Fantasy value of 2014 first-rounders
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You don't go broke avoiding rookies in fantasy football.
Yes, occasionally an Eddie Lacy or a Keenan Allen makes you feel like a genius. But for every one of them, you'll get five Montee Balls, Tavon Austins, DeAndre Hopkinses and Tyler Eiferts. The truth is, rookies rarely justify their average draft position.
That said, the first round of the NFL draft Thursday featured several players with exciting careers ahead of them. You need to know where the talent is and who landed in a potentially good situation, especially if you're in a dynasty league, and that's what I'm here to analyze. I'll write more after this weekend, at which point I'll give you my top 10 fantasy rookies for '14. For the moment, though, let's linger on Round 1.
3. Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: I heard several talking heads say they like this pick because the Jags have Chad Henne in town so Bortles can sit for a year. Um, that's not happening. The days of redshirting the No. 3 overall pick are done. Bortles will be rushed under center Week 1, and that's what scares me. Listen, at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, Bortles is out of central casting to be a starting quarterback, he's got lots of in-pocket mobility, and he ran the option on occasion at Central Florida. He didn't look out of place versus South Carolina this past season, but in general he didn't play a high level of competition in college, and I think folks have misconceptions about his raw skills.
He's not Ben Roethlisberger. He doesn't have an overly big arm, he hasn't read the field in a pro-style offense, and his footwork breaks down under pressure. I grade him somewhere between Jake Locker and Ryan Tannehill, which means you won't want any part of him in redraft fantasy leagues this year. Cecil Shorts will still probably be frustrating to own.
4. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills. A track star with a great combination of intelligence and naturally brilliant hands and feet, Watkins should eventually have a rosy career. But even the most pie-eyed optimist has to admit that this isn't his best landing spot for rookie-year glory. Watkins is going to get open right away. But will EJ Manuel hit him? Manuel's throwing accuracy is a worry. And even if the QB takes a leap as a passer, Watkins will have to contend with Robert Woods and Mike Williams on a weekly basis; that's a potentially strong receiving corps, but it's easy to envision its members cannibalizing production from one another.
No question, I'll have Watkins rated higher than any other pass-catcher on this team and he'll be draftable in all redraft leagues, but as a speculative bench player. In dynasty leagues? He might be the No. 1 pick in your rookie draft. Oh, and Steve Johnson is officially on notice. The Bills did pay him a roster bonus in March and won't save anything against the cap if they cut him, plus his $8.5 million cap number probably precludes a trade. But at this point, Johnson and Williams are in each other's way as potential slot players, making each undraftable, at least for the moment. (Editor's note: Between the first and second rounds of the draft, the Bills traded Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers.)
7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If Watkins went to a team with a bunch of decent options cluttering his depth chart, at least Evans has a clear path to starter's snaps (unless you're super into Louis Murphy). The Bucs jettisoned Mike Williams this winter, all but telegraphing that they were open for business to draft a receiver, and they got their man: a 6-5, 231-pound former basketball player with great hops. There's going to be a learning curve here; Evans hasn't really ever had to run in-breaking routes. Plus there's some duplication of effort, as Vincent Jackson plays this position essentially exactly the same way Evans does. While Josh McCown isn't exactly a sure bet under center, the Bucs obviously want him to play much like he did throwing it to giants Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery last season in Chicago. Like Watkins, Evans will be drafted in all leagues for his potential big-play and red zone abilities.
10. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions. Let's clear this up: Ebron is not Vernon Davis. He's not as fast or as fluid an athlete as the ridiculous Big Vern. That's not to say he won't be a good pro. Heck, with Matthew Stafford throwing it to him, eventually Ebron could be a fantasy starter. But in '14, he'll share time with Brandon Pettigrew (who received $8 million guaranteed this winter) and last year's red zone sensation Joseph Fauria. I'm not a fan of this pick for the Lions because I think they keep ignoring their most glaring need, which is pass defense. But it would be foolish not to get excited about Ebron's dynasty upside. People who are 6-4 and 250 pounds aren't supposed to run a 4.6 and have moves like Ebron does. He jumps far ahead of Pettigrew and Fauria on the fantasy TE rolls for this year, but keep your expectations in check. Tyler Eifert's middling rookie effort is the cautionary tale here.
12. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants. If you had any question whether the Giants think Rueben Randle is ready to replace Hakeem Nicks, now you have your answer. They don't. Randle has great leaping ability and size but hasn't consistently gotten open in his two pro seasons, leading this observer to believe his problems may be between the ears. Is Beckham a perfect replacement for the skills the Giants thought they were getting when they took Randle in the 2012 second round? No, but he's significantly faster and more fluid, with less potential as a red-zone guy but more as a deep-play threat. My biggest hesitation recommending Beckham right away comes down to size. Whereas Randle is 6-2 and 208 pounds and Nicks is 6-1 and 208 pounds, Beckham is 5-11 and 198 pounds. In addition, he benched seven reps at the combine; I can do more than that, and I'm old. Is a guy with Beckham's relative lack of size and strength immediately ready to get off the line playing outside in the NFL, even if he is a burner? I have my doubts. As such, I think he winds up only flashing occasionally as a rookie.
20. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints. Darren Sproles and Lance Moore are out of the picture. Cooks and Kenny Stills are in. Suffice it to say that the Saints wanted to get younger, healthier and quicker at their ancillary skill positions. Cooks is the fastest receiver in this draft, with 4.33 jets, and fortunately won't be asked to beat much press coverage at 5-10 and 189 pounds. Of course, he won't get anything close to a fantasy starter's workload, either. Drew Brees will focus on Jimmy Graham most, will find Marques Colston in the middle of the field, will fling the deep stuff to Stills, and will continue to throw to Pierre Thomas regularly. But four or five times per game, the Saints will get the ball into Cooks' hands in space. Can he eventually aspire to playing outside full time, like mighty mite Steve Smith in his glory years? Possibly. For now, though, he's going to mostly be a deep-league roster stash.
22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns. How spooky is it that three administrations of Browns general managers took Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and now Manziel at No. 22 overall? And that doesn't even count Kevin Costner from "Draft Day"! I loved that the Browns passed on Manziel to address the black hole they've had opposite Joe Haden at corner, taking Justin Gilbert at No. 7, and then still got the QB they most believed in. Personally, though, I think Manziel is going to tease Cleveland fans for years. He'll make exciting plays. But he'll also make dunderheaded plays. And his hair-on-fire style doesn't bode well for his longevity; he has Michael Vick's size, but not his arm or speed.
What Manziel does have is tremendous improvisational skills, and that's why throughout this interminable draft process, I've said the guy he reminds me of is Jeff Garcia. Is he an improvement over Brian Hoyer? Yes. Does he solidify Josh Gordon as a No. 1 fantasy WR? Yes. Is he likely to throw more picks than TDs as a rookie? Yes. Is he going to rescue his fantasy value by rushing for double-digit TDs? No. One final note: How wacky is it that the Browns got Manziel in exchange for Trent Richardson and a third-rounder?
28. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers. I imagine Marqise Lee has to be scratching his head. Lee didn't have a good junior campaign, it's true, but he was legitimately banged-up and his sophomore tape was crazy. As in: If he'd been allowed into the '13 draft, he might've been a top-five overall pick. Now he's getting passed over for an ultra-raw prospect who mostly showed dreadful hands at Florida State? Listen, I get it: Carolina wanted the guy with the most superstar potential. At 6-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin has the upside of a young Plaxico Burress. But if I'm the Panthers, and my defense is so good that I think I can potentially win now, I think I'd want the more polished Lee. Anyway, Benjamin figures to get playing time as a rookie, because right now the depth chart in Charlotte goes: Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood. (Insert shudder here.)
If things break right for him, and Cam Newton gives him some red zone looks, maybe that translates to a surprise rookie campaign for Benjamin. But I think it's more likely that he struggles initially, because he's a lump of unmolded clay. His situation will make him tempting, but knowing what I know as of right now, I wouldn't reach for him in standard leagues.
32. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings. I'm stubborn. Bridgewater is still my favorite QB in this draft, despite all of the noise about his shoddy pro day. He's the guy who's ready to come in and lead a pro offense right away, and the Vikes were smart to trade back into the first round and nab him. Because Bridgewater fell, coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner get the best of both worlds: They got a good, smart, experienced player whom they can legitimately sit early in the season if they need to. (For instance, there will be far more pressure on Jacksonville to play Bortles in Week 1.) But I just like this kid's tape way too much to imagine that Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder will beat him out this summer.
What separates Bridgewater for me is his cool. At Louisville, he made pro reads and handled whatever defenses handed out, took hits, showed instinctive footwork and decent mobility, and rarely made mistakes. Is he a huge, strapping dude like Bortles? No. Is he a Houdini like Manziel? No. Does he have a massive arm? No. But Bridgewater has it: the quick mind and instincts that keep drives going. Is he a fantasy star right away, even if he does start Week 1? He's not. But I think he winds up being better news for guys like Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph than we had any right to hope for. I'm stoked.