Original Post: February 19, 2016
Here we go again. The Super Bowl ended not even two weeks ago, but it’s time for draft season, with the NFL Combine in Indianapolis next week. The last two years, we’ve had several impact players in their rookie seasons. We’ll probably never seen something like the 2014 rookie WR class ever again, but last year we had two rookie QBs with fantasy streaming value, a top-10 draft-pick RB who finished third in the league in rushing, and even some undrafted players who made fantasy impact. However, those positives were outweighed by two first-round WRs not even appearing in a game, and RB Melvin Gordon failing to score a single TD despite ample opportunity. It’s proof that the transition to the league is absurdly difficult for even the most talented players to make an immediate impact. That’s something we have to remember each and every year. Regardless, there are still plenty of interesting players at every Combine, and 2016 is no exception.
At the Combine, we typically narrow our focus down to the skill-position players. This is a fantasy site, and while we publish an extensive IDP Rookie Report during the summer, it makes sense for us to really hone in on the key guys at this time of year. As such, we don’t dabble in mock drafts or “big boards,” and we don’t take into account consensus rankings when ranking our players, both pre and post-draft. Make no mistake, we will never try to paint ourselves as “draft experts,” but merely as fantasy writers trying to take the ideal snapshot of the incoming class for our purposes. Our job is to lay out the players we think have the best chance to become impact fantasy players sooner rather than later.
As always, our own research combined with the knowledge of our contributors, including Greg Cosell, who have been studying these players intensely for months will make up our big rookie reports. We already have an idea of where we’re leaning, but the Combine will provide the hard data we need to feel truly good about our rankings.
Here’s what to look for at the skill positions in Indianapolis, from February 23 to 29 this year. After the Combine, I’ll have a similar column up reviewing some of the top performers at each position.
Last season, we had two excellent quarterback prospects at the combine in Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. In terms of polish and NFL readiness, I don’t feel like there’s anyone in that category this year. However, from my perspective, I actually find this a far more interesting QB class, because of the depth and the uncertainty in projecting these guys.
Last year, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the QB class because I knew only two guys would matter for fantasy, if that. I have limited time to actually watch and break down the rookie prospects, so I had to make some cuts to save time and rely on the eyes of the people I trust more than my own eyes. However, I’m definitely budgeting out some major time for the QBs in 2016. This year, I feel we could see more guys getting actual playing time in the league as rookies, even if none of them have the early-career high floor of Winston or Mariota.
Generally, the top three at the position are considered to be Cal’s Jared Goff, Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. Goff is tall (6’4”) but skinny, and teams may want him to put more weight on. He’s also not known too much for his mobility, so the expectations aren’t that he’ll test particularly well. Lynch is huge (at least 6’6”), and he has more weight on him than Goff does. Lynch also went in the tank for some games in the second half of his final year at Memphis, including his bowl game. This is the time of year when he has to start convincing coaches that he was either hurt or something else was wrong, as Memphis just wasn’t as creative or aggressive offensively. Whatever the case, Lynch is a monster in terms of size, and given his rushing production in college, his Combine tests could look freakish. Wentz isn’t as big as Lynch (around 6’5”), but he’s still a specimen for the position, and like Lynch, he has positive mobility. He’s also the most “proven winner” of this group, leaving North Dakota State as a member of five national title teams (counting his redshirt year), the last two seasons as starter, though it was on the FCS level. Wentz should test impressively as well, but will have a lot of eyeballs on him given his lack of competition relative to the others in this class.
