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One of the best elements of drafting a fantasy football team is the afterglow. Minutes after you're done drafting, you can go to your team page with arms crossed and nod in approval of the arsenal you've just compiled. Visions of long touchdowns and career years play in your head.
You've built another awesome team, or at least another awesome team in August. As the weeks wear on in the NFL campaign, our teams are tested, and the real referendum begins. Come November, that solid squad in September could be decimated, dominant or completely different, but we rarely envision failure in late August and September. This is all part of the fun as far as I see it; the ever-changing nature of a team, and the many stresses and successes that come along with the season, just like in the real thing.
Draft day is a holiday for many; a day when nearly everyone believes the league championship will be theirs. To prepare for glory, it never hurts to practice, as Allen Iverson once suggested, to better navigate the landscape for talent come draft day. With that in mind, several members of the ESPN fantasy staff got together and conducted our fourth mock of the summer. Drafting along side me are fellow staffers Shawn Cwalinski, Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, James Quintong, Brendan Roberts, Matthew Berry, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Christopher Harris, Dave Hunter, A.J. Mass and Pierre Becquey.
This is a 12-team standard draft conducted with a rapid-fire 30-second clock, as Karabell discussed in Wednesday's Fantasy Focus Football podcast.
My pick: Maurice Jones-Drew is a proven producer in fantasy, and it's possible I let him slip too far by passing on him for Andre Johnson. I suppose I was influenced by witnessing a number of solid running backs often available in the third-to-fifth rounds in recent mocks I've done. Given my confidence in these later tiers of backs, I went with an elite duo of wideouts.
The rest of the round: The top five overall picks seem pretty fixed, particularly in a standard format. Outside of the five star backs, the rest of the first is open to interpretation. One of the most daring, and potentially rewarding, selections in the first is one Michael Vick, who assuredly has an admirer in Berry.
"It obviously puts you a bit behind at either running back or wide receiver," Berry admitted of taking his top player going into this season. "In this case, it seemed as if I was chasing running backs all draft. But I'm happy with the way my team panned out. If Vick does what I think he's capable of, his production will outweigh any slight loss in my running game. Truthfully, I really like Turner and Tolbert as starters in a 12-team league, given my quarterback and wide receivers, but I have no depth."
Harris said what many owners with the second or third pick are thinking, "I'd certainly feel better if Chris Johnson would sign a contract."
Jones-Drew going as late as he did made Mass feel good about his start. "I understand the reasons that he dropped to No. 9, but a chance to grab MJD at that spot is a steal, and knee injury or not, the upside was too good to pass up, especially considering Calvin Johnson was still waiting for me on the turnaround."
My pick: Steven Jackson was a strong consideration but I stuck with my premise of going with top wideouts. With this strategy, I'm also subscribing to the idea that there is more turnover at running back, and with some midround gems and upside sleepers I can mine for numbers there, it's easier than finding top receiving production.
The rest of the round: Cockcroft found value in Jackson at 21. "I'm not even a huge fan -- you'll rarely see me build a team around a running back anywhere near his 30th birthday -- but there's no reason he needs to be dropping out of the top 20 in any draft," he said. "It's the second time I've seen that happen in my mocks in the past two weeks."
"I absolutely think [Matt] Forte belongs in the discussion with [Michael] Turner," Harris said, "because Turner scares me this year. Forte's not in the mix with [Frank] Gore, and definitely not with [Rashard] Mendenhall. Listen, Forte is a strong all-around player. But he's probably not much of a TD-maker; that offensive line still has real question marks. Marion Barber was brought in to be a sledgehammer -- with good reason -- as Forte converted one of his 10 carries inside an opponent's 5[-yard line] for a touchdown last year. That's awful, and it's why I think he's best cast as a fine second running back."
Becquey, a proud Packers fan, went for the double-dip early. "I have no trouble drafting a top QB-WR combo with my first two picks," he said. "Yes, it's putting a lot of eggs in one basket, but when that basket is the Packers passing game, I'm OK with that. It gives me a strong foundation, which is good, because my running back situation will wind up being precarious. At the end of the day, if you don't get one of those top 5-7 backs, you're better off building your team some other way."
