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Drafting From The Top

You lucky S.O.B.! You landed the #1 pick in the draft. There hasn't been this much consensus in the #1 overall pick since, well, let's see...
  • 2006: Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, and LaDainian Tomlinson interchanged the top 3
  • 2005: Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Alexander
  • 2004: Tomlinson, Holmes
  • 2003: Ricky Williams, Tomlinson - Ricky? Is that right? Yep, 2,200 yards and 17 TD the year before.
  • 2002: Marshall Faulk

The #1 PickIts been half a decade since everyone agreed who the #1 pick is. Congratulations. Ah, but you can't rely on LT and a team of Drew Bennetts' to get you to the Championship. You still need to know what to do after locking down LT, and that is what we're going to cover here.

What's that? You didn't get the #1 pick, but wound up with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th pick in the draft? Well boohoo for you. Before you think you'd be better off drafting towards the bottom, understand that is a complete cluster at that end of the draft. You're in the top half, so consider yourself lucky (just not as lucky as the S.O.B.'s reading this who have the 1st pick).

For the purpose of this discussion we'll generally assume a 12 team league with normal performance scoring (1 per 20 PaYd, 4 per PaTD, 1 per 10 Ru/ReYd, 6 per Ru/ReTD) with comments thrown in regarding the ever more popular point-per-reception leagues. For those in the 6 per PaTD camp, the difference is not going to be as significant as you might think, but that explanation is for another time. Now let's get to work.

Round 1

RB Plan - You have a top 5 pick, you're taking a RB. Manning? No. But? No, just no. Take a RB. Don't try to get "cute" by taking Manning unless you can start or flex a 2nd QB. Then I'd consider it, and still may not do it depending on the other starting requirements. We're now entering the 3rd season since Manning's 49 TD pass-fest, indicating it was the exception, not the norm.

I got Manning as a good deal in a couple leagues last year. That isn't happening this year, as people are seeing a bigger difference between the top half and bottom half starting QB. People got burned by the old "wait on a QB" theory last year, but the main reason for that is because they finally took it too far. Did anyone really think Kurt Warner was going to last the season this time last year? My feeling now is people are taking it too far the other way, overpaying for a QB. And with regards to Manning in the 1st, you're giving up too much at other positions when there are still good QB on the board to be had later.

Now on to which RB to pick. We've already established the 1.01, and 1.02 has a very strong consensus as well.

  • 1.01 LaDainian Tomlinson, SD
  • 1.02 Steven Jackson, STL

The next 3 to form out the top 5 are much more debatable, and even at 5 there are very good arguments to put a few others in place of these guys.

  • Joseph Addai
  • Frank Gore
  • Larry Johnson

Not so much red flags, but caution signs with each of these picks. Addai gets the "never carried a full load" label. Gore lost his genius offensive coordinator, and already has a broken hand bringing to the forefront his injury prone history. Larry Johnson's back in the mix but even with that new contract, are we entirely comfortable with Johnson? Can he buck the heavy workload trend, and what about his sub-par supporting cast?

We've been thinking about these top player rankings since April, so at this point it is easy to pick apart each player by identifying their weaknesses. I can see strong arguments for Shaun Alexander, Brian Westbrook, Reggie Bush (in point per reception leagues) and even Travis Henry being considerations in this top group. Ultimately, we could write essays on these top picks and still have uncertainty about who should be taken at each spot.

The only right answer on who you should take with your top draft pick is in your own head and in your own gut. Man, that's cheesy, but it's true. The only certain advice I can give you is to take a RB with that pick.

Round 2

RB-RB Plan - You've got your RB in the 1st, and let's assume the 5 listed above are the ones who went in the top 5. You aren't even going to sniff these guys on the comeback in round 2, picks 2.08 to 2.12 (20 to 24 overall) in a 12 team league:

  • Shaun Alexander
  • Brian Westbrook
  • Reggie Bush
  • Willie Parker
  • Rudi Johnson
  • Travis Henry
  • Ronnie Brown
  • Laurence Maroney
  • Maurice Jones-Drew
  • Willis McGahee

Now that is a RB heavy draft, but true to form 15 of the first 19 picks are RB. The likely candidates to be taken with those other 4 picks are:

  • QB Peyton Manning
  • WR Steve Smith
  • WR Chad Johnson
  • RB Edgerrin James

James may be available depending how much your league-mates can overlook what still may very well be, the same old Cardinals. Usually someone will overlook it, and nab James. Smith and/or Johnson may be available if your league is completely RB obsessed, and instead drafted the likes of Clinton Portis, Cedric Benson or Brandon Jacobs in the mid-2nd. Manning may be available but probably not unless the league starts 7 or more RB/WR/TE versus only 1 QB, and is full of sharp owners.

