Howard Stern did the impossible.
For anyone who has followed the King of All Media's career closely, as I have for more than two decades, that shouldn't be a shock. He has consistently done the impossible. But even for me, as big and as huge a fan of his as I am, I was impressed and surprised he accomplished it because I didn't think anyone could.
But let's hold that thought. And let's back up to a few weeks ago. I was on the phone with Gary Dell'Abate, known as "Baba Booey" to millions of fans, the longtime executive producer of SiriusXM's "The Howard Stern Show." He's also been a friend of mine for a number of years, ever since we did a fantasy football event together a while back.
"So," I say to him. "I wrote this book ..." I'm a little nervous. Like any author, I'd love to be on Howard's show to pitch the book, but more importantly, I know this might be my only shot to be on his show. A show I've loved for more than 20 years. The thing about Howard is there's no such thing as a casual Howard Stern fan. If you're a Stern fan, you're a hard-core fan. He inspires that kind of passion, and I'm among the many millions who count themselves as faithful.
So getting on the show would be a total bucket list moment for me in many ways. I have a book publicist who pitches me for most of my media appearances, but given my friendship with Gary, I thought that would be weird for him to get a call about me from someone who isn't me. So I picked up the phone, trying to ignore how awkward I felt, and made the call myself.
I apologize for putting him in the position, but Gary, bless him, quickly puts me at ease. "Hey, I wrote a book, I get it. I hear pitches all the time, no worries, let me hear what you got." So I tell him about "Fantasy Life." I know Howard isn't a huge sports fan, I say, but the book is all about the craziest and best parts of fantasy. You don't have to be a sports fan to know that a guy losing a fantasy league and being forced to get a Justin Bieber tattoo is funny. Like all of my columns, the book also mixes in stories from my life, and I know Howard enjoys Hollywood gossip, so I tell him the expanded story of what happened when I co-wrote "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles" and the ensuing drama with Paul Hogan. It's the best thing I've ever written, I tell him; it's getting great reviews, and it even made the best-seller list. I am self-promoting like never before (and that's saying something), hoping something, anything will resonate.
Gary says, "I'll be honest with you. It's a long shot." He explains what I already know as a longtime fan. That Howard isn't really a sports fan and doesn't play fantasy sports. In addition, there are only so many shows in the summer, and they've already booked a number of big-name stars. Even if he's into it, they don't even have many open slots, period. But, Gary says, he knows a lot of Howard's audience plays fantasy football, and he personally likes the idea, so they'll discuss.
I knew it was a long shot when I made the call, but a long shot is still better than no shot, and I thank him for even considering it. I then pick his brain on his experiences when he was out doing his book, and as always, he is gracious with his time and advice.
As I hang up and start hoping, I quickly dismiss it, thinking there is no way it will happen. And maybe it's better this way. It's hard to put into words what Howard means to me. Howard was different. As a human being, I mean. Awkward as a kid, awkward as an adult, and he admitted everything, flaws and all, to his huge audience every day. Like many others, I found humor and solace in that. And admired the hell out of his guts and ability to communicate that in a wildly entertaining way that made you understand and root for him, to embrace his outsider status and find solidarity in it.
Before you non-fans roll your eyes right out of your head, understand that even if you are not a fan of his edgy brand of humor, he is an unbelievably smart businessman and a pioneer. The number of things that he created or was the first to accomplish is staggering and too long to list here, but one thing that often gets overlooked about Howard is that he redefined what it meant to be a morning DJ. Before the books, movie, TV shows, celebrity friends and huge national radio show, he was, like thousands of others, just a local morning DJ. Playing songs, introducing traffic and weather, reacting to the day's news. A morning DJ. There are thousands of them all across America and the world.
But Howard said, I don't care what everyone else says a morning DJ is supposed to be, I'm gonna do it how I want. And the way Howard did it was, among other things, being totally honest and making everything he could all about himself. Brilliantly.
You ever see the movie "Private Parts"? Based on Howard's best-selling book of the same name, there's a scene where the disbelieving program director, "Pig Vomit," is being told by a researcher that Howard Stern has hit No. 1 in the ratings.
RESEARCHER: The average radio listener listens for 18 minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for -- are you ready for this? -- an hour and 20 minutes.
PIG VOMIT: How can that be?
RESEARCHER: Answer most commonly given? "I want to see what he'll say next."
PIG VOMIT: OK, fine. But what about the people who hate Stern?
RESEARCHER: Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.
PIG VOMIT: But ... if they hate him, why do they listen?
RESEARCHER: Most common answer? "I want to see what he'll say next."
I thought there were a lot of lessons in that little scene. When I was starting out in the fantasy sports industry, I quickly realized I was different from everyone else, a theme that had resonated throughout my life. I've always been different from everyone else. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a painful way, but always, consistently, never failing ... I was different. If you've ever read me before, you know that, and if you never have, well, we're 1,000 words into a fantasy football article and I have yet to talk about a player, so it should be hitting you any minute now.
And people don't always react favorably to different.
Howard's bravery to be his own man, to stick to his convictions of how he thought radio should be done, to keep plowing on in the face of criticism or bosses who didn't understand him inspired me. I was a 35-year-old screenwriter who was miserable, and the thing that made me happiest was my dumb little fantasy sports websites I had started. I wanted to chase happiness by trying to make a full-time living at fantasy sports at a time when only a few people actually did that.
