Watching the N.F.L. Draft From a Fantasy Football Perspective

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, with Cris Carter, left, and Michael Irvin, right, should immediately pay fantasy dividends because he figures to start right away in the N.F.L. CreditCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

After an eventful college football season, months of anticipation and analysis, and the scouting combine, the N.F.L. draft is finally upon us. Any fantasy football player knows that rookies can become the underrated picks who win you a championship. With an eye toward the 2015 fantasy season, here is what we are going to be looking for on draft weekend.

The 2014 N.F.L. draft class was a bonanza for fantasy owners, producing five of the season’s top 25 receivers. At running back, Jeremy Hill and Tre Mason led a class with mixed results. This year’s class might not produce quite as much talent, but there is still plenty of fantasy potential.

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For a rookie to have fantasy success, it takes talent and opportunity. The most talented receivers need a competent quarterback to throw them the ball, and running backs need the right scheme and offensive line around them to succeed. Going into last season’s draft, Sammy Watkins was the clear top prospect at wide receiver. But landing in Buffalo with E.J. Manuel throwing to him made Watkins’s season a slight disappointment, as he finished 25th among wide receivers in fantasy points. On the other hand, Jordan Matthews landed in the high-octane Philadelphia offense and ended a spot ahead of Watkins in fantasy scoring despite being drafted 38 picks later.

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are two of the best quarterbacks to enter the draft in recent memory, but rookie quarterbacks often struggle compared with running backs and wide receivers. At running back, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon are the clear top two options and the rookie backs most likely to earn a starting job. Each has been graded as a first-round pick by most draft experts. Behind them there are many prospects whose fantasy value will rely mostly on opportunity.

Amari Cooper is likely to be the first receiver off the board, which is not always a good thing. Depending on where he lands and who his quarterback is, he may not be the top fantasy receiver. Other top options will be Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Jaelen Strong and Breshad Perriman. Each is likely to be a first-round pick and will definitely be relevant for fantasy drafts this season.

Sometimes a better way to project rookie fantasy potential is to reverse engineer the process by finding the teams with the most unstable skill position starters. At running back, the Patriots lost Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen and have historically been willing to use new running backs, so that situation is wide open. Adrian Peterson could plausibly be traded, leaving the Vikings with only Matt Asiata, who averaged 3.5 yards per carry last season. The Cowboys lost DeMarco Murray and his 392 carries from last year, and the Chargers’ three running backs are Branden Oliver, Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead, none of whom deserve a starting job.

At receiver, there are a lot of good potential landing spots for rookies. The Browns, the Ravens, the Texans and the Chiefs are good examples of teams that could use help in their receiving corps, so if any of them draft a talented prospect, that rookie could step in and have a huge immediate impact.

Of course, neither talent nor opportunity can help players who are stuck on injured reserve, so following prospects with injury histories on draft day is key. N.F.L. teams are not necessarily acting with the same goals as fantasy owners. They might be overly sensitive to long-term outlooks given the recent troubles of Josh Gordon, Justin Blackmon and Johnny Manziel, but that does not mean fantasy owners should be scared if a high-upside running back talent falls on draft day.

In this draft, Boise State running back Jay Ajayi has a checkered injury history that teams are reported to be worried about. The concerns are all long-term and should not affect him in his rookie year. The team that drafts him is likely to want to get value early in his career, so the injury concerns may actually be a fantasy positive.

There are a lot of variables that affect a rookie’s fantasy stock. Although we are five months from the regular season, the draft is a time when talent pours into the league and many questions are answered, for both N.F.L. and fantasy owners.

Source: NY Times

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