Let's face it. Fantasy football is a lot harder to win than it used to be. It's much rarer these days to find that owner who shows up to the draft table with a year-old cheat sheet, mispronounces his quarterback as "Brent Far," selects a kicker in the seventh round and winds up trading you Tom Brady for Beanie Wells. With so much information packed into the ESPN Draft Kit, it's pretty simple to draft a competitive team by just following your appropriate cheat sheet.
So how do you get that edge? For me, it's the experience of mock drafting. Although I have been playing fantasy football since the early 1990s, when I compiled my neighborhood league's touchdown-only fantasy league results during ESPN's "NFL Primetime," I never stop learning new tricks. This is especially true when I'm asked to join our merry mocking band of ESPN.com experts -- Eric Karabell, Christopher Harris, Tristan H. Cockcroft, KC Joyner, AJ Mass, Jim McCormick, Shawn Cwalinski, Keith Lipscomb, James Quintong, Brendan Roberts and Dave Hunter -- who were kind enough to dispense their own valuable fantasy advice at the bottom of this column, covering a wide range of topics.
Before we get to the final 12-team experts mock draft, conducted Aug. 29 with standard scoring, the analysts answered what I felt were the most prevalent questions surrounding draft day:
Our Analysts Say ...
Here is how the draft unfolded. (Click here for rosters by team.)
Round 1 analysis: Joyner kicked off the draft with Aaron Rodgers, and the next six picks didn't contain any surprises. Karabell's selection of Larry Fitzgerald raised one of my eyebrows, and Mass opened my eyes wide by taking Maurice Jones-Drew at No. 9. Mass doesn't think Jones-Drew will miss more than a couple of games. "I just feel if you have confidence in your ability to draft value later on, you can afford the one- or two-week hit," Mass said. "Just don't take Ryan Mathews in Round 2."
I hoped Drew Brees would drop to me, but Matthew Stafford was a fine consolation prize. In a 12-team league, I really wanted one of the four stud quarterbacks, and Stafford, coming off a 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown season and scheduled to play just one freezing-cold game all year, will be just fine.
Round 2 analysis: Cockcroft took the two guys I wanted, Matt Forte and Rob Gronkowski, so I felt I needed a running back or would be stuck with a Stevan Ridley type as my RB1 at the end of Round 3. Marshawn Lynch was the best running back on the board, so I took him with the hopes that his back spasms will subside and that a suspension will not be forthcoming.
The inevitable four-RB run started at No. 16, capped off by Quintong grabbing Adrian Peterson at No. 19. "I'll gamble a bit on Peterson's health at this point," Quintong said. "And I think I've got a nice start with Calvin Johnson, so I didn't necessarily feel like I wanted another WR, or Jimmy Graham or Cam Newton."
The two other players I considered at No. 14 -- Graham and Roddy White -- went 20th and 23rd, respectively. Hunter was delighted to grab White that low, noting that he is underrated almost every year.
Round 3 analysis: With the top five signal-callers off the board, nobody took a quarterback in Round 3, which consisted of six running backs and six wide receivers. Joyner was pleased to begin the round with Julio Jones. "Jones rates fourth on my WR charts," Joyner said. "I really like him as a third-round pick."
After a double shot of Jacksons, Harris grabbed the first rookie of the draft, Trent Richardson. I asked Harris whether taking Richardson was a product of the running back position getting low on talent (14 were off the board) or he was simply the best player available in his mind. "Picking Richardson was more about thinning RBs, especially for a 12-team league," Harris said. "Truthfully, I have Frank Gore rated above him, but I haven't taken Richardson at all in mocks and decided I'd try the higher-upside guy this time."
Speaking of high upsides, because of the great wide receiver depth still available, A.J. Green slipped to No. 33 to Mass. Considering Cwalinski rates Green as his No. 3 wideout behind Johnson and Fitzgerald, I wondered why he chose Fred Jackson at No. 27 instead of pouncing on Green, the No. 26 overall player in the latest ESPN.com rankings. "I didn't want to take a WR yet," Cwalinski said. "I am waiting on WR this time to see what my team looks like by doing so. I wanted to do something different in this draft, but I'm regretting it now."
Round 4 analysis: This round began with three running backs, as Cockcroft and I and Roberts all needed an RB2 and didn't want to see what was left at the end of Round 5. Mass broke a 17-pick quarterback drought with Eli Manning, which was promptly followed by a run of four wide receivers, capped off by Percy Harvin going to McCormick at No. 44. McCormick had second thoughts about his selection when Cwalinski grabbed Doug Martin two picks later. "I regret not going after Martin with my pick, knowing how much C-Dub values him," McCormick said.