Howard's journey gave me the confidence to hang tough, as I heard "no" a lot, and others in the fantasy sports industry even questioned my sanity as I started down my own path. I had no idea whether I had the talent, the appeal, the luck, the ability and everything else that goes into making it full time in this or any other industry. And in the dark places of my mind, the small crevices of my psyche that I held tight and never let anyone see, my honest feeling was ... no way.
Other people had been in the business longer, had more of a track record, had more of a head start. I'm a decent writer, and I had some solid predictions. That was pretty much it. It couldn't possibly be enough to make a full-time living at this ... could it? And when I would lie awake at night and doubt myself, I would cling to the thought of "Well, Howard did it."
So yeah, I'm not just a fan of Howard Stern the entertainer. The entirety of his story means a great deal to me. His influence on me is significant. Which is why I flipped out when I got the email from Gary.
"You're on with Howard. July 30th, 7 a.m. Will be in touch soon with details."
ARE. YOU. FREAKING. SERIOUS?????
I didn't tell anyone for two days. I didn't believe it was real. I thought for sure I was going to get bumped or Howard would wake up and be like "Wait? We're having a fantasy football guy on? Scratch that."
But no, apparently Howard was into it. He thought my show-business-to-fantasy-sports story was interesting, he wanted to hear dish on Paul Hogan and the cast of "Married... With Children" and he couldn't believe what was going on with the guys who work on his show. I'm in a league with Gary, Jon Hein, Jason Kaplan, Will Murray, JD Harmeyer, Steve Brandano, Scott Salem, Ben Barto and David Heydt, all members of the Stern show and many of them well-known to listeners. There's lots of infighting among us, so Howard wanted to hear more about that.
The day of the show I am probably as nervous as I have ever been before an on-air appearance. I've been on live national TV in front of millions of people; I've done radio in various forms since I was 14 years old; I've had 45-second hits that would determine my future (or lack thereof) at ESPN. All nerve-racking, yet none of them compared to what I feel as I approach the SiriusXM building at 6:45 a.m. that Tuesday with Ronnie Mund, Howard's head of security and driver, standing there with the door open, ready to take me up. I shake hands with Ronnie and I'm like ... Holy crap, this is really happening.
Obviously, I'm nervous because the platform of the show is huge. I'm nervous because although Howard's unpredictable nature is what makes him great to listen to, it also makes you nervous when you realize you'll be sitting across from him. I have such tremendous respect for him and the show, I don't want to be a bad guest. I know that for me to get on the show, Gary, Jason, Will and Jon had to go to bat for me in a big way, so I don't want to make them look bad. So I'm nervous about all that.
But I'm probably most nervous about meeting him. I've listened to this man for more than two decades. I have built him up in my mind to a standard that is unfair to hold anyone to. Thanks to my careers in Hollywood and at ESPN, I've met a lot of athletes and celebrities in my life. And not often, but sometimes, I come away disappointed. Because they are rude, or not what they seem, or I catch them on a bad day; there have definitely been times when I have approached someone as a fan and left never wanting to see or hear from that person again.
I'm thinking about all of that as my wife and I are shown to the green room. I have a green room. Whoa. I find the room is next to a room with the woman who exchanged text messages with Anthony Weiner. Huh. You mean all that paparazzi wasn't for me? Well, this should be an interesting show.
Gary is the first to stop by, giving me a few last-minute notes and wishing me well. Jason and Jon stop by to wish me luck. Howard TV (Howard's terrific on-demand cable channel) interviews me about what I am about to do. I have no idea what I am saying. My palms are basically small lakes with a layer of skin under them.
I'm brought in, and there he is. He smiles and says hello. The first thing I notice are his eyes. Alert. So intense and alert. But kind. I'm gonna be OK.
I was on for 45 minutes, but it seemed like two. It just flew by, and the whole thing was really surreal. Almost as though I wasn't actually there but watching someone who looked like me talking to Howard. Listening back to it, if you know me, it's clear I'm nervous at first, speaking a little fast. Despite not knowing anything about fantasy sports, Howard of course asked all the right questions -- he's truly the greatest interviewer of our time -- and we covered my Hollywood life, with me telling stories about Paul Hogan and Ed O'Neill. I'll just say this: I was actually kind to both guys. We got into the dynamics of the show league, with Will trying to throw me under the bus (semideservedly, if I am being honest) and Jason, Gary and JD defending me. At the end, Howard brought in my wife, saying she was way too hot for me. Which, of course, happens to be true. Howard jokingly asked her for her Facebook, which she gave out on the air. She now has more friend requests than actual friends.
I wish I had been more relaxed during the interview. There are a couple of responses to questions that I wish I had back, hindsight giving me better lines or answers than I had in the moment. Knowing Howard hates self-plugs, I had just wanted to be real and had been overly quiet about the book, but hey, it is a huge audience, so I wish I had mentioned the book a little more. At one point, I brought up the book and he laughed and said, "You have a book? I didn't know why the hell you were here!"
