Equal Upside and the Quandary of the #1 Pick

I will be honest: the lockout jaded me. I was never particularly concerned about losing the 2011 season, or even a few games, but I did not go actively searching for mock drafts to whet my appetite for fantasy. What was the point? Everything would change anyway. Instead, I focused my attention on everything that’s gone up on this site over the last few weeks, namely the player profiles, and several things that have yet to come.

But – and I knew this would happen – draft season has descended upon us quickly. I like to draft as late as possible every year, but I’m sure I’ll be doing at least one draft within the next week. We don’t even have time to digest free agency before we have to assign values to the players that moved on. Hell, soon after I started throwing this post together, the Lions signed Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell to replace the injured Mikel Leshoure. No sooner did we bump up Jahvid Best’s value than we had to speculate on what the arrival of Harrison, in particular, means.

Of course, the mid rounds always have uncertainty. Even in a normal, non-lockout year, we’re either going to gamble on the upside of an unknown in the 5th round or hope that some aging veteran has just one more year left in him. But the uncertainty has trickled to the top of drafts this season: “Who is the #1 pick in fantasy in 2011?” In the specialized NFL of recent years, there’s usually a debate. Last year, we fought over Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson. In 2009, it was Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew. But in 2011, if you ask the same question, there’s a good chance you’ll see five different answers on five different sites.

Why is this? Certainly, the lockout has forced us to keep our guards up. If you choke on the #1 overall pick, you probably aren’t going anywhere. But there are still stellar options available at numero uno, guys we have to feel comfortable with adding to our teams.

So why the trepidation? I’ll have to throw out a hat tip to Avery Porter, a listener on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio who summed up the top-of-the-draft quandary in two words: “equal upside.” Simple, right? But it makes perfect sense. Think about the near-consensus top five backs available in 2011:

  • Arian Foster had a monster year last year, but he’s battling a hamstring injury early in camp. Will that linger? Will the Texans try to get Ben Tate more involved to lighten Foster’s load?
  • Adrian Peterson is the best RB in the NFL in terms of skillset, but he plays behind an awful offensive line in an incredibly difficult division. He struggled with injuries late last year, and it looks like teams will be able to load up eight in the box against the Vikings this year.
  • Jamaal Charles is coming off a year in which he averaged more than 6.0 YPC. But we really struggle to assume Charles will repeat that mark (look at Chris Johnson from 2009 to 2010), and you never know how head coach Todd Haley will use Charles in goal-line situations with both Thomas Jones and Le’Ron McClain in town.
  • Ray Rice was looking like the chic #1 pick for a bit, with the Ravens losing both Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain in the backfield, plus cutting key weapons Derrick Mason and Todd Heap in the passing game. But Baltimore signed Ricky Williams yesterday, and while Williams won’t totally carve into Rice’s role, he still has a bit left in the tank.
  • Chris Johnson is holding out, so he’s not even practicing as of this posting. And although the Titans added QB Matt Hasselbeck to help him out, he’s still going to have to do it all by himself if the Titans are to have a respectable offense. Last year, we saw Johnson use his patience as a crutch, trying to break big runs too often as opposed to taking what he could get.

How much money would you be willing to put on AP having a better year than Ray Rice in 2011?

Sure, I’m focusing on the downside of each of these players, but I’m using it to make the point that I’d be equally happy with any of the five to start my fantasy team this year. In other words, if I’m forced to pick Johnson because Charles is off the board, so be it. If Foster falls to me because of injury concerns, I’m thrilled. Put it this way: as we stand right now, would you be willing to put big money on Peterson having a better year than Rice for fantasy purposes?

That’s why, if I land the #1 or #2 pick in my leagues this year, I’m shopping the pick. Absolutely no doubt about it. If I can pick up an extra mid-round pick or two to drop from #1 to #5 this season, I’m doing it. It’s not that I’m scared to choose between any of the top five backs, it’s just that I’m completely fine with any of them on my roster, and if I can use the sexy top picks as a bargaining chip to pick up some extra upside in the middle rounds, I’m going to do it. By the same token, if I’m picking #4 or #5 overall, I’m not looking to trade up by any means. I feel just as good about Rice as I do about Foster, or even if I have Foster slightly ahead on my board, I don’t believe the risk to be worth moving up.

