March 09, 2012

With the NFL Combine in the rear-view mirror it's time to begin the process of breaking down this year's draft class. Through my contacts in the NFL I've received videos of close to 150 draft prospects. I use what I see on those videos to go along with countless hours of watching college football in order to form my opinions.

After breaking down each prospect we'll offer some early thoughts on their potential fantasy impact. We'll take a look at quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends for fantasy purposes. If you want to discuss any draft prospects or have fantasy football questions you can follow me on Twitter @thomascasale or send me an e-mail at

After breaking down the quarterbacks, let's take a look at a position where I see a lot of mid-round value: running backs.

Trent Richardson, Alabama

The Good: Richardson has the look of a premier every-down running back in the NFL. He has power, great balance and a quick burst at the line of scrimmage. What jumps out on tape is his quick feet. Richardson is known for his physical running style but he can also make people miss when he needs to.

Still, the most impressive thing about Richardson is his strength. Out of all the running backs likely to go ion the early rounds of the draft, Richardson was the toughest to bring down. He runs with leverage and tremendous balance and gains a ton of yards after contact. The guy is an absolute beast.

The other thing to like about Richardson is that while he has the speed to break a big play, he can also grind out yards against good defenses. If a guy is getting all of his yards against Tulane and North Texas, it's not very impressive. That's not the case with Richardson. He can run on any defense.

The Bad: Richardson was the primary ball carrier at Alabama for only one season. While he has the frame to carry the load, we haven't seen him do it consistently, so it's a small sample size.

Richardson isn't a natural pass catcher. He's dangerous in the open field but sometimes he fights the ball into his hands. Also, Richardson didn't compete at the Combine because he was still recovering from minor knee surgery, so that's something teams will have to look at before selecting him.

Still there should be no concerns about Richardson's running style. He's a prototypical NFL running back.

The Bottom Line: After playing a secondary role to Mark Ingram for two years, Richardson took over as the starter in 2011 and responded with 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns. Richardson isn't in the same class as Adrian Peterson coming out of college but there's no doubt that he's the most physical runner in this draft. Now teams will have to decide how high they want to select a running back.

Fantasy Impact: In today's NFL most rookie running backs don't come in and carry the ball 20 times a game. Richardson will have fantasy value regardless of where he goes but he'll probably get over-drafted in most fantasy leagues like Ingram was last year.

David Wilson, Virginia Tech

The Good: Richardson is known for his power but he also has deceptive speed and quickness. Wilson is the exact opposite. Wilson has the speed to break the long run but he also can run inside and get the tough yards. Wilson was one of the strongest runners I watched on tape.

Wilson also has good patience and vision in the backfield. You can't teach that. Wilson hits the hole hard when he runs between the tackles but when he takes it wide he picks his spots carefully and follows his blockers well.

I have a weird fetish for Virginia Tech runners going back to Lee Suggs. I give Wilson a grade just below his former teammate Ryan Williams, who I had rated as the top back coming out in last year's draft before he suffered a serious knee injury in the preseason.

The Bad: There aren't too many weaknesses in Wilson's game. The one area he may need to improve in is catching the football. Wilson wasn't used much as a receiver, and when he was it was on screen passes. While Wilson didn't always look comfortable as a receiver, he looked much improved in that area at the Combine.

One more concern is that because Wilson is more of a straight-ahead runner, he won't be a perfect fit for every scheme. You hear a lot that a certain runner is perfect for the zone blocking scheme. The opposite applies to Wilson. I don't think that would be a good fit for him at all.

Finally, Wilson had five fumbles last year. Young running backs who fumble don't get on the field, so Wilson needs to hang onto the football.

The Bottom Line: Wilson and Richardson are the only two running backs I have with first round grades. Both rate pretty close. Like Richardson, Wilson doesn't have a huge sample size, but his one year as a starter was impressive. He has a chance to be a star in the NFL.

Fantasy Impact: If he goes to the right team, Wilson will be the rookie I target the most in fantasy drafts. I love the kid and I think he'll make a big splash in the NFL right away.