But ultimately, it was a blast, and I couldn't believe I was really there the whole time. And then just like that, it was over. They broke for commercial, I took a picture with him, he took one with my wife and me, and we made small talk for a few moments.
And it was then, in a quiet moment, with the lights and microphones off, with other show members moving around preparing for the next segment, that Howard Stern did the impossible.
He exceeded my impossibly high expectations.
Like I said, thanks to my different careers (and having a brother who's a big-time talent manager), I've met a ton of celebs and athletes in my time. I've had the few minutes of small talk with more than enough to see through the celeb filter and get a decent read on a person.
As we took photos and talked, Howard was completely and totally present. He was happy with the segment and complimented me on it (whew!), we discussed photography and "America's Got Talent" and who knows what else, but he was focused on me and my wife in a completely genuine way. Remember, he's in the middle of working. This is a show, he has just a few minutes to prepare for the next hour of entertaining he has to carry, and yet he's right there with us.
People were very kind about the appearance, and a few days later, I got a note at home. From Howard. Thanking me for being on his show. I am sure he sends it to all his guests, but in all the years I've been interviewed by every type of show, it's the first time I have ever gotten a personal note like that. The whole thing, start to finish, was a complete and total class act. I didn't think it was possible, but I became a bigger Howard fan in those few moments off air than I had been in 20 years.
Before your fantasy football draft, you spend a long time thinking about everything, but in the moment you have just a few precious seconds before the clock runs out, and you have to make a quick call. Lots of buildup for one brief moment that will ultimately determine how you will feel about your team for the next six months. Which brings us, meandering very slowly, into this year's edition of Love/Hate. Here's hoping your quick moments are ones to remember for a lifetime ...
The truth behind Love/Hate
For the new kids in class or those with short memories, and for those who always seem to skip this part but have decided to finally read it … allow me to explain the premise, so you can use (or ignore) this column properly. We start with this: I hate the terms "sleeper" and "bust." I believe there are no such things. Or rather, that there are such things, but whether a player can be a "sleeper" or a "bust" is entirely dependent on what it costs to acquire said player.
Not to get all business-y on you (or all non-English-y), but a common and basic business term that gets bandied about in fantasy is return on investment, or ROI. Let's say you were a company that made two products but had to downsize to making just one. If one product sells for $1.05 and the other sells for 50 cents and you're selling as many of the first as you are of the second, you'd think you'd want to keep producing the $1.05 product, right? But if it costs $1.00 to produce the $1.05 item and just 10 cents to make the 50-cent one, well, now you're changing your tune.
Fantasy is the same way. Every player has value. It's simply about what it costs to get him. This column is all about players who, based on ESPN.com draft results for standard 10-team leagues, cost too much (or not enough) to acquire.
So please use this column as intended. It is not a sleepers-and-busts column. Rather, it's a market-inefficiency column. With puns.
It's a market, as I view it, and a market you will understand in greater detail after you read my Draft Day Manifesto. If you don't have the time, do me a favor and just click on it. I really care only about your clicks. In return, here's the super-abridged "CliffsNotes" version: You want to go running back early and often. Quarterback is deep. There are four elite wideouts, and after that there's a lot of sameness. I want to be either the first or the last guy in my league to grab a tight end. And you should really get around to watching (or rewatching) "The Princess Bride" when you get a chance.
Back to this year's Love/Hate. Not only is it not a sleepers-and-busts list, it's also not a comprehensive list of players I really like or don't like. For example, I absolutely love David Wilson this year and am on board with all the hype. But I have him ranked as an early fifth-rounder, which is exactly where he's going in ESPN.com drafts. So he doesn't make the list.
If you want a comprehensive list of whom I value and where, please check out my top 200 rankings, which will be updated throughout the preseason.
The reason for this entire preamble is the way I am formatting the column this year. I did this last year and it worked well, so I'm doing it again. Based on the ESPN Live Draft Results as of the week of Aug. 6, I'm going to go round by round and pick one or two players who are going a little too late (the "loves") or are going a little too early (the "hates") for my taste.
Hopefully, the round designations will stop questions such as, "You hate Frank Gore and love Ronnie Hillman, which one should I draft?" But I'm not holding my breath. Use your brain. It's by round. With each player, I tell you the round he is going in and the round when I would take him (based on my rankings), but use your common sense. If a guy is going in the 12th and I say he's an eighth-round guy for me, but you feel as though he'll last until the 10th or 11th in your draft, take him then. It's just that I feel that player is going to return an eighth-round value. The less you invest in terms of your pick, the better the return on the investment.
Addressing the last (fingers crossed) of the questions I get every year, people wonder why there are so many more loves than hates. That's just the nature of the beast. It doesn't do you any good to say I hate Blaine Gabbert. His value and rank already reflect that he is not highly thought of. I'm still going round by round, and, in a standard ESPN league, there are 16 rounds, so you're getting at least 16 hates. But be aware that, in general, I am from the "no such thing as a bad pick after Round 12" school of thought. So you're really choosing "hate" only from the guys who are considered at a high enough level to be drafted with big expectations, which pretty much eliminates most guys in the lower rounds.
