Twenty-one skill players were drafted Friday night in the second and third rounds: three quarterbacks, seven running backs, nine wide receivers and two tight ends. How many of them will have fantasy football value in 2011? To be honest, not that many. Some very good players landed in some pretty muddled situations. But even if many of the rookies won't be fantasy forces, some stars from their new teams will definitely be impacted.
Let's take 'em one by one and figure out if any early fantasy frontrunner rookies might emerge:
35. Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals. Cue the "orange-on-orange" jokes. (As a redhead, I'm allowed to say that.) In the draft's first 35 picks, Cincy made a statement about their same-old offense: Its days are numbered. Carson Palmer says he'll never play for the Bengals ever again (and Marvin Lewis says he considers Palmer retired), which could make Dalton the Week 1 starter, though fantasy players know rookie QBs rarely become fantasy relevant right away. Dalton has off-the-charts intangibles and is a prototypical "winner." There's a reason people compare him to Colt McCoy. He's about the same size and has the same weak arm. Can that change over time? It might. But if Dalton really is the starter right away, A.J. Green's upside dips appreciably, to say nothing of what happens to Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. Longer-term, the recipe might be terrific. This year, Cincy's offense won't produce big numbers if Dalton is at the helm. I think the moves in the first two rounds also make it likelier that the Bengals re-sign Cedric Benson, to keep some hint of continuity in their offense.
36. Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers. Whereas the Dalton pick makes you believe Palmer might not play in Cincy in 2011, Jim Harbaugh grabbing Kaepernick makes you believe free-agent Alex Smith will return. Kaepernick has tons of athletic ability (that's an understatement), is a good kid with a high IQ and can make all the throws, but his footwork is terrible and he needs to learn a pro-style offense. There's very little way the Niners could be thinking of him as a Week 1 starter. And if he's a developmental guy, the team must sign a veteran; reading between the lines of what Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke have said about their "openness" to re-signing Smith, you'd have to believe he's the leading candidate. I know, 49ers fans. I know. Yuck. Maybe they go elsewhere. Maybe they're in the Donovan McNabb/Matt Hasselbeck/Marc Bulger/Kevin Kolb/Vince Young market. That'll be decided later. For now, Kaepernick shouldn't have fantasy value in re-draft leagues.
38. Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals. Wow. For me, this was a C.J. Spiller moment. The Cardinals' defense is a wreck. They tried patching it with bailing-wire veterans last season, and it exploded in their faces. And their situation under center is no better, after the horrid one-year Derek Anderson experiment that everyone except the Cards knew would fail. And they draft a running back here? Much like the Bills' selection of Spiller at one of the few positions they already had good players, this one is a head-scratcher. Plus, if you're concerned about Beanie Wells' durability (and it's obvious Arizona is), is Williams really the guy you bring in? Didn't he just miss much of his final season at Virginia Tech with a hammy injury? I've got a feeling this is going to be a common refrain: I like the player, but am not crazy about the pick. He has the skills to be an every-down back, but it doesn't seem likely he'll get the opportunity, not with Wells around. True, Beanie was injury-prone last year, and maybe we don't have the full story about the knee injury that plagued him. Maybe it's severe. But Tim Hightower will probably still be in the desert, too, because he's a restricted free agent who the team tendered. What a mess. I probably put Williams highest on my running back list of this group, but none of these guys are fantasy starters right now. That's too bad.
43. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings. Obviously the top tight end in this draft, Rudolph lands in Bill Musgrave's new West Coast offense, which will likely use a bunch of two-tight end formations as part of an effort to play it close to the vest with rookie QB Christian Ponder. That's not great news for Randolph's immediate fantasy value. He'll be sharing targets with Visanthe Shiancoe and might already be a more accomplished blocker than the veteran, meaning he may stay home in protection a lot. The Rob Gronkowski comparisons will fly fast and furious about this guy, because they're identically sized and both suffered injuries in their final season of college, though Rudolph is a little faster and Gronk a little stronger. But don't expect Rudolph to come within a country mile of Gronk's studly rookie fantasy production in this offense. He's more of a guy to remember in future years.
