by Jeff West
July 13, 2003
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     With the last pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders selected Ryan Hoag, a WR from tiny Division III Gustavus-Adolphus College.  The last pick is unceremoniously labeled "Mr. Irrelevant" and is treated to a week of appearances and fun in Newport Beach, California, before facing the reality of an NFL training camp.

     Even the most clueless owner knows better than to select Ryan Hoag in a fantasy draft.  Ryan Hoag will be hard-pressed to even make the Raiders' practice squad come September.  But which rookies should be considered come fantasy draft time?  With all of the young talent flooding the NFL, surely some rookies will have to step up and take you to your league's Super Bowl, right?

     Ironically, when it comes to fantasy football, nearly every new player drafted by an NFL team can write "Mr. Irrelevant" on his nametag.

     So, who was Mr. Relevant among the rookies in 2002?  On offense, only three were legitimate fantasy first-stringers (based on a full 16-game schedule).  Clinton Portis was a stud at RB, ranking fourth in total fantasy points at the position (second overall if you discount the first two games).  Jeremy Shockey was the third-best point-scorer at TE.  And, Randy McMichael sneaks in as the tenth-best point-scorer at the same position.  Of the three, only Shockey was an NFL first-round draft pick.  Portis lasted until the middle of the second round and McMichael fell to the fourth round.  (First round pick William Green emerged as a solid second RB over the last half of the season for Cleveland.)**

     So that begs the question: "Who is Mr. Relevant among the rookie class of 2003?"  Letís look at some of the choices position-by-position.


     Clearly, QBs have a very difficult time making an immediate jump to the pros.  Even when a team has enough faith to throw a rookie on the field right away, they rarely produce.  Last year David Carr and Joey Harrington were the two good examples.  Both experienced some serious growing pains, although they did show glimpses of solid futures.

Byron Leftwich:  The Jaguars rookie will eventually become the best QB of the class of '03.  In his first season he will be relegated to the bench behind lame-duck Mark Brunell.  Despite this, he will probably log three or four starts before the season is complete.  He is definitely a top five pick in a keeper league, but not worth a look in a redraft league.

Carson Palmer:  The first overall pick has the cards stacked against him.  He has to overcome two curses: the Heisman curse and the Bengal QB curse.  Palmer has the skills to do both, but not this year.  Head coach Marvin Lewis plans to use John Kitna while grooming Palmer for the future.  With a solid offensive line, some quality offensive weapons (Dillon and Johnson), Palmer is another QB to grab in a keeper league.

Kyle Boller:  The QB with the best chance of starting the season as the #1, ironically, probably has the least upside in the pros.  He was the king of the combine and duped the Ravens into believing he could be a top QB.  Don't bother wasting a roster spot on Boller.

Other QBs... Rex Grossman, selected to eventually lead the Bears, will succeed in the league.  Kordell Stewart will wear out his welcome in Chicago as early as next season, so take a flier on Grossman in a keeper draft... Chris Simms was a perennial disappointment in college.  Despite his shortcomings, the Buccaneers feel they got a steal selecting him at the end of the third round.  Gruden will bring him along slowly and Simms will succeed when he finally takes the snaps in three years.


     Rookie running backs tend to have the best opportunity to make an immediate impact on offense.  Admittedly, the 2003 crop of rookie running backs was one of the weaker in recent memory.

Willis McGahee:  The first RB taken, and arguably the best RB to come out of college in recent years, McGahee may not even see the field this year with Travis Henry, Olandis Gary, and Sammy Morris ahead of him.  He has no value in a redraft league, but will acquire some interest in a keeper league.  My advice?  Grab him if he's available.  He is recovering quickly from injury and has far too much talent to ride a bench once he is activated.

Larry Johnson:  He should definitely be a handcuff pick if you grab Priest Holmes, but if the Priest stays healthy, LJ has no value this year.  And if the Chiefs re-sign Priest, Johnson may not have much value down the road.  Even if Priest does not go in 2003, there are questions about Larry Johnson fitting into the Vermeil system.

Onterrio Smith:  The man can flat-out run the ball.  His mix of speed and elusiveness makes him very difficult to track down.  Now that Michael Bennett will miss at least half of the season, this fourth-round pick warrants some serious attention.  Minnesota loves to run the ball and led the entire NFL in rushing yards in 2002.  The only questions that need to be answered are whether he will actually win the starting job and if, at his small size, he can withstand the pounding of NFL defenses.

