Early-round strategy key in fantasy drafts

The draft is the most important part of your fantasy football season. Preparation is key.

You wouldn’t go into the big game without studying your opponent and you wouldn’t go into an interview without doing some research on the company first. Why people think they can go into a fantasy football draft without doing any homework whatsoever and still pick a winning team is beyond me.

At the very least you need to look over the rankings, and not just for 30 seconds before the draft starts. Form some opinions, make a few educated guesses. That doesn’t mean saying “Matt Forte sucks.” (He doesn’t.) That means looking at some numbers and saying “Shonn Greene and Felix Jones will have a bounce-back seasons because…” (They will.)

Have a strategy. Your turn to pick will come before you know it, and there’s nothing worse than being caught off-guard and looking down at your sheet to realize you don’t like any of the next 10 names listed. Wait, names? You don’t even know what position you’re targeting.

Believe in the Madden curse? Don't take Peyton Hillis.

If you take a running back in the first round, are you going for another running back in the second round? The double-RB strategy that fell out of favor the last few years is making a resurgence, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Do you grab Peyton Hillis in the second round or take someone else and hope he falls to you in the third? Double-up RBs with Steven Jackson or grab Hakeem Nicks? You need to be prepared for situations like these.

What if you decide to go unconventional and take a quarterback or wide receiver in the first round? Do you know what positions you need to take in the next rounds to counter for your first pick? The draft is like a game of chess in this regard: not only do you need to make the right moves, but also you must make them in the right order.

Here’s a look at several situations that will come up in your draft, loosely arranged by the order in which they will happen.

What to do with the third pick?

Usually landing the third overall pick will get you a running back you will start every week. You sit happily in your chair as Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster come off the board. History and your cheat sheet both say to take Chris Johnson without thinking twice, but the logical part of your brain makes you worry. Yeah, he’s a great talent and always puts up points. But this time next week will be September, and he still hasn’t practiced!

Holdouts suck. If you want to pass over him and take Jamaal Charles, there’s nothing wrong with that decision. You can’t win your league in the early rounds, but you can certainly lose it. If Johnson gets hurt or is unproductive, that’s a waste of your first-round pick. Charles, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season, is definitely the safer pick; Johnson just has slightly more upside based on his past performance. I’m hoping this isn’t a call I have to make, but I think I’d have to go with Charles.

If you have the fourth pick and are worried about Johnson, I would definitely understand if you took Ray Rice ahead of him, too. Again, it’s a call I hope I don’t have to make. If you have the fifth pick, well, that’s perfect because the decision will be made for you and you get a better pick coming back around. If you do take Johnson, make sure you handcuff him with (Michigan State product) Javon Ringer in the late rounds.

Do alternative strategies work?

Filling a running back slot in the first round is sound fantasy strategy. Taking a quarterback is bold, and taking a receiver is very bold. Do these strategies really work?

If you read Matthew Berry’s Draft Day Manifesto (definitely read it, if you have half an hour), you know he has the hots for Mike Vick this year, suggesting you might even take him with the first overall pick.

Don’t do that. But taking a QB in the latter-half of the first round is not a bad idea. Most people have Aaron Rodgers one, Vick two. Both usually go in the first round (I’ve seen as high as third overall), but I wouldn’t pass over a great RB early.

Think of running backs in tiers. The first tier is Peterson and Foster. Johnson would be in the first tier if he was in camp all summer. Except he wasn’t, so he joins Charles and Rice in the second tier. Those five running backs are pretty consistently the top five backs drafted. Outside the top five backs, there is some variation. Rashard Mendenhall, Maurice Jones-Drew and LeSean McCoy are the sixth, seventh and eighth RBs, but in no consistent order. MJD’s stock has been falling since July. McCoy’s is up and Mendenall’s has stayed about the same.

Hey Bills, see what happens when your quarterback of the future has a good mentor?

So what to do? Some people are giving up on the guessing game and taking a QB at six. I think that’s too early. Make a call on the six-to-eight group and take one of them.

After the top eight there is even more variation. Here’s where I draw the line. You might not get Rodgers at ninth overall, but if he’s there, I take him. If he’s gone I take the top-eight RB who didn’t go yet. Not until 10 do I look for Vick, who I take only if the previous nine are off the board.

Andre Johnson is a hot commodity in the first round, and even in ESPN’s latest 12-team mock draft, Roddy White went in the first round. It’s not that WRs aren’t important, I just wouldn’t take one early because it messes up your next several picks. I know waiting until ninth overall means I might not get any of the three alternatives in the first round, but I’m okay with that.

