Fantasy football 2013: An obsessive’s guide to the draft

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For years, as the NFL became increasingly pass-oriented, fantasy football owners stuck to the traditional draft strategy of taking running backs early and often. Then last year, the game’s top quarterbacks finally got their due and were drafted accordingly (although I could have told you not to draft Matthew Stafford that high). Fantasy had caught up to reality, and those of us who had been advocating a different approach felt vindicated.

Then Robert Griffin III happened. And Andrew Luck. And Russell Wilson. And Colin Kaepernick. That quartet, which entered the 2012 season with a combined five passes and two rushes of NFL experience, took the league by storm. The aftermath, in the context of fantasy football, is that everyone is back to undervaluing quarterbacks (assuming that playing the position can’t be that hard if all these young guys made it look so easy, so why bother drafting a QB early) and blindly chasing after running backs early and often.

I happen to think that’s a mistake. I happen to think the NFL’s elite QBs (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning) are still worthy of first-round picks because if you miss on your QB later, you’re in trouble. But when a game evolves (or, in this case, devolves), you’re generally forced to adapt if you want to stay competitive. So I can spend this column railing about how ridiculous it is that 10-12 RBs are flying off the board before Rodgers or Brees are getting drafted (and 15 or more before Manning’s name is usually called), or I can jump on the bandwagon with everyone else and avoid getting left behind.

In the course of roughly 2001 mock drafts over the past month (yeah, I know), a clear pattern has emerged. The top nine players in ESPN’s overall rankings are RBs: Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and Alfred Morris. LeSean McCoy (11), Steven Jackson (15), Matt Forte (17) and Stevan Ridley (18) are in the top 20 overall. Those 13 RBs have gone in the top 20 picks of roughly 195 of those 200 mock drafts. And unless you’re in a league that really favors QBs, that’s what you can expect in your real-life drafts.

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I’ve gone through every possible scenario multiple times to fill out a standard starting lineup — 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 Flex (I’m not counting TE and I’ll get to why later) — and here’s my analysis of each:

RB-RB: This is the optimal approach because once you get to the third round, the RB position is a total crapshoot. Of course, how easy it is to stick to this strategy depends on where you are in the draft order.

If you’re selecting early in the first round, pickings will be slim by the time your second pick rolls around. If Jackson, Forte or Ridley fall to you, that’s good value and you’re set at RB. Frank Gore (21) and/or Chris Johnson (23) are likely to be available at that point. I think Johnson is the better value, but both are solid No. 2 guys relative to what’s left, which I’ll come back to shortly.

If you’re selecting in the middle of the first round, you will be able to select a good No. 2 RB with your second pick if you so choose. This is the optimal spot to be.

If you’re selecting late in the first round, then it gets interesting. I have no problem with the first seven picks being RBs. After that, however, there are decisions to make. Top-rated players at other positions start looking good at this point. You can get a RB with either of your first two picks and pair that player with a Rodgers, Brees, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, etc. Doing so means you don’t have to reach for a No. 2 RB, but it leaves little room for error in filling that spot later.

RB-QB/QB-RB: The good part of this approach is that you get an elite QB. I assume if you employ this strategy you’d limit it to Rodgers, Brees or Manning. Tom Brady is dropping in most drafts. With all the questions surrounding him, even if you still like him there’s no reason to consider taking him until at least the third round; he’ll be available. The bad part, as it is with any approach that is not RB-RB, is that your options are increasingly limited at RB as the draft moves on, and the odds get exponentially greater that any RB you select will be a disappointment.

RB-WR/WR-RB: As I mentioned earlier, WR is very, very deep. The late second round is the earliest I would consider selecting one, but Johnson (10), Green (13), Dez Bryant (16), Brandon Marshall (20) and even Julio Jones (22) all are tempting at various points between the late first round and the middle of the second if you don’t like any of the RBs available to you. Again, though, I’d rather get two RBs as early as possible when I know I can still put together a starting WR corps in rounds 3-7 from the following group of proven players (listed in descending order by rank): Demaryius Thomas, Percy Harvin, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Marques Colston, Reggie Wayne, Jordy Nelson, Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Eric Decker, Dwayne Bowe and Antonio Brown. And if you want to wait even longer, guys like Greg Jennings and Steve Johnson are likely to be available. Like I said, deep.

