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In other words, it's time to start assessing the Fantasy potential of this year's incoming rookie crop.
As in past seasons, I'll approach this first pass with a position-by-position overview posted on a daily basis throughout the week (QBs Tuesday; RBs today; WRs Thursday; TEs and PKs on Friday).
Remember: The primary focus is on players I expect to have immediate and legitimate Fantasy value -- or a reasonable chance of achieving that status.
With the general disclaimers out of the way, I'll note the focus today will be on the top 10 prospects with the thumbnails of the remaining draftees for those of you in Dynasty and keeper leagues.
1. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
After picking Stewart and ginormous offensive tackle Jeff Otah during the first round Saturday -- giving up a 2009 first-round selection and more to get Otah -- it would appear head coach John Fox will get exactly what he wants this year: A powerful rushing attack capable of dominating at the line of scrimmage and controlling the clock.
Stewart, of course, is recovering from toe surgery, but the Panthers felt comfortable enough about the injury to jump on him with their first pick.
Indeed, Carolina officials hope he can be the engine for their ball-control offense the way Stephen Davis was back in their 2003 Super Bowl season.
While he will pair with DeAngelo Williams, Charlotte Observer staffer Charles Chandler views the 5-10, 230-pound Stewart and the 6-6, 339-pound Otah as instant starters with the potential to help transform a Panthers offense that ranked 29th in the NFL in total yards gained last season.
Rock Hill Herald staffer Darin Gantt seconds that notion.
According to Gantt, Williams is going to get to run behind a big new line in May and June, but once Stewart's well, it's going to be his ball. In fact, Gantt believes Williams might get fewer carries this year than he did last year.
I certainly won't be surprised if that's the case.
Stewart, who ran a 4.48 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine (with the injured toe) could be the best all-around running back in the draft, based on his size, strength and quickness. He started 25 contests at Oregon with 516 carries for 2,891 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Playing with a style that according to NFL.com, reminds pro scouts of Larry Johnson, Stewart proved -- even through injuries -- perfectly capable of handling the rushing load.
Looking for another impressive comparison?
The Sports Xchange likens Stewart to none other than LaDainian Tomlinson, suggesting the two share a rare blend of power and quickness running between the tackles. Stewart probably wouldn't argue the point.
At the combine, the youngster described his running style as "Pretty rare. ... You don't really see a player my size at this position being able to do the things I can do."
But when pressed to compare himself to an NFL back, Stewart chose the Browns' Jamal Lewis.
"Just a big back who can move," Stewart said. ...
And the toe? All involved, including Panthers' team physician Dr. Robert Anderson, who performed the surgery on Stewart, expect the newcomer to recover without difficulty.
Fantasy Bottom Line: Given all the above -- and based on the fact he'll be working for a coach who covets ball-control offense above all else -- I'm rolling with Stewart as my top Fantasy prospect among this year's rookie backs. He's certainly a perfect fit.
NFLdraftscout.com sums him up this way: "Has the size of a fullback, the strength of an offensive lineman and the quickness of a sprinter."
While others might be flashier, Stewart, assuming he's healthy as expected, looks like the right guy, in the right place at the right time.
2. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
While McFadden's character can probably be called into question following several off-the-field incidents, there's no questioning his explosive, big-play potential -- the very thing that undoubtedly convinced Raiders honcho Al Davis to pass on the more logical pick -- LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey -- in favor of the sexier prospect with the fourth pick overall.
And make no mistake about it; McFadden could be this year's Adrian Peterson.
A two-time Doak Walker winner as the nation's top running back and also a two-time runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting, McFadden has exceptional speed and is a versatile athlete who occasionally lined up as a quarterback and wide receiver for the Razorbacks.
Of course, Arkansas' run-oriented offense helped McFadden surpass 1,000 yards in each of his three college seasons (with 18 career 100-yard games), but the home-run ability still sets him apart.
According to the Xchange, McFadden compares to Marshall Faulk.
