10 must-draft players
"Planting one's flag" is fast becoming the "win-win situation" or "at the end of the day" of 2010. It seems we hear it whenever someone needs a jibberish-but-official-sounding way of saying, "Look how clever I think I'm about to be!" Its imagery stirs echoes of the moon landing and Iwo Jima, and also fancy deli sandwiches ... and who wouldn't want to be associated with that iconic triumvirate?
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And yet, at one time or another here in the vortex of the 24-hour fantasy football news cycle, you're likely to read an endorsement of just about every player in the NFL. Someone likes everyone. The fast-growing blather from all quarters makes it tough to know which players you should most want to draft, and so we need a way (I suppose) to separate half-hearted recommendations from true championing.
And so: I'm about to plant my flag on some players.
Listen, the easiest thing in the world is to produce a list of dozens of players and fire off vague opinions about all of them. I fall prey to this sometimes. I do so many radio, podcast, online video and TV hits that I wind up talking about tons of players, and often I feel as though I'm saying positive things about an awful lot of them, to the point where I ask myself, "Um, which of these guys do I really like?" I mean, if I say enough things on air, some of 'em probably turn out right, but did I really help anyone?"
No, I think if you're going to endorse players -- truly endorse them -- you should be allowed to pick only a handful. And so that's what I'll do here today. I'm going to list 10 players for the 2010 season who I think will be big-time fantasy factors. Will they all be factors at the same level? No; some will project as every-week starters, and others will qualify as sleepers. (And it should go without saying that I'm not recommending that these guys all be drafted in the first round.) But I do think they all should be drafted in even the shallowest leagues, and they all will provide good value relative to where you have to select them.
So with no further introduction, here is my first annual list of ... 10 Guys Who Have Pointy Stakes Stuck In Them For The Purpose Of Flying A Cloth Banner Of My Own Special Design:
Donald Brown, RB, Colts. Brown is entering his second year and obviously was a big disappointment in his first. He didn't pass block well, he missed time with a chest injury and in the end he mustered 3.6 yards per carry in limited action. Certainly, I have Joseph Addai rated higher than I do Brown. But I probably won't draft Addai at all this year, and I'm guessing I'll have Brown on a bunch of teams. This is a contract year for Addai, and the Colts drafted Brown hoping he'd allow them to not pay Addai a ton of money on his second contract. Addai is solid and provides touchdowns, but in '09 he failed to eclipse 80 yards rushing in all 18 games he played, and in his four-year career, he has exactly one run longer than 30 yards.
Meanwhile, here's a list of all the running backs taken in the NFL draft's first round from '04 to '08:
2008: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson
2007: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch
2006: Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai
2005: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams
2004: Steven Jackson, Chris Perry, Kevin Jones
In their first NFL seasons, these 17 players averaged 180 touches from scrimmage, 918 yards from scrimmage and six total touchdowns. In their second NFL seasons, they averaged 240 touches, 1,188 yards and seven touchdowns. It gets better. I mean, look at that list of running backs. Perry and Jones got hurt, and the jury is very much out on McFadden. But if Donald Brown stays healthy, he almost certainly has a fantasy future. The Colts have invested too much not to give him some run.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs. I'm stubbornly keeping Charles in my list of the top 10 running backs, despite all the news out of Kansas City that Thomas Jones is running with the first team and that observers can't see any way this isn't a timeshare. I'm not buying it. Jones is a decent player and was a very good player. But he doesn't have the Jets' offensive line anymore. Yes, he scored nine touchdowns from inside the 5 on 21 attempts last season (third most in the league), and he's second in the NFL in the past three years in attempts from inside the 5 with 54, 15 of which he converted -- not exactly a LaDainian-esque rate. I'll buy that Jones probably will outscore Charles on short touchdowns (although Charles did convert three of seven short chances last season).
