Editor’s Note: Make sure you download the Rookie Draft Cheat Sheet for positional and overall rankings on an easy to use sheet for your rookie draft.
Every year we see risers, fallers, surprises, disappointments and the out of nowhere picks that define a draft. This year was as deep a draft as we’ve ever seen and for the first time in years, we have quality players extending into the third round of fantasy drafts. Intrigue and promise will keep excitement high much longer than normally is the case.
The 2014 top twelve will have a very different complexion from that of years past as well. Running backs have always been the mainstay position in fantasy rookie drafts but, this year, young (and good-sized) playmaking receivers have created a buzz. For the second year in a row, no running back was taken in the NFL’s first round. Change is afoot.
Interestingly enough, I don’t find this year’s top twelve to be all that difficult to select, at least when compared to the past decade. And for the first time in that same decade, I’m actually excited at the talent available through the first round, second round and into the third. We can split hairs all day long on the ranking of the players here, but this is the list created from our consensus group of rankers and it’s hard to argue the general draft area for the individuals.
Let’s get to this year’s top twelve:
1.) Sammy Watkins, WR BUF
I’ve seen individuals, as well as other fantasy sites, suggest Watkins’ destination is deserving of a decrease in value, dropping him to the WR2 in this year’s class. Madness.
If there’s one statistic very clear from the NFL Draft, it’s that receivers taken within the first five selections of the draft are studs nearly 100% of the time. Outside of the top five, but still in the first round, the fantasy non-factor rate climbs to 60% – this is because of the athleticism present in these particular players. What’s more, consider that these top five picks are usually the five worst teams from the previous year. Destination does not play enough of a role to downgrade a top-five selected receiver.
Watkins is no exception to this rule. He’s a phenomenal talent who actually wanted to play in Buffalo and while I have been critical of Buffalo’s system, coordinators, coaching staff and ownership, I like what they’ve been doing of late. Watkins is your clear 1.01 selection. Do not lose sleep over the pick or get cute with it by out coaching yourself. Take him.
2.) Mike Evans, WR TB
Evans has received pub in fantasy circles for being the safest 1.01 play now that Watkins is going upstate. I can’t remotely support that notion.
I do like Evans, but he is in no way near the caliber of athlete Watkins is. He’s an easy selection at the 1.02 in fantasy and you shouldn’t lose sleep over this one, either. I’m not as high as are others on Evans, but sometimes a selection just comes down to a difference in size, talent or other tangibles that further disburse the players – that is the case here where Evans essentially occupies a tier by himself. He falls into a good situation and the Bucs are building with youth. He’ll learn from one of the best in Vincent Jackson and has time on his side. The Bucs will be leaping (due to their collective athleticism) out of the stadium in 2014.
3.) Brandin Cooks, WR NO
Here’s where the fun begins.
Cooks will be joining mega-stud Drew Brees as they try to fill holes created from the departed Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. Cooks will be a tweener with his role and Sean Payton will be looking to get Cooks into space such that he can use his fluid and aggressive open-field dynamic.
I had the chance to watch quite a few Brandin Cooks’ games and it’s impossible to come away without an admiration for what he can accomplish with the ball in his hands. Couple that with a tremendous work ethic and extremely solid character and you have an early-round receiver to target.
Many don’t like Cooks’ size and I can’t blame them. In some cases, dynamic transcends physical size and my belief is that Cooks will do just that in the NFL. It’s going to take a creative coaching staff to find ways to make use of his strengths, but his high football IQ coupled with his desire to have his ball in the hands with every snap is a good bet to pay dividends.
4.) Odell Beckham, Jr., WR NYG
A slight majority seem to favor Beckham over Cooks, mainly due to his physicality, size and ability to play on the outside. These are all true and the choice between the two will not be an easy one. I tend to favor Cooks due to speed dynamic into the offense he was drafted into – our rankers collectively seem to agree.
For Beckham, he’ll be another piece of the receiver puzzle when combined with Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle. Coach Tom Coughlin made it very clear he envisions Cruz as an “inside” receiver, which means Beckham will be kicked to the outside. How the rotation between Randle and Beckham unfolds is anyone’s guess, but expect the Giants to use a fair number of three receiver sets, allowing all of them to be on the field simultaneously.
There hasn’t been a lot of help along the line to keep Eli Manning upright, so any receiving addition may not have the impact many are forecasting.
5.) Eric Ebron, TE DET
It’s not often that a tight end will be found within the top ten of a post-draft rookie assessment, and even more rarely in the top five, but that’s exactly what we have in 2014. The athletic Ebron falls into a dream situation within a mature offense featuring Calvin Johnson and the newly acquired Golden Tate. Opposing safeties will be given fits as to who to cover in clear passing downs and, much like the recipe of divisional rival Green Bay, the hope here is to overload the secondary with highly rated and athletic receivers to keep the cornerbacks and safeties guessing.
It remains to be seen if Matt Stafford can perform to the same level as Aaron Rodgers, but I won’t doubt any offensive system featuring Calvin Johnson – he alone is too good for an entire team of defensive backs, let alone those who will need to guess where the next pass is headed.