LaMichael James, Oregon

Outlook: Out of the roughly 150 prospect videos, James was the guy I was most looking forward to breaking down. At Oregon James seemed like a special player. After watching him on tape I still think he's a special player.

True, Oregon runs a particular system and every running back they put in is productive. Keep in mind, though, that Kenjon Barner and the Black Mamba De'Anthony Thomas are no slouches. They're pretty spectacular players in their own right.

Most impressive about James is that his feet can do things not many people can do. He has those Barry Sanders-kind of quick feet that makes him dangerous even when there don't seem to be any running lanes. On tape I saw big plays in which he made defenders miss in the hole right at the line of scrimmage

James is also a lot tougher than people credit him. When Ray Rice was drafted, people questioned his size. At the time I felt he was a much tougher inside runner than most thought and the size wasn't a big factor. I feel the same way about James. Sure, everyone sees his 80-yard highlight runs but on tape you also see a lot of tough two-yard runs between the tackles as well.

Sometimes I think you can look at all the numbers you want but at the end of the day a guy is just unique, and that's my opinion of James. He's undervalued in this draft so don't be surprised if three years from now he's the best back to come out of this class. He is a tad small at 196, so I gave him a strong second round grade.

Fantasy Impact: James will start off as a change-of-pace back but he could eventually become much more in the right system. I would strongly pursue James in keeper leagues. His role in an offense will only grow over time. A team like the Patriots should jump all over James.

Doug Martin, Boise State

Outlook: I've been a big fan of Martin for the last two years. At 223 pounds he has the size teams are looking for and he also does everything well. He's a patient runner with a lot of power. Plus, he catches the ball well. There isn't a more versatile back in the draft when you factor in running, receiving and blocking. The guy does it all.

The only thing not to love about Martin is that he sometimes runs with his head down. Over the years that has become a big "tell' for me. Backs who run with their heads down have poor vision. It makes sense; if you aren't actually looking up, your vision is going to suffer.

Good vision is what separates great NFL running backs from good ones. So while I like Martin and can only find one hole in his game, it's a deep concern. He needs to learn to run with his head up. If he can do that, Martin has all the other tools in place to become a productive NFL running back.

Fantasy Impact: I can see Martin coming in and being the No. 2 back on a team as a rookie. If he lands in the right place, Martin has a chance to emerge as the goal line and change-of-pace back, which will put him on the fantasy radar.

Bernard Pierce, Temple

Outlook: Pierce was one of the most underrated players in college football last year when he ran for 1,481 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Pierce is a bigger back at 220 pounds and he showed at Temple that he can be a workhorse. On tape, Pierce looks like the prototypical NFL back. He compares favorably as a runner to Doug Martin, although Martin is a superior pass catcher. Pierce did nothing as a receiver in college, finishing his career with just 19 receptions.

As a runner, though, Pierce hits the hole hard and he has football speed. What that means is that someone like Lamar Miller may run a great 40 but on tape you won't notice much of a speed difference between Miller and Pierce. Pierce also is a strong inside runner, and as his 27 touchdowns last year attest, he knows how to find the end zone.

Pierce is a one-cut back, so he's better suited for a zone blocking scheme. There are very few backs in this class that can cut once and go like Pierce. I think if he improves as a receiver, Pierce could emerge as an every-down NFL back.

Fantasy Impact: Pierce will surprise a lot of people. When I watch him run, he brings to mind the Atlanta Falcons. That would be a perfect fit for him. If Pierce goes to a team that uses a zone blocking scheme, keeper league owners should have him high on their radar.

Chris Polk, Washington

Outlook: If you like flashy, Polk isn't your guy. He's one of those runners who will grind out yardage, and by the end of the game you'll look up and he'll have more than 100.

Polk is gets stronger as the game goes on. His running style allowed him to run over tired defenders later in games. That's important because Polk isn't a complementary back. He's a guy who needs to get 20-25 carries a game. The reason for that is Polk may only gain 18 yards on his first 10 carries but then go for 118 on his next 10.

