Adam Levitan

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2011 Draft: Impact Rookies

Sunday, May 8, 2011

One of the strangest offseasons in NFL history has prohibited us from doing what we do best -- projecting how players in new roles will fare. But at long last, an oasis came to us in the form of the draft.

Last year's rookie class produced high expectations in the form of guys like Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best, C.J. Spiller and Dez Bryant. This year's class does not project to generate nearly as much hype from a fantasy perspective. Out of all the running backs taken last week, only Miami's Daniel Thomas appears to have a wide open path to a full-time gig.

Still, diamonds in the rough will certainly emerge. For example, we pegged Mike Williams (TB) as a quality flier last August and it paid off handsomely.

In order to generate these rankings, we took a composite ranking of four lists (Evan Silva, Chris Wesseling, Gregg Rosenthal, Adam Levitan). Remember that these are for the 2011 season only -- Wesseling covered the Dynasty outlook of the rookies here.

1. Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins
The Dolphins gave up three draft picks to land Thomas, so the odds of free agents Ricky Williams and/or Ronnie Brown coming back are remote. While GM Jeff Ireland has said he wants to add a "scat back," no one is going to threaten the 230-pound Thomas on early downs. We wouldn't rule out 250 carries as a rookie.

2. Mark Ingram, RB, Saints
It's crowded right now in coach Sean Payton's situational backfield, but Ingram is a good bet to rise to the top. Pierre Thomas can never stay healthy and is coming off ankle surgery. Reggie Bush's massive salary is expected to be dumped. And Chris Ivory is a former undrafted free agent coming off a major foot injury. On top of all that, the Saints gave up their 2011 second-round pick and 2012 first-rounder to snag Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.

3. A.J. Green, WR, Bengals
We don't know who will be quarterbacking the Bengals, but we can safely pencil in Green opposite Jerome Simpson with Jordan Shipley in the slot. Green may very well be the best pure offensive player in this year's rookie class, projecting as a difference-making deep threat right out of the gate. He should lead the Bengals in targets as a rookie.

4. Roy Helu, RB, Redskins
We have all seen what coach Mike Shanahan can do with relatively unknown running backs. Helu, a favorite sleeper of draft experts like Evan Silva, fits perfectly as a one-cut, downhill runner in Washington's zone-blocking scheme. We like him to beat out injury-prone Ryan Torain to win the starting job sooner rather than later.

5. Greg Little, WR, Browns
Off-field woes are the main reason Little continues to fly under the radar. But at 6'2/231 with running back skills after the catch, he immediately steps in as the Browns' most talented receiver. On a roster devoid of playmakers, the Browns will rightfully feel the need to get the ball in Little's hands often.

6. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Atlanta gave up the farm to move up for Jones. By surrendering their 2011 and 2012 first-round picks, 2011 and 2012 fourth-round picks and 2011 second-round pick, they are telling us that Jones will have a major offensive role right out of the gate. The only problem is that Atlanta's first option remains the running game and the second option is Roddy White.

7. Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals
Due to injuries, inconsistency and fumbles, Beanie Wells has disappointed more than he's shined. The Cardinals say they aren't sending a message to Beanie, but using the No. 38 pick on Williams when you have holes all over the field speaks volumes. Williams is a plus receiver out of the backfield and will immediately threaten the workloads of both Wells and Tim Hightower.

8. Mikel Leshoure, RB, Lions
We knew durability would be an issue with Jahvid Best as soon as he was drafted. And after an injury-plagued rookie campaign, Leshoure is certain to have a major role. At 6'0/227, the second-round pick will be the 2011 goal-line back. And with the Lions' offense looking explosive, Leshoure is a good bet to have plenty of scoring opportunities.

9. Leonard Hankerson, WR, Redskins
The cupboard is bare at all the Redskins' skill positions, including wide receiver. Santana Moss is a free agent, leaving deep threat Anthony Armstrong and disappointing Malcolm Kelly atop the depth chart. Hankerson, who broke Michael Irvin's single-season touchdown catches record at Miami, has the look of a No. 1 receiver. His upside will have a lot to do with who ends up quarterbacking the Redskins.

10. Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Chiefs
The Chiefs were absolutely desperate for a No. 2 receiver after using street free agents and practice squad talent at the position last year. Enter Baldwin, who has the look of a premier red-zone threat at 6'4/228. Still, the Chiefs led the NFL in rushing attempts last year at 34.8 per game and will likely be around that number again. As the No. 2 receiver, Baldwin's upside is limited.

11. Delone Carter, RB, Colts
It's a little odd that the pass-first Colts drafted a running back with limited receiving skills, but they were desperate for short-yardage help. Carter, who is built like a bowling ball, can certainly help there. However, don't expect the Colts to let free agent Joseph Addai walk because Carter is in the mix. The rookie figures to be used in a very specific role.

12. Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots
Chris Wesseling ranked Vereen 7th on his list, six spots higher than anyone else. "I think he's immediately the best running back in New England. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is basically a kill the clock/take the air out of the ball back, which the Patriots got to do a ton in the second half last year. Not sure they can count on that again." Vereen fits nicely in New England, but the amount of reps in this crowded backfield will be a major obstacle.

13. DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys
The Cowboys couldn't pass on the impressive measurables Murray has, but effectiveness is another story. He averaged just 4.24 yards per carry in his final two seasons at Oklahoma and proved to be extremely injury prone. Talk that he'll beat out Felix Jones for the feature back job is a stretch -- even taking Tashard Choice's backup gig won't come easy.

14. Titus Young, WR, Lions
The smallish Young fits perfectly as a deep threat, third receiver and kick returner for the Lions. Detroit certainly runs enough three-wide sets for Young to be on the radar, but he'll have to earn his way up the totem pole. Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Jahvid Best and Brandon Pettigrew all need their mouths fed in the passing game.

15. Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Falcons
Jerious Norwood was never able to fill the scat back job, so the tiny Rodgers is going to get a chance. But at 5'6/196, Rodgers is going to struggle badly in pass protection. If he can't beat out Jason Snelling for third-down reps, there isn't going to be much to see here in fantasy.

16. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
Gregg Rosenthal ranked the No. 1 overall pick 8th on his list, 10 spots ahead of anyone else. "I think Newton will start sooner than later and has the skill set to be a decent QB2 with a ceiling like Vince Young's rookie year. That's better than most of these backup running backs and shaky wide receivers." The fact that Newton ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns at Auburn last season is intriguing.

17. Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens
With slow, declining veterans Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason atop the depth chart, the Ravens badly needed a deep threat for Joe Flacco's big arm. Smith can get vertical right away at the NFL level, but the main concern here is targets. Smith will likely need an injury to Boldin or Mason to truly be relevant.

18. Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers
The Chargers are tentatively expected to bring back both Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Therefore Brown, a possession receiver, is more appetizing as a keeper prospect than re-draft. Nevertheless, anyone on a Philip Rivers quarterbacked team bears watching. Rivers led the NFL last year in passing yards and yards per attempt.

19. Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers
Hunter will start off as a change-of-pace back behind workhorse Frank Gore, but may be more talented than Anthony Dixon. If Gore were to go down, Hunter projects as the man to own based on his all-around game. He has plus receiving and pass protection skills. Brian Westbrook is gone.

20. Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots
Ridley is a bruiser that is an immediate threat to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' early-down role. He's also part of a four-headed monster at running back and will therefore be used situationally. Likely to enter the season fourth on the depth chart, Ridley is hard to get excited about.

21. Alex Green, RB, Packers
22. Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings
23. Edmond Gates, WR, Dolphins
24. Randall Cobb, WR, Packers
25. Taiwan Jones, RB, Raiders
26. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings
27. Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams
28. Kris Durham, WR, Seahawks
29. Greg Salas, WR, Rams

For more thoughts in 140-character format, check us out on Twitter:

Adam Levitan is in his seventh season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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