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Monday, February 28, 2011
NFL combine: Fantasy prospects

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

I wasn't in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine this weekend, but it's clear from reading columns by folks who were and from watching the coverage on TV that a pall was cast over the festivities. This may well have been the second-to-last organized league activity for a long time. Oh, sure, April will feature the NFL draft come hell or high water, but by then all signs indicate we'll be more than a month into a lockout.

It's going to make things tough on rookies. They might not have any offseason team activities to participate in. They might not get instruction from their coaches for a good long while. And given that player free-agent movement is likely to be stymied (if not flat out stopped) at least until summertime, it's hard to imagine even the average number of rookies having a big impact on their NFL teams.

How many of the kids who worked out this weekend will influence 10-team fantasy leagues this fall? Not many. In fact, you'll rarely go broke if you just refuse to draft rookies all together. If you'd followed that advice in 2010, you'd have avoided some high-profile busts that some analysts (present company excepted) rated as high as first-round picks. (Ryan Mathews comes to mind.) You should definitely approach the combine and the draft with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Still, the combine is a good chance to learn kids' names and get a sense of what folks are saying about them. And definitely, it's a good chance to get more familiar with the kinds of under-hyped college players we don't get to see on your average Saturday. Think Johnny Knox and Mike Wallace. Think Joe Flacco. Think Chris Johnson. Think Steve Johnson, Tim Hightower and Rashad Jennings. Those guys might not have all set the world ablaze as rookies, but knowing who they were at the beginning of their respective ascents was useful. If you could fall back on knowledge about Chris Johnson's crazy 4.24 40-yard dash, for example, maybe you were slightly unsurprised about his breakout, and more willing to the pull the trigger sooner to get him. As long as we keep things in perspective, reviewing this weekend's workout results can be useful.

Here, then, are highlights from the skill-position workouts in Indianapolis:

Quarterbacks

'10 rookie review: It was a second straight mediocre year for rookie signal-callers in fantasy football. In '09, we watched Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman underwhelm; last year, Sam Bradford was usable for those who play in two-QB leagues, but he only finished 20th in fantasy points at his position. And Bradford was the highlight. Tim Tebow made a three-start cameo at season's end and whetted our appetite for some rushing TDs. Colt McCoy looked noodle-armed and missed time due to injury. Jimmy Clausen was horrible. And that's to say nothing of Joe Webb, John Skelton and Max Hall.

• For a few moments there, the Cam Newton (Auburn) hype machine was like the runaway train in that Denzel Washington movie. Then Newton started throwing. Obviously, watching on TV, I couldn't see every pass he tried, but what I could see looked pretty bad. He bounced a few outs, he was long and wide throwing the nine-route, and basically he reaffirmed every worry NFL scouts have about him. It's all well and good that he ran an unofficial 4.59 at 248 pounds, and that he bested Tim Tebow's broad jump by nearly a foot. Can he throw? Anyone taking him in the top 10 is making a bet that he can. Maybe it's just me, but I don't remember Ben Roethlisberger or Josh Freeman having these kinds of accuracy issues. Blaine Gabbert (Missouri) didn't even throw, and he seemed to edge way ahead of Newton to be the first QB off the board. Of course, if Newton does work his way into a starting NFL gig this fall, his legs are going to give him fantasy value.

Mallett
Ryan Mallett is the proverbial high-risk, high-reward NFL prospect who could well become the most fantasy-relevent quarterback of the 2011 draft, or flame out in spectacular fashion.

• As shaky as Newton looked passing it, Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) looked that impressive. He's huge, he's got a cannon, and he was accurate. But it's not the on-field stuff people will sweat when it comes to Mallett. It's the six inches between his ears. He gave a pouty, borderline hostile news conference at the combine, and off-field questions have dogged him for years. There's a reason pundits are quick to bring up the specter of Ryan Leaf in relation to Mallett. (Just Google the two names together.) He's got more raw skills than any QB in this draft, but it won't be a surprise if he falls out of the first round.

• Jake Locker (Washington) seems a likeable fellow, and his athleticism is up there with Newton's (they ran roughly the same 40 time). But forget all that noise about how he'd have been a top-five pick had he come out last year. The kid had a 54 percent career completion rate in college, and his accuracy was awful at the Senior Bowl. Was he better Sunday? I guess. But he screams Brady Quinn to me.