Finally, please remember this is being written in the first week in August. Other than the Hall of Fame Game, no preseason games have been played; camps haven't been open that long; much can and will change in the next month. Fantasy value changes all the time. Roles and opportunities, information about players and schemes, draft trends, health and results in the preseason all play a factor, and if you refuse to keep your mind open and are unwilling to change an opinion on a player once you get new info, that's a quick way to lose. And this next month is the most crucial.
So follow me on Twitter, become my friend on Facebook, listen to the podcast, watch "Fantasy Football Now" on Sundays at 11 a.m. on ESPN2 starting Sunday, read all the articles and ranking updates until it's time to draft, then make the decision. Or, if you choose to ignore that, don't blame me for it. Remember, only a poor craftsman blames his tool. That's all I am, your tool. Wait, that came out wrong. Which is odd, given that I've used that joke four years in a row now. Huh. Ah, what are you gonna do? I used all the good jokes in the book and on Stern. But whatever. You've read this far, clearly your threshold for entertainment is low. Let's get it on.
Players I Love for 2013
C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills (going 9th overall, I'd draft in top 5): An obvious name, of course, but I have him in the upper half of the first round and most are letting him fall into the second half. This isn't your first rodeo, so you know he's fast (ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash) and you know he has big-play ability (only Adrian Peterson had more 20-plus yard rushes last season), but did you know he's a tough tackle? Of running backs with at least 200 rushes last season, he was third in the NFL in yards after contact. A higher YAC average than, among others, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson. He was the seventh-best fantasy running back in 2012, so whatever, it's not like you need me to tell you he's good, but here's the thing: Spiller had just 250 offensive touches last year. By comparison, Mikel Leshoure had 249. Vick Ballard had 228. Now, with a coach who wants to run the ball (Doug Marrone's Syracuse was in the top 25 in rushing attempts in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season) and isn't going to screw around with Spiller (who had six games last year in which he had single-digit carries!), Spiller is taking the leap into fantasy superstardom.
Alfred Morris, RB, Redskins (going in the 2nd round, I'd draft in the 1st): I've heard all the anti-Morris arguments. You can't trust Mike Shanahan. Morris isn't involved in the passing game. "ALF" is the name of a lame puppet, not an NFL running back. Heard them all, and respectfully disagree, except for the part about the lame puppet. Very overrated sitcom. I have no fears about Shanny -- when he finds a back he loves, a la Terrell Davis -- he sticks with him. Secondly, Morris has spent all offseason working on improving his pass-catching skills; his being on the field on third down is important to both Morris and Washington. But most importantly, the Redskins want to run the ball (only Seattle had a lower percentage of passing plays last season), and when they run the ball, they don't want Robert Griffin III to be the one running it; his designed runs in 2012 were reduced over the course of the season (from seven a game to 5.1 a game after the Atlanta game to just four a game after the Browns game that Griffin missed). And now he's coming off ACL surgery. So they want to run more overall, but less with their QB. What does that mean, class? Who gets the extra carries? Exactly. Like Morris more than Trent Richardson, LeSean McCoy or any non-running back.
Steven Jackson, RB, Falcons (going late 2nd, take early 2nd): I have written a ton about Jackson and have multiple board bets with my Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast co-host Nate Ravitz about Jackson for this season, but just want to go on record one more time. Big season coming for Jackson. Big.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints (3rd, 2nd): "The King of All Tight Ends"? When you're that much better than everyone else, you get to make up a nickname. He's currently going in the third, but I'm putting him here because the advantage he'll give you on a weekly basis at tight end, especially given depth at other positions, is too great to pass up in the latter part of the second.
Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots (3rd, late 1st/2nd): Last season, the Patriots had more rushing touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL. That's rushing touchdowns. And that's not a fluke. Over the past three years, no other team in the NFL has more rushing touchdowns or rushing attempts inside an opponent's 10-yard line than the New England Patriots. They were seventh in rushing yards last year and second in rushing attempts, and, with question marks around the passing game, they're going to be running more this year, not less. I get the whole "Ridley doesn't play on third down" thing, but Ridley is as good a lock for double-digit touchdowns as there is and he'll put up top-10 running back numbers without costing you a top-10 pick. [Editor's note: Patriots rushing yards and attempts rankings were corrected Aug. 23]
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (3rd, 2nd): New coordinator, improved offensive line; as bad as he was last season, he still finished as the 13th-best fantasy running back and averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and yes, I have him in a deep dynasty league, so I kinda need to talk myself into this. But you know what? Screw it, I'm back in on Johnson as a second-rounder.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars (3rd, 2nd): He's washed up, he's coming off an injury and the Jaguars are a terrible offensive team that has switched offensive schemes. On the other hand, he's in a contract year a year after a failed holdout for more money, he was the leading rusher in the NFL less than 12 months ago and he called my book, "Fantasy Life," a must read. Let's face it: My love is for sale, and he bought it.
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers (4th, 3rd): Have him above Julio Jones, so yeah, I'm a superfan. In fact, I think he can be a 100-catch guy. The Packers haven't had that in a while, but he can do it. He's a special player. As long as he can stay healthy, he's going to be a big-time star for the Packers. Don't believe me? That's fine. Because the words from "I think" to "big-time star for [the Packers]," aren't me, they're a quote from Aaron Rodgers to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer. Cobb caught 80 balls last season, and if the guy in charge of getting him the ball thinks he can get to 100 this season, sign me up. Take note, PPR-leaguers.
