'Round here, rankings are paramount.
Tout your sleepers, trash your busts, make your bold calls but muff your rankings, and frankly, you're toast. It's a mantra we live by at ESPN Fantasy; what you've come here to read is the product of hours, days, even weeks of our blood, sweat and tears.
But the process shouldn't -- nay, can't -- be described solely by clichés. Having received your e-mails, heard your chat room cries, read your Conversation posts, we can attest we're as passionate about the rankings process as you. To that point, on a day many months before each season, we assemble our staff, comprised of more than a dozen people who hail from all parts of the country, in a room at ESPN headquarters.
Our task: Rank every single player of relevance to fantasy football.
Sounds simple, right? Hardly. Passionate folks bring strong opinions -- not to mention loaded laptops -- to the table, and what appears to be a facile task winds up wrapped in hours of debate, often over such simple questions as "Where does Michael Turner belong among running backs, second or third?" We fight and we fight hard; how we all remain friendly afterward is a feat in itself.
But before delving into the specifics of the 2009 meeting (the "rankings summit," as we've come to call it), let's go back to the beginnings of the process
After you're done here, take some time to browse through some of the notes, stats and facts that can be found in each player's profile on the rankings pages. Our own Christopher Harris has painstakingly crafted them, having holed himself up for several weeks this spring to analyze every player in football. Christopher collects the pertinent data and generates a player profile and a base ranking and then watches as we promptly tear them to shreds at the summit. But at least Christopher is good-hearted about it; I can recall only one instance in which he violently kicked me under the table.
Besides, Christopher is the one who, despite having to take our consensus group rankings and make the necessary adjustments, injects the humor and wit you'll read on the player profile and rankings pages. For instance: "When word came of the February trade that sent [Sage] Rosenfels from Houston to Minnesota for a fourth-rounder, and 'experts' came out and said they liked the move because of the 'stability' Rosenfels will bring, we had to chuckle. Have they watched this guy play?"
Or: "Go back 12 years and tell a Panthers fan that Kerry Collins will eventually be known as a game manager. Don't be insulted by the laughs."
Or my personal favorite: "Trying to predict what the Patriots will do with their backfield the past few years has been about as fruitful as trying to pick one's favorite Pauly Shore movie." C'mon, Christopher, admit it -- "Bio-Dome" was da bomb! (OK, I can't really back that up, and I'm trying hard not to live in the '90s.)
With those quips and valuable research in hand, it's upon each of us to develop our own rankings, ready to defend where we differ from the group in opinion. Some of the battles we'll win; others well, let's say at least we restrain ourselves from going home crying. And when we walk into the room we'll call home for the next 10 hours, fully injected with a week's worth of caffeine, we're ready to give our best both in terms of rankings and clever, candid commentary.
Here's a window into that experience, in the ever-popular list format:
Five players who generated the most debate
• Tom Brady: The first big, debatable name we came across, and it arrived minutes into the process. Sadly, at the time of the Brady discussion, injury expert Stephania Bell was tending to a flat tire that delayed her arrival; fortunately for us, she made her stance clear when she did arrive that Brady is healthy and primed for a huge bounce-back season. Ranked as high as first by Ken Daube and as low as seventh by Eric Karabell and yours truly, Brady settled in at a comfy "we totally believe in the guy" No. 2 among quarterbacks.
• LaDainian Tomlinson: Armed with historical statistics of other 30-plus-year-old running backs, I attempted to build my case against LDT, before being thwarted by Daube, who, like with Brady, declared Tomlinson his No. 1 man at the position. Incredibly, the room was very much in line with Tomlinson being an early second-rounder at the onset of the discussion; at debate's end, he actually rose in rank, from 11th to seventh. Guess it's a good thing I didn't take up a career as an attorney.
• Chad Ochocinco: Matthew Berry was -- and presumably still is -- very much anti-Ochocinco, having entered the room with the Bengals receiver No. 50 on his rankings sheet. That drew plenty a raised eyebrow and seemed to work against some of the others' efforts to push him further down the rankings. Initially regarded the No. 24 wide receiver, Ochocinco's debate rallied him four spots higher.
• Joseph Addai: After we placed Addai 24th among running backs, Nate Ravitz put his feelings best when he said , "We're going to look really bad on Addai at season's end." The group, though, was concerned enough about Addai's lackluster 2008 season, the Colts' offensive line and the team's draft-day addition of Donald Brown that the former fantasy first-rounder continued to slide further and further down the board.
• Marshawn Lynch: When we arrived at the topic of Lynch, the discussion centered on the probable length of his suspension, currently set at three games. Points raged from the effect of a 13-game season compared to a 16-gamer for another starter to the reduction of Brandon Marshall's suspension in 2008 to a straight comparison of Lynch's and Marshall's infractions. Then, of course, the issue of what kind of role Fred Jackson might carve out for himself in Lynch's absence was raised. Unsurprisingly, Lynch barely cracked the top 20 at No. 18, yet still slotted ahead of Addai.
Five players who required the least discussion
• Kicker No. 1 (wound up Stephen Gostkowski)
• Kicker No. 2 (wound up Nate Kaeding)
• Kicker No.
OK, you get the idea. In the one minute we allotted in the schedule to rank kickers, I attempted to mount a case to abolish the position from our game once and for all, although one minute is hardly enough time to pull it off. So I'll take the opportunity to reiterate my points here, where I'm granted more than a mere minute:
The fantasy football world has for the most part accepted the strategy of using a final-round -- and only a final-round -- draft pick to fill the kicker spot, thereby admitting the position's inherent randomness. So why are we willing to accept the effects of a position in which a player ranked outside the top 10 in any given week can score you 20-plus points just as easily as the consensus No. 1 in that same week can be a five-point bust? Fifteen points will make or break a lot of weekly fantasy matchups, and don't try to argue that it's the same at quarterback, running back or wide receiver, because it doesn't happen nearly as often at those positions as it does at kicker.
Just a thought, as I attempt to mount my campaign. I know these things take time.
Five most memorable quotes/exchanges
• Sadly, one of my favorites was an ever-so-kind statement by buddy and colleague Eric Karabell, who early on caught on to my noting the memorable quotes of the day, right after saying with regard to Kyle Orton, "I'm starting to convince myself that I like him!" Noticing my scribbling it down, he (jokingly) busted my chops with a not-family-friendly comment.
• "I watched the combine!" Christopher said, describing the epitome of geekdom. (And I believe him. Did I mention he holes himself up in a tiny room to stats-crunch? I don't even think it has air conditioning.)
• In hearing Matthew's anti-Ochocinco rant and noticing he actually had Domenik Hixon higher on his personal rankings, Nate Ravitz proposed a simple, to-the-point board bet for their Fantasy Focus podcast: Ochocinco versus Hixon, 2009 total points. Matthew was seemingly intrigued before Jay "Pod Vader" Soderberg so eloquently pointed out: "Why do you make these bets? You lose all of them."
• "They think he's a one-dimensional fatty with no work ethic," Christopher said, intending to explain how the Titans feel about LenDale White.
"I'm right here!" Matthew replied.
• As we delved into the deeper rankings at wide receiver, the group suddenly realized it was being influenced by a phenomenon Ken promptly gave the moniker "The AJ Bump." AJ Mass was astonishingly pro-Vincent Jackson, Kevin Walter and Derrick Mason, and his personal rankings of each were throwing off our consensus numbers. (No truth to rumors Mr. Mass worships Bill O'Reilly, fears bears and plans a 2012 run at the presidency.)
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.