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The first preseason games are getting ready to kick off, and the excitement is palpable as football fans are primed and ready to see what their favorite teams look like on the field of play. We here at the ESPN.com fantasy department are equally giddy with anticipation and in order to try and get some of that nervous energy out of our system, we've taken to the draft room yet again in order to try and figure out what we, as a group, think of all the new faces in new places, now that the wheels of free agency have spun.
This particular time around, we're straying from the ESPN Standard format to give the point per reception (PPR) format its day. Not only that, but we've heard the conversation clamor, and as an added bonus, we've extended enough invites to make this mock a 12-team affair.
The participants for this exercise, in first-round order, determined at random were -- Shawn (C-Dub) Cwalinski, Erik Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, James Quintong, Brendan Roberts, Nate Ravitz, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Christopher Harris, Jim McCormick, Dave Hunter, Stephania Bell and yours truly rounding out the round.
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, as well as tried to point out some of the more interesting picks made by my colleagues and how each person's strategy may have been influenced by the particular scoring format we were using for this exercise. You can also have a look at each team's picks by clicking here.
Arian Foster's 66 catches last season, a good 30 more than Adrian Peterson posted, is the reason for the Texans running back going off the board first overall. Running backs who are an active part of their offense's passing game certainly will be a lot more enticing in a PPR-league than those with hands of stone. Hence, LeSean McCoy gets taken fourth overall, while Rashard Mendenhall is nowhere to be found in Round 1.
With 12 owners in this league, instead of the more common 10, McCormick didn't hesitate to grab Larry Fitzgerald, whose average draft position in ESPN leagues currently sits at 22.4, a far cry from being a first-round selection. "[In 12-team leagues] I'm more likely to go after a player I know I want aggressively rather than wait I knew I wanted an elite receiver and went for Fitzgerald," he said. "With fewer teams, I might practice a bit more patience and wait for my team to come to me."
My bookends: For me, picking last in Round 1 and knowing that most of the elite wide receivers will be gone by the time I select again with pick No. 36, I'm going to go WR here. With no quarterbacks taken yet, I can also take my QB here and hope to grab a pair of starting running backs (whichever may be left) with my next two picks. I actually like Aaron Rodgers better than Michael Vick, but by taking Greg Jennings as my first wideout, I'm reaping the benefits of the Green Bay signal-caller's efforts anyway. With Vick, the upside of having a "quarterback plus a running back" in one roster spot seemed too good to pass up, especially given the chance that my next two picks might be slightly disappointing if my fellow owners did not load up as much on receivers as I'm expecting.
Hunter had expected even more wide receivers to be taken in Round 1 than actually were (four) and couldn't have been happier to land Hakeem Nicks as a second-round follow-up to Roddy White. "Most people seemed to treat the first and second rounds as if it wasn't PPR, which I think is a big mistake."
However, Karabell would disagree that you need to change your drafting tactics so significantly that you avoid running backs early in this format: "I paid more attention than normal to receptions, though it didn't make me pass on Adrian Peterson second overall. It did force me to go Matt Forte late in Round 2, which I would never do in a standard scoring format."
Roberts didn't think the two additional teams required a huge change of strategy either, as his goal was simply to "get two good backs, a top-4 quarterback and a top-4 tight end." That's why he was thrilled to have Rashard Mendenhall, with an ADP of 12.5, fall all the way to him at pick No. 20.
This was the "Round of the Quarterbacks" as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers were all taken off the board with consecutive selections. Ravitz theorizes why: "In a 12-team league, having one of the top quarterbacks takes on greater importance, simply because there are more chances to play against teams who do not have one of the top guys. I would not take Rivers in the top 30 in a 10-team league. Here I felt it was worth it, even though it put me on a path to being weak at RB2."
Harris was hoping to claim Jahvid Best -- of whom he had been a fan even before we learned of the injury to Mikel Leshoure earlier in the day -- but got scooped by Cockcroft. In retrospect, he was thankful, "I was actually strongly considering taking Best though I already had two running backs -- he should be especially good in a PPR -- but Tristan saved me from myself. In the long run I'm happy to get Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace for my two top WRs."
The PPR factor was clearly the reason that Michael Turner (ADP: 15.2) fell all the way to McCormick at No. 33 (and boy was I hoping for him to last just three more picks!). "I chose [Turner] because he's a productive running back in any format even when he doesn't cash in on the reception element."
My bookends: The truth is, there are simply more wide receivers to go around than there are running backs, and while that extra point for catches does tend to make wide receivers more valuable than running backs, in relation to each other, the top tier of names doesn't really change all that much from standard. At some point, you need to worry about selecting the remaining available starting running backs, even if they may not earn as many points as the receivers left on the board. For me, there was no question that time was now, and I was thrilled that DeAngelo Williams was still on the board. Fred Jackson was a pick made on faith that he'd be able to break 1,000 yards and pull in around 40 catches from Ryan Fitzpatrick along the way.
