How does NFL draft first round affect your fantasy football strategy?
Before the 2014 NFL draft began, we were fairly certain of a few things: Running backs weren't likely to be taken in the first round, wide receivers were plentiful and there were a few quarterbacks in the discussions for the first round. That meant a few things from a fantasy perspective, including the fact that none of these rookies would end up being a high fantasy pick.
However, as we've learned in recent history, there is still plenty of fantasy talent to be had -- those picks just aren't going to be had within the first few rounds of your fantasy draft.
We'll discuss the fantasy impact of some of the players taken in the first round in the order of their selection, but understand that this is not the order you'll see them listed in our 2014 fantasy football rankings.
Jaguars stay close to home with QB Bortles
Last week, I mentioned the Bortles-Jaguars coupling as a match made in fantasy heaven for WR Cecil Shorts. He has endured weak quarterback play for a few years with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne under center, and now he'll get the UCF star throwing to him.
Benefits: Shorts is heading into a contract season, and he's coming off groin surgery, so 2014 is a big year for him. He'll be the main focus in Jacksonville's passing attack again, as Justin Blackmon is dealing with off-the-field issues. As the season rolls on, Bortles and Shorts will start clicking. Shorts might be a player to avoid drafting but then trade for after the first month of the season.
Hurts: Strangely, it also hurts Shorts, only because he has a rapport with Henne already. Again, early weeks will be tough for the Jaguars all around, but Shorts should benefit later in the year.
Final fantasy focus: You're not going to be drafting Bortles outside of dynasty formats unless you are in a deep 2-QB league. He's a big pocket passer that has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger, and he could provide some bye-week help late in the season, if only because the Jaguars will likely be throwing the ball a lot. Shorts remains a WR3/4 with WR2 upside in November and December.
Buffalo makes the Clemson connection again
Buffalo traded a first- and fourth-round pick next season to move up in the first round Thursday and select the best offensive player in the draft -- Sammy Watkins. He possesses size, speed and play-making ability that had the all 32 teams excited about him. Watkins joins former Clemson running back and 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller on the Bills' roster.
Benefits: No one's happier than sophomore QB E.J. Manuel, who used to go up against Watkins and his Clemson teammates in college. Manuel gets the best weapon in the draft and now has his version of A.J. Green, Dez Bryant or Julio Jones.
Hurts: Robert Woods is only in his second year with the Bills, but since the end of last season, Buffalo added Mike Williams and now Watkins. You also have to figure that Stevie Johnson is on his way to another team, and he'll hand over his reins on the WR1 tag to Watkins. All three players (Johnson, Williams and Woods) are now late-round options.
Final fantasy focus: Rookie wide receivers have a much tougher time making a fantasy impact than their rookie-RB counterparts. They're not fed the ball consistently until they prove themselves, and they still have to learn reads and coverages, not to mention build a rapport with their quarterback. A rookie RB just has to run when he gets the ball and not let the quarterback get killed when he doesn't.
Since 1990, only eight rookie wide receivers have caught 60 or more passes for over 1,000 yards and at least seven touchdowns (Keenan Allen, Anquan Boldin, Michael Clayton, Marques Colston, Joey Galloway, A.J. Green, Randy Moss and Mike Williams). It's difficult to imagine Watkins adding his name to that list in 2014 with an inconsistent sophomore QB in Manuel, who has plenty of other options on offense. But I still like Watkins as the top fantasy option among the first-rounders and see him as a top-35 fantasy wide receiver worth considering near Rounds 9 or 10. I would take him before Tavon Austin, Riley Cooper and T.Y. Hilton.
Bucs' McCown has new twin towers to throw to
Tampa Bay was rumored to be interested in Manziel, but they bypassed him in order to draft his Texas A&M teammate Mike Evans, considered the second-best wide receiver in the draft.
Interestingly, Evans compares closest to Vincent Jackson, his new teammate in Tampa Bay. Both are big, tall receivers that use their body to box out and beat defenders on plenty of 50/50 balls.
Benefits: Josh McCown was signed this offseason after a nice season in Chicago, where he had a very solid half-season in place of Jay Cutler, throwing to two other big wide receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. V-Jax also benefits from this pick, as he lost Mike Williams this offseason as his counterpart.
Hurts: Nobody really gets hurt here, as Louis Murphy was set as the WR2 only because depth charts needed to be filled out. The Bucs were fully expected to add a wide receiver in the draft or post-draft free agency.
Final fantasy focus: Evans should own the WR2 job right out of training camp, but the Buccaneers were last in passing a year ago, and their offensive line is not nearly as good as we once thought. There's a new regime in Tampa, and new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has his work cut out for him. The Bucs are expected to be relatively conservative, though, so it's tough to consider Evans as a starting fantasy option in Year 1. No doubt, he'll do better than what Jeffery did in his first season (24 catches, 367 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games), but he's likely going to be the third or fourth rookie from this first-round group taken in fantasy drafts.
Mega-Ebron joins Megatron in Motown
The Lions nabbed the top tight end in the draft, and the best TE prospect in a couple years in UNC's Eric Ebron. That's great news for Calvin Johnson, who hasn't had many teammates to draw defenders away from him in recent years.
Benefits: No doubt, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are happy with this selection. Stafford gets another weapon, and Johnson will eventually see some breathing room once Ebron acclimates to the NFL game.
Hurts: Brandon Pettigrew is now considered the second tight end in Detroit.
Final fantasy focus: While new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, formerly an assistant under Sean Payton, has talked about using Ebron in the same mold as Jimmy Graham, fantasy owners still need to be cautious. Rookie tight ends rarely make a huge fantasy impact (Graham caught 31 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie season), but Ebron is definitely in the mix after the first 12 tight ends are off the board. I'd prefer Ebron over tight ends like Martellus Bennett, Heath Miller and Delanie Walker.