44. Titus Young, WR, Lions. You'll hear DeSean Jackson comparisons, but Young isn't as fast as Jackson. He's 4.4 40-yard dash guy who's under 6 feet, which in my mind puts him more in the Percy Harvin neighborhood, which isn't a bad neighborhood to live in. Harvin might be a bit more solidly built and probably has better hands, but like Harvin, Young is a special-teams ace who can contribute right away in that department, as he learns the ins and outs of being an outside receiver. Obviously Calvin Johnson is on hand in Detroit, and I wouldn't say that the Lions drafting Young affects Megatron one bit. He'll still get his. Does Nate Burleson's value go down a little? Yeah, maybe. I can envision lots of circumstances in which Burleson plays out of the slot while Mega and Young play out wide, and if Burleson's not going down the fiel, his overall numbers probably get a little softer. As for Young, as a kick returner and No. 3 receiver, you're not getting a ton of value out of him outside return-yard leagues. And if his upside is Harvin, well, his downside might be Steve Breaston.
47. Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams. Rather than go with a wideout here as expected, the Rams decided to draft a tight end into a slot that's been a fantasy wasteland seemingly forever. (Let's see, since Ernie Conwell?) Add that noted tight end killer Josh McDaniels is the new offensive coordinator in St. Louis, and let's just say there are a few flies in this particular ointment. Listen, Kendricks averaged over 15 yards per catch his last season at Wisconsin at 240 pounds, putting me in the mind of the Bengals' Jermaine Gresham. But you saw how Gresham's rookie fantasy season worked out last year (not well), and realize that the Rams also have Michael Hoomanawanui and Fendi Onobun as young potential pass-catchers on their roster. I'm not saying Kendricks can't have a positive effect on the Rams and even have a few decent fantasy days this season. But you won't know when they're coming.
56. Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots. For about 17 picks, it seemed we had a handle on New England's backfield. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a true restricted free agent who the Pats tendered, would handle the big-back duties. Danny Woodhead would continue to be a waterbug weapon, too small to get more than, say, 10 touches per week. And Vereen would figure in a third-down-type role. He's a solid, if not spectacular, player who doesn't break tackles but has good one-cut burst, though he does need to become a better pass-blocker. But the works got gummed up later in the second round, when the Patriots took another rusher. See pick No. 73 below to read if I can make sense of this crowded situation.
57. Mikel Leshoure, RB, Lions. There goes my Jahvid Best fetish. Listen, Leshoure isn't instantly a superstar. He's probably not ready to come into the NFL and be a 20-carry guy right away, and Detroit doesn't need him to be. But by trading up into the second round to get Leshoure, the Lions are telling us they don't trust Best to stay healthy over the course of a full season. That's heartbreaking (to me) because I think Best could be Jamaal Charles, given health and opportunity. Anyway, Leshoure is a 225-pound back with uncanny speed and shiftiness for a man that size, and he could be an every-down back somewhere down the road. For now, though, the knock on him is that he dances and goes down too easily, which isn't a great fit for the one-cut, stretch offense the Lions run. Don't rule out the Lions experiencing some frustration with him this season. However, as his 20 TDs last year at Illinois attest, he's a strong short-yardage rusher, so you'd expect him to take the rushing scores from Best. (I certainly think that means Kevin Smith will be playing elsewhere this season.) I would still probably rather own Best, for his carry-to-carry upside, than Leshoure this year. But he can't be considered a top-15 fantasy rusher any longer, which is where I had him before Friday night. Leshoure will be a high-upside, fantasy-bench guy who'll definitely be owned in all leagues this year.
58. Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens. More than half the mock drafts I've read since February mocked Smith to the Ravens at No. 26 overall, based on the team's need for outside speed, so Baltimore must be pleased to get him in the second. Smith is a great kid who can run. He's 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds and runs a 4.42 40. That's not quite big enough to qualify him as a "Moneyball wideout" in my book, and I don't think he ever winds up being a No. 1 receiver. But the Ravens had the slowest receiving corps in the NFL last year, so Smith's speed will be welcome to guys such as Derrick Mason and (especially) Anquan Boldin, who saw so many double-teams it wasn't funny. Smith isn't a fantasy factor this year, unless you're in a return-yardage league. He's not an absolute elite burner and he doesn't run polished routes. He won't duplicate Mike Wallace's rookie season. But I really like what this does for Boldin, who I'll move up a few spots in my wide receiver ranks.
59. Greg Little, WR, Browns. I'm confused by this one. Little is a converted running back who's still learning how to run routes, but that's not my problem. It's just that he's a very big man who does nothing to alleviate concerns that the Browns don't have enough speed at wideout. I grant you Little has the potential to be a good fit in Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense. He's got great jumping skills and good hands, and at 230 pounds he's a beast to tackle. But I mean, didn't we hear all these same things about Mohamed Massaquoi? And Brian Robiskie? Little is in the same mold as those guys, and I worry that, at least at first; three players with very similar size/skill combinations will cannibalize each other. In an offense led by noodle-armed McCoy, who we know isn't going to take shots down the field (because of how Shurmur ran things in St. Louis last year), I'm left feeling meh. I know people talk about Little as "the next Mike Williams." But this offense isn't going to be nearly aggressive enough to produce any Mike Williamses. Add into the mix the notion that Little is known as a diva, and this season I don't view him as much more than a deep sleeper.
62. Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins. Believe it or not, Thomas may actually have lucked into being the top fantasy rookie of the season. He may have gone 34 picks after Mark Ingram,and he may have been the fifth rusher selected, but Miami has a gaping hole at running back, and Thomas is a great candidate to fill it. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are free agents; one of them (Williams?) might return in a supplemental role, but I can absolutely see Thomas getting the keys, as Ryan Mathews was supposed to before he got hurt last year. Thomas is a 230-pounder with excellent feet and can catch the ball. Kansas State lined him up all over the field and used him to create mismatches, as the Bears do with Matt Forte. One concern is that Thomas battled a bad hamstring throughout the draft process and didn't run at the combine then failed to make a second 40-yard dash at his pro day because of an injured quad. All we need is a repeat of Mathews' injured rookie season, right? But boy, the opportunity is there. Thomas compared himself to Larry Johnson at the combine, and while that's ambitious, it ain't a bad on-field role model.
64. Randall Cobb, WR, Packers. Cobb runs a 4.45 40 and is a utility belt of a player, actually quite a lot like Titus Young, who went 20 picks earlier. Cobb plays all over the field and is at least as quick as he is fast. He might catch a only few passes per game at first but, like Harvin, has a good chance of making those touches count. The first thing this selection means is that if James Jones winds up being an unrestricted free agent this summer (obviously we won't know that until the labor situation clears up), Green Bay won't be re-signing him. Instead, Aaron Rodgers' top two receivers will be Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, with the declining Donald Driver in the mix and Cobb working in a lot of four-wide sets. There's not much actual fantasy value for Cobb this year unless you get credit for return yards, but his presence is a significant hint about Green Bay's future.
69. Rob Housler, TE, Cardinals. Housler is very big (6-foot-5, 248 pounds) and very fast (he ran better than any other tight end at the combine) with the potential to join the ranks of catch-first tight ends who create matchup problems in the middle of the field. But in order to do so, he'll need to overcome a couple mitigating factors. First, the Cardinals don't use their tight ends as pass-catchers. The past three seasons, the most receptions any Arizona tight end has had in a single year is 15. Maybe that can change, but don't expect it to happen overnight. Housler's other problem is the same problem Larry Fitzgerald has. We don't know who the quarterback is yet. It'll probably be one of those free agents I mentioned at the top of this column. Forgive me for not turning handsprings.
71. DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys. Murray had a whopping 759 carries at Oklahoma and battled nagging leg injuries through much his final two seasons, which led to a not-so-scintillating per-carry average. But he was healthy at the combine and ran the third-fastest time of any running back, ensuring he'd be a second-day pick. Murray played in the spread, so he'll have a transition to make, but he should be a good blocker from the outset of his pro career and he catches the ball well. He's 213 pounds, so he's no mere scatback, but I don't think you'd say Murray plays big. He doesn't break tackles and he pretty much needs to run right past you to make you miss. He's not a natural candidate to become the goal-line back that Dallas struggled to find last year. Where does that leave him? Well, Felix Jones is a better version of Murray, so he's still likely the starter. Tashard Choice is under contract, too. All three guys are really about the same size, and only Jones' speed sets him apart. What this might means most of all is that Marion Barber's time in Big D is ending.
73. Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots. Boy, this is confusing. Rather than take a Leshoure or Thomas to be a true starting rusher, the Pats decided to draft Vereen and Ridley. Woodhead will certainly be around this season, and because he was tendered I really don't think Green-Ellis is going anywhere either. Four running backs? I guess. Fantasy-wise that sounds like typical Patriots. On different teams, either Vereen or Ridley could be a starting back, but they've got dramatically different skill sets. Vereen is quicker and a pass-catcher. Ridley is a load at 225 pounds, a first- and second-down player who won't catch it at all. If I'm wrong about BJGE and he winds up leaving New England, Ridley becomes the obvious short-yardage favorite and a potential inheritor of many short TDs. But if that doesn't happen? Man, I don't know. The main thing to come out of all this is that you shouldn't be drafting Green-Ellis to score 13 TDs and 176 fantasy points again this season. That just ain't happenin'.