Polk is reminiscent of another University of Washington running back, Corey Dillon. Polk isn't as versatile as Richardson, Wilson or Martin. Those three backs bring more to the table overall than Polk, but if a team is looking for a patient, physical runner, Polk is a good candidate.

The more I watch Polk the more I like him. Depending on where he gets drafted, Polk could end up being one of those third or fourth round steals like DeMarco Murray was for Dallas last year.

Fantasy Impact: Polk is one of my rookie fantasy sleepers at this point. I have to see where he lands first, but if it looks like a good situation for him, Polk could surprise fantasy owners in 2012.

Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati

Outlook: A few years ago there was a running back from the Big East that I had highly rated. His name was LeSean McCoy. Pead isn't the back McCoy was coming out of college, but the two share some of the same qualities.

Like McCoy, Pead runs a lot tougher than his size suggests. Pead isn't going to excel in a power running offense. He's better suited for a scheme like that of the Eagles, who try to spread defenses out. In an offense like Pead can be successful.

Also, like McCoy, Pead is an excellent receiver, and that doesn't only apply in catching the ball, but in making something happen in the open field. Pead is on the smallish side at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, but he's built pretty thick. Pead carried the ball a lot last year for Cincinnati and didn't break down.

The NFL has changed over the years. Very few teams have a McCoy or Adrian Peterson who get almost all of the touches. Most teams have at least two backs who play an important role. Pead will fill a role for some team and do it very well.

Fantasy Impact: Pead initially will be more of an asset in PPR leagues. If he goes to a team that uses him right, I think Pead has the skills to become a dangerous offensive weapon in the Reggie Bush-mold.

Lamar Miller, Miami -- I'm not quite sure what people see when they consider Miller a first round talent. Miller has good straight line speed but he lacks instincts as a runner, so he doesn't play as fast as his 40 time.

Looking good in shorts and running fast in a straight line doesn't mean you'll be a productive NFL running back. In college Miller used his speed to make a living. I didn't see a strong inside runner or a back with great patience and vision. Basically he was a great athlete playing running back.

Miller runs high like a sprinter, and in the NFL that means you're going to take a lot of big hits. Another concern about Miller is he's more fast than quick. I like the exact opposite. I'll take a quicker guy who makes defenders miss over a guy who runs fast in a straight line any day. In all seriousness, how often does a running back in the NFL take a handoff and run straight to the end zone?

Miller is a good enough athlete to help an NFL team but he projects as more of a mid-round prospect. He's the most overvalued player heading into the draft according to my breakdowns.

Fantasy Impact: People will fall in love with Miller because he's flashy. Let them fall in love with him. He doesn't have enough tools, other than speed, to produce consistently enough as a running back at the NFL level.

Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State -- Every year I gravitate to one player who becomes my guy. This year it's Hillman. I always make a mental note of certain players I watch over their careers that I'm eager to see film on. Hillman was one of those players because every time I saw him he impressed me.

Hillman is a guy with a similar skill set to Tiki Barber. Hillman is faster than Barber was but they're similar in size, and like Barber, Hillman is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.

Hillman is also a big-play machine. There may not have been another back in college football outside of Oregon with as many long runs as Hillman. This kid has it all. On tape Hillman showed good vision and patience. He was also strong and one of the most explosive backs in the draft.

The worst case scenario with Hillman is you end up with a great pass-catching back who can play a complementary role for your team. The best case scenario is you find a gem in the middle rounds who becomes one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL. Either way, Hillman will contribute to an NFL offense.

Fantasy Impact: I think Hillman is going to make an immediate impact. I would be all over him in keeper leagues. In redraft leagues make sure you remember Hillman's name and keep an eye on him this preseason to chart his progress.

In what seems to be a trend in the NFL draft, there aren't many highly-rated running backs that will go in the Top 20, but there are a number of mid-round players who will outproduce their draft position. With running back becoming a specialized position in the NFL, it's all about finding the right guy to fit your scheme. Bernard Pierce could be a bust in one system and a productive starter in another. There are a lot of quality backs in this year's class, so it's up to talent evaluators to figure out which one best fits their team's offensive system.

You May Like