'The NFL Beat': So It Starts …

A first look at fantasy football rookie RBs

'The NFL Beat': So It Starts …

Congratulations. We have turned the corner. Now that NFL teams have finished their personnel evaluations and welcomed their newest additions, it is now our turn as fantasy owners.

Since January, I have logged tens of thousands of airline and personal vehicular miles attending Senior Bowl week, the NFL Scouting Combine, and more pro days and workouts than I can count. I don’t mind the travel. What I do mind is losing. We won’t be doing that here. We will start with the rookie running backs. Here are my initial thoughts on the first five off the board:

Trent Richardson (Alabama) Round One: Cleveland Browns
The Browns did what they needed to do and made sure to secure the only player left on the board who changes your franchise the minute he steps in the door. Richardson is the best RB prospect we have seen since Adrian Peterson, and he comes into a situation that will be relying heavily on the run game. His competition for touches will be Montario Hardesty who has shown us two things: He cannot stay healthy and he drops the ball far too much to be an effective RB in Head Coach Pat Shurmur’s West Coast offense. I see Richardson making an immediate fantasy impact, much like Peterson did in Minnesota as a rookie under current Browns Offensive Coordinator Brad Childress. I also believe he will be more valuable in PPR formats than expected, possibly garnering mid-second-round consideration for redraft leagues in August barring injury.

Doug Martin (Boise State) Round One: Tampa Bay Bucs
Martin draws frequent comparisons to Ray Rice (who new Bucs HC Greg Schiano certainly enjoyed coaching at Rutgers), but at Senior Bowl practices, the player comparison that kept coming to my mind was Frank Gore. While he does have a compact physique, he holds his weight differently than the Mike Tolbert, Ray Rice, or Maurice Jones-Drew “bowling ball” types. He is very, very slim through the waist, cut to shreds, and runs with an upright forward prowl just like Gore. It is obvious that the Bucs are not overly committed to LeGarrette Blount as a viable option (as you should not be as a fantasy owner, either). Blount fumbles, runs into tacklers like he is doing it on purpose, and generally drives coaches crazy. If you’ve owned him in fantasy, you know the feeling. Martin is coming into a rebuilt offensive system featuring a line anchored by one of the league’s best guards and a true deep threat in Vincent Jackson. The NFC South was one of the easiest divisions for fantasy backs to face last season, and not much has happened to change that. This is a situation for redraft league owners to keep a close eye on through camp, and for dynasty league owners to think about taking a calculated gamble on in early draft leagues. Blount will likely enter preseason camp as the starter, but his days may be numbered.

David Wilson (Virginia Tech) Round One: New York Giants
Wilson comes to the Giants with 4.4 speed and a Big Apple-sized personality. Being around the Wilson, the first thing you notice is how likeable he is, a testament to his Virginia Tech teammates’ reported love for him as a leader. With Brandon Jacobs gone and Ahmad Bradshaw’s foot still full of screws, Wilson addresses a major need for the Giants. Head Coach Tom Coughlin said publicly that the Giants need two runners in their offensive system, and that David Wilson is hoped to be the big-play threat to compliment Bradshaw. This situation is decidedly different from the Bradshaw/Jacobs conundrum that we as fantasy owners have grown used to. In fact, the tables seemed to have turned as Coughlin referred to Ahmad Bradshaw as the “tough runner who can break tackles” and Wilson as the “big play threat." One thing is for sure. The Giants backfield just got faster via a versatile weapon who is very effective in the screen game. Wilson is not a good pass protector yet, and he has fumbling issues. If Bradshaw comes into camp completely healthy, we should then get a better idea of Coughlin’s anticipated time split. I could see Wilson becoming fantasy-relevant in 2012 redraft leagues after building on a few solid games rotating first and second down series’ with Bradshaw.

Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati) Round Two- St. Louis Rams
Pead is a burgeoning dynamic threat in the return game and a dazzling one cut runner. He was my third-highest ranked RB of the draft, and I think the fit is great in St. Louis. Steven Jackson is still a very good veteran player when healthy, and Pead comes in right out of the gates as a true complimentary No. 2 RB. If Jackson were to go down, I would project Pead as a much higher upside fantasy play than any of the fill-in garbage that Jackson owners had to sift through during his frequent previous absences. You worry a little bit about Pead’s size as a violent inside runner. He is under 200 pounds, but plays bigger than he is. Wednesday and Thursday practices are important for rookie RBs not to miss with minor, lingering injury issues. Missed practices = missed fantasy points with rookie RBs. Especially Wednesdays, when most teams install the first and second down game plan. Those minor injury concerns aside, I feel like dynasty owners will be getting a steal here in a player that may just become relevant in 2012 redraft formats.

LaMichael James (Oregon) Round Two: San Francisco 49ers
I heard at the Combine that the 49ers loved LaMichael James and had a first-round grade on him, but thought they would be able to grab him in the second round, which they did. While slight in stature, James is a dynamic threat to go the distance anytime he can get around the corner or get free in space. Teams don’t go by the Combine 40-yard-dash times, they go by their own scouts’ times, and some scouts had James timed as low as 4.35 in Indy. He can line up in the slot, play reverses, and was generally uber-productive as Oregon’s all-time leading rusher. This 49er backfield of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon, Brandon Jacobs and now LaMichael James is the biggest fantasy nightmare I could ever imagine, though. It would only be worse if Shanahan was coaching them. Until further notice, I’m avoiding the group altogether in redrafts, and would only consider James as a relative long play in most dynasty formats.

[Alex Dunlap is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, the host of RosterWatch on 104.9FM ESPN Radio Austin, founder of Rosterwatch.com, and a featured expert contributor to the FantasyPros.com network.]

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