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Top 10 rookies for 2013

4/28/2013 - NFL College Football

Day 1 of the NFL draft was slow for fantasy players: Only five skill-position players were drafted Thursday night, and I offered my take on each of them. But that doesn't mean there won't be big contributors from among 2013's rookies. As you'll see, there are some fascinating names to know for fantasy that came out of Rounds 2 through 7.

But before I get into the nitty-gritty of possible deep rookie sleepers, here's a first glimpse at my top 10 fantasy rookies for 2013. Although this draft had many strong wideout prospects, you'll see I'm relatively light on WRs here, mainly because until they get into camp, we won't really know which ones are ready to contribute immediately, and which ones are too raw to be rookie fantasy stars. I reserve the right to change my mind, but here's my first take:

1. Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: Ball lands in a potentially great spot for fantasy value right away. Willis McGahee, who turns 32 in October, is almost certainly gone after suffering a broken leg and torn MCL, and Knowshon Moreno is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery. For a calendar year I've been writing that last year's third-rounder, Ronnie Hillman, is a third-down back, and this pick is an acknowledgement of that. Bottom line: There are a ton of early-down carries available in Denver's elite offense. Ball isn't a top athlete and he doesn't have breakaway speed, but he's instinctive and while he didn't pass protect all that much at Wisconsin, talent evaluators are convinced he's good in that area. Longer term, folks worry about his durability, as he had 1,001 touches in college and rushed for more than 8,000 yards in high school. But for this year, in this offense, there's a chance Ball could approach double-digit TDs. He'll be owned in every fantasy league on the planet, and if McGahee gets released, Ball might be fantasy's top rookie.

2. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers. Maybe NFL teams were worried about Lacy's surgically repaired toe, or they really hated his pre-draft workouts. For about a day, it appeared that Lacy had landed in the best possible situation for fantasy. Remember when Ryan Grant scored 11 TDs for Green Bay? Remember when John Kuhn stole four TDs every year? Remember when Cedric Benson actually looked pretty good for five games in '12, as defenses were scheming to control Aaron Rodgers? Alas, on Saturday afternoon, the denizens of Titletown traded up and grabbed Johnathan Franklin, too, meaning that while the team's backfield has been successfully remade and we no longer have to worry about uninspiring DuJuan Harris, James Starks or Alex Green, there's a platoon brewing. I favor Lacy over Franklin because of his TD potential.

3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: I'm not a fan. In fact, I'm shocked the Steelers took Bell while Lacy was still on the board. Bell looks like a beast at 237 pounds, but sometimes runs like he thinks he's a little back. He just doesn't have the power and oomph you expect from a man his size. I had some Twitter followers take me to task for claiming that Bell reminds me of LeGarrette Blount, telling me that Bell led the nation in yards after contact last year. But as my colleague KC Joyner points out here, Bell had an opportunity to produce after contact so much because his line at Michigan State wasn't very good. Listen, Bell lands in a great spot to be a fantasy factor in '13. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman flamed out as potential feature backs last year, plus Todd Haley wants to throw it short and Bell is an accomplished pass catcher, and the Steelers have always liked to run it when they're near an opponent's goal line. Still, I can't help feeling there's bust potential here. I like big backs who always run like big backs.

4. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams: I wrote about him at length in my review of the draft's Day 1. Suffice it to say he's got a high ceiling, but the Rams need to prove they've fixed their offensive line.

5. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: For as much as I complained about the Tyler Eifert pick for the Bengals, I love this one. Bernard is a ridiculous change-of-direction, lightning-quick player who isn't necessarily a sprinter in the C.J. Spiller class, but he can run away from people in the open field. He's a terrific pass catcher and a sick return man, and early in his career he should complement pedestrian thumper BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There are questions about how physical Bernard is, so perhaps he doesn't get more than change-of-pace early-down work in '13. And BJGE is the clear short-yardage option, so Gio probably doesn't get you a ton of TDs this year. But Bernard is absolutely draftable in all fantasy leagues.

6. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: I also wrote about Hopkins in my Day 1 review. He's polished and has a chance to start opposite Andre Johnson.

7. Johnathan Franklin, RB, Green Bay Packers: The Pack grabbed two of my top three RBs in this draft, remaking their backfield but setting up a frustrating fantasy mess. Franklin needs to get thicker to hold up to an NFL pounding, but his low-to-the-ground burst is legit, and has evoked comparisons to Ray Rice all spring. After all, Rice entered the combine at 199 pounds and now plays at 212; Franklin is already at 205 with room to grow. Both he and Lacy are every-down players, which is great for Green Bay but vexing for us. Certainly because Lacy is a robust 231 pounds, he figures to be the goal-line thumper, and thus the TD maker. But Franklin is a good enough player that he can steal early-down looks right away.

8. Joseph Randle, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Randle had more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons at Oklahoma State, but had a bad fumbling problem and didn't grade out as a fast straight-line runner at the combine. He's a tall, thin, upright back who reminds me some of Laurence Maroney. He's more talented than Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner, and should have a decent chance to get into the mix behind DeMarco Murray. Plus Murray is such a huge injury risk, it's not impossible Randle becomes a must-add at some point in '13.

9. Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams: Conventional wisdom had it that the Rams would consider Lacy in the first round, but they waited until the fifth to take a running back. That leads me to believe Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson really are the favorites to lead this backfield, though Stacy was a thick-bodied producer at Vanderbilt and perhaps has more physicality to his game than either Pead or Richardson. Monitor him in camp.

10. Mike Gillislee, RB, Miami Dolphins: A personal favorite of mine, Gillislee lands in a tough spot for fantasy value, behind Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas (for the time being). But this is a good system fit for Gillislee, who was made for a zone-blocking scheme. No question, Gillislee doesn't have Miller's breakaway speed, but I think he has got just about everything else; watching him this past year at Florida, I was reminded of DeAngelo Williams. If Thomas winds up getting released this summer, just be prepared for me to gush about Gillislee.

OK, now let's dig right in with a look at every skill player taken in the second and third rounds, and the skill-position names we might need to know that were taken thereafter. (You'll note that neither Matt Barkley nor Ryan Nassib appears, because each looks like an obvious candidate to be a third-stringer in '13.)

34. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans: The Titans traded up to grab Hunter, who was Cordarrelle Patterson's collegiate teammate. Hunter was a combine star, running 4.44 at 6-foot-4 and 196 pounds, while leading all wideouts in the broad jump and tying for the lead in the high jump. Todd McShay proclaims that Hunter's upside is A.J. Green, though he's nowhere near that level at this moment: His hands are inconsistent, and he's not yet physically strong enough. In his rookie season, Hunter probably won't be a fantasy contributor. However, Kenny Britt is officially on notice. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Britt will have to stay healthy and out of trouble, or he'll be replaced by Hunter in the starting lineup in '14.

35. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles: Well, Chip Kelly officially likes tight ends. The Eagles are still on the hook for a lot of Brent Celek money (though a renegotiation now is certainly a possibility), they signed James Casey this winter, and now they've drafted the consensus No. 2 rookie TE, Ertz. From where I sit, Ertz isn't the athlete Tyler Eifert is, but he's bigger and stronger. However, what I said about the Cincinnati Bengals drafting Eifert on Thursday night applies here, too: There's too much duplication among the tight ends. Between Celek, Casey and Ertz, I don't see an in-line tight end who can run block or pass protect. Sure, Kelly is going to go spread with multiple formations, but he also needs to keep Michael Vick healthy and LeSean McCoy happy. Don't rule out the possibility that Celek hits the road, but until that happens, this is another fantasy mess you don't want any part of.

37. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: See above.

39. Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets: In one way, Smith lands in a tough situation. The Jets don't have a strong roster, their offensive line is shaky, their skill-position players are subpar, and their coach is probably a lame duck. But I actually don't mind this for Geno. Does he have fantasy allure in '13? Absolutely not. But Mark Sanchez is on his way out of Gotham, and I make Smith the favorite to start Week 1. Plus, even though I expect the Jets to struggle, Smith won't be blamed. He'll get through his growing pains, and be ready to improve as the team cleans house. The question remains whether he can become consistent enough with his accuracy; if he can, this is an absolute steal.

41. Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills: After a ridiculous sophomore year, Woods took a back seat to Marqise Lee this past season, but his skills on tape remain the same: He's a polished player with good hands and great quickness who's probably best suited to play the slot in the NFL. However, the Bills have already said they want to move Steve Johnson to the slot in '13, which makes Woods a candidate to play flanker. (Burners T.J. Graham, Marquise Goodwin and Da'Rick Rogers have shots to stick as the split end.) He's not going to get open deep, but Woods can definitely make things happen after the catch. The issue all Bills wideouts will have this season is their QB: Whether it's Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel, I'm not convinced there's enough production available to make Woods, Graham or Goodwin worth owning in standard fantasy leagues.

47. Gavin Escobar, TE, Dallas Cowboys: Escobar is a catch-first tight end who lined up all over in San Diego State's pro-style offense and was super-productive. However, there are major questions about Escobar's strength and he may never be a pro-level blocker. Plus, he timed out at only 4.84 in Indianapolis, putting him in offensive-lineman territory. Nevertheless, he's a talented enough athlete that it's hard to dislike him as a prospect down the line. My issue is with the Cowboys taking him early in the second round, when they still have a productive Jason Witten on their roster, and when '12 sixth-rounder James Hanna played well late last year as a rookie. For as long as Witten is around, Escobar is undraftable for fantasy.

48. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: See above.

55. Vance McDonald, TE, San Francisco 49ers: Nobody really knows what the 49ers are getting in McDonald, because he played in Rice's spread attack and was rarely asked to block. But the fact that he was able to bench 31 reps at the combine -- seven more than any other TE -- is a good sign. Remember that Delanie Walker left the Bay Area as a free agent this winter, and Walker is maybe the premiere run-blocking TE in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh would love it if McDonald could fill those shoes, but only time will tell if that'll happen. Obviously with Vernon Davis around, McDonald has limited fantasy potential as a rookie.

58. Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: See above.

59. Aaron Dobson, WR, New England Patriots: The Pats have had an awful time drafting wideouts. Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate and Taylor Price have all been selected in the first three rounds during the Bill Belichick era. Maybe if there's a way to reverse that curse, it's by going with a pass catcher from Marshall, the university Randy Moss and Troy Brown attended. Dobson isn't the burner Pats fans hoped for (maybe Josh Boyce, whom they took in the fourth round, can fill that role), but he's got size enough to play flanker. He's got tremendous hands and body control, and enough "football intelligence" to adapt quickly to Tom Brady's intricate throwing offense. If there's a question mark, it's his burst coming out of breaks. But Dobson has a legit chance to play early, considering the non-rookie depth chart after Danny Amendola: Julian Edelman, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Matthew Slater. Pay attention to Dobson and Boyce in camp this summer.

61. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: See above.

62. Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks: Michael suffered a broken leg and torn ACL in different collegiate seasons, and also was suspended for a game this past season, plus threw a punch in a different contest. But Michael also might be the most talented RB in this draft. He's got elite top-end speed, he's explosive through the line of scrimmage and runs behind his pads, drives defenders after contact, led all RBs with 27 bench reps at the combine, and had a 43-inch vertical. But the Seahawks' depth chart is clogged with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, meaning it would take an injury for Michael to be addable in fantasy for '13.

63. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs already have Anthony Fasano and Tony Moeaki on hand, but neither player is good enough to criticize KC for selecting Kelce. An athletic specimen who ran the Wildcat on occasion at Cincinnati, Kelce is best known for being a pro-ready run-blocking mauler. He was suspended for the entire '10 season but was a good citizen thereafter, becoming a better pass catcher during his senior year. If it works out that Kelce passes the Fasano/Moeaki combo during training camp, he'd be interesting for fantasy. It's likelier that he'll be a reserve in '13.

73. Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman is in the final year of his rookie contract, and while his '12 numbers looked fine, his play was inconsistent. Perhaps by drafting Glennon, the Bucs are trying to light a fire under Freeman. Glennon won't contribute in '13, and is a project himself: He's 6-foot-7 with a rocket arm, but his accuracy is maddening.

74. Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys: Williams timed at "only" 4.52 at the combine, which explains how this unanimous first-team All-American lasted this long; he's supposed to be a vertical threat, but if he can't burn, he won't be worth much. That's because he's considered a stiff-hipped player who doesn't run great routes and it's fair to be skeptical of Big 12 wideouts racking up video-game numbers against weak conference defenses. I don't see Williams cracking the Cowboys' WR rotation in '13 without an injury; Dez Bryant is a stud, Miles Austin makes a whole lot of scratch, and guys like Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and Danny Coale are better suited to play from the slot. But Austin has battled so many leg injuries, Williams could have a chance to be a factor in future seasons.

76. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers: He's the Eddie Lacy of wideouts. I don't understand how he lasted this long, and I think we'll look back on this draft and be shocked that he was a third-rounder. Sure, he missed the final month of '12 with a knee injury that bugged him through the pre-draft process, but watch his tape and you see Mr. Smooth. He's got great hands. He runs perfect routes. He's tough to bring down. He's tough in traffic. ESPN's Bill Polian has said many times he thinks Allen is Reggie Wayne, a player Polian knows a thing or two about. Is Allen a little slower than maybe you'd like? It's possible. But if he's not Wayne, he's Anquan Boldin, which is still terrific. Now, the San Diego depth chart is a mess: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem and Vincent Brown are all around. Allen will need player movement to be draftable in '13. But boy, I like him.

78. Marquise Goodwin, WR, Buffalo Bills: Really? Is the Bills' roster really so stocked that they can afford to take another straight-line burner, when they just drafted T.J. Graham last year? Goodwin is a 4.27 sprinter and an Olympic-level long jumper, but he doesn't run good routes and doesn't figure to do anything but scoot down the field with his hand up this year, much as Graham did in '12. Goodwin may help in the return game, and heck, maybe he plays some split end. But he won't contribute regularly as a rookie.

79. Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: This is a nice pick. I'm not convinced Wheaton is really a burner (his 4.45 speed at the combine would say otherwise), but there's no doubting his joystick quicks. Is he physical enough to play outside? We'll have to see. But add Wheaton to Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and you've got the ideal receiver corps for Todd Haley: A bunch of interchangeable, lightning-quick, undersized guys who can catch short passes in space and make big plays.

85. Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins: A converted college QB, Reed will serve as insurance in case Fred Davis isn't ready to return from his torn Achilles, plus could inherit the starting job if Davis leaves after '13. Don't expect a big fantasy contribution this year.

92. Stedman Bailey, WR, St. Louis Rams: Bailey is reunited with college teammate Tavon Austin in St. Louis, and could see playing time as a rookie. He's a technically precise route runner with great hands, but without deep speed. Chris Givens will have one starting outside receiver job, but if Brian Quick isn't ready on the other side, it's possible Bailey gives him a run for his money. Of course, we're talking about ancillary weapons for a team that gives up too many sacks, so we're probably not looking at much fantasy value in '13 for Bailey.

96. Knile Davis, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: Here's a crazy stat: 6.4 percent of Davis' career collegiate carries ended in fumbles. Wow! That's not good. Of course, in KC, he won't play much as a rookie with Jamaal Charles around. In fact, Davis may not beat out Shaun Draughn to be J-Mail's backup. A straight-line sprinter with 4.37 speed, Davis never showed much wiggle or power at Arkansas. Don't draft him in '13.

102. Josh Boyce, WR, New England Patriots: Boyce burned up the combine turf with a 4.38 40 despite having a broken toe, so maybe he's the speed threat Tom Brady has lacked for several years. But Boyce is also relatively undersized for a deep threat (5-foot-11, 206 pounds). Because of the system, he's another guy to check in on this summer, along with fellow Pats rookie Aaron Dobson.

112. Tyler Wilson, QB, Oakland Raiders: Wilson lands in a friendly spot, as the Raiders currently have Matt Flynn and Terrelle Pryor on the depth chart. Wilson was actually my No. 2 QB in this draft (albeit far behind Geno Smith), because he's got excellent pocket presence and has enough wing to take downfield shots. Unfortunately, his final year at Arkansas revealed all kinds of accuracy problems, plus Wilson crumbled a little bit as the Razorbacks' season imploded. Does Wilson have a chance to win the starting gig as a rookie? I would say yes. Does that make him a fantasy option? Probably not.

125. Johnathan Franklin, RB, Green Bay Packers: See above.

128. Quinton Patton, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Patton doesn't land in a great spot for immediate fantasy value, but I'm not a fan of A.J. Jenkins, and wouldn't be shocked to see Patton bypass him on the Niners' depth chart immediately. Jenkins is straight-line faster than Patton, but he's not as fluid an athlete or as smooth a route runner; one guy is a sprinter, and the other is a natural football player. Of course, each will come behind Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis in the pecking order this year.

131. Marcus Lattimore, RB, San Francisco 49ers: Will Lattimore ever be the same player he was before his devastating knee injuries at South Carolina? First he tore his left ACL in '11, and looked several steps slow at the beginning of last season. He finally seemed to be coming around later in the year, but destroyed his right ACL, LCL and PCL in a gruesome event. This kid could've been a top-five pick without injury, and maybe he returns to form someday. But I'd have to consider it unlikely he's a contributor as a rookie.

140. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Arizona Cardinals: Taylor is Stanford's all-time leading rusher and is already an elite pass protector, which could lead to some early playing time if Rashard Mendenhall and/or Ryan Williams can't hack it. But Taylor is slow at 4.76 in the 40, and is neither an elite athlete nor a large battering ram, plus Arizona also selected the more dynamic Andre Ellington in this draft. Taylor probably won't be a major fantasy force in his pro career.

144. Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints: Big 12 receivers are so tough to evaluate because the conference's defenses aren't very good. But when a burner like Stills (4.38 at the combine) gets linked up with a pass offense like New Orleans', we'd be dumb not to take note. The assumption this winter has been that Joe Morgan would be the deep threat to replace Devery Henderson, but Stills will get a chance to impress this summer.

151. Joseph Randle, RB, Dallas Cowboys: See above.

160. Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams: See above.

164. Mike Gillislee, RB, Miami Dolphins: See above.

171. Corey Fuller, WR, Detroit Lions: A former hoops player with a scorching first few steps, Fuller doesn't max out as a top burner, but if he gains some upper body strength, he could be a tough man to cover off the line. The reason he appears on this list is the Lions are the most pass-oriented offense in the NFL, and have no sure things in their receiving corps behind Calvin Johnson. Fuller could beat out Nate Burleson this summer.

181. Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders: Murray, too, is more about the depth chart than about his own excellence. Darren McFadden is injury-prone, and only Rashad Jennings and Jeremy Stewart back up Run-DMC. Murray played at UCF (home of former Lions starter Kevin Smith), is 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds, and reportedly ran a 4.38 at his pro day, but didn't prove himself at college football's highest level. Still, he could get involved as a rookie.

187. Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals: I preferred Ellington to fellow Arizona draftee Stepfan Taylor all spring, and I'll stand by that now. Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams will get first crack at the Cards' backfield this summer, but no one would be shocked if one or both of those guys wound up hurt in '13. Ellington is a burner (he pulled a hammy during his 40 at the combine) and is already a terrific pass blocker (like Taylor).