In between Harvin and Martin was Harris grabbing Michael Vick. "Vick and Shady McCoy -- dang it, I'm getting those Philly rushing TDs!" Harris said.
Round 5 analysis: The good crop of receivers I mentioned went by rather quickly with a run of five straight wide receivers to start the round. Hunter grabbed Jeremy Maclin at No. 50, while Harris gladly took Dez Bryant at No. 52, touching off a string of quality banter:
Harris: "Maclin over Dez? Really?"
Cwalinski: "Bryant has one 100-yard game in his career."
Joyner: "Yep. I like Maclin's chances to have a breakout year, and I'm concerned about all of Dez's negatives."
Hunter: "Dez worries me more and more as the season gets close to starting. Not denying his talents, but a bit of a fear factor with him. Plus, I think Maclin is in for a very big year."
Mass: "Plus, if you pick Dez, your next three picks have to go to his security detail."
Harris: "C-Dub, best respective seasons: Maclin, 964 yards; Dez, 928 yards. It's hardly a case where one guy has super-outproduced the other."
Quintong ended the wide receiver run with Peyton Manning. "I like Peyton's upside for this year," Quintong said. "He seems to be in good shape during the preseason, and he's got weapons around him. I was hoping to get him at that spot. Of course, I do have a couple of risks in both Peyton and AP." To which Harris quipped, "As for Peyton, Quintong is trying to corner the market on the greatest team 2008 ever saw with AP, Michael Turner, Steve Smith and Peyton."
Four of the five final picks of the fifth round were receivers, bringing the Round 5 wide receiver total to a hefty nine.
Round 6 analysis: Serpent tail Cockcroft began the round with Tony Romo but was more excited about getting Antonio Brown at No. 60. "The thing that has struck me being in that final slot is not simply that the pickings are rough in Rounds 1 and 2. It's that, by the time your fifth-round pick [50th or 60th overall] comes up, there's a precipitous drop in talent," Cockcroft said. "I got Brown here at 60 and lucked out, so it can work. Just have some confidence in your ability to find later values and, most importantly, take chances if need be."
Having already secured a quarterback, two running backs and two wide receivers, I decided to grab another starter in TE Vernon Davis, who I think is head and shoulders above the rest of the remaining tight end pack. Also, there were no great flex options I couldn't live without. Roberts followed that with Demaryius Thomas, who surprisingly went before teammate Eric Decker. "I'm just a big believer in Thomas' upside and second half [in 2011]," Roberts said. "He's riskier than Decker, in my opinion, but I have stars in my eyes. I'm thinking big, not looking to finish a steady 7-5 in the regular season."
Round 7 analysis: Three owners were still without quarterbacks, with Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger the top three on the board. Hunter snagged Ryan at No. 74, much to the chagrin of Lipscomb, who settled for Rivers five picks later. "I officially waited too long on Ryan," Lipscomb said. "That was my debate with my sixth-round pick of Torrey Smith. I like Ryan this season, but with only three of us without a QB, I was going to take him in the seventh in hopes Hunter would continue to pass or just select Rivers or Big Ben."
McCormick was expected to take his RB2 here, having just Kevin Smith at running back at this point in the draft. But, despite already owning Jimmy Graham, he selected his second tight end in Round 7, Aaron Hernandez. What's up with that? "I took Hernandez given the flex rule, and he was my highest-rated player left," McCormick said. "And I am hoping he gets RB eligibility, given my horrid depth there."
Rounds 8-10 analysis: As experts continued to add depth to their starting lineups, Mass made sure to handcuff Jones-Drew with Rashad Jennings in Round 8. "Now I'm covered, and it only costs me an eighth-round pick," Mass said.
True to his form this mock season, Joyner broke the D/ST seal with the 49ers to begin Round 9. "I've got San Francisco as the top-rated D/ST by a wide margin," Joyner said. "Getting them as a starter seemed to be more valuable than getting a backup player at another position. I probably took them a bit earlier than usual but didn't think they would make it to pick No. 120." Considering I grabbed the Texans' D, an excellent unit but greatly lacking the potency of the Niners, in the 10th, Joyner was right.
These three rounds included six quarterback picks. Karabell took Roethlisberger in Round 8, three picks before the first QB2 came off the board, Robert Griffin III to McCormick. Speaking of Karabell, I hardly recognized his roster, as he took Jason Witten in the ninth round instead of his stalwart TE Tony Gonzalez, whom Quintong had grabbed two rounds earlier. When was the last time Karabell did not have Gonzalez on his mock roster? "About 2006," answered the Fantasy Hall of Famer, who roped me into playing in his fantasy hockey league that he dominated in the year 2000.
