Too early for football, you say? Ridiculous! It's never too early for football, and while Albert Pujols may have just hit his first home run of the 2012 baseball season, the fact is that we're less than two months away from the opening of NFL training camps.
With the top rookies having been selected at the annual draft, the ESPN.com fantasy team tackled the task of ranking all of the top players during our recent rankings summit. As the reverberations of some of the more heated debates still echoed in our heads, we thought now would be a perfect time for our first mock draft for the 2012 fantasy football season.
The participants for this exercise, which utilized the rules for ESPN standard leagues, in a randomly determined first-round order were: Eric Karabell, Shawn (C-Dub) Cwalinski, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Dave Hunter, Jim McCormick, Christopher Harris, Matthew Berry, KC Joyner, Stephania Bell and me.
Here's a complete round-by-round breakdown of our selections. I've outlined what my thought process was each time my turn came around, asked my colleagues about some of the more interesting picks they made, as well as tried to identify at what point some of the biggest drop-offs in talent occurred.
Round 1 analysis: The start of any draft is going to have a lot of familiar names. Good fantasy owners don't reach too far at the start of proceedings. However, one thing we learned when we did our preseason rankings at the summit was that 2012 drafts are going to have fewer running backs selected in the first round than in any year in recent memory.
Hunter picked fourth, which pretty much seems to be as late as you want to be drafting. As he put it, "The fourth slot in the draft this year is the most enviable to me. I want Aaron Rodgers for his incredible seasonal consistency and should be able to land him at No. 4 in most drafts. If for some reason someone snatches him ahead of me, I'm quite happy settling for one of Arian Foster, Ray Rice or LeSean McCoy."
My picks: Andre Johnson and Greg Jennings. The reason for so many wide receivers and quarterbacks being taken in the back half of Round 1 is due to fact there are so many question marks at running back. You can make a decent argument for the next 15 or so names to be selected next after Chris Johnson, who was the sixth RB taken, and even he is no lock for success anymore. As such, I took two of the top four wide receivers as the foundation for my squad, with the intention of taking two RBs out of whatever was left on the board 20 picks later. The drop-off in safety at that position had already occurred here in Round 1.
Round 2 analysis: Bell took Matt Forte, who may or may not be holding out this season. If not, the pick is a steal. If he sits for 10 weeks, then she's in a heap of trouble. By the time your draft takes place, hopefully more information will be available. Berry took the highly coveted Rob Gronkowski at No. 14. He's not going to last much longer than this, especially when you consider that he was the best tight end in fantasy last season and had he recorded no touchdown receptions (instead of 17), just his yardage numbers and one rushing TD would have still placed him second at his position. And yes, that is Marshawn Lynch getting selected at No. 17. Hard to believe, but with so many time-shares and injury questions at RB, Beast Mode is actually one of the few "comfortable" picks at this point of the draft.
Round 3 analysis: As C-Dub reminds us yet again, "Running backs get ugly fast." That's why he reached for Jamaal Charles here. He'd be a first-round pick for sure if not for the torn-ACL factor. DeMarco Murray, despite having started all of six games in his career, has good hands and should be a solid double threat as long as that fractured right ankle has healed completely. Hey, injury risks abound at RB. After all, do you feel any safer with perennial game-time calls Steven Jackson and Frank Gore?
My picks: Wes Welker and Michael Turner. Several solid wide receivers were selected in this round: Roddy White, Hakeem Nicks and Julio Jones. Having already picked Jennings, I didn't want Jordy Nelson, but I could not resist grabbing Welker and the 100 receptions you just know he's going to get in that New England offense. Turner may have been one of only two backs to get 300-plus carries last season, but even if the Falcons ease up a bit on their bell cow this season, that actually may serve his fantasy owners a bit better down the stretch if his batteries can stay charged longer.
Round 4 analysis: After the initial run on quarterbacks, there was a good 16-pick hiatus until Harris grabbed Cam Newton in this round. He feels that in most drafts, you won't be able to wait this long if you covet the Panthers' signal-caller. "Getting Cam Newton at No. 35 overall is the lowest anyone will see him go in a standard league this entire summer. That's what comes from drafting with a group of wise guys who know that his 14 rushing TDs likely aren't repeatable." Of course, because so much of Newton's value did come as a result of his ground game, and not the pass, Harris will end up having to draft a second quarterback as an insurance policy, something that he tends not to do in a 10-team league, where the waiver wire is kinder to those who need some help at QB during the year.
Round 5 analysis: Newton's selection opened up the floodgates for the next tier of QBs, and if you didn't have your guy already, you certainly did not want to be left out. Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo all went in this round. I think Cockcroft put it best when he discussed why he went with Eli at pick No. 43. "There just isn't a lot of clear-cut elite talent this season. I don't even think of [Eli] as a traditional top-five-round QB; it's just that the way the game is changing, it's where he belongs." Here's hoping he sees a lot of Manning's new celebration routine: make the sandwich, drop the sandwich, pick up the sandwich and eat it.
Adrian Peterson at No. 44 is an interesting pick for Hunter. Really, it all comes down to when he can actually play this season. If it's as early as Week 1, then this is a steal. If it isn't until much later in the year, then perhaps this is too high. I think I'd agree with Berry that if you're going to gamble on Peterson, you might as well take him much earlier than this, and then grab two other RBs from the huge logjam of talent -- which ends around pick No. 49 with Darren Sproles -- later on in the draft.