Beyond the top three, there are some very interesting prospects in this class, though none are slam dunks. Look no further than the Big Ten. Christian Hackenberg of Penn State looked like a future #1 overall pick as a freshman under Bill O’Brien, but his play slipped the last two years behind a bad offensive line and an offense that didn’t fit his skill set once O’Brien left for the Texans. Hackenberg’s a better athlete than people think, so his tests at the Combine may surprise. Another Big Ten QB, Connor Cook of Michigan State, may need to make an impact in interviews above everything else. Questions about Cook’s character have become the prevailing news with him the last few months (check how he just blows past Big Ten legend Archie Griffin when accepting a trophy, an incident for which he later apologized). And Cardale Jones of Ohio State likely would have been drafted higher in 2015, if he left after leading OSU to a National Title. He struggled this year, and was eventually benched. However, his tests are likely to be impressive. Can one of these three become the first Big Ten QB to be drafted in the first round since Kerry Collins in 1995? It seems unlikely, but there’s talent here.
Other big name passers to watch include Jacoby Brissett (North Carolina State), Trevone Boykin (TCU), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), and Cody Kessler (USC). Again, there’s no high-level QB here, and I’d bet the top of teams’ draft boards look vastly different, but there’s a very interesting and potentially deep group that’s going to be far more interesting to follow than last year’s top-heavy crew.
I mentioned in last year’s Combine preview about how excited I was for the 2015 group of rookie RBs to hit the NFL. Unfortunately, at least for fantasy, things didn’t go as planned. As the #10 pick in the NFL Draft, Todd Gurley came through, finishing third in the NFL in rushing. But the next-best rookie in that category was Thomas Rawls, who wasn’t even drafted. Then, Combine standout David Johnson exploded late in the year. Melvin Gordon was terrible, Ameer Abdullah struggled with fumbles and a three-man rotation, Tevin Coleman got hurt and fell victim to the Devonta Freeman tornado, and T.J. Yeldon looked solid but got few scoring opportunities on a team that frequently played from behind.
This year’s RB class isn’t as deep as last year’s on paper, but there should be plenty of intriguing talents in Indianapolis next week. This isn’t some daring prediction, but I’ll go on the record as saying that we’ll have a first-round RB for the second straight year. And I think it’ll be Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who has the most balanced skill set and most impressive tape of any back in this draft. Elliott may test very well at the Combine, but it’ll be his tape that gets him selected early above everything else. He has an outside chance to go in the top 10 to an RB-needy team, and I’d be absolute shocked if he lasts through the first round. That said, interviews will be important for Elliott, who passionately called out his coaches following the Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan State late in 2015. Some teams may view that as a true love for the game and a will to win; others may view it as insubordination.
While Elliott’s the best back who will be in Indy, he may not be the one drawing the headlines. That will be Derrick Henry, the Heisman winner from Alabama, who ran for 2219 yards and an absurd 28 TDs this year. Henry is huge – I’d be shocked if he measured in at under 6’3” and 240 lbs. My guess is he will time also extremely well in the 40 relative to his size, because his open-field speed and power is ridiculous. However, his agility drills will be very important for him. Personally, I was not terribly impressed by the film I’ve seen on Henry thus far. While he’s near impossible to bring down when he gets a head of steam, I don’t think he gets as much push at the point of attack as you would expect from someone his size, and the holes in the pros won’t be near as big as they were in college (ask Melvin Gordon). Henry is physically imposing, and my guess is his Combine performance will make dissenting opinions on his transition to the next level more controversial. But he’s going to be a more polarizing prospect than you might expect for someone with his production and measurables. To me, Henry looks like a better version of LeGarrette Blount.
In fact, Henry may not even be the top back from his own team on some boards. Kenyan Drake is a more versatile back, and though he’s not as big as Henry, he offers ample size to go with his balanced skill set. However, he’s also had arm and leg injuries the last two years, so he’ll have to answer for that. I think some teams will be able to overlook those issues when Drake tests extremely well, as I expect him to. Depending on what teams are looking for, it’s not outrageous at all to think Drake may be preferable to Henry for some staffs.
