browns he'd be a fantasy afterthought; instead, many have him pegged to land in the third or fourth round of most fantasy drafts this summer.
Another fantasy benefactor of this past weekend's draft was Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (Round 1, Pick 19). Oakland and San Francisco both picked a wide receiver before Philadelphia, but neither of those clubs have the pieces in place to help those players succeed, which is to suggest Maclin will post better rookie numbers than either Darrius Heyward-Bey or Michael Crabtree. More of a true every-down receiver than DeSean Jackson, Maclin has to ability to catch 50-plus balls in a Philadelphia offense thirsty for consistent production from the position.
In addition to Moreno and Maclin, these fantasy rookies improved their stock simply by dropping into a favorable environment:
WR Percy Harvin, Minnesota (Round 1, Pick 22)
Harvin exudes the big-play explosiveness that Minnesota has craved for its one-dimensional offense. While fantasy owners should not view Harvin as an every-down player, and thus by no means "starter material," he does possess the same type of burst that made Felix Jones a factor in Dallas during the first half of last season. Harvin will be featured in multiple formations to utilize his versatility as a rusher and receiver, and fantasy owners can expect no fewer than six touches in any one game. Sound minimal? Consider that last season Harvin scored 17 touchdowns on just 110 offensive touches.
RB Chris Wells, Arizona (Round 1, Pick 31)
Wells would have been viewed favorably by fantasy owners regardless of where he got drafted; the Ohio State bruiser is a goal line bull with breakaway capability. But now that he is a Cardinal, fantasy owners can be doubly pleased with his potential. Arizona was forced to rely too heavily on '08 rookie Tim Hightower last season because Edgerrin James no longer could carry the load. And while James had a nice post-season, his days as a pro running back are numbered. Wells will be given an opportunity to be the featured back right from the start, and in most fantasy leagues he'll make a nice No. 3 back.
WR Brian Robiskie, Cleveland (Round 2, Pick 4)
The player many Draft "experts" considered to be the most pro-ready receiver could not have landed in a better spot. Not only is the Ohio State product playing close to home, Robiskie will also benefit from a depleted receiving corps that has already said goodbye to Kellen Winslow Jr. and is rumored to be ready to part with Braylon Edwards. Even if Edwards stays put, fantasy owners can comfortably project 30 to 40 catches for Robiskie.
WR Ramses Barden, New York Giants (Round 3, Pick 21)
For whatever reason the Giants were in the market for a 6-foot-6, 229-pound weapon at wideout, so Barden fit the bill. Many have dismissed Barden's productivity in college as due to the fact that he played in the inferior Great West (he scored 18 touchdowns in each of his final two years at Cal Poly). That doesn't explain, however, how he was able to burn Wisconsin's respectable secondary for 83 yards and a score last October, or how, as a sophomore, he was able to register touchdowns against a pair of BCS schools (San Jose State and San Diego State). Barden cannot be expected to replace Plaxico Burress, but he does have the tools to contribute early, especially near the goal line where fantasy owners care most.
TE Chase Coffman, Cincinnati (Round 3, Pick 34)
The Bengals haven't had a tight end of note in some time, relying more heavily on wide receivers in their vertical offense. Reggie Kelly has led all Bengal tight ends in catches and yards in each of the past three seasons, but during that time has never recorded more than 275 yards and has a total of just one score. Coffman has an opportunity to make an immediate splash. At Missouri he caught no fewer than 47 passes during his four years in the lineup, and last year recorded 90 catches for 987 yards in 12 games. And anyone who doubts whether a third round tight end can be a fantasy difference maker need be reminded that Jason Witten was the Cowboys' third round steal of the 2003 NFL Draft.