Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Talent + Time = Draft Value

We all read the same cheat sheets before we acquire our fantasy football teams, and we all discuss the same superstars we’d love to draft in the first three rounds. But just as often as these studs carry our teams throughout the season, it is important to also recognize the benefits of mid-to-late round value picks. Many fantasy football newbies get to the latter stages of their draft, start frantically browsing their lists, and can’t find a name they recognize to fill out their roster. So-called value picks fall into three categories: 1) football players that constitute a value pick were either once-hyped and fell down the depth chart but are now in an improved situation (this situation could be attributed to a change of scenery, changes in surrounding team talent, or a coaching change) , 2) were former studs whose stock dropped after an injury and are now healthy again, or 3) consistent performers tested by the arrival of a new teammate who is competing for their job. In any case, the following is a list of quality NFL footballers whose draft stock is lower during the preseason/draft time than it will be by season’s end:

In most leagues, only the can’t-miss premiere QBs (in this year’s case, Brady and Brees) will get drafted in a typical fantasy league within the first two rounds. Any quarterback besides those two shouldn’t be expected to be taken until at least the third round. It’s not that there is a shortage of QB talent in this year’s pool, but the separation of perceived value in the second tier of QBs is shorter between a Tony Romo and, say, Donovan McNabb. If healthy, Romo and McNabb should put up comparable numbers and have similar value, but McNabb might get snapped up in the fifth round while Romo gets taken in the eighth. My point is, you can probably wait a few rounds on a franchise QB and the value dropoff would be minimal and first concentrate on acquiring a Pro Bowl RB2, WR2, WR3 and TE1.

QB - Carson Palmer (QB – Cin) Although he lost his most productive receiver to free agency, Carson Palmer, who is 100% recovered from elbow trouble after playing only four games last season, is a great candidate for a bounce-back year. Palmer was fantasy royalty a few years ago, but has become an afterthought even though he is still in the prime of his career at age 29. Since the Bengals replaced All-Pro wideout TJ Houshmanzadeh with the very capable Laveraneus Coles, he won’t lose a ton of production given that WR1 Chad Ochocinco looks revitalized. Palmer’s minor ankle sprain should be fine by Week 1, and Palmer has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of cheapie stats in the league the past few years playing for a subpar franchise like the Bengals. You could do a lot worse than use an eighth round pick for what could be a productive 4000-yard season with 20-25 TDs.

QB - Peyton Manning (Ind) - Even as a third-rounder, the elder Manning should be considered a great value pick. When Peyton Manning is your QB1, it’s easier to sleep at night because he never misses a game, and he puts up consistent monster stats. Peyton may not be this year’s trendy, sexy pick that people gush over in the preseason, but statistically speaking, he’s the Alex Rodriguez of fantasy football. Target him as a third-round pick, grab him before he falls to the fourth, and thank me in January.

QB - Matt Schaub (Hou) - While Schaub's ADP has risen in the past month, he will still fly under the radar more so than 2008 postseason heroes Phillip Rivers and Kurt Warner. He had one of the best offensive arsenals from top to bottom, and all 11 members of the Texan offense are returning in 2009. Don't be afraid to reach for Schaub in the fifth round, because he could be the next Drew Brees.

Most fantasy footballers have had the philosophy of drafting RBs early drilled into their heads since they started playing; that unless you’re drafting a Tom Brady or Larry Fitzgerald, you had better pick your RB1 with one of, if not both of your first two picks. If you feel you missed out on truly elite running backs, then target backs who have at least 40 catches, as this mathematically translates to an extra 6-10 TDs, depending on your scoring system. Targeting TJ-Duckett types who may only garner a handful of rushing yards but might score multiple TDs can be a risky proposition if, say, Seattle can’t crack the red zone consistently. Conversely, pass-catching RBs can score points for your team from anywhere on the football field.

