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Thursday, April 25, 2013

NFL Draft: Looking for Fantasy Impact

Tonight is the first day of the NFL Draft, which means two things:
  1. I will be reduced to a giggling child for the next three days.
  2. We have a big opportunity for fantasy football analysis.
The mind explodes with possibilities and in just a few short days they will begin to solidify.  If you are observant and astute you can begin to make connections and determinations about what these roster changes will do to the fantasy landscape this Fall.

The draft is the third piece to the off-season trifecta:  Free Agency, Coaching Changes, and the Draft.  If you pay close attention to these three elements and
do your homework you can begin to develop ideas about how the NFL might change in the coming season.

Coaching changes can be overblown as far as fantasy impact is concerned, but pay attention to the little things.  For example, in Cleveland we've got a new head coach who actually played tight end for the Miami Hurricanes and was the OC for the Browns when Kellen Winslow II first hit the scene.  Add to that a coordinator in Norv Turner who in the past has highlighted weapons like Jay Novacek and Antonio Gates.  Add all of that up and don't be surprised if the Brownies trade back and grab Tyler Eifert later in the first or get a second round pick to use on Gavin Escobar.  And, if (when) they make a move for a tight end you might want to highlight that name as a sleeper come draft time.

Also, free agency has a clear impact on fantasy.  Mike Wallace will get tons of chances to prove the value of his contract with the Dolphins.  For example.

But, what we are talking about today is the draft.  It's draft day, my friends, and I'm like a kid on Christmas morning.  I am stoked!  We'll start seeing names drop into place...  That will have us thinking about track records of coaches and changes in free agency and starting to try to figure how these drafted players fit into the scheme of their new team.

The obvious names are the offensive skill positions, but I've got to tell you... This is a bad draft for offensive skill positions.  It is entirely possible that the first round only yields one wide receiver, one tight end, and zero running backs.  Tavon Austin and Tyler Eifert appear to be first round locks, but guys like Cordarrelle Patterson and Eddie Lacy might have to wait until tomorrow to hear their name called. 

Patterson in particular has been sliding recently.  His draft stock was as high as Top 5 a few months ago, but I've seen his projection in mock drafts later in the Top 10, then Top 20, then later in the first round, and now it is even possible that he's a second rounder.  However, think about that for a second.  Having a skill position guy slip isn't such a bad thing for fantasy.  If a guy like him goes to an established team with a decent quarterback and other weapons, maybe he can carve out a role for himself faster than he otherwise would.  So, what if Patterson goes #21 or even #37 to the Bengals?  To me, that is an ideal landing spot for the guy.  In Cincy, there is a bonafide stud WR on the other side of the field who will draw all of the double teams.  Plus you've got a quarterback who might not have the strongest arm, but he's accurate and has a quick trigger and understands how to move an offense.  With Patterson, you just want the ball in his hands as quickly as possible so he can do his work on RAC yards where he really shines.  If A.J. Green is drawing doubles and Patterson is running quick slants on the other side, Andy Dalton is going to find him in space all of the freaking time.

It's things like that you should be looking for over the next few days.  How do the pieces fit together?

More importantly for us tonight are the less obvious puzzle pieces.  If Kansas City takes Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher with the first pick, what does that mean?  Think about it... They added Alex Smith in a trade.  They have a new coaching staff led by Andy Reid.  What have we seen from those guys before?  Well, Smith is mostly an efficient guy who limits mistakes but he needs some time to do damage.  A franchise left tackle will get him some time.  Andy Reid has a history of taking solid quarterbacks and making them better.  Donovan McNabb was pretty good, but Reid made him a Pro Bowler.  They also parlayed his backups into some draft picks... guys like Kevin Kolb and A.J. Feeley shined when given an opportunity in the Reid system only to fail elsewhere.  What will the Reid system and a franchise left tackle do for Smith?  Maybe he's now a sleeper in fantasy.  But, let's think even deeper.  What do these things do for Jamaal Charles?  Who will be the #2 to Charles this year?  What about Dwayne Bowe?  Will we see Bowe finally emerge as a full-time #1, worthy of a 2nd or 3rd round pick in fantasy?  Could be.

The last thing to pay attention to are the defensive contributors.  It's hard to weigh the impact of defensive players, especially rookies.  Sometimes, though, a rookie is selected specifically for one unique skill and it will elevate a defense for fantasy.  Last year everyone laughed at the Seahawks for reaching on Bruce Irvin.  But they used him incredibly effectively as a situational pass rusher who created all sorts of havoc.  The guy only had ten solo tackles, but he got eight sacks plus one more in the playoffs.  That was exactly the dimension the Seahawks were looking for and it really propelled their defense, helping them get back to the postseason. 

What if the Arizona Cardinals get Dion Jordan?  It's not likely, but I have seen a few mocks where he slipped that far.  Is that the element that really cranks up a Cardinals defense that looked great early last year only to be exposed later?  If they had a load like Jordan flashing off of the edge, maybe that allows those Cardinal DB's a better chance to do their thing?  Maybe that's the element they need to be a fantasy starter at D/ST.

Lots to look at, Brainiacs.  Enjoy it, and think deeply about the impact of these players and how the puzzle is coming together.  Remember, as much as we deride the teams that can seem to put it all together, every single NFL team is staffed with intelligent football minds who have a detailed plan of how to get better.  Every team has an idea of what players they need to make their system really hum.  As fantasy players we do not need to know what teams will have the best records...  We need to be able to predict which situations will produce value for us that no one else will predict.