Fantasy Football & NFL Team Needs heading into the Draft
By 4for4 Scout Scott Pagel
With the National Football League in lockout mode, you may have forgotten the draft is just around the corner. And if you were hoping for a deal to be reached between players and owners to end the lockout as a nice surprise leading up to the draft – there's plenty going on in that arena right now as the courts have ruled to lift the lockout and the NFL is pushing to appeal.
An immediate end to the lockout would throw a wrench into the draft plans teams have been making up to this point. For a while now, squads have been in full draft mode and not preparing for a settlement. So, if the lockout was fully lifted prior to the draft, it could potentially mean players can be signed and released, causing a frantic transaction period that would ruin a lot of draft prep.
Even if a deal is reached, free agency would likely be pushed back until after the draft takes place. Normally, of course, free agency comes first and then needs and future needs are filled through the draft. This year, the draft will come first, with needs getting filled in a sure-to-be wild signing period sometime later.
Like it or not, this is the hand fans have been dealt. Because the future of the NFL is such a wild card right now, rules could be totally different than how we know them today.
For example, will there be a franchise tagging system? It’s no secret the players don’t like it, and the NFL Players Association is challenging that in their lawsuit. Some big fantasy names are currently tagged - Mike Vick, Vincent Jackson, Marcedes Lewis and Peyton Manning. Just because they are tagged right now, doesn’t necessarily mean that will carry over with the next CBA or in a lockout-free NFL world with no CBA in place.
There is a lot of campaigning going on from both sides that includes some crazy ideas of potential changes to the league, especially from the players’ side. The fact is, though, the current system works pretty well, and this whole lockout process boils down to additional money the owners want to take off the top before the rest is divided.
If the players get their way, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fears the future of football could mean no draft, no franchise tags and no free agency rules. Goddell discussed this with a group of New York Giant season ticket holders on Wednesday, April 20.
“I get concerned when I hear how the lawyers want to approach this and how they want to change the game for the players association,” Goodell said. “I think we have a great game that’s competitive. I think that the balance we have amongst teams is all part of our system. Aspects of those systems are always modified and changed and I’m willing to engage in that. But I think eliminating some of those aspects that I think have made our game — and frankly other sports, they are all part of other sports. The NFL has got an incredibly competitive and attractive game. We’ve got to make sure that we continue to make modifications. We’ve got to make it stronger, not weaken it.”
All the rules that are in place now do a pretty good job of keeping the league balanced, and a team like Tampa Bay can go from a couple of wins to the doorstep of the NFL playoffs in a year - as we saw the last two seasons. There’s really no excuse for being out of the playoff hunt for more than a couple of years, and that keeps fans of all teams coming back for more.
We do know if there is free agency, it will most likely take place after the draft, and it will be interesting to see the strategies teams take. Do the Jets bank on resigning Santonio Holmes and Braylan Edwards, or do they draft their potential replacements and hope to get the next Hakeem Nicks or Jeremy Maclin, who made quick impacts over the last two years?
While all this will be settled one way or another, all we can do now is break down the draft needs, take a look at the free agents, and ponder what direction squads could go when the draft kicks off Thursday night, April 28.
Of course, all of this has deep fantasy impacts when we hold our own drafts later this summer. For fantasy players, the word draft will always get our attention, and even though this won’t be like typical NFL drafts in the past, there is still reason to get excited.
One thing to keep an eye on early is the fourth pick by the Cincinnati Bengals. Carson Palmer, Cedric Benson and Terrell Owens are free agents, and Chad Ochocinco has been rumored to be on his way out via trade, possibly even to New England. The team apparently wants Palmer back, but the feeling from Palmer’s camp is far from mutual. Benson, however, is expected to return to the backfield. It’s a safe bet the Bengals will go QB or WR with their first pick, and their decision will likely affect many teams below them.
So let’s shake off the winter rust and try to get familiar with some of the names you’ll be hearing over the next few weeks and months.
It’s no secret a lot of teams need quarterback help coming into the 2011 season, either a starter to make an immediate impact, or a guy to step in within a year or two. The problem is, with the possibility of no offseason workouts and shortened free agency, anyone who eventually changes teams is going to be at a disadvantage, and the QB position is probably the one impacted the most. Rookies drafted will also be impactive if OTAs or camps are cut short, making it a bigger hill to climb to crack a week 1 roster.
The Titans, Redskins, 49ers, Vikings, Bengals and Cardinals have the biggest need right now at QB and the free agent market isn’t loaded with big names. If the lockout drags on, you can expect teams like the Bills (Ryan Fitzpatrick) and Seahawks (Matt Hasselbeck) to just roll with their current incumbent. Fitzpatrick is signed, so don’t expect Buffalo to take a QB with the third overall pick, but you can expect the Bills, and maybe the Chiefs, to take a real look at a QB later in the draft. Hasselbeck is currently a free agent, but it would make a lot of sense for him to resign when the time comes.