Otherwise, though, there's really no comparison between the two players. Charles is one of the most dynamic runners in the NFL. Latter-day Jones is physical but is a plodder. You want the ball in Charles' hands in space, because he's got Chris-Johnson-level shakes and jukes, plus speed to burn. Certainly, yards after contact is a very important statistic, but I think it's revealing to note that Charles trounced the NFL last year in yards before contact; he averaged 3.42 yards per carry before anyone touched him, while nobody else in the league who had more than 100 carries averaged better than 2.91. And this wasn't exactly behind the Willie Roaf offensive lines of the early 2000s. Todd Haley's sometimes-mystifying ways notwithstanding, the NFL is a meritocracy. I'm not denying that Charles owners might occasionally get frustrated, especially early in the season. But draft talent. Charles might be second only to Johnson as a game breaker in the NFL.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens. Through seven games last season, Flacco had 12 touchdowns and five interceptions and was averaging 264 yards passing per game. From that point on, he had nine TDs and seven INTs and averaged 196 yards per game, and much of that decrease can be blamed on physical ailments, especially a "bruise that extended from his right hip to his right ankle," according to ESPN's John Clayton. I don't see much missing from Flacco that you'd want in an elite fantasy quarterback. He's got one of the biggest arms in the league. He's got Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth added to Derrick Mason. He's got Ray Rice, who led NFL rushers in pass receptions last season. And he's on a team whose secondary I don't trust even a little bit, with several corners either recently suffering or recovering from torn ACLs and Ed Reed very questionable.
As I wrote in this column, it's dangerous to automatically assume that because a defense might struggle, a passing offense will take off. But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. My main argument there is for nuance, and my belief is that if the Ravens do struggle in the secondary, Cam Cameron is an offensive coordinator who'll put the load on Flacco's shoulders to keep up. I'm thinking of that Vikings game last season, the October barn burner in which Flacco had 43 attempts and 385 yards passing.
If you don't get Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers at good value, I'm of a mind that you should wait to get your quarterback, and Flacco is part of the reason why. My guess is he'll be a top-10 fantasy QB by season's end, and this time next year we'll be counting him in or around the Matt Schaub / Tony Romo / Philip Rivers neighborhood. Actually, Rivers might be a great comparison. Like Rivers, Flacco had between 50 and 100 attempts fewer than Schaub/Romo last season. He just hasn't quite put it all together as a downfield thrower the way Rivers has. But look at Rivers' career once he became a starter in '06:
And now look at Flacco's first two years:
Can't you easily see the kind of relatively small leap in yards per attempt and touchdowns that will give Flacco a Rivers-like third-year boost?
Santonio Holmes, WR, Jets. Really? Everyone is putting his or her faith in Braylon Edwards again? How many times do you need to be burned by this guy's shaky hands? Holmes is suspended for the season's first four games, but after that I don't have a single doubt that he'll be the most productive Jets receiver. Yes, there's a question of how much that's really worth, because Mark Sanchez has a long way to go with his accuracy and the ground game should dominate the play calling in Gotham.
Still, I think we're forgetting how much better Holmes is than Edwards (and Jerricho Cotchery). He caught 79 passes for 1,248 yards in '09. Between stints in Cleveland and New York, Edwards caught 45 for 680, while Cotchery caught 57 for 821. Yes, of course, Holmes was in a receiver-friendlier universe catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger, but at some point you have to stop apologizing for systems and just acknowledge one guy is a better player. Look at these comparisons:
With Holmes, you get Edwards' downfield threat with Cotchery's superior hands. He's got issues, but there's a reason the Jets traded for him.
Jacoby Jones, WR, Texans. At this early date in training camp, we don't know whether Jones, a fourth-year player out of Lane College, will unseat Kevin Walter for the No. 2 receiving job in Houston. Walter got $8 million guaranteed this winter, so you have to believe the Texans themselves aren't entirely convinced. But if you're drafting soon, I think you should assume Jones will take the gig, because the rewards will be plentiful if it happens. Don't pay much attention to Jones' six touchdowns last season; it's nice that he broke a few tackles, but he never caught more than five passes in a game (or was targeted more than six times) all year, despite the fact that Walter had hamstring problems. No, with Jones, what you pay attention to are the raw skills.