RB – Leon Washington (NYJ) – Although the Jets backfield appears crowded with rookie Shonne Greene competing with incumbent starter Thomas Jones, Washington is a unique talent in the vein of Reggie Bush. He is extremely elusive, can return punts and kicks, and finds unusual ways of getting touches. Jets coach Rex Ryan has said that Washington’s role will increase this year, and you can still grab him as a dynamic RB4 in the latter rounds of your draft. If he gets between 200-300 touches and stays healthy, expect Leon’s best statistical season to date. The Jets aren’t paying him a reported $4-5 million per year so he can serve as a decoy, and he’ll be needed as a safety valve for the young Jet QBs when they’re facing a heavy pass rush.

RB - Brandon Jacobs (NYG) - Jacobs has proven he can be a touchdown machine, has shown improved hands in training camp, and the Giants figure to base more of its offensive attack around the run after lost Pro Bowl wideout Plaxico Burress. Ahmad Bradshaw will take most of the load left by Derrick Ward, but he’ll also keep Jacobs fresh. As Jacobs has averaged only 211 carries each of the last two seasons, he still has low miles on the engine. If he duplicates his 15 TD season with more receptions than a year ago, he becomes a mid-first round pick. You can probably get him in the early-to-mid second round this year.

RB - LaDainian Tomlinson (SD) - LaDainian may not quite be at the peak of his prime anymore, but he’s still a first-round pick capable of 1700 combined yards, 14 TD, and 50 catches. This could be a huge year for San Diego, as they are one of the most balanced teams in football. As Phillip Rivers has established himself and the Charger passing game, opposing defenses won’t key on LT like they did earlier in his career. If, for any reason, Tomlinson slips out of the first round, grab him, as he is 100% healthy.

RB - Reggie Bush (NO) - After his reputation took a beating when people realized he wasn’t going to be the same NFL wunderkind that he was in college, many people have written Bush off. When the Saints’ offense isn’t clicking at certain times, QB Drew Brees tends to just dump the ball to Bush, and watch him create yards with his explosive burst and dynamic ability. He won’t get 300 carries like other second round picks, but he can score 10 TDs with 80 catches and over 1000 combined yards if he plays a Westbrook-esque full season (in other words, fully expect him to miss 1-2 games). If Bush is available in the latter stages of the third round, grab him, as he seems to be fully recovered from offseason knee surgery.

Wide receiver is undoubtedly the deepest position of available talent in fantasy football. While there is sometimes only one QB, RB or TE worth targeting on one NFL team, some teams like the Saints, Broncos, Cardinals or Texans have as many as three wideouts one would be proud to have on their roster. If there is one position you can wait on to fill out the rest of your slots at that particular position, it’s wide receiver. You probably couldn’t find a 4000-yard passer or a 1200-yard tailback in the eleventh round of a typical fantasy draft, but you can probably choose from at least a half-dozen 70 reception, 1000-yard receivers at that stage. Don’t get me wrong: the Fitzgeralds, Megatrons and Andre Johnsons will be gone in the first three rounds, but you’d be surprised at the surfeit of talent at wideout that is available towards the end of your draft.

WR - Donnie Avery (StL) – Donnie Football’s ADP stock has taken a hit with a stress-fracture in his left foot. His injury may even keep him out of Week 1, which has rendered him a mere afterthought in many fantasy drafts. Avery has made a speedy recovery, and will likely be Marc Bulger’s #1 target when the Rams begin the regular season. Bulger and Avery were developing a solid rapport last year before Avery hit the proverbial “rookie wall.” Factor in that the Rams are a fairly awful team outside of Stephen Jackson, you can expect a heap of cheapie stats when they’re losing by multiple scores in the second half of most of their games in 2009. If Avery is still available at the end of your draft, he could be a solid WR4 as the season gets underway.

WR - Jerricho Cotchery (NYJ) – With Laveranues Coles gone to Cincinnati, Cotchery becomes the unquestioned top receiving option in the Jets’ passing game. Regardless of who wins the starting QB job for the Jets, Cotchery is a very talented possession receiver with a penchant for acrobatic catches and making clutch plays. His 2008 numbers were down, which can be attributed to newcomer Brett Favre’s learning the Jets’ playbook on the fly. But given that the 2009 starting QB has had more offseason and preseason time to prepare, Cotchery should be properly synced up with his signal caller come Week 1.