• The other name you might need to know is Christian Ponder (Florida State), depending on where he gets drafted. He's a fine-but-unspectacular athlete and doesn't have a cannon; in fact, he had serious elbow and shoulder injuries in college. But his accuracy was terrific this weekend, as it was through his junior and senior years. You should start hearing the Colt McCoy comparisons any day now. A West Coast offense team could take him and start using him in games during the '11 season.

Running backs

'10 rookie review: There were some strong specimens among last year's rookie rushers, but few of them stayed healthy. In '09, only three rookies -- Knowshon Moreno (149 ESPN standard fantasy points, putting him 18th among all running backs), Beanie Wells (121; 31st) and LeSean McCoy (103; tied for 36th) -- finished among the top 50 fantasy backs. In '10, five rookies did so, but three of them suffered significant injuries. First-rounder Jahvid Best (127; 23rd) battled two cases of turf toe. Fellow first-rounder Ryan Mathews (107; 32nd) had a badly sprained ankle. And undrafted Chris Ivory (91; 35th) suffered Lisfranc and ankle injuries. Meanwhile, undrafted LeGarrette Blount (126; tied for 24th, despite not playing much until Week 7) and Keiland Williams (73; tied for 46th) stayed healthy and useful. Really, the highly-drafted guys were almost all disappointing: last April's No. 9 overall pick, C.J. Spiller, finished 62nd in running back fantasy points. Dexter McCluster (39 touches from scrimmage all season) and Toby Gerhart (102 touches) were basically useless in fantasy. And Ben Tate and Montario Hardesty suffered major injuries before the season even began. But Packers sixth-rounder and playoff hero James Starks will likely be heard from in a bigger way in '11.

• The main reason Mark Ingram (Alabama) is so clearly the top rusher in April's draft is the weakness of the RB crop. That's not to say Ingram can't play. He's just not likely to be a game-breaker. In fact, that's a theme I took away from Sunday's workouts: there simply may not be a Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles or Jahvid Best among this crew. Unofficially, nobody ran a faster 40 than 4.35, and only three guys broke 4.40. Ingram's game isn't straight-ahead speed anyway; he's a 4.58 man who's a bear to tackle and who can make people miss in the box. His value this year will depend where he lands, but he's not anyone's idea of a No. 1 in fantasy yet. Recent comparable: Stop calling him Emmitt Smith. It's just not a fair comparison yet. Physically, to me Ingram is a lot like Cedric Benson at his best: not a breakaway threat but tough in the trenches.

• My gut tells me no other rusher will go in the first round. There are three other guys who look like early-down backs in the right situation, though. Mikel Leshoure (Illinois) is a one-year wonder, but what a year: he had 1,697 yards and 17 TDs in his junior season. He posted a better 40 time than Ingram despite being two inches taller and 12 pounds heavier, and he's a very good athlete, but he has maturity questions (he had his jaw broken in a fight with a teammate a couple of years ago) and Ingram's track record is longer. Ryan Williams (Virginia Tech) was spectacular as a redshirt freshman two years ago but was limited by a hamstring this season and didn't do as much. He's about Ingram's size (he's 5-foot-9, 212 pounds) and Sunday ran the 40 in almost exactly the same time, but that's a disappointment for Williams, who was expected to run a tenth faster. And Daniel Thomas (Kansas State) weighed in at a robust 230 pounds this weekend but didn't run because of the injured hamstring that also kept him out of the Senior Bowl. Recent comparables: Leshoure will get Rashard Mendenhall mentions because they both went to Illinois, but Mendy is faster. Someone like Beanie Wells is probably a fairer match. … Williams is probably a bit less quick than DeAngelo Williams, but at his best in '09 that's who he reminded me of. … As for Thomas, apparently Friday at the combine he referred to himself as Larry Johnson at his best. Size-wise, it's a good comparison (Thomas is 6-foot and 230 pounds), and actually Thomas had a pretty good two-year career at K-State, while Johnson was pretty much a one-year guy at Penn State. But let's not proclaim Thomas a stud just yet, especially since nobody's seen him run in '11.