Another SEC school, Arkansas, will put two backs in the Combine. Alex Collins could be one of the first backs off the board in April. Collins has run for 1000 yards in three straight years (freshman to junior), and while he’s more quick than outright fast, he has a chance to rise up boards with good scores in drills. My guess is those who trust the tape will like Collins more than those who love measurables. Collins had a career-high 1577 yards rushing in his final year with Arkansas in large part because his backfield mate, Jonathan Williams, missed his entire senior season with a foot injury suffered in August. Williams out-rushed Collins in 2014, but will have to prove himself healthy in Indianapolis. This is a huge Combine for Williams, who is built like a true three-down back but has no senior season tape.
Utah’s Devontae Booker will be an interesting guy to watch, with regards to how much he can do and how well he performs coming off injury. His senior year ended in November with a torn meniscus, and on tape he runs bigger than his size, so health is of the utmost importance for a back of his skillset. He’s also going to be a 24-year-old rookie, which could be a concern for teams that already worry about the short shelf life of guys at his position. Another really good Pac-12 back with size concerns is UCLA’s Paul Perkins, though Perkins doesn’t run as violently as Booker. He’s more shifty and elusive, with some open-field explosiveness as well. Teams may like to see him put some weight on (he was listed at 210 pounds at UCLA, but looked lighter).
Teams will be watching Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon very closely. One of the most productive backs in the entire country, Dixon put up nearly 5500 yards from scrimmage in four years, showing excellent chops as a receiver in his junior and senior years. There is a disconnect between Dixon’s production and what looks like merely average athleticism on film. Dixon’s draft stock could take a major hit if he doesn’t test well, especially if teams are wary about the level of competition he faced in college.
Two running backs who may be flying under the radar who I expect to test well are C.J. Prosise of Notre Dame and Tyler Ervin of San Jose State, both of whom have explosive traits. A former WR and safety, Prosise has more size than Ervin, while Ervin has more experience at the position and as a return man. Both could see their stock rise after the Combine.
2015’s rookie WR class had the impossible task of trying to follow up 2014’s all-time great class, but it went worse than could have reasonably been expected. After six rookie WRs finished in the top 30 in total PPR fantasy points in 2014, just one (the first receiver drafted, Amari Cooper) did it in 2015. In fact, of the six receivers drafted in the first round in 2015, Cooper was the only one to finish in the top 75 in total fantasy points… two of the six (Kevin White and Breshad Perriman) didn’t even play a snap as rookies.
I’m not sure how many wide receivers will go in the first round in this coming draft, but I’d guess six or seven have a shot of being considered, with three or four likely to be drafted. I also know the 2016 rookie class is likely to have a better year than 2015’s class simply because it’d be hard to replicate the general bad luck the rookie WRs had in 2015. And there are absolutely some interesting prospects to watch, even if there won’t be as many receivers going in the first round as in the last two years.
It’s fascinating how different the consensus top two receivers heading into the Combine are – Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell and Baylor’s Corey Coleman. On film, Treadwell is a physical receiver who uses his large frame to make contested catches. But he may not run all that well compared to his peers, at least in a straight line. Treadwell could solidify his status as the top receiver in this draft with a strong Combine, but in my eyes he’s more likely to stand out in the strength and explosion drills than in the speed drills. In fact, our friend Tony Pauline reported this week on PhiladelphiaEagles.com that Treadwell’s representatives would be happy if he runs in the 4.5s in Indy, “slow” for a WR. Coleman missed Baylor’s bowl game in late December following sports hernia surgery, and I hope he’s healthy for Indianapolis. Coleman may come out of the Combine as the biggest winner at any position; though he doesn’t have great size, he plays big, and he can absolutely fly. I expect Coleman to dominate most drills.