Although he's a stronger runner than Faulk, the Xchange notes that both are blessed with exception vision, using "pitter-patter" feet to get through trash and the "home-run" acceleration to separate from defenders past the line of scrimmage.
McFadden is also an efficient receiver out of the backfield, running precise routes and could even be split wide. He has the arm strength to throw the option pass and can also earn playing time as a kickoff returner.
But as Contra Costa Times beat man Steve Corkran noted, for all his talents, McFadden isn't without his flaws. Indeed, McFadden fumbled 23 times during his three seasons at Arkansas, more than any other player in the nation during that time. He lost nine of those fumbles.
Ball security is something that consumes Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin. He views it as paramount for an offense that relies upon time-consuming drives.
Fantasy Bottom Line: Remember, there are two things you can't coach in the NFL: Size and speed.
And there was nobody at this year's combine with a better combination of the two than the 6-2, 210-pound McFadden, who ran a 4.33 40 at the combine.
So as long as the mercurial Davis comes up with the money necessary to ensure McFadden gets in a full training camp, the newcomer looks like a lock to emerge as option No. 1 in a timeshare with Justin Fargas.
3. Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions
As the Associated Press noted, after threatening Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record in college, Smith now can concentrate -- or at least dream about -- Sanders' marks with the Lions.
The Central Florida running back and nation's leading rusher in 2007 was chosen atop the third round of the NFL draft Sunday. The Lions even traded up two spots with Miami for the privilege of beginning the second day by grabbing Smith.
Last season, Smith rushed for 2,567 yards and scored 29 touchdowns. Sanders' set the single-season record with 2,628 in 1988, when he won the Heisman Trophy. He went on to a Hall of Fame career over the next decade with the Lions.
Detroit will settle for a semblance of that from Smith, who the Xchange compares to Fargas.
Drawbacks? Smith lacks blazing speed, only running a 4.52 in the 40. He compensates good instincts and excellent agility and vision.
Fantasy Bottom Line: Smith was of the nation's true workhorses last season as his 450 attempts broke the previous single-season mark of 405 set by USC's Marcus Allen in 1981. And workhorse hasn't been a word associated with his primary competition for carries in Detroit, Tatum Bell, in quite some time.
4. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
As Chicago Sun-Times staffer Mike Mulligan framed it Monday: "Cedric Benson famously wept on draft day back in 2005 when the Bears selected him with the No. 4 overall pick. Now he really has a reason to cry. ..."
Mulligan went on to advise readers that if "Benson wasn't already a bona fide bust before Saturday, the Bears declared him thus by using their second-round pick, No. 44 overall, to select his replacement, Forte."
According to his NFL.com scouting report, the 6-2, 222-pound Forte might lack explosive speed, but his lower body strength, balance and body control allow him to shift his weight, sink his pads and drive through arm tackles. He is an efficient receiver out of the backfield and adds to his resume as a gunner on special teams.
In comparing him to Edgerrin James, the Xchange notes that Forte quietly goes about his job and is slowly developing into a solid cut blocker. He tends to get stronger as the game wears on and has made steady progress recovering from late 2006 knee problems.
Forte was the focal point of the opposing defense every week at Tulane and still put up numbers. He's a high-character guy and will have a chance to upgrade the running game in Chicago.
And if you don't want to take Mulligan's word on Forte's chances of beating out Benson and doing just that, look no further than general manager Jerry Angelo -- Benson's biggest booster within the organization.
Angelo told reporters after picking Forte and declaring the competition open: "Maybe [Benson is] not the featured back that we thought he'd be. He played well as a complementary back with Thomas [Jones]. When we thought we were starting to see a little something, then he breaks his ankle. I felt that we needed to make sure that we protected the position. How it works out -- if they complement each other or one takes the bull by the horns and he's the guy -- you can't go wrong."
Fantasy Bottom Line: While I'm not sure Forte can "take the bull by the horns," but based on his efforts to date, I have no reason to believe Benson will (even if he can).
5. Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Selected with the 23rd pick overall, Mendenhall set single-season records for rushing yards (1,681) and touchdowns (17) at Illinois last season. He finished with 1,999 all-purpose yards.
Mendenhall is power-packed at 5-10, 225 pounds, runs a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash for a man his size and catches and blocks to boost. He should provide the perfect complement to Willie Parker, who will remain the starter.
But Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians -- who called Mendenhall a bigger, faster James -- said he will dust off the Pony backfield portion of the playbook he used in Cleveland and try it this season with Mendenhall and Parker. "Other than the normal one-two punch, they can play together," Arians said.
Arians added that both men are versatile enough to pull it off.
"Rashard has enough size as a pass blocker and pass receiver and Willie is improving in that area every year as a receiver," the coach explained. Each can block and catch well enough to make a go of it, the coach added.
Fantasy Bottom Line: Parker said the week before the draft that adding another good running back might help extend his career by sharing the load. Mendenhall is it (and, it would appear, Najeh Davenport is not).
That being the case, I'm with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer Ed Bouchette, who suggested on Monday: "Mendenhall and Fast Willie Parker in the same backfield at the same time should give defenses plenty to think about."
6. Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys
Jones rushed for 2,956 yards and 20 touchdowns on 386 carries at Arkansas while sharing carries with McFadden. Now, after being selected by Dallas with the 22nd pick overall, Jones should fit right in as a great complement to Marion Barber.
He's a faster, breakaway-type of player, while Barber is more of a power back. All that said, the Cowboys made it clear they believe Jones is capable of more if the need arises.
"He's 6-foot tall, 207 pounds," owner Jerry Jones explained. "You all probably heard this, gathered this, but he's thick in the bottom, from the waist down. We had another one that was not this size certainly in height, but about that weight, that carried the ball 25, 30 times a ballgame -- Emmitt Smith.
"It's not as if Felix, if called upon, can't step in here and make a lot of plays for us. ... Could he have carried the load at a college where there wasn't a McFadden? With his skill level and with the way he is built, don't dismiss it. Our plan is for him not to carry that load. He is very physical and has a better physical build than others you might think of as a third-down back or a limited-carry back."
Said head coach Wade Phillips, "He's not a scatback or a little guy. He is not that type guy at all."
Still, the Xchange compares Jones to Carnell Williams, noting that both are best taking the ball outside. Jones excels at avoiding defenders when he clears the line of scrimmage and few would argue he's as capable working between the tackles as Barber.
Fantasy Bottom Line: Barring an injury to Barber, Jones will absolutely play a complementary role in Dallas. But that doesn't mean we should sell him short. As San Antonio Express-News staffer Tom Orsborn noted, Jones' presence will allow offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to be even more creative when it comes to multiple receiver sets and calling plays.
With his underrated pass-receiving skills and kick-return ability, Orsborn believes Jones could become one of the league's most versatile offensive weapons.
7. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
According to his NFL.com scouting report, the 5-8, 199-pound Rice is an undersized back, but he doesn't play like it with his vision at the line of scrimmage and willingness to take on tacklers.
Despite his size, Rice is a punishing runner who plays bigger than his small frame would suggest.
Selected with the 55th pick overall, Rice ranks as Rutgers' all-time leading rusher with 4,926 yards and 49 touchdowns and is the only player in the program's 138-year history to rush for over 1,000 yards in three seasons. He ended last season with eight consecutive 100-yard games.
Rice was certainly durable throughout his career. He has the low center of gravity, keen field vision, good speed (4.47 at the combine) and the pick-and-slide agility that kept Smith in the league for well over a decade.
Fantasy Bottom Line: As Baltimore Sun staffer Jamison Hensley noted, the Ravens desperately needed a backup to Willis McGahee because they would have been sunk if McGahee got hurt.
Now, if Rice can continue to improve on his weaknesses -- primarily his receiving skills, he could emerge as a solid change-of-pace threat.
8. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles' greatest attribute could be his speed (he posted an impressive 4.38 at the combine). He also was a standout on the Longhorns' track and field team. He won the Big 12 Conference 100-meter dash title in 2006 with a time of 10.26 seconds.