Murray
DeMarco Murray's 40 time was good enough to make him a name to know in 2011.
• DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma) did himself a favor by running an unofficial 4.38 40 on Sunday; if it stands up, that was the third-fastest time by a RB, and it could make him the likeliest candidate to be that high-upside burner type we're always looking for. The performance helps solidify Murray as a second-day pick, but he's got black marks against him: he played in a spread offense and struggled with leg injuries through his entire collegiate career. On the positive side, he's got a good blocking pedigree, catches it well, and he's got more than "scatback" size (he's 5-11 and 213 pounds). Recent comparable: 4.38 was Jamaal Charles' time, but Murray isn't Charles. His upright running style kind of reminds me of Michael Bennett, who certainly had speed. Then again, they used to say Adrian Peterson (another Oklahoma product) was "too upright," too. But anyway, comparing a kid with good draft promise to a (let's face it) disappointment like Bennett is harsh, so let's say Reggie Bush.

• Some will say Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State) is too small, but I've always liked him. He grades out at 5-7, 199 pounds and ran on unofficial 4.47 40, so he's not a game-breaker and he's not a moose. It's not likely someone's going to take him to be a first- and second-down back right away. But he was incredibly productive his sophomore and senior years (he missed much of his junior campaign with an ankle injury), and was an All-American in '10. He can't jump right to the NFL this fall and handle 25 touches a game. But 15? I actually buy that. Recent comparable: I think he's a lot like Ray Rice. They're about the same size and speed, and each guy plays bigger than he is. Hunter will need time to get stronger, as did Rice, but I think he might be a steal. For a slightly less current comparable, think Charlie Garner.

• I put Shane Vereen (California) and Jordan Todman (Connecticut) a notch below Hunter. They graded out about the same speedwise on Sunday (Todman ran an unofficial 4.44 40, Vereen a 4.47); Vereen is stronger (an impressive 31 reps compared to 25 for Todman and 24 for Hunter) and Todman is perhaps a better pure athlete (in terms of the jumping categories). But neither was as productive in pads. Vereen backed up Jahvid Best for a couple of seasons and then had a good junior year, but while he does everything well, he's not outstanding in anything. Todman hoped to run in the 4.3s Sunday but didn't, and is probably a committee or third-down guy for now, too. Recent comparables: Vereen ain't Best; he just doesn't have that same speed. He's not really a tackle-breaker and not much of a pass-blocker yet, either. He might be more like another Cal guy, Justin Forsett. … As for Todman, you hear Ray Rice for him, too, and he was a stallion in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. But in my mind, Rice is just a more physical guy. I think Todman winds up being more of a Warrick Dunn style of player.

• I loved Jacquizz Rodgers (Oregon State) in college, and I have nothing against him at all, but if teams learned their lesson on Dexter McCluster last year, Rodgers should slip in April. McCluster ran a pedestrian (for a 170-pound player) 4.58 40, then the Chiefs took him in the second round anyway, and he didn't do much as a rookie. Rodgers ran an unofficial 4.64 Sunday, and looks like a complementary piece at best. … Stevan Ridley (LSU) ran an unofficial 4.67 at 225 pounds and could be a good between-the-tackles specialist, but he showed no long speed this past year in college, and is nobody's idea of an NFL game-changer. … Delone Carter (Syracuse) is a fire hydrant at 5-9 and 225 pounds, but any comparisons to Maurice Jones-Drew went away when he ran 4.53 Sunday (MJD ran 4.39). … Jamie Harper (Clemson) wasn't all that productive in his first year out from behind C.J. Spiller's spotlight, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Running 4.58 at 233 pounds makes him interesting, but he's a long shot for value. … Da'Rel Scott (Maryland) put himself on the draft radar screen by leading all RBs in the 40 (unofficially 4.35), which is awfully impressive for a dude who's 5-11 and 211 pounds. But he struggled with fumbles through his college career, and never really wrested the starting gig. … The guy who might've helped himself the most with his 40 time was Mario Fannin (Auburn). His performance (an unofficial 4.38 at 231 pounds) is eerily reminiscent of Ben Tate's last year (Tate, of course, also went to Auburn, and ran 4.43 at 220 pounds), and a similar march up NFL draft boards could result. Of course, Fannin was never better than Auburn's third-string runner.