So if you are set on RB-RB to anchor your team, you are looking to choose from:

  • Clinton Portis
  • Cedric Benson
  • Brandon Jacobs
  • Thomas Jones
Assuming full health, I still believe Portis is one of the top 5 RB in the league in terms of pure talent. The problem is he's not at full health. Benson impressed me his opening preseason game, but he has 2 years of being a malcontent to overcome before I can completely trust him. Jacobs has great potential, but he clearly falls into the boom or bust category. Jones looks like a potential force on an underrated Jets team, but he's already injured.

If you have a top pick, then RB-RB is a viable plan. Stockpiling RB talent always falls into the "safe play" category. However, I see a clear drop-off from McGahee-James to these 4. You have to consider RB-RB, especially if a good value falls to you, but I'm not expecting it which is why I normally recommend RB-WR start to your draft.

RB-WR Plan - Unlike prior years, instead of only 2 or 3 top tier WR, we're looking at 6 guys with an equally legitimate shot at finishing as the #1 WR in the land. However at this end of the draft it doesn't change our strategy that much. If 2 are already gone before the 2.08, that leaves 4. If you drafted 5th overall, and pass on a WR here, then you're giving the guys drafting 1st through 4th two shots each at cleaning out this WR group. And if you can't bear to have one of these top 6 on your team like, oh, I don't know, Terrell Owens (although I tell you, his interviews have been very tame this year with no garbage that usually comes with Owens), then maybe your own top tier is not 6, but 5 or 4 instead.

This is where it really helps to know the tendencies of the other guys in your league. If you want one of the next 4 RB listed above, and one of the top WR coming out of the 3rd round, you should be able to do that, if you play your cards right. I'm not suggesting sneaking into a fellow owner's house and stealing his fantasy notes, but check old drafts to get a feel for what positions they put their emphasis on. Owners can be surprisingly consistent year to year.

All right, let's get to these WR. After Steve Smith and Chad Johnson who went at the backend of the draft, these are the guys to contemplate:

  • Marvin Harrison
  • Torry Holt
  • Terrell Owens
  • Reggie Wayne

I love getting one of these top WR, especially if your league starts 3 WR, and even more so if it is a point per reception league. While it is certainly possible to build a WR corps with later draft picks, how good does it feel to drop one of these guys into your lineup every week regardless of matchup? That's a no stress move if ever there was one in fantasy football.

People may be surprised I added Wayne to this group, but I strongly believe he belongs. In a couple drafts I've done he has slipped down into the latter part of the 3rd. I of course was drafting a little later in the 3rd each time, much to my chagrin.

RB-QB Plan - If Peyton Manning is still there in the mid to late-2nd round, many people would jump on it. I personally would not be overly enthused for reasons stated above, but at the same time he gets dangerously close to the "well, I pretty much have to take him at this point" category.

The great thing about Manning is that you can drop in the lineup for every week except the bye, and just watch the points roll in. This is in fact the most stress free move in fantasy football, but there is an opportunity cost here, which is why I list this as the third option to consider.

RB-TE Plan? - Only in a point per reception league would a person start thinking about who else is eyeing Antonio Gates, but the 2nd round is too early to nab him. He should last into the 3rd round. As Matt Waldman would point out, I do have an apparent obsession with adding Gates to my fantasy teams (Exhibits A, B, C... and D), but in every case I don't think I went overboard on what I paid to get him (forgot to include Exhibits E and F). While Mr. Gut Check chases the "most physically talented [yet unproven] TE in the league", I'll take the sure thing in Gates on a great offense. But if even I'm saying don't spend a 2nd round pick, then its probably a good idea to not spend your 2nd round pick on Gates.