Given the state of the league, it looks like the teams with the most carryover and familiarity from last season should have the advantages heading into 2011. That’s why the Bengals are interested in trying to convince Palmer to come back. That said, Palmer has stated he has plenty of money in the bank and is content to retire. Either way, he says he will never play for the Bengals again. We tend to believe him.
New Panthers head coach Juan Rivera has been quoted recently that he’s very impressed, even “convinced,” Cam Newton’s arm and ability are NFL-worthy. That could mean Newton’s named will be called first in the draft. Rookie Jimmy Claussen wasn’t impressive in his time last year, but didn’t have a lot to work with in his defense. Neither will Newton, but Newton is faster, has a bigger arm and has drawn early comparisons to Big Ben and Daunte Culpepper. Carolina should be able to get him some WR help later in the draft, too.
If Newton goes first, Blaine Gabbert will be close behind, and lots of teams are interested. Gabbert is considered by some a better potential-pro than Newton, but will also need a year or two before being able to step in, which will hurt the teams who don’t have a short-term answer.
The Bengals are one of those teams, but if they are convinced there is no chance to bring back Palmer, they could have to go with Gabbert at four and also sign a free agent.
Gabbert was recruited by new 49er coach Jim Harbaugh when he was at Stanford, so based on that, San Francisco would also be a logical fit. Alex Smith and Troy Smith are free agents, but, San Fran doesn’t pick until seven. You can bet they will be anxiously awaiting the Cincy selection, which could also be WR AJ Green.
If Gabbert somehow falls past seven, it would be good news for Tennessee, which still claims it will trade or release Vince Young. Kerry Collins is free agent, so the Titans are another team with a glaring need for a starter heading into the draft. If Gabbert is gone, Tennessee would probably address another position first (and settle for a guy like Alex Smith, Brady Quinn or Matt Leinart via free agency) and draft a QB later.
There are other QB options in the draft, but they most likely won’t be start ready the year either. Jake Locker of Washington has been compared to Kyle Boller, but Locker’s accuracy is a big question mark. He could also be a good fit for the Titans, but most likely not in the first round. If the Titans pass, the Redskins could be interested in Locker at 10, or even the Vikings at 12.
Christian Ponder of Florida State is similar to Locker, with a more accurate arm. However, two elbow surgeries will hurt his value. He could go to a team like Buffalo or Kansas City, which already has a QB in place, but is looking for that ‘next one.’
Ryan Mallet of Arkansas is another talented option, but there are a lot of questions about his make-up and everything about him in the news lately seems to be negative. He’s your typical high-risk, high-reward guy for a team that already has at least a short-term QB answer.
Andy Dalton’s (TCU) stock is on the rise because he’s considered the most-ready QB in the draft. While he only has an average arm, he does have mobility and accuracy. Dalton is getting linked to Seattle with the 25th pick, but teams like Tennessee and Washington could feel the need to take him before that.
Colin Kaepernick of Nevada is another mobile QB who can throw. He’s considered athletic and an intelligent fit for a pro system, but is a few years away, making the Bills, Chiefs or Jags possible suitors.
Another option for teams is Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a popular name leading up to the draft. But, with player movement not allowed, the Eagles could be forced to keep him, or trade him for picks next year when the two sides eventually come together.
A lot of teams are interested in Kolb, including the Cardinals – or at least Larry Fitzgerald, who made a public comment that Kolb was the guy he wanted management to pursue. Arizona is another wild card in the draft because with John Skelton and Derek Anderson, they are very much hurting at the position. Not being able to trade for Kolb right now won’t give him a lot of time to prepare in a new system. Since Arizona picks fifth, it could always opt for Gabbert should he get past Cincy, but the Cards are being linked to cornerback Patrick Peterson of Auburn.
The Vikings have a need for starter as well and talk is Donovan McNabb is a match, who isn’t expected to be back with Washington. McNabb could also be a good fit for the Cardinals, which would allow the team to draft a QB in the later rounds instead of at five.
Unlike QB, there are a lot of attractive free agent running backs compared to draft options.
Leading that list is DeAngelo Williams, who isn’t expected to be back with the Panthers in 2011. The Dolphins arguably have the biggest need for a back with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both unlikely to return. DeAngelo Williams would make a perfect fit into the Miami game plan. Many see the Fins also drafting Mark Ingram out of Alabama with their pick at 15. Ingram shouldn’t go off the board before that, but Miami could be scared off by Ingram’s knee problems. As a result, Mark Leshoure of Illinois is getting talked about as potentially the first back to be taken. Ingram seems to be a much better fit for the Dolphins as Leshoure is a bigger back, but past injuries are always a red flag. If Ingram slips past the Dolphins at 15, both the Saints and Patriots have been rumored to have interest in the back half of the first round.
Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech is considered the third-best back in the draft but won’t go in the first round. It’s even a possibility no running backs are taken the first night.