Reggie Bush, RB, Lions (5th, early 4th): You think Reggie looks at Kanye and just laughs and laughs? Me too. It's the kind of self-satisfied, living-the-high-life-having-dodged-a-bullet kind of laugh you'll have after you pass on guys such as Darren McFadden and wait a round or two for ol' Reggie. Did you know Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell caught 86 balls between them last season? He's going to be the focal point of the part of an offense that isn't called "So what if there are three guys around Calvin? Throw it anyway!"
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions (6th, 6th): In general, I think quarterbacks are going way too early in drafts given the depth of the position. But 23 times last season, a Lions pass-catcher was tackled inside an opponent's 5-yard line. Stafford threw it more than 720 times. They added Reggie Bush and get Ryan Broyles for a whole season. They are going to throw, throw, throw, and Stafford represents a great value if you miss out on the top QBs.
Lamar Miller, RB, Dolphins (7th, 5th): In his best-selling book "They Call Me Baba Booey," "The Howard Stern Show" executive producer Gary Dell'Abate describes a moment early in his career when he had just joined the Stern show on a temporary basis. When it came time for a full-time job, someone from his station basically pulled him aside and told him he had a bright future if he would just stop working on that "terrible show." Gary had worked on the show for only a little while at that point, he was young and worried about a career, and certainly, Howard was controversial. But Gary had seen enough to know the upside was huge and he'd rather go down with the Stern ship than play it safe. So he stayed with Howard, and the rest is history. That's a long way of saying I don't have much here in terms of Lamar Miller. He has that 4.9-yards-per-carry average from last season, but it's on just 51 carries. Reggie Bush is gone, and I've seen Daniel Thomas play. Miller ran a 4.4 40, the Dolphins were tied for 14th in rushing attempts last season, it's an improving offense ... but mostly, I just have optimism and belief that the upside is worth it. Love what I see. Baba Booey to you.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Chiefs (7th, 4th/5th): Whatever you think of Alex Smith, he is the best quarterback Dwayne Bowe has ever played with. I pointed this out in my 100 Facts column, but it's worth repeating. Over Bowe's career, Chiefs quarterbacks have completed 57.8 percent of passes. Smith completed more than 70 percent of his passes last season and more than 64 percent the past two years. You know Andy Reid wants to throw; over the past nine seasons, a Reid offense has been in the top 10 in the NFL in passing yards eight times. But this is the part John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information and I both love: From Week 1 of 2004 to Week 8 of 2005, Terrell Owens, playing for Reid, was targeted 214 times, fourth-most in the NFL during that time frame. Owens had an injury in Week 8 of 2005, but from Week 1 of 2004 until that injury, he also had 1,963 yards (third-best in the NFL during that time frame) and 20 touchdowns (tied for most in the NFL). Owens was listed at 6-foot-3, 226 pounds. Bowe? He's listed at 6-2, 221 pounds. Been a while since Andy has had a wide receiver of Bowe's size. Dwayne Bowe, fantasy stud. Get used to it.
Chris Ivory, RB, Jets (7th, 6th): Death, taxes, Shonn Greene is a terrible running back. Some things are not in dispute. And yet Greene was still the 15th-best fantasy running back last season. The Jets have a lot of issues (what's your favorite? mine's fear of intimacy) but they can still run the ball. Health is always a concern, but when Ivory gets the ball, he's effective (5.1 yards-per-carry career average after last season) and he's a tough tackle: His 2.45 yards after contact over his career would be third-best in the NFL over the past three years, if he qualified. Getting a legit No. 2 running back, this year, in the sixth? Better than Eric the Actor with balloons, I'll tell you that much.
Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers (7th, 6th): Had 106 targets last season in just 13 games and, after returning from an ankle injury, had a score in each of his final four games. And, oh yeah, no Mike Wallace. Brown's ability to get yards after the catch is a nice fit for what Todd Haley wants to do.
Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens (8th, 7th): It's not about being the best-looking guy at the bar; a lot of the time, it's about being the best-looking guy left at the bar.
James Jones, WR, Packers (8th, 6th) and Eric Decker, WR, Broncos (7th, 6th): Putting them together because I think the regression hate has gone too far. Do I expect double-digit touchdowns again? No. But both are on pass-happy offenses that will score a lot and have plenty of opportunity for both. Jordy Nelson is no bet to stay healthy, and as Tristan H. Cockcroft wrote in this story, Jones' snap total did not really fluctuate last season based on whether Greg Jennings was in or out of the lineup. He has Rodgers' trust in the red zone, and that, as the kids say, is worth something. Meanwhile, the Broncos will run more three-wide sets than any other team in football.
Cecil Shorts, WR, Jaguars (8th, 6th): Apparently there's a lot of good wide receiver value in the eighth. Just want to go on record as saying I don't care if you're the one throwing to him, Shorts is going to produce. Cecil Shorts is truth, justice and the American Way.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Cardinals (9th, 8th): There's absolutely nothing exciting or sexy about him, he's not even that good of a football player and absolutely no one will be jealous of you when you draft him. But he had his most success under Bruce Arians in Pittsburgh, he's now reunited with him, the Cardinals have improved the offensive line (at least in theory) and Carson Palmer's presence means defenses have to respect the pass somewhat, instead of just snickering about it on the sidelines. Lots of competition in Arizona, but at the end of the day, Rashard Mendenhall is going to be a starting running back in the NFL and get the ball at the goal line, which, in the eighth or ninth round, has some value. You don't have to watch him; just enjoy his flex-level production at below flex-level price.
Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers (9th, 8th): Sixth in targets among tight ends last season and fourth in yards, and, over the second half of the season (when Cam got his groove back, now a major motion picture), he was second in fantasy points, third in yards and fifth in receptions. I'm of the belief that if you're not the first guy to get a tight end in your league, you should be the last, but there are a few tight ends I like more than others, and Olsen is one of them.
Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots (9th, 7th): Excuse me, yes, pardon me, oops, sorry, didn't mean to grab that! If I can just squeeze over here, just to the left, one more step ... ugh ... ah. Whew. OK. I don't know what anyone's talking about. Plenty of room left on the bandwagon.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts (10th, 7th): Top 11 in the NFL last season in yards after catch, yards per reception and yards after catch per reception. Expect new Colts coordinator Pep Hamilton to use his West Coast passing game to get the ball to Hilton in space and let him fly. I thought Nate put it best on our Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast: Andrew Luck is going to make someone a star, and that guy is T.Y. Hilton.
Andre Brown, RB, Giants (10th, 8th): I'm on the David Wilson hype train as much as the next conductor, but Brown is going to be the goal-line back for a team that has had the fifth-most rushing attempts inside an opponent's 10-yard line the past three years. Brown averaged better than 5 yards a carry and was 8-of-12 in scoring inside an opponent's 5-yard line, and while I like Wilson a lot, I've also been known to be wrong. Brown is flex worthy with upside for more at a very nice price.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers (12th, 9th): When you've got Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger fighting over you, it means one of two things: You're a good wide receiver or you're the last piece of chicken. And the more I think of it, Ben and Tom don't really eat together all that often. And both are paid very well. In fact, if they were at a dinner together for some reason and there was a sudden run on chicken, both could afford to order another helping. I suppose they could be at someone's house and the host's chef ran out of chicken, but whose house would it be? And seriously, don't you think personal chefs prepare for that sort of thing? Like, they buy tons of extra chicken when football players are on the guest list? It's not their money; it's some rich quarterback's cash. They're buying the extra chicken. I guess what I am saying is that Emmanuel Sanders is another good fit for the Haley offense and will benefit from Wallace's absence and moving into Antonio Brown's role. And that I could go for some chicken right about now.
Chris Givens, WR, Rams and Josh Gordon, WR, Browns (13th, 10th): Two speedsters whom I have higher than the consensus ranks, they have big-play ability and questionable quarterbacks. I tend not to like guys who are big-play dependent, but in both cases, their talent is evident and the price is right. Because of the Rams drafting Tavon Austin, people seem to be forgetting that Givens had six games (out of 12 played) in which he had at least eight fantasy points, and now the Rams have improved the offensive line so that maybe a deep play or two could actually develop. Meanwhile, over the past five years, only the Colts attempted more passes of at least 15 yards downfield than Norv Turner's Chargers, and Turner is now the Browns' offensive coordinator. A suspension and immaturity issues have driven down Gordon's draft stock, but once he comes back, they're going to be throwing to him deep and often.
Fred Jackson, RB, Bills (13th, 10th): He's not dead; he's just in Buffalo. There is too a difference. As much as I love Spiller, Jackson is going to get some work, too, including the goal-line stuff. They want to run in Buffalo. Apparently until people start losing their lunches.
Bernard Pierce, Bryce Brown and Ben Tate, RBs, Ravens, Eagles and Texans (13th/14th, 10th/11th): Quite simply, these three need to be the first "true" handcuffs off the board, and I'd especially reach for them if I owned one of Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy or Arian Foster. Should something happen to one of those guys, such as an injury or Scott the Engineer drafting them, any one of these backups would be a top-10 guy.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos (13th, 8th): We -- and by we, I mean the collective ESPN ranks -- are way too low on Mr. Hillman. Hillman is currently running with the first team in practices, and while I believe (assuming health) Montee Ball will have the most fantasy points of any Broncos running back this season, Hillman is going to be involved. We'll see how this plays out, but at worst he's part of a running back by committee on one of the highest-scoring teams in football. At best, you just got a starting running back in the eighth.
Daryl Richardson, RB, Rams (13th, 8th): Speaking of starting running backs ... he's going to be the guy on a team that will run, and he's going late.
Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers: (15th, 13th): I like Brown more than Floyd from a talent perspective, but both guys are being severely under-drafted, and that was before the injury to Danario Alexander.
Ryan Broyles, WR, Lions (16th, 11th): See Stafford, Matthew. Love Broyles late.
Others receiving votes:
Here are some guys who might not even be drafted in standard leagues but whom I like and I wanted to mention for slightly deeper leagues or in case some of the guys above are already gone in the late rounds.
Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots: I mean, I know the guys ahead of him are iron men and everything, but ...