Round 3

A lot of this will be the same as the round 2 discussion, with the small yet significant point that you will have to wait anywhere from 14 to 22 picks until your 4th rounder. First off, you are going to check if any of the players listed above as legitimate 2nd round picks are available. Don't pull the trigger just yet. Coming out of this round, do we have to have 2 RB? Not necessarily, but understand the implications of not doing it. You will pretty much have to go back to RB with one of your 4th/5th round picks, and maybe both.

Do we have to have a WR on the team coming out of this round? Again, not necessarily but you should be really sure about the 1 or 2 non-RB/non-WR players you added to your roster, and also your ability to grab WR later. If your league starts 3, and you have none in your first 3 picks, then there is a high likelihood that you should take 2 WR in the 4th/5th.

What about having 3 RB through your first 3 picks? Even in leagues where you can flex a 3rd RB I'm not even sure this is a good idea. As your league reaches for more RB the deeper in your draft you go, they get a lot less reliable than the top players at other positions.

I'll also add, if you find yourself wondering "am I drafting with idiots?" because of the apparently amazing value you're getting on RB, then you might end up with the dunce cap later on. Inexperienced players may not know the "RB are gold" fantasy rule, so instead of the league draft going RB, RB, RB, RB (ad nauseam) the rookie owners start taking top QB, top WR, top TE. Maybe even a top K and DEF. These rooks surprisingly take you to the cleaners because while you were drafting "amazing value" backups at RB, they stocked their teams at other positions, won't overpay trading for your backup RB later, and outscore you week after week. Sad, but true. I've seen It happen. Don't outsmart yourself in cases like this.

Let's run down the positions to consider adding from the 3.01 to 3.05 picks.

QB - Presumably Peyton Manning is already drafted, and not by you. The player most people are thinking about now is the one considered to have the best odds to beat Manning for the #1 QB spot by season's end, Carson Palmer, with an ADP right in this area of the draft.

If you really want a Tier 2 QB, then taking Palmer here looks about right, because all of Palmer's similarly projected peers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Marc Bulger, are being drafted in the mid-3rd to mid-4th on average. That is your long turn, so you may not get any of them back with your 4th rounder.

Personally I really like Carson Palmer, but I would generally not draft him this year. Unless the first 2 rounds of the draft truly went according to my worst case scenario (all players taken that I like, left with scraps), there will be good choices at other positions I'd feel better about drafting first. Plus it is possible Bulger makes it back to the late 4th, and there is always Jon Kitna lasting to the 5th/6th (or later), Donovan McNabb and other "hold their own" choices (will be good enough at the QB position for you) much later.

RB or WR - Depending how RB obsessed and/or WR friendly your league is, you may have all of those choices at RB listed above in Round 3, or you could possibly have none of them. This could dictate what direction you go with your pick.

I'm going to recommend the tried and true, take the best player available strategy. If there are good WR that have slipped through the 2nd round, then grab them now. If there is a RB you are excited about still on the board, and you haven't drafted 2 already, then go RB.

Let's assume the first 19 picks were taken that we listed in the prior 2 rounds, down to Edgerrin James. Then Portis, Benson, Jones, Harrison and Holt make up the rest of Round 2. That leaves us with

  • Brandon Jacobs
  • Cadillac Williams
  • Deuce McAllister
  • Marshawn Lynch


  • Terrell Owens
  • Reggie Wayne
  • Roy Williams
  • Larry Fitzgerald

...and others of course. The thing is beyond Jacobs, the rest of those RB have a much later ADP than the value of your pick in the 3rd. This really looks like the WR round. If your league starts 2 RB and is not awarding a point-per-reception, then it is tough to justify coming out of this round with a RB-WR-WR roster.

Really look at your 2nd and 3rd picks as a package deal. What pair of players can you take in these rounds to maximize your potential and minimize the risk? Maybe if you are just as confident in Reggie Wayne or Roy Williams as your #1 WR instead of Harrison, Holt or Owens, then back in the 2nd round, go against my earlier recommendation to take a WR. Take a RB instead or even Peyton Manning if he lasted that long. Actually, that sounds pretty good to me having a top tier player at each of 3 positions QB-RB-WR. This is where it really pays to know your league scoring and starting lineup. Can you get away with this, or are 2 RB a must? Make sure you know the answer to this before your 2nd round pick.