So while he lacks ideal size, the 5-11, 200-pound Charles is capable of breaking off a long run on every play.
In fact, he was the only running back in Texas with a run of at least 80 yards and a reception of at least in the same game. In three seasons at Texas, had 102 rushing attempts of at least 10 yards and 31 for more than 20 yards.
But as the Xchange notes, much like his former Longhorn teammate, Selvin Young (now in Denver) and current Seahawk Julius Jones, Charles is best when utilized as a change-of-pace back. The Xchange went on to suggest that more than 15 carries in any game brings a risk of wearing him down, which invites injury.
Fantasy Bottom Line: His drawbacks, of course, make him a great fit in Kansas City where the only way he is asked to be a major contributor is if Johnson is injured again. Otherwise, Charles' play-making ability will serve him well in a limited role.
9. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
Somewhat overlooked while playing for East Carolina, Johnson was an exceptional open-field runner for the Pirates. Selected with the 24th pick overall, he has the ability to cut outside but is not considered a strong runner between the tackles.
Some have compared Johnson, who had the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine at 4.24 seconds, to Reggie Bush.
While not adept at blocking, he is athletic enough to occasionally line up as a wide receiver and projects as a third-down back. He averaged 227.7 all-purpose yards -- a mark that led the nation -- while bouncing back from turf toe that hampered him in 2006 and neck surgery during the 2007 offseason.
It's worth noting the 5-11, 197-pound Johnson is a standout weight lifter. He boasted the top power numbers among the Pirates skill position players with a 265-pound power clean-lift and a 315-pound bench-press.
Fantasy Bottom Line: Because he's most effective in packages where you split him out wide or get him in space, Johnson, perhaps a better prospect in point-per catch leagues that in more traditional scoring systems, should be an excellent complement to the power-rushing style of LenDale White.
One question: Isn't that what last year's second-round pick, Chris Henry, was supposed to be?
10. Steve Slaton, Houston Texans
The 5-9, 197-pounds Slaton had a prolific career at West Virginia, rushing for 3,923 yards in three seasons. The Texans aren't looking for a 1,000-yard season from Slaton as a rookie, but they do have big plans for him.
According to Houston Chronicle staffer Megan Manfull, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and head coach Gary Kubiak want to see Slaton come off the bench as the Texans' third-down back.
"We see him as a kind of change-up kind of guy," Kubiak said. "He's got home run ability as far as his speed. He makes a lot of big plays. ... We just think he gives us a little bit of a speed element that we may have been missing."
Slaton is ready for the opportunity after choosing to forgo his final year of eligibility. He is coming off a junior season in which he rushed for 1,051 yards. The previous season he rushed for 1,744 yards and finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
The Texans plan to play to Slaton's strengths and hope to see it result in big plays like he had at West Virginia.
"I think he has a chance to be a special-type player," Shanahan said. "You look at guys around the league like Kevin Faulk, a guy like Reggie Bush; guys who come in and fill a specific role on third downs."
Fantasy Bottom Line: Some teams were down on Slaton, labeling him as a one-dimensional player who can only run outside, but as NFL.com notes, he is excellent at that one dimension. He has speed and can be used in a situational role where you line him up at receiver to cause matchup issues and get him on the outside where he can utilize his open-field skills.
And Kubiak is right; that's an element the Texans have lacked.
The best of the rest (in alphabetical order):
Thomas Brown, Atlanta Falcons (5-9, 204, Georgia, Round 6)
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the addition of Brown could be more for kick-return reasons, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey might like Brown's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Cory Boyd, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1, 213, South Carolina, Round 7)
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Boyd is a physical, inside runner and solid receiver out of the backfield. Far from flashy, he doesn't have that high-end speed (4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash) but is hard to bring down. Faces an uphill battle to make the roster, however.