The elite QBs will be gone by the early third round. If you want one and you already drafted a receiver, you’ll have to grab the QB in the second round, which now means you are passing on running back until at least the third round. If you go for a back in the second round, you’ll have an RB who is good, not great, and no elite quarterback. When others are taking their wide receivers at about the spots they are worth, you will have a need a fill, and odds are you fill it with someone who isn’t worth the spot you have to take him in.

In the ESPN mock draft, Jim McCormick and Shawn Cwalinski went with WRs in the first round. Cwalinski took White at 11 and Drew Brees at 14, leaving Ahmad Bradshaw and LeGarrette Blount as his starting running backs. McCormick somehow still has a job after taking wide receivers with his first two picks — Andre Johnson seventh and Larry Fitzgerald 17th — leaving Peyton Hillis, Shonn Greene and Tony Romo as his next three picks.

Berry and Pierre Becquey took QBs in the first round. Becquey paired Greg Jennings with Rodgers in the second round and made Ryan Matthews his top RB in the third round. He completed the Ryan backfield with Ryan Williams from Arizona and Washington’s Ryan Torain later. Not exactly a dynamic fantasy running game (especially since Williams got injured and is out for the season). Berry took Michael Turner in the second round but then went WR-TE-WR-WR before picking up Mike Tolbert and Willis McGahee. Again, not a great running back selection.

To answer the question “Do I have to draft a running back in the first round?” the answer is no, but you definitely need to make sure you make up for with your next few picks. I don’t start to look for Andre Johnson until 11th overall, after Rodgers and Vick and when I know there will be decent running backs left when my turn to pick comes up again in the second round.

Other draft trends to watch for

  • Bye weeks. Last year it sucked for fantasy owners when the NFL went with six bye-week teams in weeks 8 and 9 instead of four. This year, all the bye weeks have six teams, except for weeks 9 and 11 (no byes Week 10… some sort of preventative measure in case the lockout had cut into the season). Just our luck as fantasy owners, even Week 11 has been a killer in the mock drafts I’ve done: Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
Neat little graphic from The Sporting News.
  • Dare I say it, but Peyton Manningis a player I’d stay away from. After an offseason neck surgery that apparently was a bigger deal than most people thought, it doesn’t look like Manning will be able to go Week 1. A neck injury is definitely one that could affect his throwing, and like Chris Johnson, I’m weary of a guy who hasn’t practiced all summer. QBs don’t need to be as well-conditioned as running backs but getting the timing down is more important.Plus, Indi just brought in Kerry Collins at $4 million. Not exactly inspiring for Manning owners. You have to think that Manning (again, like Johnson) is good enough to still put up points, but with the amount of talented QBs out there, I’m letting him be someone else’s problem. Take Phillip Rivers before him, and maybe Tony Romo, too.
  • A few more important wide receiver notes that I felt could wait after my Matthew Berry-esque, 3,400-word wide receiver outlook for this year:Be careful with Jeremy Maclin. He’s a good receiver in a good system, but just got to camp last week after an illness that left him out of shape and 15 pounds lighter than he started. Nobody knew what the heck was wrong with him: He was tested for mono, AIDS, leukemia and lymphoma — all negative. It’s good that he doesn’t have any of those at age 23, but do you really trust a guy to produce in the NFL who was just so sick he got tested for cancer?

"Hey, I'm Dez Bryant, and I like to catch passes in my undies."

Dez Bryant is rated too high. I had the misfortune of having to start him on one of my teams several times last year. He was inconsistent, frequently injured and reportedly a bit of a head case. This year should undoubtedly go better for him than his rookie season, but make no mistake that Miles Austin is still Romo’s favorite target. Dez should have a good season, I just wouldn’t make him by No. 1 WR.

Oh, and stay away from Hines Ward. Seriously. His average was only 6.3 points per week last season and his median was more than two full points below that. Waiver-wire fill-in, but someone will draft him. Don’t let it be you.

  • I explained in the last post why I usually don’t draft Buffalo Bills, but C.J. Spiller could be a sleeper. As Jerry Sullivan’s column noted, the Gailey regime wants to give its own guy a shot. It sucks for Fred Jackson, but fantasy owners don’t have time for feelings. Just win, baby. Despite Spiller’s ineffectiveness in the preseason, there are other clues he will see an increased workload. He has the tools for the job, he just has to figure out how to use them.

  • Last year I kept a track on the three running backs who were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft: Spiller, Jahvid Best and Ryan Matthews. This year, the highest rated back from that draft class is… LeGarrette Blount. I’ll always know him as the guy from Oregon who snapped and punched Boise State defensive end Byron Hout in the face (and got himself suspended for the rest of the season), but he’s the top back in a Buccaneer offense that went 10-6 last season and narrowly missed the playoffs. He’s a big boy to tackle (6-foot, 247 pounds), went over 1,000 yards last season and averaged 5.0 YPC.