TE - Antonio Gates is still there, and my trigger finger is twitching. In the standard setup I'm using for this article though, I don't pull the trigger. If it is point-per-reception, then I strongly consider it. Many wouldn't, and instead will recommend getting value in a Vernon Davis or Jason Witten much later. I really like Davis and Witten myself, and they certainly will come at a lesser cost per fantasy point, if that is the way you want to assess value.

What Gates brings to the table though is what I like to call "premium points". These are points that vault him into an elite tier all himself, that ultimately are worth more because of the separation they create from all other players at his position. You have to pay extra for those. It may very well be worth it.

Will another TE put up points similar to Gates? Possible. Is Gates guaranteed to finish as the #1 TE this season? The only guarantee in fantasy football is that there are no guarantees. However, Gates offers a unique combination of premium points and at the same time is an extremely safe pick, offering more certainty he will hit his projected numbers and be a positive force in your lineup than a Brandon Jacobs or Cadillac Williams.

The safety of Gates is very similar to Peyton Manning. A rock solid, worry free piece of the puzzle. The difference for me though, which is why I'm shying away from Manning a little in this article, is I don't see the same premium points potential from him. (Not to mention you're unlikely to get Manning from one of these draft slots.) I can see I'm going to have to expand on this premium points idea some time. Getting back on track though, in non-PPR, Gates = no. In PPR, Gates = very possible.

Rounds 4 and 5

Here are some possible rosters you've acquired through 3 rounds:

Team A Team B Team C Team D
RB L. Tomlinson RB J. Addai RB F. Gore RB L. Johnson
WR T. Owens WR T. Holt WR M. Harrison RB C. Benson
QB C. Palmer RB B. Jacobs TE A. Gates WR R. Wayne

The Gore-Harrison-Gates combo is primed for a PPR league. The Johnson-Benson-Wayne is potentially devastating against opponents in a TD heavy league (and assuming a top QB slips back in the 4th).

The ADP varies a lot more from here on out, but time to give it a shot anyway and see what players do not make it back to us having been taken in the 3rd and early 4th round, for a total of 19 picks.

Carson Palmer Brandon Jacobs Terrell Owens Antonio Gates
Drew Brees Marshawn Lynch Reggie Wayne  
Tom Brady Deuce McAllister Roy Williams  
Marc Bulger   Larry Fitzgerald  
    T.J. Houshmandzadeh  
    Javon Walker  
    Anquan Boldin  
    Randy Moss  
    Donald Driver  
    Marques Colston  
    Andre Johnson  

It was quite the WR run, which is another reason why I put such importance on getting a top WR with either the 2nd or 3rd round pick. These other guys are trying to catch up to you, but they're having a tough time of it since you already have a better 1st RB, a better 1st WR (other than perhaps the Chad Johnson and Steve Smith owners), and you may have a top tier player at QB (Palmer) or the top TE in Gates. Many of them will have a better 2nd RB than you, so let's look at that first.

RB - Yikes, I mentioned Cadillac Williams back as someone to think about in the early 3rd, and he slipped all the way back to us in the 4th. Cadillac is similar to Kevin Jones when he was entering his third year, last year. Do we get the guy who ripped it up as a rookie, or the one who stumbled through his 2nd season when those late 1st round drafters (suckers) rolled the dice on him? These are the kind of decisions you need to make waiting to the 4th/5th for your 2nd RB. The choices aren't too bad though, overall, and you do have an option to double up at RB here if you feel the value is right.

  • Cadillac Williams
  • Adrian Peterson (Vikings)
  • Marion Barber
  • Deangelo Williams
  • Ahman Green
  • Jerious Norwood
  • Jamal Lewis

Double up is not a bad option. There is no rule saying you have to draft all of your starters before your backups. Consider the likelihood of Adrian Peterson taking over the full-time job from Chester Taylor and lighting it up down the stretch. Also consider the likelihood of Ahman Green starting well but fading towards the end of the season as the games and carries on a sub-par team start to pile up. You have to balance your boom-or-bust picks with some steady, reliable guys - or what you expect to be reliable guys.