Past that top five, things start to get sticky. I have to admit, although I’m not thrilled with the idea, the sixth pick (#6) is where I start to seriously consider taking Michael Vick off the board. I might be a little more bullish on Vick than my colleagues here at Guru, but I see a player who could easily be the #1 overall player in fantasy yet again. But with Vick, I also see enormous risk that the top five backs don’t have, so I’d drop him below that tier. Then, we fall into Andre Johnson (how soon are you willing to take a WR?), LeSean McCoy (will he get enough touches to justify a top-seven pick), and Maurice Jones-Drew (is he really healthy), among others.

That’s why, if I’m picking in the top five this year, I’m probably more comfortable choosing at #4 or #5. Past that, I see winning strategies at the back end of the first round, too. And with guys like Roddy White, Drew Brees, Calvin Johnson, and Larry Fitzgerald potentially available in the early to mid second, I sure love that high second-round pick. Along those lines, if I trade down from #1, I’m certainly loving the extra upside I might get with an additional pick or two in the middle rounds (and hell, someone might totally overpay for the pick, as well).

Obviously, different scoring systems will have different implications on the draft order. In many leagues, Vick’s upside is so high that he has to go #1 overall. In non-PPR leagues, Charles and Rice might fall a tier below the others. But the point here is to illustrate just how close some of these guys are. A 25-yard catch in Week Six, a TD in Week Eleven, and a fumble in Week Thirteen might be all that separates Peterson and Johnson this year. And the difference between winning and losing a fantasy league might be that sixth-round pick I gained when trading down from the #1 overall slot.

Category: Joe Dolan

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4 Responses

  1. Idiot Savant says:

    Joe…many of us on the message boards at Guru have had a conversation, and I agree Vick would be the viable choice…as a “Play to win” strategy…but with Maclin’s status…I think the strategy becomes less viable. Rumors are not fact…but he’s lost 18+ lbs and the word is he’s seriously ill. I hope not. As for Chris Johnson, he’s on my DND list as a starter for my team until he gets a contract. In my not so humple opinion, this is getting ugly, he’s lost a year of service by not reporting…meaning, he will hold out rather than risk injuring himself while playing for what he considers peanuts.

  2. Ariakis says:

    Hey Joe great read. I am getting ready to start my big money WCOFF style league. It’ll kick off with a random roll to determine the order we PICK our draft spot. If I end up high enough do you see a spot that may offer a competative advantage? It’s a 3 round reversal with PPR, 1QB,2RB,3WR,1TE,1PK,1DT,1UTIL. Being a PPR I would add McCoy to the top tier plus AJ then you’re talking MJD, Calvin, and the next tier of WR. With only 4 for a passing TD the QB’s are valuable but not worth such a high pick.

    In past years the WR’s *fly* off the board and given the depth at RB a strategy of WR/WR may be best while picking around the 10 spot. It ensures you get an elite WR and then either a 2nd elite WR or a very strong RB if the rest of the WR’s go. Picking early first you suffer late 2nd and late 3rd round choices to take one of those riskier than normal RB’s.

    So … I’m thinking 9-12 then 5-8 but I’m usually a RB first owner so how would you go?

  3. Scott says:

    Joe,

    I am in a 12 man PPR league where each year we get to keep one player…. We play w/ two RB’s and three WR’s and so I would like your advice on who to keep in this years draft… I could keep Ahmad Bradshaw and loose my 6th round pick, or keep Mike Williams from Tampa Bay and loose my 8th round pick…. Which should I do?

    Thanks,
    Sucker Punch

  4. I.L. Brody says:

    What is the suggested drafting strategy for drafting Rodgers or Brees in a 12 team draft that takes place after Thursday’s opener. Neither QB’s scores will be counted for week one? If one does draft either around their ADP when do you go after your #2 QB as he will in essence account for two starts? Or should one just stay away from this kind of draft?

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