Austin is fantasy's best from Day 1
We got spoiled in the 2012 NFL draft with all of the skill-position talent that went early, and that simply wasn't the case Thursday night. Last year, 11 quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers went in the first 32 picks. This year, that number was five. Even more striking, four skill guys went in the top five picks last year, and zero went Thursday night. And for the first time in 50 years, a running back wasn't taken in the first round.
But you know what I'm going to tell you next. There are lots of terrific skill-position prospects going into the NFL. And in fantasy, we're interested both in the talent of the player and his landing spot. Certainly, I'm going to have more to write about this weekend, after Days 2 and 3 of the draft, but let's dig into the skill guys who were taken Day 1.
8. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams: The Rams traded up to get the best combination of speed and quickness in this draft. Having lost Danny Amendola to free agency, they had a vacancy in the slot, and Austin will start in three-WR sets from the first game of his pro career. The worry, of course, is that he's 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds and will be a durability question forever, because folks will worry that one hit could end his career. But I'm of the opinion that it's a risk worth taking. He was ultraproductive at West Virginia, can get open in space seemingly at will, and is an utter nightmare when he breaks a tackle. The Rams will move him all over the field, much as the Green Bay Packers do with Randall Cobb and the Minnesota Vikings did with Percy Harvin. There's suddenly lots to love about the St. Louis receiving corps: Chris Givens is a Mike Wallace-esque burner on the outside who makes deep strikes; Brian Quick was the 33rd overall pick in the draft last year and could be the starting flanker; the team signed freakish Jared Cook to be its starting TE; and Austin will torch safeties and linebackers if he gets them in single coverage. But the Rams had a terrible offensive line again in 2012, and Sam Bradford has been sacked 71 times in 26 games during the past two seasons. Jake Long hopes to solidify the left tackle position, but his health is a big question. I like the pick for St. Louis, but you can't consider any Rams receiver a must-start fantasy player.
16. EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills: A head-scratcher. A complete head-scratcher. I'm not saying I'm positive Manuel isn't going to be a good NFL quarterback. But I'm close to positive he's not ready to play as a rookie. It's true that he's 6-5, 237 pounds, putting him in Cam Newton-size territory. He's charismatic and has major-college experience, but as a thrower, it's just not there. Florida State essentially had to remove half the field from its pass plays, and when he needed to make a big throw last season, it always seemed as if he tossed it into the ground. No question, as an athletic and arm-talent specimen, Manuel is elite, but he's so raw. His completion rate was 68 percent last season, but if West Virginia's Geno Smith had mildly inconsistent accuracy at times last season, Manuel's accuracy was an EKG. His pocket presence and footwork stink. It's hard to say this about the first quarterback taken in the draft, but at first blush I still think there's a pretty good chance Kevin Kolb starts Week 1. For fantasy, eventually, maybe Manuel has Newton's upside, but I don't see it in '13. More than anything, though, this pick feels like a total misread of the market by general manager Buddy Nix. I can't believe the Bills couldn't have gotten Manuel in the second round.
21. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals: I'm not saying Eifert can't play. He's a big-bodied, Greg Olsen-type who made his Notre Dame QBs look good with his athleticism and leaping ability. But Jermaine Gresham already plays in Cincy. True, Gresham was ProFootballFocus' worst-rated TE last season, but I don't think this somehow means Gresham is utterly done with the Bengals. Just three years ago, he was the No. 21 overall pick, and I know many people will point to the New England Patriots' mode of having two threatening TEs, but in this case I have two problems with that analysis. First, Andy Dalton doesn't inspire enough confidence to make me believe he's going to get both guys the ball a ton. Second, and more importantly, Gresham is an awful run-blocker, and Eifert is at best a work in progress as a blocker. In other words, I think there's a pretty big duplication with these two TEs, whereas Rob Gronkowski is an in-line killer while Aaron Hernandez is the move guy. Gresham and Eifert are both move guys. Maybe Gresham is on his way out, but if he's not, this is a situation to avoid for fantasy.
27. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: You hear Anquan Boldin as an equivalent for Hopkins, but I think he's a lot like Roddy White: a tough, ultracompetitive player with great hands, attitude and toughness and better game speed than you expect (and faster than Boldin, who's thicker and 10 pounds heavier). Most importantly for Hopkins' fantasy stock, he lands opposite Andre Johnson, where Houston hopes it finally has found the supplemental receiver it has been seeking for the better part of a decade. Lestar Jean is still a project, Kevin Walter is gone, DeVier Posey tore an Achilles in the playoffs, and Keshawn Martin had an inconsistent rookie season and at best may settle in as a slot player. I'm not trying to say Hopkins is Roddy White right away. But he's polished enough to take advantage of some single coverage in his rookie year. I consider him a viable deep-league sleeper who'd benefit in a major way, should the injury-prone Johnson miss time.
29. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings: By the time we get to the end of the first round, taking a project is acceptable, especially for a team that paid big money to Greg Jennings to be its No. 1 WR. But for '13, this isn't a great fit. Because the best their WR corps offers besides Jennings is Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright, the Vikings really needed a player who could contribute right away, and Patterson is not it. Think about Stephen Hill and Brian Quick last season. Like Patterson, their raw physical tools are eclipsed by their overall inexperience. In Patterson's case, the problems come with his ball skills and attention to detail. He has too many drops, catches too many passes with his chest, and doesn't run good enough routes to consistently produce in the NFL as a rookie. Again, that's not me trashing this pick, because Patterson has 4.42 speed at 6-2, 216 pounds. He eventually could be Demaryius Thomas, but he's not going to be a standard-league producer for fantasy right away.
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