With clandestine meetings possibly bearing fruit, and an end to the NFL lockout rumored as being in the not-too-distant future, the ESPN.com fantasy team decided it was time to put a little faith in the negotiation process and hold our first mock draft for the 2011 season.
Using the rules for ESPN standard leagues, 10 owners gathered to try to figure out exactly which players would be the best fantasy performers for the upcoming season -- a process made all the more difficult by not yet knowing exactly which players would end up wearing which uniforms, as the free-agency period has thus far been put on hold.
The participants for this exercise in first-round order, determined at random, were: me, Pierre Becquey, Christopher Harris, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Jim McCormick, Keith Lipscomb, James Quintong, Shawn (C-Dub) Cwalinski and Dave Hunter.
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, pointed out some of the more interesting picks made by my colleagues and identified which picks might be impacted the most by player movement to come.
My pick: For me, this call came down to Arian Foster versus Adrian Peterson, and given the uncertainty at quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, the scales tipped toward Texas. The longer the lockout lingers, the more difficult it will be for Christian Ponder to learn the NFL ropes, and that has to impact Peterson. It's enough of a question mark -- one that Foster doesn't have in teammate Matt Schaub -- to make a difference.
The rest of the round: Ray Rice at 5 might be a bit early. Rashard Mendenhall at 9 seems late to me. Aaron Rodgers is first QB off the board at No. 10, which is where Keith Lipscomb wishes he had picked: "The first five guys taken were the only guys I wanted, so I was hoping one would fall. Once that didn't happen, I wasn't enamored with any particular player, so I thought I'd go with the best receiver in the game, even though I'm aware running back isn't the deepest."
My pick: Admittedly, LeGarrette Blount is a bit of a reach here. But at the bookend, I fully expected about a half-dozen, if not more, running backs to go before my turn came around again. I like the Tampa Bay back's ability to break tackles, and the fact that he shouldn't be facing any competition for lead-back duties. Sometimes you have to grab a guy you like early, lest you end up disappointed like my good friend Tristan (more on that below).
The rest of the round: No real surprises to be had, as most of the names here were near the top at their respective positions in terms of fantasy scoring in 2010, and/or are pretty much locked into starter-level playing time regardless of training camp battles. Had Matthew Berry been in this draft, I am pretty sure Michael Vick would not have lasted to pick No. 13, as he is on record as being incredibly high on the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback. Cockcroft began his campaign of "Every Pick Left Behind," as his target player, Calvin Johnson, just could not last that one extra selection. By the time this draft would be over, Cockcroft will have had to scramble several times, after Johnson, Mike Wallace, Rashad Jennings and Montario Hardesty were all "stolen" from him at the last possible instant. "Generally speaking, when it happens that often," he lamented, "I dislike my team in the end, because I'm used to it happening once or twice. But four times is rough, especially since the only reason you remember something like that is because those guys were the number-one guys on your board, and the fallback is considerably less valuable in your estimation."
My pick: Drew Brees had 11 games with multiple touchdowns last season, in what might be deemed a "down year" for the New Orleans Saints quarterback, despite throwing for 4,620 yards. He may actually get a healthy running game this season to help take some pressure off, and with so many teammates in attendance at his "unofficial" offseason workouts, this offense should not suffer from any lost practice time.
The rest of the round: McCormick went with Larry Fitzgerald, in the hopes that the talented wide receiver will actually have someone under center with the ability to throw him the ball. "The most likely and logical move appears to be trading for Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb, a player Fitzgerald has chirped about wanting to play with before. The risk for another season mired in a messy signal-caller scenario is there, but so is significant upside."
Becquey also took a leap of faith that free agency runs its "proper course" with his selection of Jonathan Stewart. As he explains, "If Stewart is the lead back in Carolina, then he's a steal in the third round. He's been impressive when healthy and given a starter's complement of carries, something which has seldom happened so far but is worth betting on for 2011, as a featured Daily Show has top-10 upside written all over him." Of course, the move could easily backfire if DeAngelo Williams were to return to Carolina, and perhaps Becquey will regret not taking someone like Mike Wallace instead.
My pick: Time to take my first wide receiver here, and Dwayne Bowe was certainly not going to last much longer, especially after finishing second at his position in ESPN standard scoring with 200 points last season. Plus, the Kansas City Chiefs were another team with good attendance at their "minicamps."