He's roughly the same size as Andre Johnson (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and is nearly as fast (he runs a 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds while Johnson runs a 4.43, or did coming out of college). Walter is even bigger than his two compatriots but doesn't have the same downfield ability. That's not to say Walter is exclusively a Welker-esque slot man. He can make plays. But not like Johnson and Jones. By way of example, here's how the three main Texans receivers faired in '09. If we remove the notion of yards after catch and try to get a sense of where receivers are when they catch the ball (by subtracting total yards from YAC, thus getting yards before catch), we see Matt Schaub throws it to Johnson and Jones when they're in deeper patterns:
I think the rewards are too great to ignore Jones' potential to be a downfield threat and fantasy star, and if you draft once the Texans have made their decision, it might be too late.
Johnny Knox, WR, Bears. Knox is looking like a safer bet now than when I elevated him above the rest of the Chicago receiving crowd, because the Bears have nominally installed him as their starting split end. But I still see and hear people hanging on to the Devin Aromashodu breakout talk, and I'd definitely take Knox ahead of Aromashodu. He is faster (remember, this guy ran a 4.34 at last year's combine) and already runs better routes than Aromashodu. And I think there's a notion out there that Aromashodu is some young star-in-the-making; he is 26, was taken in the '06 draft, and has been practice-squad and waiver-wire material through most of his career. That's not to say a player who meets that description can't suddenly put it together, and there's no denying the nice December that Aromashodu had last year. But he's a possession receiver.
Knox isn't, and this idea that you should prefer a possession receiver over a downfield threat because the possession receiver might get a few more looks in the red zone is, for the most part, foolish. Knox came and went a little as a rookie, but his high points were tremendous (remember him beating eventual defensive player of the year Charles Woodson in the season opener?) and he actually had nine red zone targets in '09 compared to four for Aromashodu (although granted, Aromashodu didn't play much in the season's first half). I'm all aboard the Knox Express, passing through Knoxville on the way to Fort Knox.
Laurent Robinson, WR, Rams. No Rams receiver figures to be an every-week fantasy starter, no matter how good a player he might be. But Robinson is ready to be St. Louis's best pass catcher. He fits the mold of Moneyball wide receivers that I wrote about last month: 6-foot-2, 200-pound guys who run 4.5 or faster. (Jacoby Jones fits that mold, too.) You can't teach that kind of athleticism. Now Robinson has to stop getting hurt. In Atlanta (the Falcons took him in the third round of the '07 draft), he suffered tailbone, hamstring and knee problems, and with the Rams last season after catching 11 passes for 141 yards and a score in the first two games (from Marc Bulger, no less), he broke his leg and was lost for the rest of '09. But I remember the play when Robinson broke his leg, and to call him "injury-prone" because of that play (he was blocking and someone violently rolled over on his leg) is wrong. He's healthy and running well in training camp.
There are a lot of young players in that St. Louis pass offense. Sam Bradford, obviously, figures to be a constraining factor, although heck, we've seen rookie quarterbacks be decent the past couple of years. Donnie Avery is still there, and he's the starter opposite Robinson, but I'm kind of over Avery. He never had more than six catches in a game last season, and despite his deep speed, he has exactly one game in two full seasons in which he's exceeded 93 yards receiving. Brandon Gibson played well after coming over from Philly last season, Mardy Gilyard was a fourth-round pick this year and Danny Amendola could man the slot. But it's Robinson who's going to scare opposing defenses.