Other RBs... LaBrandon Toefield could be a great option at RB, especially if you handcuff him with Fred Taylor.  Even with a healthy Taylor, Toefield could grab some of the TDs Stacey Mack left behind when he fled Jacksonville... Artose Pinner has a bad attitude, a lingering injury, and a hefty girth, but I love him anyway.  Donít expect much from him with the Lions this year, but if you are in a keeper league, consider this guy a sleeper with some serious upside... Musa Smith was drafted by the Ravens and should see a good deal of action, including some goal-line work, this season.  Don't forget that Jamal Lewis is running on two surgically repaired knees... Chris Brown will back up the workhorse Eddie George in Tennessee.  Eddie keeps going and going, but for how long?  If he wears out, look for Brown, a bit of a George clone, to step in and contribute.


     Unless your name is Randy Moss, rookie wide-outs almost never put up good numbers in their first year.  2002 was no exception.  None of the rookie WRs scored enough to be a #2 on your fantasy team.  Only Antonio Bryant, and Donté Stallworth showed any sort of consistency at the position last year.  There were some big names taken at WR in 2003, with two of the first three picks going to the position.

Charles Rogers:  The first WR taken, and second player overall, Rogers reminds many of Plaxico Burris with his size, speed, and leaping ability.  He is instantly the best WR on the Lions and with a QB who likes to throw deep, Rogers could sneak behind some defenders for some long TDs this year.  He will be chosen first in some keeper drafts, but if you are in a redraft league, look for him to be a weak #2 or solid #3 WR on your team.

André Johnson: The Terrell Owens clone is a future stud at the position, but don't pin your hopes on him this season.  The Texans offense needs to prove that it can block for the QB and there are two other quality receivers (Bradford and Gaffney) on the field too.  Johnson is a top-five keeper-league pick, but nothing more than backup depth on your redraft team.

Bryant Johnson:  He will be the number one option in Arizona by default and could have the best season of all rookie WRs if Blake is able to perform even marginally.  Long-term, Johnson will be a solid, if unexciting WR, so keeper league interest should be luke-warm.

Other WRs... Tyrone Calico is pushing for the #2 slot on the Titans, though he has to beat out a couple capable veterans to get there.  He has all the tools to make it big in the league.  Grab him for the long-haul...  A sleeper to keep an eye on is Nate Burleson in Minnesota.  If DíWayne Bates and Derrick Alexander canít get the job done opposite Randy Moss, the rookie may be able to garner substantial playing time as soon as this season... Kevin Curtis should attract some attention in St. Louis and could be the #3 behind Holt and Bruce this season.  He has decent speed, great hands, and plenty of moxie... Taylor Jacobs will work himself into the Redskins receiving rotation, but with Coles and Gardner grabbing most of the balls, Jacobs will have to make his bones over time.  He is well worth a spot in a deep keeper league... Billy McMullen is already impressing the Eagles coaching staff with his size and soft hands.  He will be the Eagles #3 receiver before the season is done.


     The rookie tight end class of 2002 was an impressive one with names like Shockey, McMichael, Stevens, Graham, and Jolley.  The 2003 class was also a solid one.  However, it will be difficult for any to earn their stripes this year.

Dallas Clark:  He will eventually be the best of the bunch, but will share time and stats with Marcus Pollard this year.  Indianapolis loves to run a two-TE set and Clark is the perfect complement opposite Pollard.  He will be a decent #2 TE on your team this year and a #1 in years to come.

LJ Smith:  The former Rutgers Scarlet Knight will split time with Pro-Bowler Chad Lewis but should get more opportunities as the season progresses and Lewis regresses.  A natural athlete with great hands, Smith is a great handcuff pick for 2 TE leagues and will be a top 10 TE in the 2004 season.

Jason Witten:  He may be the starter by default in Dallas with a big lack of talent ahead of him.  Initially he may be used more as a blocker, but the Tuna has a good history with TEs (Bavaro and Coates to name a couple) and Witten should become more and more involved in the offense as time progresses.  He is probably not worth a look in a redraft league unless you need to grab him off the waiver wire mid-season.

Other TEs... Bennie Joppru had a solid collegiate career and is one of the more talented TEs in the 2003 rookie class, but he is backing up the capable Billy Miller in Houston... Mike Seidman is the likely #2 behind Kris Mangum in Carolina and will be used primarily as a blocker in 2003.  But he will be on the field a great deal and should get some looks in the endzone.

     Mr. Relevant?  I don't see one for 2003.  If youíre in a redraft league you'd be best served by paying little attention to the rookies when preparing for the draft, except in the case of handcuff picks or depth in larger leagues.  If you're playing for keeps, then consider grabbing some of the players listed above because there is a great deal of talent that will emerge in the long-run.

**(Fantasy stats assume a standard performance scoring system: 6 pts for any TD, 1 pt per 10 rushing/receiving yards, 1 pt per 20 passing yards).

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