Although this was my first mock draft with the ESPN.com fantasy experts, I've been playing fantasy football (and writing about it) for a long time. The oldest draft board I still have in my possession is the 1995 Euclid Fantasy Football League, in which seven college buddies and I drafted in a TD-only format while looking at rosters and player stats out of the local newspaper. Dan Marino, Barry Sanders, Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe comprised the core of my fantasy squad that won the championship that year, by a score of 39-27.
After happily accepting to write this story, the first thought I had was, "What am I going to write about?" These experts have all done several mocks already this year, and they're going off a rankings list that they fine-tune seemingly every hour. Nobody was going to make dumb picks, and in a 10-team league, everybody winds up with a stacked team.
Much to my delight, there were some questionable decisions made by every owner, myself included. Although strategies differed, as you'll read below, most everybody agreed that it was wise to stockpile RBs and WRs, and unwise to worry about backups at one-starter positions (QB, TE, K, D/ST), because with a 10-team league (with standard ESPN scoring rules in effect), there is sure to be great options on the waiver wire when a big-time injury occurs. Also, these experts weren't concerned with handcuffs or bye weeks for this type of format. Here's what else shook out when the 10 experts (in terms of draft order: Matthew Berry, James Quintong, Keith Lipscomb, Jim McCormick, Brian Gramling, AJ Mass, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Shawn Cwalinski, Christopher Harris and Pierre Becquey) drafted on Aug. 31.
(You can click here for rosters by team.)
*Mock draft was held Wednesday before the reports of a potential Chris Johnson contract resolution became public. Lipscomb would have taken Johnson with the No. 3 pick in a draft held today.
Berry punched the shock meter up to 11 with taking Michael Vick No. 1 overall. Why did he take the No. 10 player in ESPN.com's rankings first overall? Well as you can read in his Draft Day Manifesto, "If Michael Vick is as good as he was last season and stays healthy all year, you win your league. Period. And he's the only guy you can say that about."
After Quintong took Adrian Peterson, Lipscomb and McCormick had chances to take Arian Foster and Chris Johnson -- who had yet to make their head-scratching tweets -- but decided on safer plays with Jamaal Charles and Ray Rice. I then took Foster, thinking the worse-case scenario is that he was questionable for Week 1 only. Mass snapped the RB run with QB Aaron Rodgers because "I think No. 6 is a good spot to grab either Rodgers or Vick this season. Having Vick go No. 1 would have made me turn to a RB had Charles or Rice dropped this low."
Tristan Cockcroft chose LeSean McCoy at No. 7 and Shawn Cwalinski also passed on CJ2K, taking Roddy White instead of Andre Johnson. "I hate picking eighth this season," he said. "I only see six players as first-round worthy right now and I knew none of them were falling to me. I took White because he was the safest pick on the board. Andre Johnson is a stud, but he is a stud who gets dinged up a lot."
That left the Titans RB for an overjoyed Christopher Harris. "I was pretty giddy. Especially in light of the fact that it's looking better and better that he'll sign by this weekend. I rate Johnson No. 2 overall now, and getting him at No. 9 is particularly excellent," Harris said immediately after the draft. And now that Johnson did indeed sign a contract one day after this mock draft, Harris has even more reason to be giddy.
The end of the snake tail was Becquey, who grabbed Maurice Jones-Drew and Andre Johnson. Becquey offers up his strategy on being the end pick: "When picking bookends, my only advice is not to get too caught up in the rankings. If you want a player, now is the time to take him. He ain't getting back to you. Just take the two players you want most and don't chance that anyone might 'fall' back to you in the next round."
Other picks worth noting in the second round included Darren McFadden, who Cockcroft chose No. 14 overall despite his No. 21 ranking on ESPN.com. "We've grossly under-ranked him. My specific thoughts on McFadden can be read in the Oakland Raiders 32 Questions, but he's a clear-cut low-end RB1/high-end RB2, and he's being picked too low comparative to his actual worth."