Ebron is a player forcing our hand with this ranking. First round tight ends from the NFL Draft are productive nearly 100% of the time over the past decade, so Ebron warrants a top five selection.
6.) Jordan Matthews, WR PHI
Prior to the draft, Matthews was already seeing quite a bit of buzz stemming from his collegiate production, size and NFL Combine performance. At 6’3”/215, he’s a physical force while also possessing legitimate 4.45 speed. If he was rising pre-draft, his selection by the Eagles (and specifically, Head Coach Chip Kelly) has only fueled that fire. He has the size, body and production to make an early impact in Kelly’s offense. Better yet for Matthews is the fact DeSean Jackson has departed for the Redskins, Jeremy Maclin is a different mold of receiver and returning from an ACL and Riley Cooper is best utilized as a WR3. Matthews caught over 200 balls over his past two seasons and you can bet he’ll make an immediate impact.
7.) Davante Adams, WR GB
These consensus rankings are an important part of what we do here at DLF. Giving you multiple personal opinions allow you to see the entire spectrum of value based on the views of individuals. Through this exercise, you can determine for yourself who tends to rank most like you, for good or bad.
Davante Adams is one such receiver with a wide range of value. He was ultra-productive at Fresno State and while raw in ability, there’s no discounting his athleticism. In Green Bay, he’ll have the luxury of time to develop. It’s highly likely he’ll be playing behind Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin to begin the year, but you can expect Adams to see the field in a limited role in year one. After that, the Packers will have many decisions to make as their receiving corps isn’t loaded with long-term contracts.
8.) Marqise Lee, WR JAX
It seems Jacksonville was on a quest to retool their offensive skill position openings via the draft, rather than look to free agency. Their first selection of Blake Bortles addresses their biggest future need, but the selection of Lee was a great value pick in the second round. Lee had been falling leading up to the draft on the heels of a poor 2013 campaign as he returned from injury, questions about whether or not he is more of a system receiver and medical flags relating to his knees. He’ll slide into an immediate starting role on the other side of Cecil Shorts and will soon be catching passes from the new face of the franchise in Bortles. There’s a lot to like with Lee and we won’t be surprised at all when he outplays this particular ranking.
9.) Allen Robinson, WR JAX
The newest member of the Jacksonville-Three as I’ve been calling them, Robinson is a tall Alshon Jeffery-type of receiver who is somewhat limited in straight-line speed, but makes up for it by good use of his big body and a natural feel for space with the ball in his hands. He’s a good leaper and will pose high-point problems for matched up cornerbacks. After the catch, Robinson is a load to bring down and can churn out extra yardage. The question surrounding him revolves around just how athletically gifted he is (or isn’t) as he now will transition into the NFL with bigger and more physical corners who will attempt to disrupt his routes off the line. He’ll see the field early and often in 2014. The rest is up to him.
10.) Carlos Hyde, RB SF
Hyde was considered by many to be 2014’s best candidate for a carry-the-load role in the NFL. In a league devaluing (at least in draft value) the running back position, a back who does not have the size to absorb punishment will be subjected to scrutiny. Hyde has good bulk, is a downhill runner and most experts seemingly agree his reception skills are better than demonstrated. The 49ers’ depth chart is a crowded mess at the position, headlined by the aging Frank Gore. Behind Gore now exists Kendall Hunter, the nearly healthy and 2013 draftee Marcus Lattimore and this past weekend’s selection of Carlos Hyde. It’s a good fit for Hyde and a shot across the bow, if not directly into the hull, of Marcus Lattimore, who only recently exclaimed that he has yet to fully recover his burst. For a big back like Lattimore, this is a serious issue.
11.) Bishop Sankey, RB TEN
Sankey is another player like Davante Adams above, who was greatly affected in value for this piece due to a divergent view of value. When looking at Sankey objectively, it’s easy to see how he could be ranked highly or out of the top ten altogether. There have been questions about Sankey’s ability to be an every-down back in the NFL, primarily due to size. He has a good motor, a great work ethic and excels out of the backfield in space. He shows enough ability to be an inside runner and has landed within a situation ideal for early career touches. His credentials as an every-down back will be questioned until he proves otherwise on the field. The Titans already have an inside running presence in the underwhelming Shonn Greene, but it’s enough to limit Sankey’s touches in 2014. I see Sankey’s role being somewhat similar to that of Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard, for better or worse.
12.) Kelvin Benjamin, WR CAR
It’s notable that Benjamin was a first round receiver, but can muster no better than #12 on our consensus rankings, behind second round receivers listed above. From the very early days following the NFL Combine, views on Benjamin were widely dispersed from NFL scouts as much as the fantasy community. Benjamin is a huge target at 240 lbs. and could be a hybrid tight end in addition to receiver. He falls to a situation where he will see the field immediately and should get early looks from Cam Newton. He possesses a big body, good-enough hands and will likely be a red zone nightmare for defensive backs. On the negative side, he struggles with concentration, needs much refinement in his route running and his size could be a limiting factor to his athleticism. Benjamin’s value seems to be falling to near the second round in fantasy drafts.