- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Jay, Allentown, Pa.: I'm drafting seventh in the first year of a 12-team keeper league. Right now, I am leaning toward Peyton Manning. I would much rather take a running back, but Manning is way too consistent. I'm not crazy about Willie Parker (new system) or Brian Westbrook (injuries) and I think anyone else is a stretch. If Joseph Addai should fall to me, does that change everything?
Engel: You are looking at your draft strategy from a yearly perspective, where Manning usually falls to the middle or late part of the first round. In new keeper drafts, I usually see Manning going in the top 5, and sometimes the top 3. When you are discussing the cornerstone of your fantasy franchise, you want stability and excellent production annually, and no one can offer you that more than Manning. There are even more questions surrounding the top running backs when you look at things with a long-term perspective. I'm not saying it can't happen, but I would not count on getting Manning and certainly not Addai, who is an easy top-5 selection in most formats like yours. In keeper leagues that are drafting for the first time, here is my top seven: LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Manning, Frank Gore, Addai, Reggie Bush and Parker. Yes, there will be changes in Pittsburgh's offense -- you will see them throw more. But Parker will still be a heavy part of the equation and he has fully proven himself. Westbrook does admirably play through the pain, but Bush is just as versatile and will outplay him the next few years. If any of the first six I mention fall to you, take them. You could see Bush slip, and if he doesn't, Parker has no real doubts surrounding him.
Twain, Nashville, Tenn.: I'm in the sixth slot in a 12-team draft. I think after the first six running backs, it's a crapshoot. I'm confident I can get Peyton Manning in the first round and one of the top three wide receivers in the second round. Then if I could pluck Antonio Gates in Round 3, I should have the rest of our league beat at those three positions. In rounds four through seven, I would go running-back heavy. With so much depth, parity and questions surrounding running backs this year, why not lock up Manning, Steve Smith or Chad Johnson, and Antonio Gates and then hope to hit on a few running backs later?
Engel: You can't argue too heavily with Manning in Round 1, but I certainly wouldn't want to wait until the fourth round to start getting my top running backs. Even though some of the top running backs do have question marks, the longer you wait, the bigger the questions become. Every team in your league must start at least two running backs and they will fly off the board. You don't want to find yourself leaning on Jamal Lewis or Ahman Green as your No. 1 running back when the season opens. The crop of top wide receivers runs deeper and you can still get a terrific starter in the third round, or go with Gates if you can get him at that point. I like grabbing Ronnie Brown or Thomas Jones in the second round instead of shuffling through a bunch of question marks in Week 1. Sure, you can get Brandon Jacobs or Marshawn Lynch after the third round and start them, but I wouldn't want either of them as my No. 1 guy.
Daniel, Los Angeles: I seem to be the only person that doesn't think Ronnie Brown is a top-10 pick. In my personal rankings of running backs, I have him in the 15-20 range, with the likes of Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones and Willis McGahee. To be the 10th-best running back in my rankings, he'd have to jump past Rudi Johnson, Travis Henry, Maurice Jones-Drew and Reggie Bush. I am not a huge Bush fan, but I'm getting points per reception, so that makes him a higher priority to me.
Engel: I also don't think Brown is quite a top-10 running back, but I don't have him ranked as low as 15th, either, especially in points-per-reception (PPR) formats. Brown has shared time and gotten banged up in his first two seasons, during which he played behind a shaky offensive line. Yet he still has considerable upside, and his potential as a receiver out of the backfield hasn't been fully tapped yet. If Trent Green can play most of the season, he'll stabilize Miami's offense and help Brown finish more drives with scoring runs. With Green in South Florida, Brown will face less defensive attention as opponents respect the passing game more. I'd like Brown to be much more dependable in 2007. ESPN projects him for 1,305 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. In a PPR league, here is my current top 10 at running back: Tomlinson, Jackson, Gore, Addai, Bush, Westbrook, Parker, Larry Johnson, Alexander, Travis Henry. Brown, however, falls just outside that group and I can easily rank him 11th. Rudi Johnson could see his workload slightly reduced this year, and although Jones-Drew is very close in value, I think Brown will be more dependable. In non-PPR leagues, Brown would drop about two spots in my rankings. No, he's not top-10 yet, but he's close.
Kyle, Lewis Center, Ohio: I had the ninth pick out of 12 in my league, and Larry Johnson was still on the board. I felt it was a player I couldn't pass on even though he is holding out. I also picked up Donovan McNabb in the second round, even though he is recovering from an injury. What affect will these players have on my team the first couple weeks? Will Johnson play? Should I try to trade to get a more stable quarterback?
Engel: I think you made a good move picking Johnson there, as long as you added insurance later on at running back in case he holds out into the season. I can't give you any firm reassurance that he will play early in the season, of course, but if he does report soon or is moved to another team, you'll end up looking very good. The longer he stays away, though, the bigger risk he becomes. Missed time will affect his conditioning and ability to get into the flow of the offense. I think you picked McNabb much too early; I have seen him go as late as the sixth round in many drafts. All reports indicate that he is looking good in camp, though, and I see no reason for major worries about his knee. Just make sure you have a solid backup for peace of mind.
Clark, Kansas City, .Mo: I am in a three-keeper league. My potential candidates are Steven Jackson, Travis Henry, Cedric Benson, Chad Johnson and Antonio Gates. I am certainly keeping Jackson.
Engel: Gates is definitely the best player at a weak position, and he should start to click even more with Philip Rivers over the next season or two. Benson has a lot of upside, but I believe the final decision comes down to Henry, who is going to have a lot of success in Denver over the next two years, or Johnson, who will remain a top player at his position for a long time. Since you already have Jackson to anchor your running-back crew, I will recommend Johnson. I'd rather have the No. 1 receiver than the No. 2 running back. Keep Jackson, Gates and Johnson, and use your first draft pick to get a No. 2 running back.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
Scott Engel helps keeper-leaguers make the most crucial of pre-draft decisions.