Wide receiver

'10 rookie review: When I wrote this piece last year, here's what I wrote about Mike Williams, who'd eventually be drafted by the Buccaneers in the fourth round: "... ." Yep. Nothing. Oh, I knew about him. But he was such a total knucklehead as a collegiate at Syracuse that, like many NFL teams, I basically took him off my board. All he did for the Bucs was grab 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 TDs, making him fantasy's No. 12 wideout. Amazing. Overall, last year's rookie receivers didn't have as much impact as the '09 class (which included Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace and Austin Collie). Other than Williams, only Dez Bryant and Jacoby Ford cracked the top 50 (neither was higher than No. 40), while first-rounder Demaryius Thomas did next to nothing (and then ruptured an Achilles working out this winter), Arrelious Benn was quiet (and tore an ACL late in the '10 season), Golden Tate was invisible, and the likes of Damian Williams, Brandon LaFell, Emmanuel Sanders and Jordan Shipley mostly sat. But Mike Williams' brilliance made up for the rest of them. His '10 season was the best a rookie receiver has submitted since fellow Tampa surprise Michael Clayton in '04, and even that's a judgment call. To find a clearly better rookie performance at wideout, you really have to go back to Randy Moss in '98.

• Judging by their performances in shorts alone, you'd have to say Julio Jones (Alabama) is a better athlete than A.J. Green (Georgia). Jones was significantly faster, and registered a ridiculous 11-foot, 3-inch broad jump and a solid 38.5-inch vertical jump, both better numbers than Green. (Green did 18 reps of 225 pounds, while Jones did 17.) But that's why they don't judge football players in shorts alone. Green was a more consistent collegiate receiver. Plus there are legitimate questions about whether Jones plays as fast as he timed out. If you asked me which player produced better separation this past year, I'd say Green. And all indications are that Green will be drafted higher. But at this point each guy seems likely to be a top-15 selection. Sunday's workouts helped distance them from the rest of the players at their position. Recent comparables: Some compare Green to Calvin Johnson, but that praise is too lofty for me. Maybe Braylon Edwards is a better evaluation (hopefully "good Braylon" circa '07), though Green seems less of a diva. … As for Jones, he has no character concerns, but he isn't a great route-runner yet and he has inconsistent hands (Green's hands are amazing). That could mean Jones is a Miles Austin type. Or it could mean he's a Reggie Williams type.

• Jonathan Baldwin (Pittsburgh) has some, shall we say, "personality issues" to overcome, but he ran an unofficial 4.45 on his second 40-yard dash. That combined with a 42-inch vertical jump should be enough to allay concerns about his physical tools. He's 6-4 and weighs 228 pounds, and provided his sub-4.5 40 time holds true when the numbers become more "official," you're looking at a guy who (like Green and Jones) should qualify as a "Moneyball" wideout (my criteria for potential stud No. 1 receivers down the road: are you at least 6-2 and do you run a sub-4.5 40). In fact, by my reckoning, Green, Jones and Baldwin are the only receivers who qualified for "Moneyball" status at this year's combine. However, to my eyes, Baldwin was substantially worse than the other two guys in the route-running and pass-catching drills. His hands are fine. But will he get open exploding in and out of cuts? I didn't see that Sunday. Recent comparable: On the upside, Baldwin reminds me of Brandon Marshall. He's got terrific run-after-catch ability, and fine hands. But you have to know you might be getting a knucklehead. On the downside, is Baldwin simply another big athlete who can't get open, like James Hardy or Malcolm Kelly?

Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith not only has speed, but knows how to catch the ball, too.

• Torrey Smith (Maryland) isn't quite 6-2 (he's just under 6-1), but he weighs 214 pounds and he still ran a 4.37 unofficial 40. That's impressive. Of course, Smith is inevitably going to suffer because of comparisons to his ex-teammate, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who ran a 4.30 at 210 pounds a couple of years ago. But DHB never had anything close to a collegiate season like the one Smith just wrapped up: 67 grabs for 1,055 yards and 12 TDs. The knock on Heyward-Bey was that the on-field production never came close to matching his freakish athleticism. That's not the case with Smith, who could be a late first-rounder. Recent comparable: You hear Roddy White a lot, but you also hear folks who wish Smith had gone back for his senior season. He's White's size and has similar speed, but it's tough to say he's got anything resembling the same ferocity to the ball. That's rare. I think Jeremy Maclin might be a safer comp.

• My next-favorite guy is Leonard Hankerson (Miami). He ran unofficial 4.47 and 4.45 times on Sunday, and just submitted the best single-season performance a University of Miami receiver ever had: 72 grabs for 1,156 yards and 13 scores. With Titus Young (Boise State) apparently failing to put up a DeSean Jackson-like 40 time, I have to believe it's advantage Hankerson. If they really are right around the same speed (and that's how they timed out Sunday), it's pretty clear you'd rather have Hankerson's 6-1½ and 209 pounds than you would Young's 5-11 and 174 pounds. That said, Young could still run a great time at his pro day, improving on his 4.43, and insinuate himself into the first round. (But it wasn't awesome seeing him limp off the field Sunday with a bad cramp.) Recent comparables: It's borderline impossible to hear Young's name mentioned and not hear "DeSean Jackson" in the same sentence. But Jackson ran a 4.35, so unless we hear that Young has timed out substantially faster, scrap that. Slight guys who rely on their quickness are always going to have Ted Ginn's downside. And let's say knowing what we know right now, he's got Steve Breaston upside. … As for Hankerson, the problems that plague Julio Jones plague him even more: inconsistency. He could be Marques Colston. But I think Louis Murphy probably makes for a safer comparison.

• The best of the rest includes Randall Cobb (Kentucky), a hybrid player who bettered Dexter McCluster's combine time from last year (4.58) by running around a 4.45. Cobb has occasionally been mock-drafted late in the first round, though a second- or third-round pick for this utility-belt type player seems more likely. … Remember Johnny Knox? Went to Abilene Christian and blew the combine out of the water a couple of years ago running a 4.34? Well Edmond Gates (Abilene Christian) is following in Knox's footsteps: he ran a 4.35 (in flashy white tights, no less), tying him -- unofficially, of course -- with track guy Ricardo Lockette (Fort Valley State) for the best time among receivers. Gates is right around Knox's size and put up a great senior season. NFL teams will get him on their radar screens for sure, though he's a basketball player who's still a bit raw as a receiver. But he seemed to catch everything thrown his way Sunday. … Jerrel Jernigan (Troy) gets some love from the experts, but as his 4.47 unofficial time shows, he's quicker than he is fast, and is destined to be a slot receiver. … Converted running back Greg Little (North Carolina) didn't play at all this year because of the agent scandal among several Tar Heels, though he ran 4.56 at 230 pounds (the heaviest of all wideouts at this year's combine). Little has massive character concerns, but I learned my lesson from Mike Williams last year: never completely write off the great athlete. … Denarius Moore (Tennessee) stood out with a 4.37 40, as did Joe Morgan (Walsh). Each should be a developmental player in '11.

Tight end

'10 rookie review: Jermaine Gresham was the No. 21 overall pick in last April's draft, but finished only 21st among fantasy tight ends in a weak year for the position. In fact, relative fantasy stardom was reserved for a couple of other guys, who surprisingly were drafted by the same team. Rob Gronkowski wound up with a whopping 10 TDs, which pushed him all the way to No. 5 among fantasy tight ends, while Aaron Hernandez, also drafted by the Patriots, finished at No. 10. Guys like Tony Moeaki and Jimmy Graham showed promise but weren't usable in most leagues, while Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta sat and learned at the foot of Todd Heap in Baltimore. Michael Hoomanawanui, Clay Harbor and Andrew Quarless were heard from occasionally, but seem like longer shots to ever have much relevance.

• Presumptive top tight end Kyle Rudolph (Notre Dame) was still recovering from hamstring surgery this weekend, so didn't participate in drills. Luke Stocker (Tennessee) impressed by performing 27 reps of 225 pounds' worth of bench press, best among all tight ends who did participate, and he's got a shot to be the second man off April's board at his position. However, Lance Kendricks (Wisconsin) ran the 40 in a slightly faster time (4.75 to 4.79), plus posted better jumping skills. At this point, you'd probably have to believe it's either Stocker or Kendricks after Rudolph, maybe as early as the second round. Virgil Green (Nevada) might've been the best story Saturday, as he posted a crazy vertical of 42½ inches, plus ran significantly faster than Stocker and Kendricks. His is a name to remember, though probably not for 2011. Finally, Rob Housler (Florida Atlantic) ran the fastest 40 at his position, an unofficial 4.55.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.