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Late June is a lull in the football calendar. As teams wrap up their final organized team activities of the offseason, fantasy football publications are beginning to appear in stores and early draft preparation is now underway. Whether you're participating in mock drafts on RotoWire or Mock Draft Central, the early rounds of your drafts in August and September are beginning to appear in the Average Draft Position (ADP) data.
Let's start off the 2010 fantasy football season by breaking down the first round of the “average” draft.
1.1 – Chris Johnson, RB, TEN (1.11)
1.2 – Adrian Peterson, RB, MIN (2.00)
1.3 – Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, JAC (3.12)
1.4 – Ray Rice, RB, BAL (4.04)
1.5 – Frank Gore, RB, SFG (5.08)
1.6 – Michael Turner, RB, ATL (6.15)
The first six picks off the board this summer have typically been running backs, covering the entire first half of Round 1 in a standard 12-team league. With the exception of Turner over Gore at No. 5, the rankings mirror the 2010 projections on RotoWire.
I can't remember a consensus top fantasy pick holding out into the start of the season, so I had to consult RotoWire President Peter Schoenke for the pre-RotoWire (and pre-RotoNews) archives to get more details. Back when Emmitt Smith held out in 1993 – and missed the first two games (both losses) of the Cowboys' season – the fantasy football industry was still learning how to crawl. Smith went on to win the rushing title even with his shortened 14-game workload, but his name likely followed Steve Young's in most fantasy drafts at that time. Undoubtedly, he was a high pick, but not necessarily a consensus No. 1. If you check your local newsstand, you'll see No. 28 (light blue, not purple) on plenty of magazine covers. The magazine you really want will have a quarterback in green and gold on the cover, and it should be in stores in the very near future.
The situation with Johnson and the Titans is much different than anything we've seen with Smith or even Barry Sanders, who held out a few times in his career over contract disputes. With the lockout looming in 2011, there's a clear unwillingness from teams to sign any long-term contracts right now (just ask Darrelle Revis, Vincent Jackson, and Reggie Wayne). Players know more now than ever, that their window to be paid is small.
Contract issues aside, no 2,000-yard rusher has ever eclipsed the 1,500-yard mark the following season. That's not enough for me to consider another back in the No. 1 spot, but if I had the first choice of a draft slot, I'd likely choose the No. 4 spot in the first-round to guarantee one of Johnson, Peterson, Jones-Drew or Rice while getting the earliest possible selection in Round 2. (This debate really comes down to how you value Rice compared to Jones-Drew, but I'm on the side seeing the difference as pretty slim.)
The decision between Gore and Turner is an interesting one. On a per-touch basis last season, both backs averaged 0.82 fantasy points. In a typical year, Turner will rack up 300-plus carries, but Gore can make up ground with his contributions in the passing game (52 receptions in 2009) and Turner is simply a non-factor in that department (22 career receptions in 86 NFL games). Ultimately, I'd still prefer Turner to Gore. Turner has fewer career carries (782 to 1,168) and Gore's workload has tumbled in each of the last three seasons from 312 to 2006 to 260, 240, and then 229 last season.
1.7 – Andre Johnson, WR, HOU (6.96)
1.8 – Steven Jackson, RB, STL (8.30)
1.9 – Rashard Mendenhall, RB, PIT (9.98)
1.10 – Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB (10.68)
1.11 – Larry Fitzgerald, WR, ARI (12.03)
1.12 – Drew Brees, QB, NO (12.65)
The second half of Round 1 is a more even mix of quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. Johnson makes sense as the first receiver off the board, especially since he's not dealing with a major change in offensive philosophy the way Fitzgerald and the Cards are this season. Beyond that, the recent results are staggering. Over the last two seasons, Johnson has 609 more receiving yards (3,144) than any other player (Roddy White is second, followed by Fitz).
Jackson's achievements on an entirely inept Rams squad last season are actually very impressive. He only found the end zone four times, but ranked second in the NFL with 1,416 rushing yards while boasting an impressive 4.4 YPC mark. Things can only get better in St. Louis this season, which should lead to a few more scores. Further, the offense with rookie quarterback Sam Bradford at the helm figures to yield plenty of pass-catching opportunities out of the backfield, so another 40-50 receptions seem like a good bet.
If you're looking for this year's trendy late first-round pick, Mendenhall is a card-carrying member of that club. Without Willie Parker in the fold to share carries, big things are expected from the Steelers' third-year back. Whether quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's suspension covers the first six games of the regular season remains to be seen, but the game plan early in the season with Byron Leftwich at the helm will almost certainly be a more run-heavy one. Even when Parker was just a small part of the Pittsburgh offense during the final five weeks of the regular season, Mendenhall only ranked 16th among running backs with 12.5 fantasy points per game. He deserves to be considered here, however, because the opportunity for 300-plus carries could vault him into the 1,400-1,500-yard range.
Want to grab a quarterback early? Rodgers v. Brees appears to be the decision for those channeling their inner Jon Gruden on draft day. Both the Packers and Saints love to open things up and air it out, but the difference last season was that Rodgers provided 304 rushing yards along with five scores. You'll be happy with either one, although it's worth noting that having an indoor home stadium makes Brees a little bit less of a risk when the weather can get cold and windy in Green Bay and the rest of the NFC North. The Saints' offensive line also does a better job of protecting the quarterback, making Brees the better choice for the more risk-conscious owner.