In a lot of leagues there will not be all of these guys available, because other teams have drafted more RB than my ADP data would indicate. In that case though you've been left with some better QB and WR choices from the above list.

QB - Hopefully Brees, Bulger or Brady are there for you. This would be a nice spot to take one of them and secure a quality starter at half the cost of Manning or Palmer. If these are all gone though, then consider these other two guys who have top 3 potential and are a notch up from a larger group of similarly projected QB.

  • Donovan McNabb
  • Jon Kitna

Of course, there is a greater risk with these guys which is why they are getting drafted into the 5th and even early 6th for Kitna. I'm one to tend to push the ADP on the QB position, and what I mean by that is, if I'm not getting a deal, then I'm not buying. So, McNabb I might consider here if I already secured 2 RB and I wasn't that happy with the rest of the available choices for this pair of picks.

Kitna on the other hand, I would probably pass and just see how far he falls. If he comes back for the 6th/7th round, then great, let's scoop him up then. If he doesn't, then move on to the next QB tier and go bargain shopping there. Vince Young's rushing yards start to look pretty good at that point.

This is not quite the same as the tried and true "wait on a QB to the end" strategy that many people have been preaching in recent years - which failed miserably in 2006. By all means take a top QB. Just don't overpay for your QB.

WR - Lee Evans is available. Do me a personal favor and draft Lee Evans if he is available for you in the 4th or 5th round (assuming no other remarkable value falls to you). You won't be disappointed. Well, I don't think you will. No guarantees and all that. Here is the whole group of WR we're looking at:

  • Lee Evans
  • Plaxico Burress
  • Hines Ward
  • Reggie Brown
  • Calvin Johnson
  • Deion Branch
  • Laveranues Coles
  • Santana Moss
  • Darrell Jackson

That is a good looking group of receivers to choose from. Yet another reason to thank the fantasy Gods for that early pick.

The only additional comment I'll make here, after jumping off my Evans soapbox, is if you are keen to draft a guy like Calvin Johnson, make sure to get a steady veteran later you can count on. An Isaac Bruce or Derrick Mason type. Rookie WR do not have a good track record (with known exceptions of course), but Johnson is a rookie, and he could just as easily struggle as any other scenario. You need a guy you can slot in if Johnson does not pan out, or if it takes him a little while to get in gear.

Balance the boom or bust picks. All things being equal, you are almost assured you are overpaying for Johnson here. I don't mind people taking risks, but take calculated risks and a steady vet in your WR4 spot will help mitigate the risk of having a boom or bust WR2 like Johnson.

TE - This will be a short discussion. Tony Gonzalez is going early 6th as the next TE off the board. I don't even understand that given Gonzalez's low TD numbers in 2006 (5) and 2005 (2). Vernon Davis is going mid-6th. Shockey late-6th. Then Heap and Winslow in the 7th. Anyway, it should be apparent that we won't be drafting a TE in the 4th/5th.

DEF - Bears. Ravens. Yeah, these defenses are good. In most all leagues this is too early. Let's revisit this in the 6th/7th round.

Rounds 6 and 7 and Beyond

We've got the core of our team through 5 rounds. Not all of our starters, but the group of players we are counting on the most. Now it is time to complement them with the remaining starters and quality backups. At this point I would expect most of our rosters consist of 2 RB, 2 WR and Gates or 1 QB or a 3rd RB.

I'm about to pass the 10 page mark on this draft plan, and should almost just turn it over to my tiering article to take it home, but let's close with some quick comments at each position.

QB - The same applies as I wrote in the last section on QB. If you don't have one, then look for a bargain. You don't want to sleep on the position too long, but depending on how keen the others in your league are at grabbing their starting QB, you could still have a fair bit of flexibility here. In a slow draft I'm currently in (not drafting at the top), Philip Rivers was drafted 10th, Vince Young 11th and Ben Roethlisberger 12th. That's not bad.