This could be a “trust the film or the tests?” week for Ohio State WR Michael Thomas. A big body, Thomas isn’t as strong as someone like Treadwell, and on film he doesn’t show any outstanding physical traits, but more of an innate understanding of the position. He could leap up some draft boards if he tests well, because it’s clear he knows how to play receiver. While Thomas may be a more prototypical WR prospect, it’s likely to be his teammate Braxton Miller who draws more eyeballs and headlines. A former QB, Miller had a pretty strong first go-round as a WR, and I’d expect him to time extremely well in speed and agility tests. Miller has a real shot to go off the board in the second round, especially if teams feel there’s plenty of untapped potential there.
This will be a big week for Pitt’s Tyler Boyd, TCU’s Josh Doctson, and Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge. Boyd is Pitt’s all-time leading receiver (yes, ahead of Larry Fitzgerald) and may be the most versatile receiver in the draft. But despite being a “quickness” player above most everything else, he very rarely took the top off the coverage, likely a result of offensive design. Given Boyd’s lack of size (he’s tall, but skinny), he’s going to have to run well at the Combine to go as high as possible in the draft. Doctson has some similarities to Boyd, though he’s even skinnier, and didn’t do as much within the context of the offense. Doctson is one of the best “catch the ball at its highest point” receivers at the Combine, though, and can only help his stock with strong testing. Burbridge is in this category as well – he played “stronger” than Boyd and Doctson, but for his smallish frame he needs to prove he can run better downfield than he showed in his college career.
Three players I expect to run very well are Notre Dame’s Will Fuller, Cincinnati’s Chris Moore, and TCU’s Kolby Listenbee (Doctson’s teammate). The latter two can push themselves onto the public radar with strong Combines. Fuller, on the other hand, may need to show more in the agility drills to put himself solidly into the first-round conversation. There are concerns among some scouts that Fuller is a one-trick pony, a deep threat alone. He can assuage those concerns next week.
Obviously, there are a ton of other interesting receivers in Indy next week, and some I didn’t mention will go as early as the second day of the draft. I’ll recap the Combine after it’s completed to highlight some winners and losers at the WR position.
In the last five NFL drafts, two tight ends (Tyler Eifert in 2013 and Eric Ebron in 2014) have gone in the first round. The last draft to feature multiple TEs in the first round was in 2006, when Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis came off the board. While there’s an outside shot we get a first-round TE this year, it appears highly unlikely we’ll get more than one. There are some interesting players at the position, but just not a whole lot of depth.
The top prospect is generally regarded – though not unanimously – as Arkansas’ Hunter Henry. Incredibly productive his final year at Arkansas, leading the team in receiving with 739 yards, Henry is also a supreme athlete, though he doesn’t always get credit for that. I expect him to come through with an excellent showing at the Combine to solidify his status as the best TE in this class, and perhaps he will do enough to sneak into the first round. Henry played hard, too, so he didn’t just glide through college with superlative athleticism.
Two other potential workout superstars will draw attention, as well. Tyler Higbee of Western Kentucky entered college as a wide receiver, but converted to TE after redshirting in 2012. He capped his career off with 8 TDs on 39 catches as a senior, the only time in his career he was a “starter.” There’s plenty of untapped potential here for Higbee, and while results aren’t likely to be instant with him, he could go in the middle rounds to a team willing to develop him. With a great Combine, he could go as high as the third round. Similarly, UCLA’s Thomas Duarte will be a project. A college hybrid player who scored 10 TDs as a junior, Duarte may draw some comparisons to Devin Funchess in that he’s kind of a WR/TE tweener. In our opinion, Duarte fits better at TE in the pros if he can put some weight on, though other teams may view him as a WR. He should test very well at the Combine.
This is a very important week for Stanford redshirt sophomore Austin Hooper. Naturally, Hooper’s earning comparisons to Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz because of his size and school, but frankly he doesn’t move as well as his predecessors on film, nor is he a particularly good blocker. Still, he lacks experience, and his tests will go a long way to solidifying him as an early-round pick. Outside of Henry, Hooper may have the best (albeit small) chance of going in the first round, but in my mind he’d have to blow the Combine away to enter that conversation.
Source: Fantasy Guru
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