BY DAVID KOMER
Shonn Greene: Icon SMI
As early mock drafts come together and this year's rookies get fit into everyone's formulas like puzzle pieces, you can't help but hope the 2010 class is nothing like its forerunner.
The 2009 class stands alone as one of the worst years for rookies in fantasy football I can remember in nearly 20 years. Sure, it's hard to expect rookies to be reliable, but a nice mid-to-late rookie pick can make any draft from good to great and great to legendary. A pick like Randy Moss in 1998, Edgerrin James in 1999, Clinton Portis in 2002 or even Steve Slaton in 2008, can be the X-factor in a title run or even transform a fair to middling team into a contender. Sifting though veterans in the middle rounds of the draft usually gives way to pulling the trigger on rookies and, thereby throwing an element of surprise into the mix.
But even the most lean skill position draft classes have had at least one running back that emerges (Jamal Lewis in 2000, for instance), but last year featured duds galore. Of course, the bar was set high thanks to the instant gratification of 2008 (Chris Johnson, Matt Ryan, Matt Forte, etc.) but still, too many owners got little to no help last fall.
Rookie quarterbacks are always taboo, with Ryan being one of the few startable anomalies in years, so the struggles last season of Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez shouldn't be taken into account.
When it came to receivers, what Michael Crabtree did following a lengthy holdout (48 catches, 625 yards, two scores) was amazing, making him the Cadillac of this class. He'll make a fine WR3 this year as a mid-round pick or decent WR2 in big leagues as the 49er offense looks ready to explode.
Everyone else (Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin) makes me feel meh, with Harvin looking like a nice situational start from time to time as a WR3/4 but not a reliable week-in, week-out option.
The real skinny with any rookie class is the running backs, and that's the focus here. Good tailbacks usually don't take long to emerge, they hit right away or at least at some point in their rookie season. It's the easiest of positions for rookies to pick up, making last year's group even more befuddling.
On the bright side, the term "sophomore slump" shouldn't be in play, since most of these guys' production wasn't great to start with and they have yards of potential (*rim shot, please). Let's look at who looks primed to rebound, what value they could have and who might still be stuck in the mire.
Last year: Moreno was at the top of everyone's rookie board last year and usually was taken between the fifth and seventh rounds. Moreno ended with 947 yards and seven touchdowns rushing -- with two coming in week 17 (FYI: in a parallel universe or "Lost" style flash-sideways -- one in which Mike Shanahan wasn't fired for an arrogant child replacement -- I'm sure Moreno walked away with rookie of the year honors).
This year: I'm still not crazy about Moreno's value, with tackle Ryan Clady due to be out for three to four months with a patellar tendon injury and the lack of any experienced receivers worth their salt (save for the ever dynamic, but alas, pint-sized Eddie Royal). I'd like him in the late fourth round or early fifth round, but there's no guarantee he'll be there. He's a decent RB2 and a great RB3 if one goes running back heavy early in the draft. Moreno has the potential to bounce back, but proceed with caution.
Last year: Wells was the second most popular back in many drafts and had a soft landing custom made for him in a powerhouse offense like Arizona with an easy schedule. Instead, minor injuries were constantly nagging him before he stepped up near the end of the year (793 yards, seven touchdowns). Another problem was incumbent Tim Hightower who stayed in the mix.
This year: Quarterback issues will either make or break the Cardinals this year, but having Larry Fitzgerald doesn't hurt, which will keep defenses from stacking the line. I expect Wells to eventually be the full-time back with Hightower fading into a third-down role with his receiving ability as the Cards lean towards Derek Anderson over Matt Leinart. Coach Ken Whisenhunt might have to dust off his old Steelers' smash-mouth playbook and be more run dependent to set up the play-action pass. Wells is a good sixth-round pick, though late fourth to early fifth might be where he goes depending on the league size and the Cards' preseason. A decent RB2 or great RB3 but he's an injury risk on a team with question marks.
