"Troy Aikman." My college friends and I will always remember the pick, along with our eruption of laughter following it. The pick was nearly 20 years ago, when a friend showed up on draft day without a magazine, without a list, and, unsure who to draft, picked Troy Aikman as his first round fantasy choice. Aikman was a great player, of course, but never close to being first-round worthy in fantasy circles.
Avoiding the "Troy Aikman" pick is what motivates many fantasy players. We don't want to be the butt of jokes all year. We don't want to stray from industry consensus and choose a player who flames out. As a result, many fantasy players - subconsciously or not - draft players as if they're a slave to ADP. We take who the Cheat sheet says we should take, unwilling to stray too far from industry consensus.
This same dynamic exists for those who work in the industry. Nobody wants to go out on a limb for fear of looking stupid, particularly when our opinions are given publicly. As a result, a strange form of groupthink develops, one where there's a small range of acceptable recommendations for players with little deviation from that range. If you think Montee Ball will have a 1,100 yard, 11-TD season, then it's okay to take him in the fifth round, or perhaps the fourth, but you're a lunatic if you reach for him in the third.
I loathe this dynamic. After all, late-round picks become fantasy studs every year, while early-round choices fall through the floor. We know the industry is wrong, time and time again, as we see at the end of every season, when Liss posts his "Who I Should Have Drafted" column. When we know the industry is so often wrong, why do so many fantasy players blindly follow ADP?
One answer is obvious. Even if you're an independent thinker and totally unafraid of being the butt of jokes 20 years later, it doesn't make sense to draft a player in the first round if the industry views him as a fifth round value. Even if you're certain Montee Ball is going to have a huge season, there's no reason to waste a first-round pick on him when you're virtually guaranteed to get him in the third or fourth round.
So what's the moral of the story? Be aware of industry consensus and ADP, but don't be afraid to part from it - at least by a round or so - when your instincts tell you to. Here are the players who I'm willing to draft earlier than the industry says I should:
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers: In a 2013 that is shaping up as the "Year of the Injury," many top quarterbacks have already lost key weapons. Aaron Rodgers lost starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga for the season and Jordy Nelson for all of preseason and perhaps the start of the year. Tom Brady lost Aaron Hernandez, and I suspect Rob Gronkowski is going to start the year on the PUP list. Drew Brees watched downfield speedster Joseph Morgan tear an ACL. Colin Kaepernick lost Michael Crabtree. Peyton Manning will be without Dan Koppen, his starting center, all year. As other fantasy quarterbacks take a step back due to such injuries, Newton looks better and better. He's just a year removed from being a first round fantasy choice, yet I'm seeing him going in the fourth or fifth round quite regularly. Even as someone who likes waiting on quarterbacks in drafts, I'm finding it hard to pass on Newton. Let others say "wait on QB," I'm taking Newton.
Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs: It happens every year in the NFL - a team goes from last place one season to the playoffs the next. The Chiefs may have been the NFL's worst team last year, but they have talent - six Pro Bowlers in 2012 - and the necessary upgrades at coach and quarterback to be that team this year. If that's how the script is written, Alex Smith will have a lot to do with it. He'll be fantasy relevant, perhaps in the bye weeks and certainly in two-QB leagues. Move Smith up five spots in your rankings.
David Wilson, RB, Giants: Most of the fantasy industry views the Giants backfield as an impending timeshare between Wilson and Andre Brown. I don't see it. Brown has been on three different teams his three seasons in the league, and he's never been healthy. Other than the Thursday night game last year against Carolina, can you think of one good game Brown has had in his entire career? Wilson, meanwhile, is a first-round talent who should be better at pass-blocking and ball security in his second season. I see Wilson/Brown like C.J. Spiller/Fred Jackson from 2012, with Brown playing the role of Jackson. If Wilson makes it to the end of the third round, I'm not letting him by.
Montee Ball, RB, Broncos: Perhaps I'm enamored with upside plays on high-scoring offenses. Yes, guilty as charged. I can certainly see the pitfalls, particularly if Ball doesn't earn the starting job. Ball just strikes me as the kind of guy who can win you a fantasy league, scoring 12-14 TDs as your fourth round draft pick. Look at it this way ... 11 of the 12 teams in your league will lose anyway. If you're trying to win, why not roll the dice on a potential fantasy stud? If Ball doesn't start the Broncos third preseason game, I'll drop him down my list as fast as anyone. For now, though, I'll gamble on the upside and get him on my team. It's not like I'm going to win my league by passing on Ball and taking Lamar Miller.