 

  • Stay away from Miami running backs. After having one of the more feared ground games in the league, Miami parted ways with both Ronnie Brown (Eagles) and Ricky Williams (Ravens). They brought in Reggie Bush and drafted Daniel Thomas. Thomas has been okay in preseason and Reggie Bush is, well, Reggie Bush. Like the Peyton Manning situation, it’s not exactly confidence-inspiring that they brought in Priest Holmes (of all people) to add depth. They are clearly worried about the running situation and you should be too.
  • Be wary of James Starks. Like Buffalo Bills, someone in your league will go too high for him. Everybody thought Shonn Greene would have a good year last year because he produced in the playoffs the winter before, but he was a bust. I don’t like him for where he’s ranked and even less so because he’s from here.
  • Last things last… let’s talk about kickers and defenses. The “experts” always say don’t take a kicker until the last round. Your kicker is going to start every week. It’s possible a 15th- or 16th-round receiver will break out, but for the most part you know what you’re getting, which is next to nothing. Don’t go crazy on me, but taking a kicker in the 13th round isn’t the worst thing in the world.The “experts” also want you to wait on defenses, which I don’t like either. Defenses score points. Take one early. It’s true that you can usually find a decent one every week on the waiver wire, but a top-flight defense is a lot more valuable than people think.If you read this long you are being rewarded with this advice. Take, for instance, Pittsburgh D/ST, which scored 188 points last season by ESPN standard scoring (including a minus-8 week). That’s more points than Maurice Jones-Drew and Andre Johnson had last year. Let everyone else fool around trying to look up who-plays-who every week. There are only five defenses right now with an average draft position in the top 100. You know what to do.

Life is about the little things, this is not one of them

This is a big thing. Click this. It’ll be good to have over the words on this post.

I can link to bad rap music if I want. I just want a fantasy football championship. Two of them, actually.

My new profile picture on Facebook. I may never change it (until I get next year's banner).

Despite the odds, DeSean Jackson was limited to two catches for 32 yards, making me a champion.

I watched the whole game from Buffalo Wild Wings with some friends. Jackson’s catches both came on a comeback route with the DB playing off him. Jackson was officially targeted 12 times in the game by Vick, but most of them were poor throws. He dropped one or two, but probably four passes intended for DeSean should have been intercepted.

I was wrong about Joe Webb, too. Turns out the UAB product isn’t half-bad.

I had David Akers going for me, and I was very mad when he missed the long field goal at the end of the first half. The 54-yard attempt would have been five huge points for me. It would have nullified a Jackson touchdown, too, because I’d get one for the extra point and it would be six points both ways.

But it was all for naught. The Viking pass rush was too much for the Eagles to handle and Vick didn’t have time to wait for longer routes to develop. He checked down or ran frequently. Tight end Brent Celek and running back LeSean McCoy were targeted 17 times combined.

I was the most nervous guy in BWW when Vick dropped back to throw a pass with the game out of reach at the end of the fourth quarter. I thought there might have been one second left on the clock, but they ran it off, and I was a champion. So if you were in the Wild Wings and wondering who the idiot was with his arms up after an incomplete pass, that was me.

I’ve been running this league for seven years now, and this is my first ever victory. I’m pumped to say the least.

I’ve had some good team names over the years, but this season I named my team after a movie I watched on a team bus last winter. My team was The Dead Presidents, from the 1991 Patrick Swayze movie “Point Break”. (Apparently, my team loves Patrick Swayze. “Youngblood” is another bus ride favorite.)

My team's logo. Its Wikipedia page say "Point Break" has a cult following, which I assume puts it in a category with the likes of "Boondock Saints", "Fight Club" or even "Requiem for a Dream".

Not the greatest of movies, but it served its purpose.

I have a lot of sports memorabilia around my room, but my fantasy football banner may be one of my new favorite pieces.

I love fantasy sports and fantasy football, but after tonight, this will just be one more award and it’ll be on to the next one. Fantasy baseball is to be dominated next. Forty-six days until pitchers and catchers report!

Drafting your fantasy team in 20/20 hindsight

Hours removed from my third fantasy football draft this week, I offer a few pointers for those of you drafting in the near future–and some tips several of my league members learned the hard way.