LaMichael James, RB, 49ers: Either they limit Gore's touches this year or he breaks down. Either way, James gets a shot.
The Backup Cowboys Running Back: Hopefully you have some clarity on this before you draft. As of this writing, I'd say Lance Dunbar has a slight edge over Joseph Randle, but it feels like they want Randle to win it. Whoever it is, I want.
Marcel Reece, RB, Raiders: I don't believe in McFadden staying healthy; Reece is a great pass-catcher, and every time he gets a chance, he produces. I know Rashad Jennings is there, too; I don't care. I just like Marcel Reece.
The Trendy Tight Ends: You won't get this far into the tight end list, but count me among the Jordan Cameron believers. I've been talking about Rob Housler for more than a year now, and he finally gets a QB who likes to throw to the tight end (Brandon Myers was fourth in TE targets last season with Palmer throwing him the ball). Also, Dwayne Allen is going to have a very nice year in Indy as Pep Hamilton installs more two-tight end sets, and Zach Sudfeld in New England is all sorts of interesting for a variety of reasons.
Aaron Dobson, WR, Patriots: If you're going to gamble on a rookie, why not make it one who has Tom Brady throwing to him on a team with no deep threat?
EJ Manuel, QB, Bills: If he wins the starting job, he could easily be a top-15 guy or so, with rushing yards.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears: Not every pass can go to Brandon Marshall.
Kendall Wright, WR, Titans: I just like his talent.
Kai Forbath, K, Redskins: Sleeper kicker pick? Sleeper kicker pick. Missed only once all last season, good kicker on a good but not great offense.
Players I Hate for 2013
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions (going in the 1st round, I would take in the 2nd): Make no mistake, I think Calvin Johnson is going to have a crazy monster year. Love the entire Lions offense this year, think it was a fluke how much he was tackled inside the 5 and the 1 last year, I'm on board. But it's all about roster construction. You want a running back in the first round of a 10-team league, and Calvin Johnson is not a running back. That simple. I wrote all about what happens to your team if you take Calvin first in the Draft Day Manifesto, if you want to read more.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers (1st, 2nd): Same thing here as with "Megatron." I actually love Rodgers as the No. 1 quarterback this year, and he was my No. 1 overall last year. But this is just about roster construction. In a 10-team league with standard scoring (four points for a touchdown pass), I want a running back, not a QB, in the first round. That changes in a deeper league or a league in which you get six points for a TD pass. But in general, assume that every quarterback is on the "hate" list just because of where they are going. The position is the deepest it has ever been.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (2nd, 3rd): He's going one spot ahead of Brandon Marshall. That would be the same Brandon Marshall who had 64 more targets than Jones. I get that Jones is amazingly gifted, but he had seven games last season with single-digit fantasy points, six of which were six points or fewer. With everything back in place for the Falcons this season, there will be some monster games for Jones and some games in which it's all Roddy White. I just can't see spending a second-round pick on a guy at a deep position when he had only two games last season with more than six catches.
Andre Johnson, WR, Texans (3rd, 4th): Hey, he stayed healthy! For once! Look, he's great, but he also doesn't get any red zone looks (71 players had as many red zone targets as Johnson or more last season), he's never had double-digit touchdowns in his career and if DeAndre Hopkins is all they say he is, there might be even fewer balls to go around on a run-heavy team. Some scouts say he's lost a step, and while the Texans will continue to use play-action effectively, it's still a run, run, run offense that makes me nervous about taking him as a No. 1 receiver in the third round.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (4th, 7th): Two first names is usually a crowd-pleaser, but the Falcons still run when in close, there are too many good quarterbacks out there, last season was close to the ceiling for Ryan and, as good a season as he had, at the end of the day, Ryan was less than two points per game better than Tony Romo, who is going in the eighth.
Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders (4th, 7th): Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop the clock! On a terrible team, has never played all 16 games, was bad last season even when healthy. Maybe the Raiders' going to more of a power-run scheme will help, because, let's face it, it can't get worse. I'm fine with a flier based on hope. Just not when you're bypassing solid guys such as Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys (5th, 6th): Why, yes, that is a photo of DeMarco Murray and Stephania Bell. Why do you ask?
Mike Wallace, WR, Dolphins (5th, 7th): Yeah, yeah, Ryan Tannehill is improving and is actually pretty good on deep balls. I know. But going from Big Ben to Tannehill is a downgrade, no matter how you slice it. And starting after the Arizona game in 2011, when Antonio Brown emerged, Wallace has two, count 'em, two 100-yard games in his past 24. So feast or famine -- he had 11 games last season with single-digit fantasy points. His 54.2 percent reception-per-target rate last season was 61st in the NFL, and that's not going to improve with Tannehill. All the stats are heading in the wrong direction, and early reports out of Miami have Dolphins coaches less than impressed with Wallace.
Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers (6th, 9th): Forget the playoffs for a second. You know that once Colin Kaepernick took over, Davis wasn't even the best fantasy tight end on his own team last season, right? Delanie Walker had more fantasy points from Week 11 on. Now Walker is with the Titans, and I reserve the right to change my mind on this if the Niners do start lining Davis up wide, but he is just so inconsistent. The 49ers are still going to be a run-first team, and maybe with no Michael Crabtree, Davis will get a little more love, but check out his fantasy point totals in the regular season when Kaepernick took over: 14, zero, one, zero, one, two, zero. He'll have five or six great games this year and stink for the rest. And you know who else will have that kind of season? A ton of tight ends going six rounds later.