74. Ryan Mallett, QB, Patriots. Well, obviously, he doesn't have a scintilla of fantasy value this year. Forget him in re-draft leagues. I tend to think he won't even win the backup job over Brian Hoyer, let alone challenge Tom Brady. In dynasty leagues. This really is probably the best type of situation for him, one in which he doesn't need to play for a good long while. His arm and anticipation make him the pro-readiest signal-caller in this draft, but his footwork could use polishing, and most importantly he needs a maturity uptick and an image rehab, things that can happen in New England. A couple years of being a model citizen, and who knows? Maybe he winds up Brady's heir, or maybe he goes the Matt Cassel route. Interestingly, neither Arizona nor Washington, two teams who desperately need a new signal-caller, decided to take one in the draft's first three rounds, presumably meaning they'll be investigating the free-agent market whenever it happens. Time will tell if they regret passing multiple times on Mallett. A fun note: The Patriots acquired the pick they used to select Mallett from the Vikings in the Randy Moss trade.
78. Austin Pettis, WR, Rams. Hooray. Just what the Rams need: another possession receiver. Pettis joins a roster that includes Brandon Gibson, Mardy Gilyard, Danny Amendola, a rehabbing Mark Clayton, a rehabbing Donnie Avery and a leg-injury-prone Danario Alexander. He's just one more guy in this receiving corps, albeit a bigger one at 209 pounds. Pettis has below-average speed but nice leaping ability and comes with a reputation of being able to catch passes in tight quarters, especially in the red zone. He's not a fantasy factor this year. Eventually he could start in the slot.
79. Leonard Hankerson, WR, Redskins. If I'd had my druthers, this is who the Rams would've taken a pick earlier. Sure, Hankerson has questions about his hands, and those are probably what caused him to fall into the third round. But everything else is there for Hankerson. He ran just as fast as Torrey Smith at the combine and is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier, plus he runs significantly better routes than Smith. Yes, eventually Washington fans may wind up shaking their fists at the sky when Hankerson does a Braylon Edwards routine and drops a few passes in a big game. But better a guy who can get open and drops a few than a guy who's never open. With Santana Moss a free agent, the Skins need receivers, and hopefully nobody is counting on Malcolm Kelly any longer. Hankerson might get a chance to ply his wares with the first team in camp, alongside Anthony Armstrong. He's not a terrible deep sleeper, provided Washington gets its QB mess resolved.
82. Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers. Brown isn't big and isn't fast, but he's got great hands and is already a great route runner. He's never going to be a Vincent Jackson replacement regardless of what happens with San Diego's mercurial No. 1 receiver, and in fact his best position in the NFL will almost certainly be slot receiver. Does that happen as early as this season? That will depend on Patrick Crayton, who looked like the Chargers' No. 3 guy (behind Jackson and potential free agent Malcom Floyd) before Friday night. My guess is Brown gets a redshirt year, mixing into the crowded San Diego passing offense only occasionally as the season wears on. You hear Derrick Mason as a longer-term comparison for Brown.
83. Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Giants. A mini-run of wideouts ends here with Jernigan, another likely slot receiver. However, unlike Pettis and Brown, Jernigan is super-fast. He ran only 4.46 at the combine, which was one of the more shockingly slow times that day, but he saved his draft stock by running 4.35 at his pro day. Jernigan was a multiposition weapon at Troy, and the guy he reminds me of most is Roscoe Parrish of LSU and the Bills. Again, we're not talking about a player who's likely to get enough opportunity to make fantasy splash in his rookie campaign, especially not with Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham set on the outside for New York. But this pick may tell us all we need to know about Steve Smith's possible return to Gotham. Coming off microfracture surgery and unsigned for this season, Smith looks like a bad fantasy play this year, indeed.
96. Alex Green, RB, Packers. Green Bay was rumored to be interested in Ingram at No. 32 overall, and while Green isn't as talented a runner as Ingram, he does seem like a better fit for what the Packers need right away. Brandon Jackson may wind up being a free agent this summer, and my assumption now is that the Packers probably wouldn't re-sign him with Green on board. At Hawaii, Green played in a spread offense and caught the ball as well as any rusher in the country; in Green Bay, he'd be a natural to spell Ryan Grant and/or James Starks on third down. Now, I'm not trying to tell you Green is nothing but a waterbug; in fact he's 6 foot and 225 pounds, and long term could be a three-down starter. I'm just saying that the most projectable thing he did at Hawaii was catch the ball. That's likely to be his role at first with the Pack. But realize that for all the hype about Starks (and about Grant returning), Green does have a chance to take away some carries.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy, and follow him on Twitter at @writerboyESPN.