2012 NFL Draft: Top 25 Fantasy Football Prospects for Your Team's 'Farm System'
When ESPN's Bill Simmons writes, podcasts, tweets, or speaks, millions of us listen
He is, plain and simple, "The Sports Guy." He gets front page real estate on one of the most-visited sports news websites on the Internet; he has an opinion on everything in sports from sabermetrics to professional wrestling and he puts it in terms we can have a few beers with.
After every draft or auction, have a two-round "farm system" draft. Do it in snake fashion, with the worst team from last year picking first. Then each team drafts two college players they can "keep" for their first two NFL seasons (and trade as prospects if they want.)
The Sports Guy hasn't followed up on this rule since, so it stands to reason that he didn't use it.
But some of us did, and after one year of owning prospects we're back for more.
College football can be exciting in its own right—the fight songs, the packed stadiums, the bitter rivalries, the bowl games—but having a stake in individual student-athletes adds another dimension to following the amateur game.
Andrew Luck might leave you stuck with just his (useless) rookie year in fantasy if he decides to stay for another year again, and every run up the gut for Alabama puts mileage on Trent Richardson's tires.
After the Super Bowl, you'll be hearing from Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, and Mike Mayock about the state of your farm team. And when it's finally time for the fantasy roulette wheel of the NFL Draft, your B.M.O.C. can just as easily land in a plum starting role or at the bottom of a crowded depth chart.
As the proud owner of Atlanta's Julio Jones and Miami's Daniel Thomas from last year's "farm system" draft, I feel somewhat qualified to give you this cheat sheet of the top prospects available for 2012-13.
Alabama's Trent Richardson, Arkansas' Knile Davis Should Go 1-2
Just as every-down running backs dominate the top of draft boards in redraft leagues, prospects with the size, speed, and tools to handle a full NFL workload carry the most fantasy value.
Last year, only Alabama's Mark Ingram seemed like a sure thing to fit that bill. When the New Orleans Saints traded up to draft him in the first round this past April he landed in a great spot to fulfill those expectations.
Looking ahead, only Trent Richardson (5'11", 224 pounds) and Knile Davis (6'0", 228 pounds) seem destined for the 2012 draft's first round. Rookie revelations can come from anywhere, but these top-flight talents are the best bets.
Alshon Jeffery, Justin Blackmon: High Upside in Superstar Wideouts at Picks 3-4
When the pads go on and they line up across from NFL defensive backs for the first time, wide receivers rarely live up to their pre-draft hype.
However, it's not unheard of for a young pass-catching talent to hit the ground running in the NFL. Randy Moss' stunning 1998 campaign and Marques Colston's stunning rookie performance as New Orleans' seventh-rounder in 2006 are just two examples of this lucrative fantasy phenomenon.
This year, the college ranks boast two superlative specimens—South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery (6'4", 233 pounds) and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon (6'1", 212 pounds)—with the chops to handle big roles in their NFL debuts.
At the top of a farm system draft, it's all about the headliners.
Hitting a Home Run: LaMichael James, Speedy Backs Surprise for Picks 5-7
At this point, your fantasy priorities should take a sharp turn away from most pundits' prospect rankings.
Picking near the top of the first round in next April's NFL Draft, fans of teams such as the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills will hope to end up with a franchise signal-caller. With the promise of two trial seasons, fantasy owners new to farm system drafting might want to stash a quarterback away, too.
In the words of Lee Corso: "Not so fast, my friends!"
Speed kills, and an all-purpose threat in the mold of Minnesota's Percy Harvin or Kansas City's Dexter McCluster can offer your team more value in the short term against the long odds involved in taking a flier on a young quarterback.
Former Heisman finalist LaMichael James (5'9", 185 pounds) is a name most drafters will know, but less-hyped speedsters such as Virginia Tech's David Wilson and Florida's Jeff Demps might find the same niche in an offense at the next level.
Outliers: Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu Last in Top Nine
Michael Floyd and Mohamed Sanu are farm system first-rounders based on talent, but with red flags that drop them to the back of the pack.
At present, Floyd is careening into his senior season at Notre Dame on suspension after a spring DUI arrest. On the bright side, he put most questions about his durability to bed last year, catching 79 passes for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first injury-free season in South Bend. He has the talent and polish to emerge as a sure first-rounder if he's allowed to play in 2011.
Still, the turmoil puts him a notch below Alshon Jeffery and Justin Blackmon among prospects at receiver.
Sanu (6'2", 218 pounds) reportedly has one foot out the door in New Brunswick—which is pure positive from a fantasy standpoint—but should be drafted with caution because he lacks a true position.
Sanu is athletic enough to find a niche just below LaMichael James, but his path to an NFL role is murkier.
Just Another Guy: Potential Role Players Fit Draft's Middle Picks
Once the highest-upside prospects have been picked, it's still not quite time to move on from the skill positions that fuel fantasy success. There are still players who'll earn noteworthy playing time and fantasy points right out of the starting gate in 2012.
Let's be honest, it's no small feat for an NFL rookie to become "just another guy" (i.e. a run-of-the-mill starter) after his first training camp.
In this group, the position premium tilts in favor of receivers. Whether they're big targets like Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller (6'3", 215 pounds) and Arkansas' Greg Childs (6'3", 214 pounds) or shifty slot-receiver types like Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles and Alabama's Marquis Maze, the productive college wideouts of today can be the Mohammed Massaquois or Davone Besses of 2012.