Bernard Scott, RB, Bengals. This isn't necessarily me saying don't draft Cedric Benson. Ironically, I think Benson has turned into a Thomas Jones type (ironic, because remember when those guys both were in the Bears' backfield?). He's not a pass catcher, not a game breaker, but a pretty tough inside rusher. No, Benson didn't have nearly Jones' touchdown success last season, but partly that was fluky; he was the only running back in the NFL with more than 200 carries who didn't get at least five totes from inside the 5, and it wasn't as though someone else on the Bengals was getting them. Cincy just happened not to have a ton of shorter goal-to-go situations. That said, I don't think Benson is particularly special, talent-wise. He's not blazing fast, he doesn't plow you over and he doesn't play on third down. Much of his success last season boils down to Andrew Whitworth and Evan Mathis, the underrated tackle/guard combo on the line's left side, who were spectacular. Benson mustered 5.8 yards per carry running to the left inside last season and 3.7 everywhere else.
Scott is a different kind of player. Anyone who watched "Hard Knocks" last year knows how much he stood out immediately in training camp as a rookie. He's not a pure burner, but he runs 4.56 at 220 pounds, catches well, shifts better than Benson and is tough to bring down once he starts rolling. Last season, Scott occasionally ran into his linemen and didn't always know where he was supposed to be, but that'll change. Plus, he wasn't much involved in the Bengals' passing game (eight targets, five catches), but with Brian Leonard potentially questionable to start the season, I expect Scott to be on the field on most third downs. He's a perfect handcuff for Benson owners, but I think there might be some money in drafting him before the Benson owner in your league can grab him. Given a full accompaniment of carries, he'd be a no-doubter fantasy starter.
Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers. In a perverse way, I'm glad Ben Roethlisberger won't be around in September, because it takes away some of the heat from the Mike Wallace Hype Machine. The raves for Wallace began in spring minicamps and haven't let up, as he's the no-doubt starting X receiver in what last season was an awfully pass-happy situation. Of course, having Byron Leftwich throwing it to you for a month will remove some sizzle, and it probably prevents Wallace from being a 10-team-league starter right away. But once Big Ben is back, look out.
The previous rookie to lead the NFL in yards per reception was Chris Chambers in '01, and Wallace was only the second rookie to do it since '95. This guy is a spectacular deep threat (he runs a 4.33 40 at 6-foot and 200 pounds) and is part of an offense that's produced the YPC leader in two of the past three seasons (Santonio Holmes led in '07). This isn't to say I think Hines Ward is useless; he'll probably lead Pittsburgh in receptions and maybe red zone targets. But whereas Wallace was previously just a flyer, reports out of Steelers training camp are that his route-running has made a huge leap in Year 2. You don't find many players you can draft in the eighth round who have true No. 1 fantasy receiver upside. Here's such a guy.
Beanie Wells, RB, Cardinals. People always are looking for a reason to pick on Wells. Last season, all anyone could say or write about him was that he definitely was going to get hurt. It was a lock-cinch certainty. Sure enough, Wells made it through the season unscathed, which obviously is no guarantee that he can't get hurt, but I don't view him as an above-average injury risk. So this year, nobody is talking about injuries, and instead everyone is worried about Tim Hightower. Hightower scored seven of his eight regular-season rushing touchdowns from inside an opponent's 2 and finished second among running backs with 63 receptions. Plus Hightower is listed as the starter! In early August!
Draft talent. Wells is a much better football player than Hightower. He's bigger, faster, more instinctive and vastly more elusive. Look at how these guys performed in the final four games of '09:
So just stop. Stop with the Tim Hightower. By the end of last season, the Cardinals understood what they had in Wells: a 230-pound man (I think he's really bigger than that) who runs a mid-4.5 40 and is very unpleasant to tackle. Sure, Hightower is still on the team and probably will lighten Wells' load to a somewhat annoying degree, and that's why I have Wells rated as a No. 2 fantasy back, rather than a No. 1. But this notion that Wells is less safe than, say, Knowshon Moreno, Pierre Thomas or Matt Forte and their platoon scenarios? Hogwash.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.
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