The Saints and Redskins are also in need of backfield help. New Orleans will probably address this in free agency. The Redskins have so many needs that they may be forced to stick with Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams, depending on what else they address in free agency and the draft. If not, DeAngelo Williams would be a guy Washington can open up its pocketbooks for.
The Patriots should be able control the rights to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but no one can ever predict just how they will use their backfield. If they do keep Green-Ellis, look for them to sign a veteran, a Caddy Williams, Willis McGahee or a Joseph Addai type, ala Fred Taylor of last season. Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk (ACL) are both 34.
Tampa Bay and St. Louis have its starters in LeGarrette Blount and Steven Jackson, respectively. But a guy like Addai or McGahee could be a nice, veteran backup for either of those teams. With the conservative, run heavy John Fox now coaching in Denver, the Broncos will also be looking to add a compliment to Knowshon Moreno.
With AJ Green the top receiver in the draft, here is where the Bengals could be forced to make a big decision. QB and WR are their biggest needs, so if Gabbert isn’t taken by the Bills at three, Cincy will have to decide between Gabbert and Green at four.
Green is 6-4, 211 pounds and is already talked about in the same conversation as names like Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson. He’s expected to be able to step right in and be an elite, number-one receiver.
If Green is off the board, the Browns will consider taking Julio Jones of Alabama with the sixth pick. Jones and Green were recruited together and will forever be linked. Jones has been compared to Michael Irvin, although drops have been a concern on his resume. While Green is the top choice of most, Jones is predicted to be a WR1 as well.
Washington (10th) and St. Louis (14th) would also love to get their hands on either Green or Jones. One way Jones would fall to Washington is if Cincy went with Gabbert four and the Browns took Green at six.
The Rams have to address the WR position, and it really should be a top-quality addition if at all possible. Sam Bradford is the real deal and proved it in his rookie season throwing to guys like Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola, Laurent Robinson and Mark Clayton. Robinson and Clayton (ACL) are free agents, and St. Louis needs a weapon to give Bradford and the running game some help.
With Green and Jones likely gone, Torrey Smith of Maryland and Leonard Hankerson of Miami are other WR names to watch for teams like Washington and St. Louis. Both are over 6-0 and 200 pounds, but it’s more likely these guys will be taken outside of the first round as there is a big gap behind the top-two.
The Panthers could target Torrey or Hankerson early in the second to go with their new franchise QB, Newton. The Chiefs could also be in the mix for a WR to give Matt Cassel and the running game some help opposite of Dwayne Bowe.
The Jets will have a lot of questions at the WR position heading into the season. Both Edwards and Holmes are free agents and while Holmes is probably the safer bet to be back, there are already rumors that the team is interested in Randy Moss. Rex Ryan and the Jets just may be crazy enough to make that work…
Terrell Owens is coming off a nice season in Cincy and will attract a team like Washington, which loves to collect aging, big-named players. Santana Moss is a free agent and outside of him there wasn’t much to work with in Washington a season ago. They will need some talent there for their new QB, assuming McNabb and free agent Rex Grossman are not back.
James Jones of Green Bay could be one of the more popular targeted names at WR. He’s expected to get a lot of money when signings start. So again, Washington could be a match.
Malcom Floyd may some day emerge as a number-one, and might be a good free agent fit for the Rams. St. Louis most likely wouldn’t overspend on James Jones or some of the bigger names, and guys like Moss and Owens would not be good fits.
Teams needing tight ends will have some great options in free agency assuming they can pry them away from their current teams.
Zach Miller of Oakland has emerged into one of the best in the league and the Raiders would be crazy to let him go. The same could be said for the Jags Mercedes Lewis who is looking for a long term deal.
Don’t look for a TE to go in the first round, but Notre Dame’s Kyle Rudolph is projected as a second or third rounder. He left early knowing he’d be the top option in the draft. Luke Stocker of Tennessee and DJ Williams of Arkansas are some other options.
1. Carolina (2-14)
2. Denver (4-12)
3. Buffalo (4-12)
4. Cincinnati (4-12)
5. Arizona (5-11)
6. Cleveland (5-11)
7. San Francisco (6-10)
8. Tennessee (6-10)
9. Dallas (6-10)
10. Washington (6-10)
11. Houston (6-10)
12. Minnesota (6-10)
13. Detroit (6-10)
14. St. Louis (7-9)
15. Miami (7-9)
16. Jacksonville (8-8)
17. New England (14-2) -- from Oakland
18. San Diego (9-7)
19. New York Giants (10-6)
20. Tampa Bay (10-6)
21. Kansas City (10-6)
22. Indianapolis (10-6)
23. Philadelphia (10-6)
24. New Orleans (11-5)
25. Seattle (7-9)
26. Baltimore (12-4)
27. Atlanta (13-3)
28. New England (14-2)
29. Chicago (11-5)
30. New York Jets (11-5)
31. Pittsburgh (12-4)
32. Green Bay (10-6)