The rest of the round: Few players are as comfortable with their current offensive scheme as Tom Brady, which makes him an incredibly safe option this early in the draft. Lipscomb was certainly happy to tab the New England Patriot here: "I wasn't planning on taking a quarterback until Round 5 or 6, but once Rivers was taken I couldn't pass it up."
Antonio Gates, who nearly topped the tight end leaderboard even having missed six games in 2010, went to McCormick here. It's very tempting to take Gates off the board this early, but as the draft ended up playing out, there's no real reason to reach for the San Diego tight end at this stage. McCormick doesn't completely disagree: "I'm not sure 'reach' is the best label, but I certainly didn't maximize value in selecting Antonio Gates. If and when healthy, he's clearly a worthy asset. But when I saw Vernon Davis go in the seventh round, I felt that I could have diversified my roster more."
My pick: Why stop at just one receiver, when you can have two? Back in our rankings meetings, there was a lot of debate over DeSean Jackson's value, and whether he, Miles Austin or Dez Bryant should round out the top 10 wideouts. I actually prefer Jeremy Maclin to all three, so I was thrilled to get him here. Jackson certainly gets more trips to the highlight reel, but Maclin is a red-zone magnet and has a better chance to score, week in and week out.
The rest of the round: After taking Vincent Jackson in Round 4, a pick that carries with it question marks galore because of the uncertainty of the future of the franchise tag, C-Dub went with one of the best of what was left at starting running back, Jahvid Best. Personally, I prefer BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who went just two picks later to Roberts, but regardless, this might not be a blueprint to follow once the ink is dry on a new CBA. "My fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks are all big 'what if, wait-and-see picks.' Jackson will be a steal if he gets a contract or decides to play a full season. Best has the talent to be an elite back if he can stay healthy -- and the Lions adding Mikel Leshoure might actually end up helping him." That is, of course, if the rookie in question has time to get acclimated to the NFL before Week 1.
My pick: The New York Jets have said Shonn Greene will be the "bell cow" before, though perhaps not exactly in those terms, as Rex Ryan declared during the 2011 draft. But even if LaDainian Tomlinson isn't ready to be put out to pasture just yet, Greene was still able to post five games of eight or more fantasy points while sharing the load in 2010. If that doesn't improve, it's still not bad for the end of Round 6.
The rest of the round: As for C-Dub's sixth-rounder, he went with another newcomer who might not have the time to make a smooth transition from the NCAA. Still, as he correctly put it, "Mark Ingram has all the tools to be an elite back. If he is so good that the Saints decide they do, in fact, have a feature back in him, he will be a steal."
Quintong finally ended the Brandon Lloyd holdout with pick No. 54. It was a precipitous drop in perceived value for the league's No. 1 fantasy receiver in 2010 (203 points), which likely had as much to do with the fact that, collectively, we didn't believe Lloyd could repeat those numbers with Tim Tebow potentially replacing Kyle Orton as the Denver Broncos' quarterback, and a completely new offensive philosophy with John Fox now at the helm instead of Josh McDaniels. We'll need to see it to believe it, and we might not see enough of anything before we have to draft "for real."
My pick: Just in case the cow gives no milk, I decided to take a chance on Ryan Grant of the Green Bay Packers in Round 7. If anything, the lockout gives his torn ankle ligaments more time to heal, and although James Starks may well eat into his carries, that might not be a bad thing as far as 2011 longevity is concerned given Grant's recent injury history.
The rest of the rounds: Several "riskier" picks now start to go off the board, with Austin Collie and his multiple concussions, Percy Harvin and his troublesome, frustrating migraines and Kenny Britt and his legal issues. Then there's Marshawn Lynch, who is 100 percent guilty of being Marshawn Lynch more often than not.
* Mock draft took place prior to news of Owens' ACL injury and surgery
My picks: This may not be a year for rookie wide receivers to suddenly shine -- something that doesn't happen too often with full training camps. Still, the opportunity should definitely be there for the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green to get the playing time with both T.O. and Mr. 85 (presumably) not returning to the team. Joseph Addai isn't a running back that I enjoy selecting here, but if the free agent isn't back with Peyton Manning, I'm likely to cut him the first time I need to claim someone off waivers.