I then chose Larry Fitzgerald, who I think is the third-best wide receiver after AJ and White. The Arizona Cardinals play the second-easiest NFL schedule and I think Kevin Kolb will be a quality starting QB, certainly miles ahead of any signal-caller they used last year. My Fitzgerald pick set off a run of seven wide receivers chosen in a span of nine picks. No quarterback was taken in this round.
Although there are 10 great fantasy quarterbacks, I was pretty pumped to get Drew Brees 25th overall. I'm not saying Brees should be picked before Vick or Rodgers, but I wouldn't be shocked if he outscored both of them this year. The New Orleans Saints' pass-happy attack should thrive in ideal playing conditions. Their dome-heavy schedule has them playing just one outdoor game after Week 6, Dec. 11 at the Tennessee Titans, and Nashville is not close to being the coldest NFL city in the year's final month.
Cockcroft and Cwalinski nabbed the other pair of top-5 QBs in the "elite" tier with Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. Becquey drafted two running backs, Peyton Hillis and LeGarrette Blount, in his double whammy ending the third/starting the fourth.
The fourth round was all about Big D as three Dallas Cowboys went in the span of five picks. Cwalinski explains his Felix Jones selection: "I took Jones because he was the top player on my board and I did not like the drop-off at RB after Jones. I really wanted Blount but he did not last, I already had my QB, I did not want to take a TE that early and there was plenty of quality players still available at WR."
Lipscomb was also a fan of the choice: "I expect big things from Felix Jones this season, so I think Shawn's pick at 33 will turn out to be a nice value."
He may not be the most likeable player in football, but there's no denying Dez Bryant's talent. As for why McCormick took Bryant as his third WR in the first four rounds: "I really do like Bryant, but was maybe a bit bullish when I might have preferred to go with Tony Romo there. I haven't been wary of going with three wideouts in my first four picks this season, though, it just ends up often that I find more upside and certainty in the top WR talents versus the second-tier backs."
Berry closed the round with the draft's first tight end selection, grabbing Antonio Gates. "I believe having Gates as your tight end gives you a significant advantage," he said. Berry explains more in his Draft Day Manifesto.
The big steal in this round was Peyton Manning going to Quintong. "I'm not surprised he slipped that far, but I was more than happy to get him in the fifth round. I'm not too concerned about the neck injury. Granted, I might've waited slightly too long [13th round] for a second QB since I'm not terribly fond of Jay Cutler, but in a 10-team standard league, there are plenty of solid backup options available, and if I waited that long to get him, that's fine."
Sticking with the QB theme, Harris chose his one and only signal-caller this round, taking Matt Schaub. When I asked why he didn't make an insurance pick later on for the oft-injured Schaub, he replied, "I wouldn't classify Schaub as oft-injured one bit. He's played 16 games in back-to-back years. Regardless, it's typically my strategy not to draft backup QBs, TEs, Ks or D/STs in 10-team drafts. They're plentiful on the waiver wire."
After a zero-TE Round 5, three of the big boys were taken in Round 6: Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis and Jason Witten. The last of the No. 1 RBs on depth charts also went in Round 6, with Fred Jackson, Tim Hightower, Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting scooped up.
Marques Colston was the first of five straight receiver picks for Harris (4 WR, 1 TE). "I took Colston in the sixth round simply because he was by far the highest-valued player left on my board, but I acknowledge that he carries some risk [with his potential knee problems] as a No. 2 wideout. So I spent several 'backup' picks on WRs like Anquan Boldin and Pierre Garcon, who I think could step in. Robert Meachem is a 'flag-planted' player of mine. I think he's got the potential to be amazing value [in the 10th round]."
This appeared to be a good round to take some chances, as rookies Daniel Thomas and Mark Ingram were taken here. So was veteran TE Owen Daniels, which allowed Lipscomb to wait until Round 15 to pick a tight end. "Daniels was the last of the elite TEs that I value. After that, I feel there's very little difference between the next handful of guys. And since it was doubtful anyone would select two tight ends, I knew I would get one of the top 10, so I was happy to get Greg Olsen in the next-to-last round."
