The NFL Draft is almost upon us, with the first round kicking off next Thursday. As we do each year, we'll be providing real-time analysis during the 2012 NFL Draft, analyzing player situation and fantasy impact as skill position players come off the board. In the meantime, we thought we'd provide a quick preview of the top players at each skill position. In Part I, we'll cover the top quarterbacks and running backs and in Part II we'll look at the receivers and tight ends.
Below you'll find a list of the top players at each position, ranked by their average score at NFL.com and ESPN (out of 100), listed first and second, respectively. There is also a highlight video for each player, but be warned -- the music for fan-made highlight videos is usually dreadful and/or offensive, so we suggest you watch them with the sound off.
Luck is considered to be as close as a sure thing as there has been at his position in the last decade. He's tough, accurate and has a great grasp of the game. He finished 31-7 as a starter at Stanford. His arm strength is good, but not elite. He's not the athlete that RGIII is, but his 40-yard time (4.67) ranked 4th amongst the 14 QBs that ran at the combine, so he has the speed of a Sam Bradford (4.70) or Tim Tebow (4.72), and has proven capable of making plays outside the pocket. Fantasy-wise, Luck will be a factor immediately, especially if he picks up the pro game as quickly as expected. If he lands with the Colts, he'll have an experienced receiving corps that will feature Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie. Consider him a low-end QB2 with upside, but remember rookie QBs are risky fantasy picks.
The 2011 Heisman winner is capable of making throws from the pocket, but his athleticism and intangibles are what has him projected going #2 overall to the Washington Redskins. He ran a 4.41 at the combine, which was the fastest time by a QB since ESPN has been keeping track. He went 17-9 as a starter over his last two seasons and rushed 12.6 times per game for an average of 51 yards per game, which includes sack yardage per NCAA policy. His arm strength is better than his accuracy, but he is a quality individual, was a good student and has great leadership skills. If he joins the Redskins, he'll have Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson and perhaps Santana Moss to throw to. Griffin may be overrated by those heading into fantasy drafts looking for the next Cam Newton, but he certainly should be worth a flier in the later rounds as a QB2 with upside. Keep in mind that he's three inches shorter and 17 lbs lighter than Newton, so he won't be quite the weapon that the Carolina QB is around the goal line.
Tannehill seems to be the consensus third-best QB in the draft, though NFL.com has him rated closer to the next two players on the list than does Scouts, Inc. The Aggies finished 7-6 in 2011, but he led Texas A&M to six straight wins after taking over the starter in the middle of 2010. He has good speed, but broke his foot after the season, so he was unable to show off his athletic ability at the combine. He did run the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds at his pro day in March. He's more accurate with the short and intermediate stuff at this point, and has good touch despite small hands for the position. He comes from a pro style system and shouldn't have a tough time picking up an NFL offense quickly. Most mock drafts seem to have Tannehill going to the Dolphins at #8, and if that's the case, he'll try to usurp Matt Moore as the starter. Moore wasn't bad in 2012, so it's no sure thing that the rookie would start right away. Regardless, the Miami WR corps is currently a mess, so at this point don't look for a break out season from a Dolphins signal caller.
Weeden played four years of minor league baseball before starting his football career at Oklahoma State, so he's an unusually old prospect who will turn 29 in October. He's a proven winner with a 23-3 record as a starter at OSU. He also has a big arm, but it's a three-quarter release, so there are concerns that he'll have problems with batted balls. He is very accurate in a clean pocket, but has trouble putting the ball on a spot when he's under pressure. His pocket presence isn't bad, and he has decent mobility, but he is by no means quick. He played in a spread offense, so he will have to adjust to playing under center. That, coupled with his age, may cause teams to question his upside. It should be noted that Kurt Warner didn't start in the NFL until age 29, so Weeden's situation is not unprecedented.
Osweiler was actually recruited to play basketball at Gonzaga, so he's a big, versatile athlete who has decent speed and good agility for his size. He has a strong arm and a compact delivery, and can make all the NFL throws. Unfortunately, he is turnover-prone due to his confidence and gunslinger mentality. If he can limit his mistakes, he has most of the tools to become a productive NFL QB if given time to develop. Going back to the end of 2010, he was 8-7 as a starter, but lost his last five games, including the MAACO Bowl against Boise St.
