Four Drafts Later ...
Taking note of some fantasy football trends
By Adam Hoff
Over the past four days, I’ve participated in four fantasy football drafts that cover the whole gamut. First there was an efficient online draft for my WIS league; 16-teams and 15 rounds in just over two hours. Next up was a draft that featured my brother sitting in on a live draft back in LA while I fed him our picks over the phone. Later that night I was doing two drafts at once: my annual “Boys Near the Hood” league draft via iChat and my first-ever auction draft over the phone. Pure madness, I tell you.
(By the way, if you are interested in reading a full report on the BNTH league, click on the following link: LINK. That way you’ll be up-to-date on all of the happenings throughout the year.)
Anyway, I figured the least I could do for the fantasy world would be to come up with some observations for the upcoming seasons. Who are the expected sleepers? Keepers? Who is being counted on for big things? These are the things I plan to cover.
But first, let me give you the rundown on the various leagues. Just so you know where this stuff is coming from.
WIS’ Finest -- A 16-team league that is going on its third year with the basic group intact. Savvy owners, legit stakes, and some decent fights about rules and trade vetoes. Positions are: QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, WR/RB, TE, K, D.
The LA Draft -- 14 teams, short bench, pretty minimal lineups. The positions are the basics (i.e., no WR/RB) and the stakes are pretty low. (The trash talk; however, is second to none.)
BNTH -- “Boys Near the Hood” (as explained in excruciating in the linked column above) is keeper league, allowing everyone to keep two players from the previous year’s roster as long as they don’t play the same position. Very good owners all around. Positions: the basics except that there are three WR and no TE.
Auction Draft -- My first ever auction draft. A completely different breed, but uses the same positions as any other basic league. Strict wavier process, big stakes, keepers, the whole nine yards.
The following are the common threads that seemed to run through each of these leagues. Basically, it’s the consensus of 55 people that love fantasy football.
Chris Brown is being counted on for big things. When I sat down and went to work on my spreadsheets and notes for the upcoming draft season, I had circled Brown as a potential sleeper. I thought I’d snatch him up in the third or fourth round, depending on the league. You all know my feelings on the guy. Despite the fact that he’s unproven, I’ve got Brown going for 1,200 and 10 this year. So imagine my surprise when I never once got a shot at him in a live draft. He averaged out as a mid-second round pick in my selection drafts and he went for $28 in the auction (compared to $15 for Brian Westbrook, just to offer up one example). He consistently went ahead of guys like Curtis Martin, Stephen Davis, and Duce Staley. For Brown to live up to these expectations he’ll need to prove he can be a number one back for a playoff team. More than that, he’ll need to get that 1,200 and 10.
Kevin Jones could be a huge sleeper pick. It probably shouldn’t count as a sleeper pick when a guy is going in the third round, but Jones went after “question mark” (i.e., injury concerns, possible competition for starting position) guys like Lee Suggs, Quentin Griffin, and Michael Bennett. In the auction draft, my buddy Chris Burby got Jones for $8. In that Detroit offense, he could easily be a 1,100-yard rusher. If that happens, he’ll leapfrog many of the backs that were picked ahead of him. With so many running backs being over-valued beyond belief (Tyrone Wheatley in the second round of one draft, Rudi Johnson going for $46 in another), Jones could be a real difference maker; especially when you consider that he’s the third back on a lot of teams -- including one of mine, although I already forget which one.
Donovan McNabb’s rep has taken a beating. He slipped in every single draft I participated in. Fourth round, last pick in the third round, second round of the keeper league (which is really like the fourth round), and a measly $22 in the auction. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I never got my hands on him either. In one draft he was snagged one pick before me. In another I’d already foolishly taken Hasselbeck too early. In the auction draft, I didn’t have enough money left by the time his name came up. You get the idea. The point is this: I bet when you look at the top fantasy teams at the end of the year, you might just find “QB: McNabb” to be a common denominator. Two years ago he should have been the MVP of the league and was a top-10 fantasy performer. If he even comes close to those numbers of 230 yards passing and 50 yards rushing per game and 31 total touchdowns, he’ll be one of the steals of the draft season.