My pick: I hovered over Ahmad Bradshaw for a few seconds before committing to Peyton Hillis. After a breakout year a player is often very expensive -- whether in ADP or auction price -- that next season, but it seems Hillis' sluggish finish to the 2010 season has deflated his stock somewhat. There are concerns of enduring another year of feature work, but I spent on insurance later in the draft and went heavy on running backs to accommodate my WR-WR start.
The rest of the round: "Sure, there's risk with [Antonio] Gates in that slot considering his injury history," said Hunter, but Gates is worth the gamble.
"There's some real concern," Roberts said of the ailing Peyton Manning, "that he'll miss Week 1, maybe Week 2. But that's an easy remedy; you pick the best available quarterback on the wire. It's a long season, and I find in all fantasy sports, owners overrate preseason injuries. There's concern there, but I doubt it'll be anything that takes the big guy down for much of the season."
My pick: Shonn Greene and Hillis were my targets in each round, and I was able to net both. Greene is getting increased hype as the days count down to kickoff, and his price might right come the last days of August and into September, if for upside hype alone. There is certainly risk in the selection, with the hope being he truly takes the reins of the running game hole, with LaDainian Tomlinson getting a secondary share.
The rest of the round: Quintong said he wouldn't let Carolina's question marks in the passing game deflate Stewart any longer. "I think the Panthers would be best served by leaning on both running backs more to let Cam Newton [or whoever actually does get most of the snaps at QB] off the hook," he said. "As long as the running game can get going on a consistent basis, both Stewart and Williams will be fine as fantasy producers."
One player that seems to incite a good deal of polarizing feedback is Knowshon Moreno. Lipscomb said he believes the upside in a new scheme is enticing, "I think the Denver running game will be strong this season under John Fox, but the key for Moreno's value will be staying on the field and hoping that Willis McGahee doesn't steal too many TDs inside the 5," he said. "Picking at the swing spot in the draft, I felt compelled to get a third back with such a thin position and a long wait ahead. I could've just as easily gone with Felix Jones, who I like this season as well."
Mass went with a player in Ryan Grant who has a production pedigree, but also an injury history. "Before his injury, you knew you were getting 1,200 yards and around 8-10 touchdowns from him over 16 games," Mass said. "That track record is going to earn him the starting job, and in the fourth round, he's a bargain. Yes, James Starks may get a series or two each week -- but in today's game that actually is a benefit to a back like Grant, who may end up being fresher at the tail end of the season as a result of a few fewer touches per game."
My pick: With a balanced base of position players, Tony Romo made sense to me here. He's the closest to the top six elite arms in my opinion and has a somewhat deflated price tag given some durability doubts.
The rest of the round: "I think the Cowboys will be very pass heavy this season, " Karabell said. "And why not with Tony Romo having Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten as weapons? Plus, Felix Jones looks like a safe pass-catcher out of the backfield. I think Jones is a bit overrated, but in my situation in this mock, I had to have a running back there. I could see 1,500 total yards for Jones, if he stays healthy and because he'll catch perhaps 60 passes, but I'm not betting on the health. I think he will get the most touches in that backfield, though."
My pick: Sometimes picks just happen. No agenda, no strategy to claim, Daniel Thomas just happened. And I'm fine with the pick, given that Thomas should get a substantial workload even if it's in a somewhat sorry Miami Dolphins offense.
The rest of the round: Cockcroft said he believes the Beanie Wells post-hype hate (for lack of a better word) has gone too far. "Wells is one of the players whose ADP seems absurdly low to me, and this is coming from a guy who has major questions about him," Cockcroft said. "Injury-prone, can't block, hardly seems like the kind of player deserving of a starting gig. But a starting gig he has, as Ken Whisenhunt says Wells is his guy, and I think the addition of Kevin Kolb potentially opens things up a bit for the running game. I wasn't taking Wells because I believed he'd break out in a major way; it was more that I saw him as a good value nearly 70 picks into the draft, one in which I knew at that point I wanted to go three running backs deep [one for flex] to make up for a lackluster receiving corps."