WR – Hines Ward (Pit) – Your fellow league mates will probably still have the image of Santonio Holmes’ Super Bowl-winning catch fresh in their minds, and will select Holmes six rounds earlier than Ward. But Hines, who has been a consistent part of the Pittsburgh passing game for most of his entire 10-year career, has declared himself 100% from lingering shoulder and knee injuries headed into this season. He should be happy after signing a $22-million contract, and could be in for another 70-80 catch, 8 TD season as a nice value pick after the tenth or eleventh round.

WR – Donald Driver (GB) – Driver has been a paradigm of consistency in fantasy football the last several years. Since 2002, he has missed only two games, and as he has garnered 1000 receiving yards each year since 2004,he is one of the most reliable possession receivers in the league. Aaron Rogers has proven to be the real deal as Brett Favre’s successor in Titletown, fellow WR Greg Jennings will draw opposing teams’ top cornerback, and Driver should continue to flourish in Green Bay’s West Coast Offense with plenty of short-to-medium passes coming his way. Lastly, you can expect the motivated Driver to play 2009 with a heavy heart as he continues to mourn Alcorn State teammate Steve McNair’s offseason murder.

Tight ends are considered a tertiary concern to most fantasy owners. Tight end is also a position where eighth-round selections can yield production about equal to, if not more than, a “can’t miss” fourth-rounder. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who used a third-round pick on Antonio Gates, who accrued a disappointing 60 catches for 704 yards last year. Then look at the number of tight ends who out-performed Gates, in spite of the fact that Gates played all 16 regular season games.

TE – Chris Cooley (Was) – Cooley’s name is rarely mentioned when fans and experts discuss NFL’s elite tight ends. Every fantasy footballer wants a Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, or a Tony Gonzalez as their starting TE, but acquiring a name like one of the aforementioned three will probably cost as much as a third-round pick in some drafts. Coming off a season in which Cooley scored one measly touchdown, Redskins coach Jim Zorn has reportedly promised Cooley that the tight end will find the end zone “at least” six times. The ‘Skins top wideout, Santana Moss is, for the most part, a deep threat, and the lack of a true WR2 in Washington means that Cooley will be QB Jason Campbell’s primary target in the medium-range passing game. Cooley has never missed a game, has shown admirable consistency with flashes of greatness at times during his career, and is still in his prime at 27 years old. Target Cooley around the eighth round after the so-called “elite” TEs are gone.

TE - John Carlson (Sea) – Carlson first appeared on most fantasy radars when he exploded for a 6-catch, 105-yard game on Thanksgiving against the Cowboys. He has demonstrated great catching abilities as well as a profound understanding of the pro game at such a young age, that he can expect more playing time this year, and probably more production. In spite of TJ Houshmanzadeh’s arrival, Seahawk offensive coordinator Greg Knapp runs an offense that heavily involves tight ends, so expect more good things from Carlson in his second season in Seattle.

TE - Zach Miller (Oak) – The Raiders are still, at best, a mediocre team, but given their depth issues at wide receiver coupled with Miller’s productive 56-catch, 778-yard rookie season, expect similar numbers with a few more TDs sprinkled in. The Raider coaching staff could line up Miller in the slot given the lack of available talent at wideout. If Oakland QB1 JaMarcus Russell, who is approaching thin ice in his third year, falters or gets injured, Jeff Garcia would serve as a favorable passer who would benefit Miller and his fantasy owners.

TE – Jeremy Shockey (NO) – Remember him? He’s healthy, he’s established great timing with QB Drew Brees, he’s having a remarkable preseason, he’s out of the Saints’ coaching doghouse, and he’ll have plenty of red zone scoring opportunities in his second season on the offensive juggernaut Saints. Even in an injury-riddled 2008, he still managed 50 catches, and could approach loftier totals akin to his salad days in New York if he can stay off the injury report in 2009.

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