Tight ends, at least the better ones, get a huge bump in value in a PPR league. Last season, that extra point for each grab moved Jason Witten from well outside the top 50 in standard scoring to just outside the top 25 in terms of overall fantasy points. That's why nobody was surprised to see the seal broken in Round 4 at this position.
For Ravitz, who grabbed Antonio Gates with pick No. 43, this was a no-brainer selection: "I would take Gates in the fourth round, potentially, in any league. I think others made a mistake in letting Clark, Gates and Witten fall as far as they did. All should be top 35 guys in a PPR."
Cockcroft doesn't disagree, and he admits when he selected Finley just before Ravitz, he was terribly torn. "Tight end actually mattered to me [and] when my fourth-rounder came around, I knew I wanted one of two: Finley or Gates. That's not the easiest call, especially in PPR, but I wanted Finley's upside."
Quintong snatched up LeGarrette Blount, even though he doesn't catch too many passes. After all, the running back cupboard is starting to get bare. As he had grabbed LeSean McCoy early, who should rack up high reception totals, the pairing makes a lot of sense.
Harris was stunned that Wallace lasted this long in a 12-team PPR. "People treated him as though he's DeSean Jackson. The guy should catch 70-plus balls." Meanwhile, C-Dub was all set to select Brandon Lloyd when Karabell struck."[Then] I was going to take Brandon Marshall but chickened out and took Tony Romo. [As it turned out] I could have waited until Round 7 and gotten someone like Ben Roethlisberger or Josh Freeman and had a better No. 3 wide receiver."
To add insult to injury, Karabell picks the C-Dub-coveted Brandon Marshall with pick No. 50. Two more tight ends, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis, go this round and it's clear the feeling from the rest of the owners is that the tier line is clearly drawn here. No more tight ends go off the board until pick No. 84.
The rest of the round is mostly wide receivers, as the RB/WR flex spot combined with bye weeks pretty much dictates the need for owners to load up at this pivotal position. Many of the names taken here have a ton of upside, but also a lot of risk, namely Jeremy Maclin's mystery illness, Percy Harvin's troublesome migraines and fears of yet another Austin Collie concussion and Marques Colston's post-surgery knee issues.
My bookends: I selected Lance Moore here in large part because of Colston's health issues. Drew Brees spreads the ball around to his receivers anyway, but if Colston can't go on any given Sunday (and he's certainly missed a ton of practice time already this preseason) then Moore, who recently signed a new five-year deal with the Saints, is sure to reap the rewards. Because he so severely hurt his ankle in Week 1 last season, Ryan Grant seems to be an afterthought on most draft lists behind James Starks. However, so far in training camp, it's been Grant who has been the first-stringer. Fingers crossed.
Daniel Thomas goes to Hunter in Round 6, which disappointed Harris, who was hoping to grab the rookie here. Still, looking at the 6.5 yards-per-catch he posted in 2010, it's safe to say C.J. Spiller has plenty of upside in a PPR-league, so Harris didn't lose too much. Of course, with Cedric Benson not going until No. 72, it shows how down we (as a group) are on the Carson Palmer-less Cincinnati Bengals offense this year.
With Norv Turner talking about a tag-team effort in San Diego's backfield, Bell covered all bases by selecting Mike Tolbert in Round 7 to go along with her pick of Ryan Mathews back in Round 4. "When I took Ryan Mathews, who is not expected to be a big reception target, I felt he was still great RB value. So I was happy to get Mike Tolbert where I did because I expect him to catch passes, get goal-line opportunities and, as we saw last year, he could even rise in value if anything happens to Mathews (injuries) or if fumbles cause him to lose playing time."
When Ravitz selected Mark Ingram, he was terribly unhappy with having to do so. "The weakness of my team is clearly the second RB slot, where I have Ingram, who I'm not at all high on, backed up by a collection of part-timers. But in a PPR league, that's the best spot to be weak, both because you're getting fewer of your points from that position relative to WR, and because it's easier to find someone who can at least scrape together 8-10 points per game on the waiver wire."
My picks: Having missed out on the tight end party earlier, I felt it was time to select Owen Daniels, who looked like the Daniels of old over the Texans' final four games on the 2010 season. Meanwhile, while Julio Jones is busy competing for catches with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta, A.J. Green gets first dibs on passes in Cincinnati now that both Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are gone. He's got the most upside of the 2011 receiving rookies. Now I just have to hope Andy Dalton can get the ball to him.
We've reached the point in the draft where those owners who hadn't yet drafted a quarterback felt it was time to dive in. Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman and Eli Manning all go in Round 8. Lipscomb said he was curious to see how much faster the top QBs would come off the board in a 12-team league, and tried to hold out as long as he could before finally pulling the trigger. "While Eli Manning is a risk after all the picks he threw last season, I was fine with taking my quarterback here."