One team didn't even draft his first QB until the 12th round - Eli Manning. Even that isn't bad in my mind. If you draft your starting QB late though, then invest a little more than you otherwise would on the backup. If you did get Peyton Manning or Palmer, then you can afford to wait longer for the backup.

Deep picks to exceed their draft spot: Matt Schaub and Jason Campbell, each typically getting drafted in the 13th round or later.

RB - Backup your main starter or not? It depends what is costs, but generally, yes, I think you should. Its like buying insurance. If you have LT then why not back him up with Michael Turner who has you covered with continued top 3 RB fantasy points if the cost of that insurance isn't too expensive? Turner is borderline expensive, so it will depend if someone swipes him on you or not.

In other cases, if the backup isn't very clear then don't feel compelled to grab someone. The player still takes up a valuable roster spot. I like Brian Leonard at a very reasonable cost for Steven Jackson owners. Michael Robinson for Frank Gore, maybe, but Robinson may not be suitable for a starter position. The Colts' backup behind Joseph Addai is such a mess right now, better off just to pass on that situation.

Deep picks to exceed their draft spot: DeShaun Foster (9th), Leon Washington (11th but rising), Adrian Peterson (12th - the other one).

WR - I had a discussion with a friend the other day who was making a deep draft pick at WR. He already had 5 WR on his roster, and was considering Joe Jurevicius (his idea) vs. Maurice Stovall (my idea). My thought pattern: you're drafting WR late, so go for young and upside guys who have a chance to blow up and be regular starters, similar to Marques Colston and Mike Furrey who came out of no where a year ago.

What good is Jurevicius to your roster? He will never start for your team in a 12 team, start 3 WR league. At least I hope not. If you draft a boom or bust young WR and he is doing nothing, that's fine, chalk it up to a mistake and cut him for another guy. I know I said balance the boom or bust players earlier, but at WR once you're filling the 5th or deeper WR, go boom or bust. If you hit one who booms, then your team is remarkably better as you've just struck gold.

Stockpile WR is also a good strategy, just for more chances to strike gold. Especially in point-per-reception leagues, and especially in leagues where you can start 4 WR.

Deep picks to exceed their draft spot: Kevin Curtis (9th), Derrick Mason (11th - gut feeling and I'm not sure why) and Patrick Crayton (14th).

TE - The 6th and 7th round is a good spot to grab a TE if you didn't get Antonio Gates. The targets include Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, Vernon Davis and Chris Cooley. I'm personally not high on Tony Gonzalez and Todd Heap, so I don't foresee the TE position being as deep as some would suggest, which I guess goes back to helping explain my obsession with Gates.

While I realize some people are happy waiting for a deeper sleeper TE like Owen Daniels or Eric Johnson, it seems to me like you aren't getting enough benefit from waiting that long for your first TE. Those guys are better second TE for the time being. Don't give up a starting position like that because you could get beat by your opponent there every week.

Deep picks to exceed their draft spot: Jason Witten (9th), Owen Daniels (13th - its not like I don't like the guy; I'm just saying he's a better 2nd TE) and Bo Scaife (15th+)

K - Last two rounds guys and gals. The last two rounds.

DEF - I used to recommend just not drafting a defense until the late rounds. The Bears and Ravens have been so good though, its been tough to stick to that. Stick to it I will! Just kidding. Well, I personally will stick to it because I'd still rather stockpile RB and WR while the Bears and Ravens invariably get drafted much higher than I'd be willing to take them. I won't knock someone for taking one of them though, in a league where DEF scoring is significant. The ADP is the mid-7th for both, but will fluctuate quite a bit depending on the league.

Assuming you fall in my camp about taking a DEF late, then I say take them really late. Before the K but not much before. Play the matchups and there will be viable DEF on the waiver wire, so I'm happy to draft 1 short-term DEF and work from there once the season starts.

Deep picks: Jets, Redskins and teams playing against the Vikings.

Final Thoughts

Enjoy having an early draft pick. In fact, rub it in you have an early draft pick to those guys down at the bottom of the draft order in your league, but make sure you back it up by maximizing your draft spot. You're in position to do it, especially if you are sitting with that prized #1 pick. Lucky S.O.B.