The running backs left at this point have enough size, polish, and potential to emerge as second-tier rookie bellcows, but drafting mid-round rushers is tricky. Washington's Chris Polk, Boise State's Doug Martin, and Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead are fifty-fifty bets to start out in featured roles, depending on the backfield situation they land in.
So flip a coin.
Tight Ends: Success of Dustin Keller, Rob Gronkowski Might Lead to Overdrafting
As tight ends have claimed a bigger pass catching role in NFL offenses, rookies have run into fewer barriers of entry for immediate playing time at the position.
Whether H-back types such as the Jets' Dustin Keller; or lengthy, linebacker-dwarfing, seam route specialists like the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, a few greenhorn tight ends have been top fantasy producers from the get-go of late.
It's tempting to see Georgia's Orson Charles (6'3", 242 pounds) as the next Keller, Missouri's Michael Egnew (6'5", 242 pounds) as the next Gronkowski, or Clemson's Dwayne Allen (6'4", 255 pounds) as the second coming of Antonio Gates. Like the top skill position prospects, few tight ends are long on upside.
But all tight ends are subject to the same luck of the draw as second-tier flex rookies—ask the owners of Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham or Baltimore's Ed Dickson—at a position with much less scarcity.
You could do worse than a tight end as your farm system second-rounder. But, there's no college superstar in sight who's worth drafting ahead of a promising back or receiver.
Don't Forget Defensive Players: Toolsy Rookies Can Create Value
Depending on how heavily your league involves individual defensive players, stashing a rookie linebacker away could be as valuable as a decent wide receiver or a complete waste of a pick.
(Mind you, linebackers are the only position worth drafting for your farm system in most scoring formats.)
In a snake draft league, it'd spare at least a late round selection for depth; in an auction, it might be worth the extra few bucks needed to steal the last running back or wide receiver in a certain tier on your draft board.
The catch, of course, is tabbing a player a year now who'll be ready to start in 2012. Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict (6'3", 252 pounds) has a well-known mean streak and the tools to play inside in a 3-4 scheme or any spot behind a four-man front. Also consider Zach Brown (6'2", 230 pounds) who shot up early draft boards after a super-productive 2010 season at North Carolina.
Whichever defensive player you decide on, it'll still be a better decision than...
Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Landry Jones Offer Little Return in Farm Systems
...drafting a quarterback.
Stanford's Andrew Luck has already been christened a Hall of Famer by ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd and is considered a shoo-in as the first overall pick in next year's draft by most pundits. And that's fine.
For the 31 NFL teams who miss out on Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones grade out as fine consolation prizes and potential franchise signal-callers, too. So there's two more hapless franchises leaving the 2012 NFL Draft with a ray of hope. Good for them.
If there's a single running back, wide receiver, or tight end with upside available, don't think twice about passing right over all three quarterbacks in your farm system draft.
Quarterback is an awfully tough position to play in the NFL, and it's even tougher to master it enough to be a productive fantasy option. Rookie passers are never good options, and second-year guys generally aren't much better. Unless you're in a two-QB league, you'd be hard-pressed to justify keeping one on your roster.
The one exception? Terrelle Pryor, now that he's been declared ineligible for the supplemental draft, and only because, as a 6'6", 233-pound former five-star recruit, he has great upside—as a receiver.
Fantasy Football: Farm System Prospects, 1-25
Armed with the principles of sound drafting, it's time to bring your league into the fold and start prospecting the ranks of student-athletes for your future fantasy contributors.
Several formats of college fantasy football have attempted to scratch football fans' itch for armchair participation in amateur athletics, but hiring Michigan's Denard Robinson to rack up points against Eastern Michigan for a week doesn't cut it.
So copy down this list or make your own and get a farm system going, and don't forget to comment and tweet the originator (@sportsguy33) and/or Bleacher Report's Jack Harver (@Jackie_Harv) about it when you do.
To review, here's the big board of players mentioned:
1. RB Trent Richardson (Alabama)
2. RB Knile Davis (Arkansas)
3. WR Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina)
4. WR Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State)
5. RB LaMichael James (Oregon)
6. RB David Wilson (Virginia Tech)
7. RB Jeff Demps (Florida)
8. WR Michael Floyd (Notre Dame)
9. WR Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers)
10. WR Jeff Fuller (Texas A&M)
11. WR Greg Childs (Arkansas)
12. WR Marquis Maze (Alabama)
13. WR Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma)
14. RB Chris Polk (Washington)
15. RB Doug Wilson (Boise State)
16. RB Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati)
17. TE Dwayne Allen (Clemson)
18. TE Orson Charles (Georgia)
19. TE Michael Egnew (Missouri)
20. LB Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State)
21. LB Zach Brown (North Carolina)
22. QB Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State)
23. QB Andrew Luck (Stanford)
24. QB Matt Barkley (USC)
25. QB Landry Jones (Oklahoma)
I gotta say … I love this idea. Love it. Love it. LOVE IT. But it's too radical and it opens the Pandora's box of having to do college homework as well. It's an idea for 2020. Remind me when we get there. Actually, if I'm still writing this column in 2020, shoot me in the forehead. (Bill Simmons)
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