Having already selected Bryant and Cedric Benson, Harris chose another fantasy lightning rod in Round 10 with Kenny Britt, coming off ACL surgery and facing a possible suspension for a DUI charge, a suspension we found out later in the week would be just one game. How many games do you really expect this guy to play? "Britt's suspension will just be a game or two, and the knee might be a bigger early-season factor," Harris said. "I'd say 12 games sounds right. We're talking about a 10th-rounder, a bench guy who, on talent alone, would be borderline top 15. He was well worth grabbing, especially teaming him with Kendall Wright, so I feel like I've got a Titans fill-in WR locked down."
Rounds 11-13 analysis: As teams tried to secure backups and handcuffs, Joyner was slightly bummed that he didn't complete the Washington Redskins running back trio, missing it by one pick when Hunter capped a five-RB run by choosing Tim Hightower with the second-to-last pick of Round 12. Joyner settled for Randy Moss, then perked up with his selection of Leonard Hankerson, McCormick's deep sleeper, in Round 13. "Hankerson actually had as good/better collegiate metrics than Julio Jones in 2010," The Football Scientist said.
Rounds 14-16 analysis: Nothing too exciting about the final three rounds, which went by like a blur. The entire draft took less than an hour, averaging out to about 18 seconds per pick.
Fantasy draft advice and random thoughts
Karabell: This year more than most others, it really is best to get one of the top three or four picks so you can secure one of the top running backs. That's even if you need to trade up, assuming it's an option. I picked eighth in the final mock and was fortunate to get two running backs I liked. Past that, focus on balance, not only by position but young and old, durable and health risks, etc. I'm still avoiding quarterbacks and tight ends early, making my top five or six picks running backs and wide receivers and getting proper depth there. You can get Philip Rivers and Tony Gonzalez and fellows like that at such a bargain. Be patient there. Owners who avoid running backs early because "they all stink" won't have good running backs, period. Otherwise, enjoy the draft because it really is the best day of the season. Feel free to trash-talk to make an owner think too much about his or her picks. A lot of the time it works. One pet peeve is when an owner comes to an offline draft unprepared, with five magazines and notes. Either you know it or you don't, and if you're using too much time for each pick, it ruins the experience for everyone.
Lipscomb: I try not to get caught up in position runs, as tough as that might be at running back this season, and just take the best available player, using position scarcity only as a tiebreaker. If you like a player, don't be afraid to take him a round or two earlier than his average draft position because someone else in the league may like him as well. You'll wind up kicking yourself for waiting too long. Although I don't like to eat too much during fantasy drafts, things such as nachos, Reese's Pieces, beef jerky and popcorn make the perfect snacks because you can still man the computer or write down notes without making a mess. A simple Blow Pop will do the trick for a few rounds.
Harris: If you want to know whether you should draft Player X or Player Y, my rankings are right here. If you want to know the 10 players I think provide the most value this season, they're right here. If you want 10 super-deep sleepers, they're right here. However, if you want to know my pre-draft regimen, well, that's a secret. Suffice to say it involves a trust fall, four Saul Bellow novels and a tub of caramel corn.
Cockcroft: Draft day is one of the best days of the calendar year, after Christmas and my kids' birthdays, and you should celebrate it as such. That means do what you want, eat what you want and act how you want at the draft. That means I mostly do night drafts, spend my morning printing my draft sheet and checking the last-minute news, eat an early dinner -- chicken Parmesan or a good burger (no generic fast food) -- get to the draft about 30-40 minutes early and pretty much be cocky the entire night. I suggest you do the same. Let someone get into your head and they've defeated you, certain to show up in your final record. Don't be too cocky, but enough that you give the impression you're the expert at this. Frankly, with our rankings, you will be.
Joyner: This year's draft offers a unique opportunity for those picking at the later end of the first round. According to my draft guide, there are only 16 blue-rated players, meaning they are the truly elite picks. Two of those are tight ends who really should not be drafted until the third round, so that leaves 14 difference-makers. Teams drafting early won't get a shot at more than one of those players, but a team picking somewhere near the end of the first round will have a chance at snagging two of those picks. Being a bit contrary in a draft outlook can be a big boon for finding value picks. It can make players such as Julio Jones, Matt Forte and Matt Schaub great draft-day pickups under the right circumstances. As far as how to make the draft more enjoyable, try getting your family involved. My oldest son is just getting into football. When he got a kick out of some of the winning bids we made in a recent auction draft, it was about as cool as fantasy football gets.