Last year: Brown was most popular in 2009 fantasy drafts only for handcuff-happy Joseph Addai owners -- in the same way some of us purchase "service plans" with our new TVs. Addai, whose past injury history was enough to keep some owners (like me) away from the situation entirely, stayed healthy in '09 and pushed Brown to the background (281 yards, three touchdowns). When the former U-Conn product did see the field, inspiring he wasn't.
This year: Avoid him entirely until the double-digit rounds, when as a handcuff for Addai or in poaching another owner's insurance plan.
Last year: Playing behind Thomas Jones, who posted one of the most underrated performances of the year with Sanchez at quarterback, Greene didn't get many opportunities (540 yards, two touchdowns). Once Jones went down, Greene emerged as the lead back and pumped out back to back 100-yard performances against the Bengals and Chargers in the postseason during the Jets' playoff run.
This year: Greene will go as high as the early third round, possibly in the late second round as he assumes the lead back role. Although I'm skeptical with his lack of a track record and with the presence of free agent LaDainian Tomlinson waiting in the wings, Greene is pretty low risk. Unless he's hurt, and even if Tomlinson gets going like I expect him to, Greene (5-11, 226) will most likely be the goal line back and should easily hit double-digit scores in 2010. A low-end RB1, but a very good RB2 in any lineup.
Last year: The former Pitt Panther sat behind Bryan Westbrook before Westbrook's early season concussion forced him to the forefront. McCoy showed tantalizing promise with 637 yards, four touchdowns and broke the Eagles' rookie rushing record in the process.
This year: The Eagles will be a team in flux early on with new quarterback Kevin Kolb, but based on his rookie season and the strong supporting cast around him, McCoy should have a starring role and be a third to fourth round pick as a result. Consider him a strong RB2 but a weak lead back.
When it comes to fantasy football value, no team's player stock has been damaged more this off-season than the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a hard thing to write, but on many a draft day this summer, Pittsburgh players won't be one my first draftable options on the table.
The Ben Roethlisberger drama with him out for the first four to six games is a big factor in my own plummeting rankings for the Steelers skill players. As far as Roethlisberger goes, he was usually ranked in the low end of the top 10 to early teens the past few years and thought of as a borderline starter to high-end backup. Four to six games is more than a quarter of a typical fantasy season, let alone the worst case scenario would remove him for roughly 40 percent on one's schedule.
The trickle-down effect is that an unproven Dennis Dixon or workman-like (to be kind) Charlie Batch will take the wheel and try not to crash. Mike Wallace, whose stock got a boost with the Santonio Holmes trade, slides back down. So does Heath Miller and Hines Ward, the latter who might not be an every week starter, but could have been considered a decent WR4 or 5. Also, think twice about RB Rashard Mendenhall. He'll face defenses stacked to stop the run and dare the pass for the first part of the season, but will pay off big later in the season.
I've been a big fan of ESPN's 30 for 30 series of documentaries, but the latest entry, Run Ricky, Run on Ricky Williams won't find its way into my viewing schedule. In fact, a reorganization of my sock drawer would come before watching a doc on one of the biggest NFL and fantasy disappointments in recent memory.
I know he battled a social anxiety disorder and depression as well as an addiction to marijuana, but his walking away from the game was one of the biggest gut-punches to his fans, the Dolphin franchise and fantasy players everywhere. At least when Barry Sanders retired, he had put in 10 years on a terrible franchise that was circling the drain. Williams' career was mid-way through on a playoff team.
Just as Miami was left in disarray, so was my fantasy squad, Komer's Pile. In one of my six leagues, one which we protect one franchise player per team, I had two years previous traded LaDainian Tomlinson for Williams, straight up in a blockbuster swap. Bear in mind, this was no Mike Ditka trade. Back then, both players put up comparable numbers with Williams holding the edge up to that point. The player I had built around, was gone. And as Ricky headed to the beach to hang with Lenny Kravitz, the next five to six years saw LaDainian's stock hit the stratosphere.
In a separate dynasty league that kept 20 man rosters which I played in, I witnessed a Williams trade go down in the offseason for Shaun Alexander, less than one week before the dreaded announcement. Ouch.
Fantasy football grudges die hard, but for a player like Williams who could have been one of the best ever and then threw it all away, it stings even more not just for him, but the fans.