Several owners felt that Ravitz's pick of LaDainian Tomlinson at No. 91 was terrific value at this point of the draft, especially if the plan to make him a "pass-catching specialist" comes to fruition. Karabell had some buyer's remorse with his selection of Ryan Torain. "I'm not quite sure why I chose Torain in Round 9, when in a PPR format Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles are both likely to outperform him. But then again, he should be a candidate for 1,000 rushing yards."
Reggie Bush went with pick No. 100, just after Michael Bush, and just before Roberts passed on Gavin Rossdale to select Jordy Nelson, whose sleeper status took a bit of a hit when the Green Bay Packers opted to re-sign James Jones.
My picks: When I selected A.J. Green, I had a feeling Hines Ward would still be there in Round 9, and I was not disappointed. Although Ward's days of dancing into the end zone are numbered, if he can pull down 60 passes, then he's a steal this late in the draft. To start the 10th round, I opted to stay in Pittsburgh, selecting the entire defensive unit, the first one off the board. The Steelers have been the top-scoring unit in fantasy two of the past three seasons, and don't exactly have the flashiest quarterbacks in their division. I'll happily take them here, because they might not be around 20 picks hence.
Speaking of defenses, we had quite the debate during the draft regarding the impact of 12-team leagues on when to select the top units. Quite often in 10-team leagues, our ESPN mock drafts see the majority of D/ST picks in Round 13 or later. Here, however, in addition to my Steelers pick, the Packers also went in Round 10 and six others (Eagles, Jets, Ravens, Bears, Patriots and Lions) went in a 12th-round flurry.
Why did this happen? "Drafting a defense somewhat earlier makes sense because depth at the other position starts to stink quickly," Harris proposed. C-Dub would agree with that premise, "I took a defense earlier than I normally would because there was so little talent at WR and RB available."
Certainly when you look at some of the names that went off the board in these rounds: Rashad Jennings, Jason Snelling and Jerome Simpson, just to name a few, you're already into Hail Mary territory and waiver-wire fodder -- and we've still got four to six rounds to go.
There are never any hard and fast rules that you "have to" abide by when drafting, because each draft is different. Failing to pick up on trends during a draft can sometimes hurt you, as happened to Bell. "It seemed like the group was giving up on bench players who might not pan [in order to] get better defenses. Unfortunately, by the time I saw it was happening, because of my draft position, I couldn't snag a top tier defense." Will Willis McGahee and Rob Gronkowski help her team as much as Baltimore's D/ST would have? Probably not.
My picks: In a 10-team league, I rarely waste a pick on a backup quarterback because the waiver wire will still have enough starters to choose from come my No. 1's bye week. Not so in 12-team leagues, and I especially wanted a Plan B, just in case Michael Vick gets hurt. So I went with Sam Bradford, whom I think has plenty of sleeper potential, here. I then followed it up with Javon Ringer, who may just see a little more action this season, even if Chris Johnson ends his holdout by Week 1.
We now come to the part of the draft where the bones have been stripped of all their meat, and the feelings of regret and remorse start to seep in. Still, Lipscomb remained upbeat and positive, even as he found himself selecting Earnest Graham when he still needed a second quarterback. "I wasn't too happy with myself as this draft unfolded, but this is why you do mocks. It never hurts to see where the tiers are and how drafts play out in relation to those tiers. I'd like to have back [taking Graham] in Round 13 when I should've taken Joe Flacco or Kevin Kolb, both of whom I like more than Cutler."
Roberts, however, offers up some words of warning that even though mocks can be very illuminating, they don't tell the whole story either. "I did a few a PPR mock drafts over the weekend to help me warm up for this and it actually HURT me for this draft because I felt like [they] were the norm. Not so." So just because you think you have a firm grasp on which sleepers you can wait on and which guys you need to snatch up a round too early lest you miss out, you really don't know until YOUR draft gets going exactly how the owners in your league value each player.
My picks: As for me, I took some fliers on Atlanta rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who may end up getting some passes sent his way in third-and-short situations -- remember, this is a PPR league -- and Brandon Jackson, who will back up Peyton Hillis in Cleveland and could be on the receiving ends of more than few screen passes from Colt McCoy.
More "desperation heaves" as the clock starts to run out, including Quintong's "just in case he ends up signing somewhere at some point" pick of Randy Moss. As is so often the case in our mocks, Round 16 is simply a game of place-kicker roulette.
I'm on record as saying Dustin Keller will be this season's Marcedes Lewis, and so I went with him as my backup tight end in Round 15. Again, that's a roster spot I would not have used in this way in a 10-teamer. My last pick was Sebastian Janikowski. Kicker is the most volatile of all the positions, and odds are that he won't repeat as the top fantasy leg, but even so, because of the bonus for longer kicks, I'm going to go with his 50-yard-plus potential and hope it gets me at least a few high-scoring weeks.
So there you have it! A 12-team PPR mock draft for the ages! We have plenty more mocks on the horizon in all shapes and sizes, so take it all in and feel free to analyze and criticize our picks. Then sit back and watch the first games of the preseason, holding your breath that the sleeper you have your eye on doesn't catch the eye of anyone else in your league.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass