2011 NFL Draft Fantasy Rookie Preview
By 4for4 Scout Andy Rioux
We interrupt the latest round of unsavory news regarding Brandon Marshall to bring you a look at the 2011 rookie class of skill position players. The draft takes on added importance this year, as teams have been unable to fill needs in free agency thanks to the lockout.
Ultimately, this is a complex group of players to analyze, especially the quarterbacks, where there are no sure things such as Sam Bradford in this year’s group. In the end, future NFL and fantasy success for this crew will depend on how hard they work at their craft and if they are fortunate enough to have a decent supporting cast.
We’ll know the answers to those questions before the week is over. For now, here’s a look at the top names to keep an eye on:
Cam Newton, Auburn
Fantasy football owners are undoubtedly impressed that Newton led Auburn to the 2010 national title and won the Heisman Trophy, but what really jumps out is the fact that Newton accounted for 50 touchdowns in 14 games (30 passing, 20 rushing) during his magical run. While he’s unlikely to post that kind of production right away at the pro level, dual threat quarterbacks will never go out of style in the fantasy world. Of course, many experts are wondering if he will even be a productive NFL quarterback. He only had one big college season and Newton was embroiled in a fair share of trouble off the field, both at Auburn and during a previous stint at Florida. He may have a sense of entitlement that ruined other high draft picks. Will he be a hard worker and do whatever it takes to elevate his game to the next level? Will he be a complete flop? Or will he conquer the NFL the same way he did college football? If the truth is somewhere in the middle, fantasy owners will be glad to have Newton on their side in the future.
Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
To many, Gabbert is the safest quarterback in the draft. Blaine appears to have good intangibles, not to mention agility and a strong arm. But does Gabbert truly have the “it factor” that separates the good ones from the great ones? If you watched Missouri’s Insight Bowl loss to Iowa, you would say no. Gabbert threw one of the most bone-headed interceptions in recent memory during the latter part of the fourth quarter which resulted in a dramatic loss for the Tigers. Of course, it’s a bit harsh to judge a guy on one play, but that play provides evidence that Gabbert is far from polished, especially given he played in a spread offense all during college and will need to adjust to the NFL style of play. He still looks very awkward at times. However, given his work ethic, it seems like Gabbert will probably develop into a useful NFL starter down the road. It’s just hard to envision him being a franchise quarterback.
Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
Kaepernick has gone from being a relatively unknown quarterback leading a curious offense to an intriguing prospect. His success directing Nevada’s “Pistol” attack has gotten him and the offense plenty of attention, especially considering how well the dual-threat Kaepernick played in 2010 in directing the Wolf Pack to a 13-1 record. Kaepernick threw for 3,022 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 1,103 yards and 20 scores. The “Pistol” has been used at times in the NFL, most notably when the Chiefs were starting Tyler Thigpen at quarterback during the 2008 season. However, it’s still seen as a gimmick at the pro level by most and Kaepernick will have a learning curve as he adapts to the NFL. He has a slender frame that some find worrisome, but also has a great arm and the ability to make plays on the run. Whoever drafts Kaepernick will need to show some patience. The payoff could be worth it.
Christian Ponder, Florida State
Ponder comes into the draft with a reputation for being injury-prone, as he dealt with elbow and shoulder issues during his time in Tallahassee. He made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl, winning MVP honors after throwing for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Ponder doesn’t possess the physical attributes that others in his class do, but his stock has risen and many experts think he could be a good fit in an offense that features timing passes and an emphasis on shorter routes over deep ones. He doesn’t have history on his side, as Florida State hasn’t produced a banner crop of pro quarterbacks outside of Brad Johnson.
Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
Mallett, at one time the pride of Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas, originally began his college career at Michigan. But when Rich Rodriquez took over as Michigan’s head coach, the immobile Mallett transferred closer to home as he wasn’t a good fit for Rodriquez’s spread option offense. It was a good move, as Mallett led Arkansas to the 2010 Sugar Bowl, where the Razorbacks were defeated by Ohio State. At a position where height is always valuable, Mallett is the tallest quarterback in this year’s class and Ryan possesses plenty of arm strength. However, his lack of agility in the pocket is a problem for NFL teams and he’s also had some issues off the field. He also struggled against top opponents, especially in a home game against Alabama where Mallett turned into an interception machine when the game was on the line. In a year where none of the quarterbacks are sure things, Mallett has great tools, but might be the most likely to bust.
Jake Locker, Washington
Locker looks the part of an NFL quarterback, but isn’t the objective of teams to find players who can complete passes? His completion percentages while at Washington were quite low. In basketball terms, there are many days when Locker can’t hit the side of a barn. It’s hard to see a quarterback who is so inaccurate being a great pro, but someone is going to look at Locker’s raw potential and think “I can make something out of him.” He is the quarterback equivalent of a stunningly gorgeous female who you fall instantly in love with, and then you realize she has plenty of character flaws. How pretty is that face when you find out she’s written a string of hot checks in different states? At least initially, like the striking female, Locker will be forgiven for completing 11 of 32 passes for 89 yards and three interceptions. Patience will wear thin down the road if he doesn’t improve his accuracy.
Ricky Stanzi, Iowa
Unlike Locker, who never really seemed to get dramatically better at Washington, Stanzi showed clear improvement between the 2009 and 2010 seasons. In 2009, Stanzi threw 17 touchdowns, but also tossed 15 interceptions. His interception total in 2010 dropped to six while he threw for 25 touchdowns. Iowa utilized a pro-style offense, which theoretically gives Stanzi a quicker chance to make an impact. He’s got good size and doesn’t seem to have much trouble making all the throws a pro quarterback must make. Stanzi won’t be one of the first quarterbacks off the board. However, with this helter-skelter group, he’s got as much chance as being successful as anyone.
Andy Dalton, TCU
Every year in the draft, it seems like there is at least one quarterback who doesn’t have incredible physical attributes but is regarded as a “winner.” Dalton is the 2011 model. He was 42-7 as a starter and took the Horned Frogs to two BCS bowls during his tenure, an incredible accomplishment given TCU plays in the Mountain West, a conference lacking an automatic BCS tie-in. The highlight of his four-year reign as starter came last year, as Dalton and his teammates went undefeated and beat Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl. The “winners” are often the most scrutinized among the quarterbacks, as evidenced by the skepticism that surrounded Colt McCoy last year. There have even been reports that some NFL teams are turned off by the fact Dalton has red hair, which is silly. As wacko as Dennis Rodman was, the guy won five championships and had more hair colors than anyone could keep track of. It remains to be seen if Dalton will ascend to a starting position at the NFL level. If he does, don’t count him out as a future fantasy contributor.