Tashard Choice, Dallas Cowboys (5-11, 215, Georgia Tech, Round 4)
Any questions about Jones not being able to carry the full load if something happened to Barber were answered with the selection of Choice, who has size, durability and talent to be an every down back. In fact, some have suggested Choice is an insurance policy should team officials fail to get Barber signed to a long-term deal.
Justin Forsett, Seattle Seahawks (5-8, 190, California, Round 7)
Forsett, who ranks third on Cal's all-time rushing list, played on all special teams until his senior season and was deemed too good to pass up despite all the running backs on the Seahawks' roster.
Mike Hart, Indianapolis Colts (5-9, 195, Michigan, Round 6)
Hart was ultra-productive in college, carrying the ball 1,015 times for 5,040 yards and 41 touchdowns. He lacks ideal size or great speed, but proved he's durable. According to NFL.com, he seems like a bargain in the sixth round and has a chance to succeed at the next level -- especially given Kenton Keith's recent legal woes.
Jacob Hester, San Diego Chargers (5-11, 230, LSU, Round 3)
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, fullback-sized Hester is being counted on to replace the departed Michael Turner in the Chargers' backfield this season. Of those listed as "best of the rest" here, Hester is the one I'll be watching the closest. Remember: The Chargers gave up a 2009 second-round pick to grab him.
Timothy Hightower, Arizona Cardinals (6-0, 226, Richmond, Round 5)
According to the Arizona Republic, Hightower is in the running to back up James. He's solidly built but lacks speed. He's been timed at 4.6 in the 40, slow for a running back. Still, he's considered a "high-character" type who loves to practice and play.
Lex Hilliard, Miami Dolphins (5-11, 228, Montana, Round 6)
Hilliard could have been taken higher without concerns over a knee injury and is more of a bruising type player in the backfield. Brings a style similar to that of Dallas' Barber but will struggle to make an impact if Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are healthy.
Xavier Omon, Buffalo Bills (5-11, 226, Northwest Missouri State, Round 6)
According to the Buffalo News, Omon will have a difficult time making the roster, but he's an intriguing prospect who dominated at the Division II level (98 TDs and an NCAA-record four 1,500-yard seasons) with physical running style.
Jalen Parmale, Miami Dolphins (6-0, 224, Toledo, Round 6)
According to the Xchange, Parmalee is a physical runner with adequate power but does have some issues when he needs to push the pile. He is a one-cut runner with decent hip snap, but is not going to separate from too many defenders in the open field. Don't be surprised if he sees time at fullback in Miami.
Allen Patrick, Baltimore Ravens (6-1, 198, Oklahoma, Round 7)
Patrick replaced Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma. According to NFL.com, he's a steady player, capable of picking up yards on a consistent basis. Patrick's not an explosive player, but has polish and experience coming from an elite program.
Marcus Thomas, San Diego Chargers (6-2, 215, Texas-El Paso, Round 5)
Thomas was taken with the compensatory pick awarded to the Chargers for losing Donnie Edwards in free agency last year. According to the Union-Tribune, he will make training camp interesting and should make the roster as a fifth running back and special teams player.
Ryan Torain, Denver Broncos (6-1, 222, Arizona State, Round 5)
Torain suffered a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot that ended his senior season after six games. He was off to a fast start when he was hurt, with three 100-yard games on the heels of a 1,229-yard junior season that had him near the top of prospect lists at his position. Given Denver's traditional success taking RBs in the middle rounds, Torain has potential to develop.
Chauncey Washington, Jacksonville Jaguars (6-0, 211, Southern Cal, Round 7)
According to NFL.com, Washington lacks some football intelligence. He started at USC in a tailback by committee situation. He's a strong inside runner with a solid build, but no threat to Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. He's a backup-type player and could develop into a good kick returner.
That's it for the 2008 RB class. Check back tomorrow for my rookie wide receiver preview.
Otherwise, keep an eye on the News & Views section of this site for late-breaking news and other tidbits of interest. Also watch the Headline News section for more in-depth reviews of current events -- including the weekly Fantasy Notebook, published every Sunday throughout the offseason.