LaMichael James, RB, 49ers: Frank Gore is entering his age 30 season, the dreaded age for running backs. Gore slowed down the stretch in 2012, and the fact that the 49ers keep drafting running backs should speak volumes. Few players available in the mid rounds or later - Ben Tate, maybe - have this kind of upside. Elite team, great offensive line, likes to run, only a 30-year old running back before him on the depth chart ... I'm all in with James.
Bilal Powell, RB, Jets: Chris Ivory is the presumed starter for the Jets, and both he and Powell are being drafted accordingly (or, in Powell's case, not drafted). But Ivory never had more than 137 carries in his three seasons with the Saints, including just 40 last year. Ivory still hasn't practiced this season, either, nursing a hamstring injury. Why does the industry merely assume Ivory is going to be a 200-plus-carry back when he's never done that before? Who's to say Powell won't win the starting job and keep it? Or that Ivory will show he's not capable of toting 200 carries? I'm ready to start targeting Powell in the end game, and if the industry adjusts in the coming weeks and starts doing so as well, I'll move Powell up that much higher.
Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens: If you trust Vegas like I do, the Ravens will be throwing more than usual, as their projected win total is just 8.5. But who will they be throwing to? Anquan Boldin is gone. Dennis Pitta is gone. Jacoby Jones is currently the second receiver on the depth chart, but he's not suited for that role. Basically, the Ravens have nothing outside of Torrey Smith. I noticed in my early drafts that I like Smith more than the industry, and that's just fine with me. I'll take 1,200 yards and 8 TDs from my 4th or 5th-round receiver.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams: I've allowed myself to fall victim to groupthink and industry consensus on Austin up until this point, treating him as a WR3. No more. This guy is electric, plays on turf (an ideal fit for his size/speed), is the Rams first option in the passing game, and his team traded up to draft him. Why should I draft Cecil Shorts, Reggie Wayne or Wes Welker first - because the industry tells me to? Pfft. When the next Rotowire 200 comes out, I'll have Austin much higher.
Josh Boyce and Kembrell Thompkins, WR, Patriots: When a handful of no-name receivers are battling for playing time that can only be enjoyed by one or two, the natural reaction might be to avoid the headache. Nobody wants to look stupid drafting a player who gets cut by his own team, right? Wrong - not when we're talking about receivers catching passes from Tom Brady. Are Boyce and Thompkins any good? Honestly, heck if I know. Nobody knows, really. They might get cut for all we know. But if you're taking flyers in the endgame, why not do it on a team with an elite quarterback? If Boyce and Thompkins don't pan out, you've lost nothing and can find someone comparable on waivers. If they do, though, you might have a diamond in the rough. With where these guys are being drafted (or, in most cases, not drafted), there's minimal risk in sticking them on your bench and seeing what happens in the next 4-5 weeks. I say "them" because you should take them both in deeper leagues - it doubles your chances at getting whoever emerges in the Patriots passing game. With Brady at quarterback, we know somebody will.
Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers: With Aaron Hernandez done, Dennis Pitta out for the year, and Rob Gronkowski destined (in my speculative opinion) for PUP, the tight end position might seem to be Jimmy Graham, then everyone else. No matter how much the industry might disagree, though, I think Davis can make it a two-man group atop the position. Yes, I realize Davis has had long stretches of suckitude as recently as last year. I attribute that, though, to the 49ers feeling like they didn't need Davis in the passing game, as their offense was functioning fine with him blocking (at an elite level, by the way) and them running and throwing to Michael Crabtree. With Crabtree out, though, the Niners won't have that luxury. It's like we've seen in the playoffs the last few years - when the Niners need Davis, they use him. Well, the Niners need Davis. They have nobody else. Anquan Boldin? Yawn. Inexperienced, no-name receivers? Blah. I'll pencil Davis in for 10 TDs and do whatever needs to be done to roster him on my fantasy teams. Let's put it this way - if a healthy Jimmy Graham doesn't finish the year as fantasy's best tight end, I'd bet anything it will be Davis who unseats him.