Richardson is the consensus #1 RB in this year's draft, coming off a season where he rushed for 1,679 yards on 283 carries (for a 5.9 YPC) while scoring 21 TDs as a junior. He also caught 21 passes for 338 yards and three scores, so he can handle a big workload. He was coming off of minor knee surgery and didn't work out at the combine, but he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds at his pro day (reportedly at less than 100%), which is about what Mark Ingram ran (4.62) at last year's combine. ESPN's Todd McShay said that Richardson is the most talented RB to come out since Adrian Peterson in 2007 and that there's "nothing that he can't do." He played behind a great offensive line at Alabama, so there are some who worry that he won't be able to get to the linebackers and safeties as easily. Most mock drafts have him going #4 to the Cleveland Browns, where he'll immediately see a big workload as he replaces Peyton Hillis as the team's primary ball carrier. As the Browns' RB1, he'll likely be a 3rd- or 4th-round pick in fantasy drafts and perhaps the top overall pick in dynasty formats.
Martin is physically similar to Richardson in height, weight and speed -- he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash -- and like Richardson, is considered to be a good all-around back that has good (but not elite) speed, though he was above average in the cone and shuttle drills at the combine. He rushed for 1,299 yards and 16 TDs on 263 carries (for a 4.9 YPC) and was a threat in the passing game (28-255-2). Most mock drafts have him going in the 2nd round or later. A RB-needy team like the Colts, Bucs or Jets could take him in the early to middle of the 2nd round. The Bengals, Steelers and Broncos are threats in the late 2nd. His fantasy prospects depend on his situation; if he lands with a team where he can carve out a RB1 role, he could go as high as the 4th round in fantasy drafts.
Miller rushed for 1,272 yards on 227 carries (for a 5.6 YPC) and scored nine TDs for the Hurricanes in his first season as a starter. He proved he has elite speed by running a 4.40 40-yard dash at the combine. He played through a shoulder ailment for most of the season, but didn't run as hard after the injury. His speed compensates for his lack of power, but that may not continue at the next level. Depending on the mock, his draft stock is all over the place, ranging from the late 1st (to the Bengals or Browns, if Cleveland passes on Richardson with the #4 pick) to the 2nd/3rd rounds. He's not built to be a workhorse back, so he will most likely end up as part of a committee early in his career.
Wilson gained 1,709 yards on 290 carries (for a 5.9 YPC) and scored nine TDs in his junior season at Virginia Tech. For a smallish RB, he wasn't a natural fit in the passing game, catching just 22 passes for a 5.9 YPC average. He did, however, demonstrate durability as the Hokies' workhorse back, rushing for at least 123 yards in 10 of his team's 13 games in 2011. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds, so he possesses very good speed, but he also runs with tremendous leg drive. He doesn't take what the defense gives him, which may get him into trouble at the next level if he doesn't learn to have more patience as a runner. He'll likely go to a RB-needy team in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Polk rushed for 2,903 yards and 21 TDs in his final two seasons at Washington. He's a patient all-around back, but does not have elite speed (4.57 40-yard dash) and doesn't have particularly quick feet. He runs hard and finishes strong. He's excellent in the passing game, with soft hand and a natural ability to catch the ball and turn upfield. He has had trouble with his left shoulder and may not be suited for feature back duty. After Martin, Miller and Wilson, Polk is part of the third tier of RB prospects.
Pead ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the combine and was described as "speedy" by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper. He's on the small side, so he may be best suited to be a complementary back in the NFL. He rushed 237 times for 1,259 yards (for a 5.3 YPC) and scored 12 TDs in his senior season. He also caught 39 balls (for an 8.2 YPC average) and looks comfortable in the passing game.
Other than Richardson, LaMichael James is the most recognizable name on this list thanks to his stellar career in a high-profile program. No one can knock his production -- 1,805 yards on 247 carries (for a gaudy 7.3 YPC) and 18 TDs in his junior season. He ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine and possesses very good speed and quickness, though he doesn't have the breakaway speed of Chris Johnson. He will need to adjust to a pro-style offense, which won't be run at the breakneck pace of Oregon's shotgun spread attack.