Andrew Luck, QB, Colts (7th, 10th): I laid out the majority of this case in 100 Facts, but while I think he's a great NFL quarterback who will actually have a really good football season, I don't see him having as good a fantasy season. Between a revamped defense (health, free agency, draft) and Chuck Pagano being there all year, I expect a better defense, meaning fewer shootouts. Sixty percent of Luck's passing yards last season came when he was behind. And he had five rushing touchdowns. In the past 10 seasons, the only quarterbacks with at least five rushing touchdowns one season who had five or more the following season were Cam Newton and Tim Tebow. Both of them had designed runs at the goal line that Luck just doesn't have. Pep Hamilton, with Luck as his QB in college, ran the ball 55 percent of the time. Bruce Arians ran it just 37 percent of the time. The more conservative offense and improved blocking should cut down on the 18 interceptions, five fumbles and seven dropped interceptions, but is it enough to move Luck into the top 10 fantasy QBs? I don't think so.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers (7th, 9th): Two first names? Always a crowd-pleaser. Two last names? Often a crowd-pleaser. Two names that could be either first names or last names? Never cross the streams! It's actually not a terrible price for him; he could easily be a top-20 running back, and I know a lot of folks like him because the hate has gone too far. And maybe it has. But what can I say? I'm a slave to tradition. Also, this is not a great offense or offensive line, and the coaching staff and front-office folks in San Diego these days are not the people who drafted him. No, those guys have been fired, in part because their former No. 1 pick has, like the rest of the team, been bad. Plus, hating on Ryan Mathews has paid off for me before, so I'm doubling down on him being terrible again. Feels like a safe bet.
Anquan Boldin, WR, 49ers (8th, 13th): Seven touchdowns. In two years. After "never pay for a career year," "never pay for a career postseason" is right up there in the fantasy tenets. (Another popular one: The minute you give up on and drop a player, your opponent will pick him up and use him against you.). With Boldin on a run-first team and on the downside of his career, the people thinking he is the new Crabtree are going to be very disappointed. He's not fast enough to beat defenders deep, and I'd expect Vernon Davis to get more red zone looks than him. And you know how I feel about Davis. Bleah. Daniel Radcliffe once called him "Fantasy Voldemort." You really gonna go against Harry Potter? I didn't think so.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings (9th, 11th): I might have to seriously rethink this whole "two first names" thing. Too touchdown-dependent for his fantasy scoring. Did you know that on his way to being a top-10 fantasy tight end, Rudolph also had seven games with two or fewer fantasy points? As our player card notes, Rudolph's 3.7 yards-at-the-catch average was 32nd among qualified tight ends. He needs to score to have fantasy value, and if you read the Manifesto, you know touchdowns are hard to repeat and even harder to predict. Rudolph is like what I wrote about Davis. Lotta tight ends who will have some good games and crush you in others. Why waste a ninth-rounder on it when you can get the same soul-crushing performance a few rounds later?
Texans, D/ST, (9th, 15th): In a 10-team league, you take a defense in the 15th round. Not before. Especially not the Texans' defense, which is good but not at the level of a Seattle or a San Francisco. Every year I have to do a defense. ...
Stephen Gostkowski, K, Patriots (10th, 16th): ... And every year, I also have to hate on a kicker, even though it's been statistically proved that the difference between the No. 1 kicker and the No. 10 is maybe a point or two a game. And that's if you can predict who will be the No. 1 kicker. Every year there's some guy like Scott DePace who won't listen to reason and drafts a kicker early, but if you won't trust me, how about Blair Walsh, last season's No. 1 fantasy kicker? The official kicker of the 06010 podcast, Walsh came on the show last year to explain that he plays fantasy football and even he doesn't draft a kicker until the last round. Meanwhile, defenses tend to fluctuate from year to year and defensive touchdowns are impossible to predict. As our positional preview notes, 40 percent of the defenses that were drafted in the top 10 last year actually finished in the top 10. I like Seattle and San Francisco as fantasy defenses, but then again, I liked the Ravens, Eagles and Jets at this time last year, and none of them finished in the upper half. You can stream defenses so easily in a 10-team league that it's not worth anything more than the second-to-last round pick to snag your Week 1 D/ST.
Jared Cook, TE, Rams (12th, 16th): Wake me when we're done waiting for this guy.
Matt Schaub, QB, Texans (12th, Not gonna be on my team): Unless you get points for handing off, he should be undrafted in one-QB, 10-team leagues.
Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (14th, Nope): Another guy I wouldn't draft. Losing his best wide receiver from last season, Danario Alexander, is only one of many reasons. He's going ahead of guys such as Carson Palmer, Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill, all of whom will have better seasons than Rivers and have more upside. One year is a fluke; two is a trend. Three years, and I have to ask, why do you hate your team?
There you have it. This season's Love/Hate is in the books, for better or for worse. And I'm pretty sure the next note I get from Howard will be a restraining order. But I'm willing to live with that.
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