Tom Brady gets no love in fantasy football. I hinted at this in my AFC Preview column, but for some reason people merely see Brady as clutch, or heady, or gritty. Nobody considers him one of the truly elite quarterbacks where numbers are concerned. I think it all stems from his rookie season when he came in and just “did what was needed” to guide them to the Super Bowl. His numbers weren’t terrific, but he avoided mistakes and made clutch plays. And despite the fact that his stats have increased every season, he’s still viewed as the scrappy guy who gets the job done but doesn’t put up big stats. Therefore, he fell to me in the fifth round of one draft, the sixth in another, and for $7 in the auction. Hey, I’ll take it. In fact, right this very minute I’m watching Tom Brady rack up 211 yards and two touchdowns through 37 minutes of football.
The Tennessee Titans defense isn’t expected to do much. All the rankings I’ve seen have the Titans as a top-10 defense this season. And while they’ve lost a few guys here and there, they should be right up there. So why are they being treated like dog meat in all of my leagues? I’ve got Tennessee in two leagues, only because I couldn’t believe it when I looked down in round 12 and saw they were still available. It was either the Titans or the Falcons at that point, which made it a no-brainer. To be honest, I’m still confused about this.
Brian Westbrook might be the biggest enigma in the league. Honestly, owners didn’t know what to do with this guy. I passed on him in favor of Dillon and Rudi in one league and got raked over the coals for it. Everyone in the (cyber) draft room seemed to think that he’s the new Marshall Faulk. In my next draft he came to me in the third round so I swooped all over him in an attempt to get some insurance for Jamal Lewis and Kevan Barlow and also to use as trade bait. But now nobody in that league wants anything to do with him. In the keeper league he was taken with the fourth overall pick. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, he went for $15 in our auction league. It’s a mystery. It seems to me that you are in one of two camps where Westbrook is concerned. Either you think he’s going to roll up 1,800 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns or you think he’s going to snap like a twig under the strain of being the only back in Philly. There’s no in between at this point.
The Seahawks are the “hot” fantasy team this year. You probably already knew this. After all, they are being picked to go to the Super Bowl in at least half of the NFL Preview columns I’ve read and the reason for that is their talented offense. So it goes without saying that Seattle skill players are hot commodities on the fantasy market. Hasselbeck was consistently going as the third quarterback, behind Manning and Culpepper and ahead of Vick, McNabb, Bulger, Pennington, McNair, and Green. He’ll probably validate that lofty standing, but he jumped in front of several outstanding quarterbacks. Shaun Alexander is a great running back but I’ve always seen him as a notch below the Holmes/Tomlinson/Green/Portis/Lewis group. Not this year, apparently. He and Duece McAllister have both surged past Lewis and Portis (and in some cases, Green) to consistently be top-five backs in all of my drafts. Then there are Seattle’s wide receivers. Darrell Jackson was selected, on average, sixth among wide receivers in my various drafts. Only Moss, Harrison, Holt, Owens, and Chad Johnson went higher. That means Jackson leapfrogged Derrick Mason, Laverneous Coles, and Hines Ward this year. I think he deserves this lofty billing, but that’s a lot of pressure, to be expected to outperform the above group. Finally, Koren Robinson was the second most popular #2 receiver (after Isaac Bruce) despite a disappointing 2003 season.
I happen to like all of those guys and when I look at them individually, each one seems primed for fantasy success. However, is it possible for each one of them to give fantasy owners what they need? If Robinson has a big year, can Jackson as well? Or visa versa? And if they both have huge seasons, how does Alexander live up to his lofty draft status? I know Seattle is going to be explosive on offense, but there are only so many yards and points available to a team. Not only that, but Seattle just feels like that intoxicating upstart team that breaks everyone’s heart. Two years ago, people were snatching up Rams like crazy (Warner, Faulk, Holt, and Bruce all were going in the first three rounds) and it backfired in the worst way. Last year, people were opening up their wallets early and often for players from the Saints (Brooks, McAllister, Horn, and Stallworth) and only Duece had a truly big year. I guess the lesson is this: beware the “hot” team.