Mass: The most important thing to do is to rank the players and, for the most part, stick to the list while ignoring what everyone else says or does. Don't get caught up in runs. If you have Percy Harvin as the most valuable player on the board, don't take Vernon Davis simply because Graham, Gronk and Gates went in the previous three picks. Trust that you've done the research better than your opponents and don't second-guess yourself or you'll never leave a draft happy with the results.
McCormick: Enjoy draft day, and do your best to draft with friends and make an event out of it. Live drafts are simply the best and are to be regarded as a holiday. In my league with friends from high school, we can't all get together for a live draft for a variety of reasons -- namely kids and living hundreds of miles apart. But several of us still make sure to meet up every year with laptops in tow, and it's something I look forward to, like that time Santa got me a Sega Genesis and "Joe Montana Football." Sure, there are great times to be had in the draft chat room, and we all still talk plenty of trash with our keyboards, but live harassment, humor and camaraderie is an entirely more enjoyable experience. Order your favorite grub, talk your best smack and get those players you fell in love with over all those mocks. Let's be honest, only one team is going to win your league, so have a ball on draft day.
Cwalinski: People get way too hung up on planning out their drafts. 'I am going to take Player X in Round 1, Player Y in Round 2, so should I take Player A, B or C in Round 3?' It is nice that you have a plan, but what if Player X is taken before you pick? How do you know that Player Y will be available? What if all of A, B and C are gone? A draft is a fluid thing, so you need to go with the flow.
Hunter: In years past, I always talked about sticking to one strategy, not being flexible at all, but this year, you just can't play to your stubborn draft histories. You have to develop two or three draft strategies based on where you're picking. For instance, If I'm picking 1-4, I want Rodgers or one of the big three running back options (Arian Foster, Ray Rice or LeSean McCoy). If I have an 8-12 spot, I'm going to be looking at Chris Johnson and one of the superhero TEs, Gronkowski or Graham. You have to stay flexible when drafting and not be afraid to gamble. I just took part in a 14-team in-person live draft with some friends Tuesday evening, and the fear in drafting Jones-Drew was nutty; no one wanted him. Even with a holdout that could cause him to miss a chunk of the season, he is still worth drafting. I grabbed him at pick No. 41 overall, hoping the gamble will pay off. I still have confidence he'll report to the Jaguars soon.
Quintong: The interesting thing when I do a lot of drafts with friends -- and a little among industry "experts" -- is that some people will specifically point out players I like and have written extensively about. Thus, I sometimes have to reach for those players or else get beaten to them by others who may or may not know what was going on without reading me. As for other draft advice, I tend to be flexible as the draft goes along, although I often approach picks by position even more than actual talent/value. It's not always the best way to go. You might lose out on a value that's dropping in the draft. On the other hand, it can help you if looking at tiers of players. If I think I can still get someone from the same tier in a later round, I might find the last player left in another position's tier or else get stuck with marginal talent later.
Roberts: Whether it's a league with my workmates or just owners I know, I like to go against what the room does. I believe that's how you get the best bargains. For instance, in baseball leagues, my workmates don't like to take closers early, so I hold back a round versus my norm, then snag the first closer. When they're fighting for closers in the middle rounds, I can get the best of what's left at deep positions. In football leagues, I get a feel for what position is on a run, then try to go elsewhere, assuming there's a bit of depth remaining. If my fellow drafters are taking running backs early, I feel I could make a killing taking other positions, loading up on high-upside guys in Rounds 3 and beyond, figuring at least two of them should pan out.
As for my thoughts, my advice is to keep a team-by-team draft board to know who needs which positions. If you're picking ninth in a 12-team league and don't have a tight end in Round 5 or Round 7, it's silly to draft one in an odd-numbered round if Teams 10, 11 and 12 already have that position filled. Choose another position and take your tight end on the way out.
More importantly, I echo the sentiments of these experts to have fun and not take draft night so seriously that you forget why you're doing this. Fantasy football is a way to keep in touch with friends and family and provides a fun outlet from the stress and worry in our lives. Sure, we all want to win and love to gloat. Quarterback health permitting, you will field a competitive team if you continue to pay attention. Keep reading and listening to all the men and women who love their ESPN.com fantasy sports gigs almost as much as I do. Have a blast during your drafts this weekend, and enjoy what promises to be another incredible season of fantasy football.