WR-WR: This approach is fantasy suicide. Even I’m not good enough to pull it off.2 (Well, I probably could.) I just participated in a mock in which a team’s first two picks were Calvin Johnson and Green. Sounds great, right? Well, the starting RBs, which were drafted according to projections (no wild reaches), turned out to be Darren McFadden and Demarco Murray. There’s a decent chance both will be on the IR by the time you finish reading this sentence. There’s way too much risk involved in counting on guys like that. But if you ignore RB completely in the first two r

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While the first two rounds are important, it takes more than two good picks to win a fantasy title, so here’s a primer on navigating through the rest of a draft:

The other RBs: If you enter the third round in need of a running back and Johnson and Gore are not available, here’s what you’re looking at the next few rounds:

• Maurice Jones-Drew: Coming off a serious foot injury on a team with a new regime and a terrible offense. I drafted him once in all those mocks.

• David Wilson: Presumably the Giants’ new starter, he has the best upside of any RB left. I haven’t seen him last past the third round in weeks. His stock is rising. But it’s wise to handcuff him with Andre Brown to guard against his fumble problems resurfacing.

• Darren McFadden: Pass. No, really, don’t draft him. Not worth it.

• Montee Ball: Yes, he plays on a great offense. But I can guarantee you he won’t be allowed on the field by Manning if he can’t pass-block. Watch his progress in the preseason.

• Darren Sproles: I drafted him a few times before I remembered Sean Payton is back and he likes backfields by committee. He’s much more valuable in a point-per-reception league.

• DeMarco Murray: He’s been plagued by injuries since college. He hasn’t finished either of his seasons in Dallas healthy.

• Chris Ivory: Another guy with plenty of upside. He’s got no competition now that he’s a Jet. There’s an injury concern, but if he’s healthy he’ll get the most important thing a successful fantasy RB needs: carries.

• Reggie Bush: He’s consistently getting drafted higher than his ranking. He proved in Miami he’s more than a third-down back, and he’s in a better position in Detroit.

• If you’re looking for fantasy value in later rounds, I like Lamar Miller, DeAngelo Williams and Giovani Bernard. Miller will get those all-important carries in Miami; Williams has been a fantasy stud before and Jonathan Stewart poses little threat anymore in Carolina; and Bernard is just a hunch. If he ends up earning the starting job in Cincinnati, don’t be afraid to go after him as early as the fifth round.

A little more on QBs:Manning has been available in the third round in the majority of my drafts. If he’s available to you in real life and you don’t already have Rodgers or Brees, take him. He threw 37 TDs last season and the offense added one of the best slot receivers in the game (Welker). The last time Manning had three good receivers in their prime, he threw 49 TDs.

• Cam Newton (31) is being drafted too high. Matt Ryan (44) is being drafted too low.

• I like the aforementioned quartet of young stars in this order: Wilson (49), Kaepernick (46), Luck (76) and RG3 (65). On a related note, if you really like your lineup once the seventh round rolls around, grab Griffin or Luck as your backup. If things work out, you’ll have an extra QB as trade bait. This is the way in which you take advantage of QBs being undervalued. Buy low, sell high.

Graham, Gronk and the TEs: Jimmy Graham is a legitimate No. 1 receiver (not just tight end) when healthy. He’s great value in the third round. Rob Gronkowski has averaged more than a TD a game the past two seasons. But he’s undergone five surgeries since late last year. He becomes a value in the fifth round assuming you don’t have any glaring holes elsewhere in your starting lineup. Don’t take him if you have no QB and Ryan, Wilson or Kaepernick are on the board. Otherwise, I suggest you forget about TE until you’ve filled not only your starting lineup but a significant portion of your bench. There’s not much difference between Tony Gonzalez (57) and Greg Olsen (95).

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