"I took Witten in the sixth instead of a running back because I don't like throwing good money after bad," Becquey explained. "The running back I take will wind up being a high-risk, high-reward guy and there are several of those out there, some whose names we haven't even learned yet. So instead, I took a tight end I liked instead of a running back I'm ambivalent about."
Berry got another player he "loves," this time from Baltimore, in Anquan Boldin. "This is a guy who was a top 10 WR two years ago. Another year in the system and no Derrick Mason [he took a lot more targets than folks realize] helps, as does a legit deep threat that can drag a couple of defenders with him to open things up for Boldin," Berry said. "I mean, for all his disappointment, he still had over 800 yards and 7 scores last year. He'll improve on that this year in both categories."
My pick: See Thomas, Daniel. Again, with the rapid clock and no dramatic needs at the time, I felt Steve Smith had some upside not just given his past production but simply how late I was able to acquire to him. If he can must 900-1,000 yards and five touchdowns I have a valuable flex addition here with a reasonable risk-to-cost ratio.
The rest of the round: The New Orleans running game is a tricky one given the three viable components, and Harris said he thinks there are some flaws in the current pricing. "I think Mark Ingram's value is being overstated," he said. "I feel like I've said this everywhere, but here it is again: In the Sean Payton era, no Saints rusher has been given more then 230 total touches in a season, and only one (Reggie Bush in '07) has gotten more than 186. I can't picture the Saints suddenly becoming a one-horse team. "Frenchy" has never had more than 147 carries in a season, but in '08 and '09, he nevertheless averaged over 1,000 total yards and 10 TDs."
"What kind of season will [Chad] Ochocinco have?" Roberts asked. "A 1,000-yard season, for one. Ocho is motivated and in tremendous shape, and reports from New England are he has been a steady part of the offense [as in, he plays in a number of their packages]. He is far from done skills-wise, and he goes from an offense that scored 20.1 points per game in 2010 to one that posted an NFL-high 32.4 points per game. Tom Brady has made stars out of lesser men. I think he could be the steal of the draft in Round 7."
My pick: Joseph Addai was simply falling, and having every position secured outside of tight end -- a position I was eyeing in the next round -- I felt getting the vet was a sound enough investment. He's not likely to break out but should be around the goal line enough to matter, and as long as Manning is manning the offense, the ball should be moving with regularity.
The rest of the round: "Yes, yes, there are mixed feelings about C.J. Spiller at ESPN Fantasy [as in, several people, at least of few of whom were in the draft room, don't like him]," Roberts said. "But as our own bio of him says, 'Spiller eventually has Chris Johnson- and Jamaal Charles-style potential.' Spiller was my fourth running back pick, and once I get the starting slots filled, I look for upside. The blazing-fast 24-year-old has it."
Mass loves him some Lance Moore and has regularly netted him in mocks so far this summer. "Not only does Drew Brees look his way more than other options in the red zone, but with Reggie Bush gone, the short passes over the middle (the Wes Welker zone, if you will) no longer need be shared. Plus, given the concerns over No. 1 wide receiver Marques Colston's knees, there's a chance Moore's contributions in the high-scoring New Orleans offense could be even greater than expected."
Cockcroft said he thinks a move for Roy Williams back to the NFC North and with a familiar face could revive his career. "I'm just going to say it, Williams' lone superstar-caliber season, his 1,310-and-7 campaign in 2006, came in an offense coordinated by ... you guessed it, Mike Martz," he said. "Now, I'm not saying that I see Williams matching those numbers, but his best years came working with Martz and in Chicago, there's plenty of opportunity for him to grab the top spot quickly. Could 900-and-7 be in order? I'd call that his upside."