No one knows what to expect in Atlanta. The Falcons have to be the biggest fantasy mystery heading into 2004. After Vick missed almost the entire season last year and the team understandably slumped, owners were eager to reload this time around. However, Vick had an awful preseason, looking fragile and lost in the West Coast Offense. As might be expected, his draft stock slipped. A sure first round pick last year and slated to be an early second rounder this time around, Vick was down to a late second round gamble by the time by drafts got started. In fact, the earliest he went was with the 29th overall pick (although he was a keeper in one league). People are downright scared to have him on their team. Then again, the rest of us are a bit scared to not have him.
With the question marks swirling around Vick, it puts the fate of Peerless Price in a precarious situation. A prime candidate for a bounce-back year, Price was probably going to be a late third round pick, at worst. However, with the new scheme taking away from Price’s strengths and with Vick looking suspect, suddenly people were flying off the Peerless bandwagon at astonishing speeds. His average draft position was early in the sixth round. His auction price was an astonishingly low $4. If the passing game hits its stride in Atlanta, Price will be one of the biggest steals in the draft.
Finally, it appears that nobody knows what to make of the running back situation. Warrick Dunn was consistently one of the last starting running backs selected and in most cases only went a few picks ahead of his backup, T.J. Duckett. Either fantasy owners think that the two will be splitting carries, or they think Dunn is going down with an injury yet again. Overall, the uncertainty surround the Falcons makes them one of the most interesting fantasy subplots of the season.
Get your young running backs! The vultures are circling. They are swooping and swarming over the banged up body of Marshall Faulk. They are squawking at every Travis Henry fumble. They will be pecking out Quentin Griffin’s eyes should he fail to run for 75 yards on opening day. Yes indeed, there were a handful of young, backup running backs that were wildly popular picks on draft day. The Rams’ Stephen Jackson averaged out as a late fourth round pick in my four drafts. Buffalo’s Willis McGahee was officially named Henry’s backup this year, but that didn’t stop him from going in the first half of the sixth round. Quentin Griffin was just given Mike Shanahan’s blessing to be not only the starter, but the every down back in Denver this year. Nevertheless, Tatum Bell was being snatched up early in the fifth round of my average draft. And the crazy part is that none of these guys were being selected for insurance. Of the 12 instances that one of the aforementioned young studs were drafted, only one time did that owner already have the starter. These were purely speculative, purely vulture picks.
(It should be noted though that part of this can be attributed to the premium placed on running backs in general. Guys like Duckett, William Green, DeShaun Foster, and Justin Fargas weren’t far behind on the draft chart. Anytime there is the threat of injury or uncertainty at running back, it’s like blood in the water.)
Brandon Lloyd is this year’s hot sleeper at wide receiver. Every year there is a young wide receiver that looms larger than the rest. Last year it was Santana Moss before the season and Anquan Boldin after the first game. I’d say those two worked out pretty well. This season, there are a ton of great candidates. You have to rule out guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Charles Rogers, and Donte’ Stallworth, because anyone going in the first six rounds isn’t a sleeper. That leaves the likes of Darius Watts, Rashaun Woods, Michael Clayton, Reggie Williams, Roy Williams, Tyrone Calico, Lee Evans, and Brandon Lloyd. Watts and Woods have yet to nail down a starting job, Clayton is in a conservative offense, Calico is hurt, and the Williams bros and Evans are all the second options in their team’s passing games. That leaves San Francisco’s Brandon Lloyd as this year’s golden boy. Owners were snatching him up like crazy in rounds eight and nine in all my drafts and it’s not inconceivable to imagine him going over 1,000 yards with eight or nine touchdowns. These kinds of things are always the hardest to predict though, so we’ll just have to see if Lloyd can outpace his fellow sleepers and live up to his lofty status of “this year’s hot sleeper at wide receiver.”
There you have it. Everything I have to show for over 15 hours of drafting fantasy football teams. I look forward to hearing your own observations and universal fantasy truths, so be sure to send them in.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.