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ON FANTASY SPORTS

Scouting reports on recent rookie booms, busts

NFL draft

April 24, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER

With NFL draft fever sweeping the sports nation, it seems a good time to pause my baseball ramblings and talk a little pigskin.

Most fantasy players have an instinctive affection for drafts. We get to watch the experts go through the same agony and ecstasy we experience every spring and fall.

Is it better to hold on to a high pick and snag a potential star at a premium position? Or is there more value in the middle of the draft? Can you wait until the second day to pick a quarterback? Do you draft for need or take the best talent available?

These are the exact questions we ask ourselves during fantasy drafts and auctions. And on real draft days, we can use our hard-won acumen to scheme right along with scouts and general managers.

In celebration of this vicarious fun, let's look at recent first rounds and how often they've produced impact rookies for fantasy football.

For the 10 drafts from 1998 to 2007, I've broken the rookie seasons of all skill players drafted in the first round into four categories -- no impact, modest, good and great. I define those loosely, but no impact means a guy wasn't worth keeping on your roster, modest means he might have kept a bench spot but never deserved to start, good means he could have started half the time for a solid fantasy team and great means he was a top player at his position for good fantasy teams.

Of the 109 skill players picked in those 10 first rounds, 43 made no impact as rookies, 35 made modest impacts, 24 were good and seven were great.

In broad strokes, that seems to say that counting on rookies for fantasy production is folly. But let's take a closer look at differences between types of players.

First of all, every bad thing you've heard about rookie quarterbacks is basically correct. Of the 28 drafted in the past 10 first rounds, 19 made no impact as rookies, five made modest impacts and four -- Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Vince Young -- were good.

As No. 1 overall picks with years of experience in great college programs, Manning and Palmer bear little resemblance to the quarterbacks who will go high this year. Most of Young's rookie value came from his running ability.

Only Roethlisberger -- who wasn't surrounded by great players in college but thrived on a stable, talented Pittsburgh Steelers team -- seems a hopeful example for this year's crop.

Wide receiver is a more quixotic position. I believe great college wide-outs are the most overhyped draft commodities because they're such spectacular athletes. It's somehow hard to picture a 6-foot-5 dude with 4.4 speed and a 40-inch vertical failing to become great. But it happens all the time, especially when they're rookies.

Only Randy Moss was so talented that he played great as a rookie. Eight first-round wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson and Dwayne Bowe, were good. A whopping 28 made modest or nonexistent fantasy contributions (though rookie wide receivers are less likely than quarterbacks to be total washouts).

The not-so-great group includes can't-misses turned busts such as Charles Rogers and David Terrell and others, such as Braylon Edwards and Javon Walker, who needed time to prove themselves.

There's not a superhyped wide receiver in this year's draft, so I doubt we'll see owners reaching for rookies this fall.

Tight ends are also bad bets to produce as rookies. Only Jeremy Shockey and Heath Miller stood out in our 10-year period.

That leaves us at running back, by far the most fertile position for fantasy rookies. Of the seven great rookies from 1998 to 2007, six -- Robert Edwards, Fred Taylor, Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson -- were running backs.

Edwards was the only one from that group to go outside the top 10 in the real draft. So if you're looking for a fantasy superstar out of this year's draft, Darren McFadden is probably your best bet.

Better still, there are few total busts at running back. The position has offered a solid middle class in recent seasons with guys such as Marshawn Lynch, Joseph Addai and Kevin Jones coming from lower in the first round to make strong rookie contributions.

If an NFL team is prepared to give a rookie significant carries, he immediately becomes an interesting fantasy proposition, and you can't say that about first-year players at any other spot.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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