  • Know how many players you start at each position- If your league starts three receivers, you probably shouldn’t wait until the fifth round to take one. Even the fourth round is pushing it. By round 5, I like to have a quarterback, two running backs and two receivers. If someone falls to you and you want to load up on one position early, that’s ok, but make sure make up for it in the next round. A tight end can wait, I’d make sure you are set on your core positions first.
  • Take a QB early- My tier of quarterbacks are: Brees, Rodgers, Manning, Schaub, Brady, and Romo (more here). After that, they start to drop off. Once you get into Favre-Flacco-Rivers-Kolb-Eli Manning-Cutler territory, you’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Plus, if you grab an elite signal caller, they should be your starter every week. You won’t need to worry about a backup until the late rounds, and you can focus on rounding out the rest of your team.
  • This is the year people actually wait on picking Bills- Every year, there has always been the one guy who goes way out of his way to pick a Bills player that he could’ve waited a good three rounds on. Last year it was the all-star who picked T.O. as his first receiver. But this year, morale is so low about the Bills that people are completely looking past them. With the injuries to both Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, you might even be able to grab C.J. Spiller on a bargain. That being said, Spiller is a second RB at best, and Evans probably won’t be more than a good third receiver. Picking the Bills D/ST is pushing it, and Trent Edwards is reach even in 2 quarterback leagues. Your best bet may be Ryan Lindell, but that’s assuming the Bills can get into field goal range.
  • Watch for runs-These usually happen when people start picking tight ends or defenses. We expect a lot of running backs in the first round. That’s not a trend to be careful of. What you need to watch for is when six people in a row take their second receiver or wipe out the top-tier of defenses. When this happens, you have two choices to make: go with the flow and get someone at that position so you don’t miss out, or pick someone else and hope for the best. Picking someone else can often work to your advantage though– if most people already have a one-start position covered (TE, D/ST, K, etc… varies by league), they won’t be picking another player at that position any time soon, and you can wait on it.
  • Wondering if your guy will fall to you? Know what the people around you have- Say you waited on a quarterback. Now you want to know if you should take Joe Flacco with your upcoming pick or wait on him until your turn comes back around. Look at the teams drafting after you. If they already have a QB, you are probably safe and you can take another RB. If not, you might want to snag your QB now before someone else does. This happened to me in my first draft– DeAngelo Williams fell to me in the second round, and while it would have been awesome to have two top-10 running backs, I passed on him for Matt Schaub because several QBs had already gone and nobody after me had a QB yet. I later asked the guy who took Williams about the situation, and he said he was hoping Schaub would have come to him, and I would have been out of luck. (Have I mentioned I’m high on Schaub this year?)
  • Go with your gut- Nowadays everyone uses nearly the same rankings. How many people showed up at your draft with the same cheat sheet from ESPN.com? So if everyone has the same information, you’re going to need a little bit of talent (luck) to win. Just because the “experts” at ESPN say you should draft a certain player at a certain spot does not mean you have to draft him. Think Devin Aromashodu is due for a breakout year? LeSean McCoy? Take them earlier. Asking yourself why the likes of Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best are ranked so high? Skip them. Don’t get crazy on me with Antonio Gates in the third round or anything, but snagging guys who have breakout years is how you win your league (and it’s great bragging material).
  • It’s okay to laugh at the guy who drafts injured players- There’s always one idiot who doesn’t come prepared for the draft and picks a bunch of guys who probably won’t see the football field this year. Suspensions and injuries are the most likely culprits. Guy who thought he was cool buying his magazine in April but hasn’t touched it since will tell you Ben Tate is going to be comparable with Rashard Mendenhall this year, and will proclaim his eminent run to fantasy glory after Antonio Bryant “fell” to him in the 13th round. Hey bud, I hear that David Carr guy could be a steal, too. Just laugh at these people, and by all means do not let them repick. They deserve it.
  • Know your bye weeks- I feel this should go without saying, but some people still don’t realize that they need to be careful of players’ bye weeks when drafting them. Be especially careful of weeks 8 and 9, where six teams are off instead of the usual four. Michael Turner, Cedric Benson, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Hakeem Nicks, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson are all people I’d sign up for, just not together. They all have week 8 off, and if you draft them, so will your fantasy team. Also be weary of taking players on the same team. Taking a QB and his top receiver can be an effective strategy when deployed correctly, but don’t take two receivers from the same offensive. I like Jeremy Maclin this year, but if you already have DeSean Jackson, that’s enough Eagles at wideout. The only combo I think this would be interesting is if you had both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. They could both go over 100 yards a game. Could get interesting.
  • That’s about all I have. If you read this far down the page you deserve a reward, though- Someone I feel is an emerging sleeper pick this year is Bernard Berrian, receiver from Minnesota. Sidney Rice has not been on the field yet due to a hip injury, and Percy Harvin can’t seem to keep enough blood in his head to stand up (wonder where it is…?). Brett will need to throw to someone other than Visanthe Shiancoe, and Berrian could be the guy. Not sure why more people aren’t picking up on this, but hey, that’s their problem.

Oh, and if you want to add an extra round in your draft for everyone to take a total reach pick, that could be a fun idea. I’d go with James Starks, Stevie Johnson, Tim Tebow, etc. Could be your only shot at drafting a Bill and not regretting it later.