My picks: Philip Rivers and Percy Harvin. Rivers was the last quarterback remaining on my board in the current tier, so I couldn't wait any longer to select him. (Matt Ryan will be the next quarterback off the board all the way in Round 9, a function of the fact in a 10-team league, it isn't essential to grab a backup at this position.) Looking at running back, I didn't feel that any name really jumped out at me at this point, so I decided to add some depth at wide receiver for those bye weeks of my starting duo plus flex spot, which in most leagues this year will end up being a wideout, I suspect (although it's important to note that tight ends can now be used in the flex spot in ESPN leagues). Percy Harvin is a stud when his migraines don't keep him out of action, and if not for that ever-present malady, he'd probably be selected a round or two earlier than this.
Round 6 analysis: After my pick of Harvin, we finally reached a point where it appeared the wide receiver herd was finally starting to thin. Joyner chose Dwayne Bowe out of a sixth-round group that included Marques Colston, Demaryius Thomas, Jeremy Maclin and Eric Decker. However, that pick was not without some concerns: "Bowe's inconsistent history and the Kansas City Chiefs' issues at quarterback -- Matt Cassel is the equivalent of fantasy football heartburn -- made him more risky than a pick at this point should have to be."
As training camps get underway and we get a clearer picture of how some positional battles might play out and see how players coming back from injuries are progressing, we certainly will be moving players up and down the rankings list. But I think that Harris captured the mood in the draft room at this point of the proceedings the best when he noted: "It's not purely a matter of talent, of course … it's a matter of talent meeting opportunity. Certainly the players we were selecting as late as the fifth round all have the talent to be fantasy studs, though not all are likely to get the opportunity to show that without someone getting injured. By the sixth round, I felt we entered 'who knows?' territory."
Round 7 analysis: More questions at running back lead to selections of guys like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, now in Cincinnati, and Shonn Greene, stuck in a New York Jets backfield that may well end up having Tim Tebow regularly in the mix for carries. Jonathan Stewart also gets picked, just six spots behind his teammate DeAngelo Williams. Oh, if only a fantasy owner could combine those two into a single stat line each week! Vernon Davis goes to 49ers fan Bell with pick No. 69, the fourth tight end off the board. In past years, this is around where the second TE might have been grabbed, but that just reinforces how ahead of the pack Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham truly are right now.
My picks: Isaac Redman and Ben Tate. Here's where I finally opted for my second RB, taking back-to-back picks in the hopes that at least one pans out. Ben Tate had more than 1,000 combined yards last season, and a good chunk of that total came in games when Arian Foster was in the lineup. There's no reason to believe he can't average around 60 yards and a score on a regular basis, even in a supplementary role. As for Redman, with Rashard Mendenhall looking like he'll be on the PUP list to start the season, he's going to be the go-to guy in the Pittsburgh backfield. Although the Steelers will have weeks where they abandon the run and let Big Ben fling the rock, Redman should be a solid contributor out of the gate.
Rounds 8-10: After a tight end run that featured Aaron Hernandez, Jermichael Finley, Jason Witten and Fred Davis, these rounds were peppered with some all-or-nothing type receivers. Guys like Torrey Smith, Malcom Floyd, Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey all have big-game potential, even if they lack a bit in the consistency department. We also see the first two defenses going off the board, in the form of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. Certainly the loss of Terrell Suggs diminishes the luster of the latter unit, but given that they've ranked third in the NFL in terms of fewest points allowed for the past four seasons, there's still reason to keep them high on your personal pecking order.
My picks: Jacob Tamme and Robert Griffin III. For my tight end, I went with Tamme, who brings with him to Denver a pre-existing relationship with new quarterback Peyton Manning. One can hope that when Manning needs to find an escape valve, he'll look to a familiar face. With RG3, we're looking at a rookie, and generally speaking, I tend to avoid inexperienced QBs. While a lot of people are likely to draft him expecting a Cam Newton-like debut, we tend to think that was a special season not to be seen again. That said, as a fantasy backup, his upside for a spot start given a favorable matchup is pretty high. Although, a closer look at his Week 7 opponent, when my No. 1 QB (Rivers) is off, shows the New York Giants will be waiting for him. This pick may backfire.
Rounds 11-13: It's time to take some chances, as fantasy owners are using these rounds to stock their bench with sleepers and other "ace in the hole" type players. Cockcroft selected Giants rookie Rueben Randle at No. 103, who may step right into the opening left by Mario Manningham, who coincidentally went six picks later to -- Shocker! -- Bell. I actually took Michael Crabtree one pick later. Karabell went with Jaguars draft pick Justin Blackmon at No. 121, and Bell took overall No. 1 pick Andrew Luck at No. 129. Free agents who may end up latching on somewhere were also fair game here. Hunter went with Cedric Benson at No. 117, and I took rumored-to-be future Detroit Lion Ryan Grant at No. 130.
Rounds 14-16: As usual, the majority of the final rounds consisted of defenses and kickers, who made up the entirety of Round 16. There's really no reason to take one any sooner, as not only are kickers unpredictable from season to season, but also the gap between the top five and the subsequent 10 at this position is pretty much negligible. As Karabell put it, "The final few rounds are a complete guessing game." There is still unexpected value that can be found this late. My picks of Antonio Brown and Brandon Pettigrew certainly underline this point and provide a reminder that you should make sure your list of names goes deep enough so that there are still players you like on the board at this late stage of the draft. Sometimes, talented players simply drop without explanation.
So there you have it! Our first mock draft of the year is now in the books. Once camps open and we find out which players decide not to show, and the preseason games give us a better look into how certain close calls in terms of playing time appear to be shaking out, this draft order may well change drastically.
Even so, for now, you have in your possession an excellent indicator of where we, collectively, rank the rookies at a given position, as well as highlighting certain players who deserve your confidence no matter where the winds of change may blow.
No, it's never too early for football!