Austin Collie is also an intriguing pick this year with his past concussion issues and Peyton Manning's neck woes. I asked Cockcroft why he went for Collie here. "It goes hand-in-hand with the McFadden decision, in that I think I can piece together a wideout corps, and Collie is one of my favorite breakout candidates in 2011," he said. "I scored big-time last season across the board in my leagues: Hakeem Nicks and Mike Wallace were two of my most popular selections in 2010, so I'm confident in my ability to do it again."
This was the veteran round, with Santana Moss, Eli Manning, Ryan Grant, Chad Ochocinco and Joseph Addai all at least 28 years old. Although young QB Joe Flacco was technically Becquey's seventh-round pick in his seven/eight sandwich, he was the last owner to draft a quarterback.
So why didn't he wait longer to take Flacco if everybody already had a starting QB? "All it takes is one," Becquey said. "One person to decide he wants a backup quarterback, one person who decides to hamstring you, and you're stuck with your second or third choice at quarterback. Perhaps my Frankenstein's monster of Joe-Josh Freecco (Flacco combined with ninth-round pick Josh Freeman) will be more than the sum of its parts."
The most interesting pick in Round 9 was Mass cracking the seal on defense/special teams with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite no other D/ST being chosen until 23 picks later (Green Bay Packers at No. 109), Mass had no regrets. "There wasn't anyone at RB or WR that I thought was head and shoulders above the field at this point. So rather than be reactive, I decided to be proactive and grab my D/ST here. The only thing it cost me was the difference between Jordy Nelson and Lance Moore, a small price to pay."
The 10th-round pick to highlight was Quintong's starting tight end Kellen Winslow. "Tight end was also a pretty deep position, so after guys I considered targeting in the middle rounds like Clark and Witten, I figured I could wait. I do like Winslow, but given how the draft was playing out, I also could have waited a while before grabbing him," he said.
Cockcroft took the first handcuff of the draft, pairing his McFadden pick with Michael Bush in Round 11. But was it strictly a handcuff pick? "I didn't really think about it until pretty much that round. With three NFL starting RBs (LeSean McCoy, McFadden and Beanie Wells), I wasn't specifically going for handcuffs. I just happen to like him, and the handcuff thing only increases the appeal," he said.
He also stole the pick from Lipscomb who lamented, "I was disappointed to miss out on one of my favorite sleepers, Michael Bush, in Round 11, but I have no one to blame but myself, since I could've taken him the round before instead of Plaxico Burress."
As Round 12 rolled around, nobody really knew what was going on with Arian Foster's hamstring, so McCormick wisely grabbed Houston Texans No. 2 RB Derrick Ward. I asked McCormick if he's worried about having no backup RB (Daniel Thomas, C.J. Spiller and Ward) who sits atop his team's depth chart. "It's not a deep collection of depth at the position, but there is upside in Thomas and Spiller in the hopes that one of them emerges. I do feel that I missed out on Ricky Williams by going for Ward, who likely offers just a few early weeks of value. But overall, the way this roster is built, it seems my flex will be a wideout more often than not."
*It was announced Sept. 1 that Garrett Hartley will miss at least six weeks with a hip injury.
The draft concluded with very little fanfare as teams filled in their rosters with deep sleepers, defenses and kickers. Round 16 ended with seven kickers and included an improbable run of three straight "Kowski" players in Sebastian Janikowski, Rob Gronkowski and Stephen Gostkowski. Three experts offered up their final assessments, starting with Becquey, who I questioned as to why he drafted seven RBs and only four WRs.
Becquey: "Short of the elite receivers, WRs are a crapshoot to start week after week. I prefer stockpiling running backs because if one of them ascends to a feature role, you either have a guy you'll want to start, or can trade for much more value than you can, say, Danny Amendola or Mike Williams North even if they do become their teams' top target."
Berry: "My running backs [Matt Forte, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Tolbert, Willis McGahee and Brandon Jacobs] are a work in progress, no doubt, but as I stated in my Manifesto, I believe there will be opportunities to get some productive running backs during the season and that one of the guys I grabbed will pop."
Cockcroft: "I felt like this was my strongest draft of any of the mocks so far. Which is good because we're getting closer to the season so you'd want your stronger performances to be later after you've done dozens of them!"