"I would say that Tim Hightower was my best value," Cwalinski said. "He is going to end up being the Redskins main back. Roy Helu is not ready to be a starter yet and Ryan Torain is nominally the starter now, but he is not healthy and has had problems staying healthy in his career. Not that Hightower will be getting all of the touches for the Redskins but I can see him getting 65-70 percent of the work."
My pick: The hope here is that Jimmy Graham will be known as Brees' red zone buddy as the season gets going. Call it the "baby Gates" aspiration -- another hoopster turned tight end that Brees can help make into a star. Graham is one of the guys I've targeted lately and am willing to go a round or two early to secure his services.
The rest of the round: Harris sees one key value in the Saints' passing game emerging. "Robert Meachem in the ninth round [of a 12-team draft] will be the one we look back on and admire most," he said. "Marques Colston's knees are scary, and Meachem's ankle is finally healthy."
Quintong reminds us that Braylon Edwards has put in some big numbers with a middling quarterback before. "He may not be the most consistent, but at least he seems like he could produce when necessary, despite the quarterback around him," he said. "Remember, his biggest season came with Derek Anderson at quarterback. Granted, he might not be much more than a matchups play, but there is still some upside."
Cwalinski liked the value beyond Jahvid Best in Detroit. "I like Jerome Harrison in Detroit," he said. "Best is an explosive running back, but he has had issues staying healthy and is not a back who can handle being an every down back. The Lions know they need Best healthy to win and that for him to stay healthy they need another can share at least some of the workload. Even if Best stays healthy, I can see Harrison having a season like Michael Bush did for the Raiders last season."
My pick: Short and simple, this was a handcuff selection for Hillis.
The rest of the round: "I love how Lee Evans finds a way to get down field, which bodes well for his big-play ability," Hunter said. "With Joe Flacco slinging it to him, I see a nice boost in Evan's production this season. Evans is well worth the risk as a No. 4 WR and should compliment Anquan Boldin nicely. The Ravens made out nicely in the deal with the Bills."
My picks: Mike Sims-Walker needs to make the team before he can make an impact on my team, or any other fantasy roster. If he can emerge as a top target for Sam Bradford, great, if not, I'll need to hunt on the wire for some more depth at wideout. Shane Vereen is an upside pick with the hope that he can earn a share in the ever-crowded New England backfield.
The rest of the rounds: "I'd have loved to have had Rashad Jennings last to my 12th-round pick," admitted Cockcroft, "but still landed another sleeper to bolster what was a weak wide receiver corps in Emmanuel Sanders." Harris often waits on defenses but felt compelled to act sooner, given the deeper format. "I think it was mostly that this is a 12-team draft," he said. Scarcity is slightly more of an issue, so even though I'm skeptical we can truly predict which fantasy defenses will be elite, it might make slightly more sense to reach and give it a shot. In Philly's case, I've got 'em as a top-five defense. Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might be the best assemblage of corner talent ever on one team, and Cullen Jenkins is a big add. Questions about Casey Matthews in the middle, but overall this looks like a very improved unit."
Lipscomb also went after a defense he wanted. "I took a flier on the Saints in the 12th round only because there were still a few tight ends I liked equally and figured I could wait until my next pick to grab one (which I did with [Brandon] Pettigrew)," he said.
My picks: More late upside picks in these twilight rounds (read: potential waiver material) and the Giants defense finished out my draft.
The rest of the rounds: "I was asleep at the wheel on Eric Decker," Harris explained. "I had Stevan Ridley in my queue for the second-to-last round and was rummaging for Decker, but mistyped his name. He's going to be on my '10 Super-Deep Sleepers' list next week, and I should've gotten him in the 15th."
"The only player I targeted that I was really surprised to be gone was Jacquizz Rodgers of the Falcons," Mass said. "He was taken three picks before I went in Round 15. He should get a lot of third-down action and end up being a decent bye week fill-in."
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN Fantasy and the high school football editor for ESPN RISE.