Bend it like Beckham? Eli hopes to send it, instead
The Giants replaced Hakeem Nicks, who signed with the Colts this offseason, with LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham is a fast receiver (he ran a 4.43 40 at the NFL Combine) with great route-running instincts. He's a student of the game and has already drawn comparisons to Steelers WR Antonio Brown.
Benefits: Eli Manning seems like he loses a WR weapon every year in free agency, but now, he gets one back in one of the best offensive players in the draft and someone who should be utilized immediately.
Hurts: No one's fantasy value took a bigger hit after Round 1 than Rueben Randle. He was set to take the WR2 spot in Manning's eyes, but Beckham has a better chance of eventually becoming that guy across from Victor Cruz. Randle's inconsistency opened the door for this draft pick to happen.
Final fantasy focus: Beckham will also be used as a punt and kick returner, which doesn't really affect his fantasy value, other than giving him more chances to get hurt. He also happened to attend the same high school in New Orleans as Manning. If only Beckham could play on the offensive line, too, then Manning would really be excited. Either way, Beckham will deserve late-round fantasy consideration.
Cooks in New Orleans makes things spicy
The Saints traded up to the 20th spot in order to fill a pass-catching need. Brandin Cooks led FBS schools with 1,730 receiving yards last season on 128 catches in 13 games. Consider Cooks a bigger Tavon Austin, with 4.33 speed that was the fastest time by any wide receiver at the NFL Combine. Essentially, Cooks replaces Lance Moore for the Saints, who left in free agency. But let's not forget that Darren Sproles is also gone from this roster.
Benefits: Drew Brees already has TE Jimmy Graham and WRs Marques Colston and Kenny Stills to throw to, making Cooks an alternative rather than the main man he might have been had another team, like the Panthers, drafted him. Cooks' presence really doesn't change much on the fantasy value of his new teammates. Brees was already a high fantasy draft pick. Cooks' ability to return punts does improve the fantasy value of the Saints defense, already a top-10 unit.
Hurts: This makes Robert Meachem less of a target, but no one was drafting him in fantasy anyway. Cooks will help replace the 60 or so catches lost when Sproles changed teams.
Final fantasy focus: The Saints liked Cooks enough to not even bring him in for a visit, and they traded away a third-rounder to move up and get him. It might take a few weeks before the rookie gets acclimated to the offense, but expect Brees to play with his new toy a lot. Unfortunately for Cooks and his future fantasy owners, Brees has other mouths to feed first. Austin went too high in fantasy drafts last season, so temper expectations a bit and consider Cooks more as a late-round option.
Johnny Football drops in NFL draft, rises in fantasy drafts
Before the Browns traded up to take Johnny Manziel with the 22nd pick, there was talk of him going to Dallas, where his fantasy value for 2014 would have been destroyed sitting behind Tony Romo and playing in packages. Instead, the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy will head to Cleveland, which was one of my "Fantasy Marriages Made in Heaven."
Manziel has a good offensive line in front of him with a strong left tackle to protect him in Joe Thomas, and the Browns picked up RB Ben Tate to lead the effort on the ground. Manziel also gets to play in Kyle Shanahan's offense, which should be similar to what Shanahan installed in Washington when they drafted Robert Griffin III.
Benefits: It's going to be tough for WR Josh Gordon to match what he did last season, including becoming the first player to catch 200 yards worth of passes in back-to-back games, but Gordon should benefit with this addition. Manziel's ability to extend plays gives Gordon more opportunities to get open.
Hurts: Obviously, this is bad news for Brian Hoyer, who flashed some good play before hurting his knee last season. But Hoyer wasn't getting drafted in fantasy play anyway.
Final fantasy focus: Manziel, much like RGIII two seasons ago, will not fall outside of the top 12 rounds in your fantasy draft. There's too much excitement and potential for running scores/yardage to think he'll be a late-round pick. Drafting him as a fantasy backup QB is a smart move.
Newton breathes sigh of relief with addition of a WR
Before the NFL draft began, the Panthers' best wide receivers consisted of Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood after Carolina lost its top four wide receivers in March. The addition of Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin should sooth some of Newton's concerns, although, his fantasy owners would like to see him get even more passing targets.
Benefits: Obviously, Newton needed a stud receiver, and Benjamin can certainly become that. We'll see how much it helps Newton, who goes from having a diminutive, albeit highly productive, WR1 in Steve Smith to a towering beast of a WR1 in Benjamin (6-foot-5, 240 pounds). Unfortunately, Benjamin is more of a project receiver with tons of talent. He'll have to refine his game a lot before Newton's fantasy value takes any big jumps.
Hurts: Really, it hurts no one, as you weren't jockeying for draft position hoping to take Cotchery anyway.
Final fantasy focus: I've stated all along that Benjamin is a video game star waiting to happen. When you watch him play, he stands above his defenders and snatches away passes before shoving would-be tacklers aside. Expect Newton to go to him often with red-zone fades, hoping his rookie receiver jumps up into the stratosphere to haul down purposely high passes. With his comparisons to Brandon Marshall, there's plenty of reasons to look to the rookie late in your draft as a WR4/5. In dynasty leagues, however, he should be the third receiver taken after Watkins and Evans. Expect big two-touchdown games from Benjamin mixed in with two-catch/22-yard games, as he'll be one of the more frustrating rookie receivers in fantasy.
We'll be talking about these fantasy rookies for the next four months, so expect them to rise and fall in value -- much like they did over the past four months before the NFL draft.