The rest of the rounds: Cam Newton wants Steve Smith to come back to Carolina, but that may not happen, and besides, that might not be the best thing for Smith's fantasy value anyway. McCormick certainly went risk-reward here, because without a new uniform, his stock takes a severe hit. Meanwhile, Quintong went with rookie Ryan Williams, and in Round 10 he ended up taking another green running back in Washington's Roy Helu. Clearly, the backfield pickings are more than slim at this point. As Quintong puts it, "This could either work out really well or both guys could be absolute busts. While there is plenty of wide receiver depth, in my opinion, in the later rounds, the same can't be said about running backs." I totally agree with his assessment that, because of free agency and plenty of unsettled committees, after about the first 20 or so running backs, you're just throwing darts.
My picks: I went with Thomas Jones, simply because there's every chance that the Kansas City Chiefs end up using him again this season far more frequently than Jamaal Charles owners will be able to stomach. He's depth at the running back position here. Lance Moore is one of the many Drew Brees options in the red zone, but seems to get more than his fair share. I actually considered him a few rounds earlier, but hesitated because I own Brees as well, and don't love to double-dip. In Round 11, I couldn't pass on his value. Has Hines Ward's stock really fallen this far? I can't believe it to be true, and given the "hurry up and get ready" pace that may precede Week 1, at least early on, Ben Roethlisberger is going to continue to throw to the man he knows exceedingly well.
The rest of the rounds: Running back depth seemed to be on other owners' minds as well as my own. Lipscomb, in particular, was a bit concerned about the injury histories of his two primary selections at the position: "Having Gore and Hillis as my backfield could be fine, but I'd be lying if I said I was thrilled with it, since I'm not sold both will be able to stay on the field for the entire season. Ronnie Brown is a huge question mark, so what happens once the players get on the field will determine whether it was a terrible pick or a nice value in Round 10." McCormick chose Chad Ochocinco in Round 12, begrudgingly, since we don't know where he'll be suiting up this season. "He could either be reinvigorated in a new offense for a new team, or a veteran in pronounced decline." It's just another of the unknowns that might have had a clearer answer in prior offseasons, but is wreaking havoc with our projections in 2011.
My picks: With pretty much everything else on my roster filled, I needed to go with tight end and D/ST at this stage of the draft, and I couldn't be happier with Dustin Keller. Yes, he's a bit of a butterfingers, but he also had five touchdowns through the first four games last season. With only a little more concentration, he could well end up a top-five tight end -- and if not, it's not like I picked him "too soon." With my pick of the Chicago Bears, I get the benefit of Devin Hester's returns in addition to a defense that should go 35-35 in sacks and turnovers.
The rest of the rounds: Becquey grabbed a second option at quarterback, which is something that I'd definitely recommend if you didn't get one of the elite signal-callers early. No need to put all of your eggs into a single basket. As Becquey put it, "Once Tom Brady and Philip Rivers were off the board before I could make my fourth pick, I knew I'd be fine with either Freeman, Flacco, or Big Ben, which allowed me to wait on quarterbacks and load up at running back and wide receiver instead. Having two quarterbacks who were top-10 at the position last season in ESPN formats allows me to play the matchups, and provides a nice insurance policy against injury or a down season for either player."
As is customary in ESPN expert drafts, the final two rounds consist primarily of D/STs and kickers. For those picks that strayed from this time-honored tradition, it was typically to take a stab at a running back handcuff, either to keep for himself (Toby Gerhart to Becquey, Adrian Peterson's owner) or to use as a potential trade chip should the need arise, (Jacquizz Rodgers to me, not the owner of Michael Turner). Because tight end is fairly deep this season, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham were used to fill out Roberts' and Quintong's lineups in Round 15, after they chose to stake their claims to the defenses of the Steelers and Ravens, respectively, earlier on.
So there you have it! Our first mock draft of the year, albeit with a lot more guessing than usual. Even so, this can still be an excellent indicator of where we, collectively, rank the rookies at a given positions. It also highlights certain players who deserve your confidence no matter where the winds of change may blow them.
Now let's all keep those fingers crossed that the labor situation resolves itself quickly, so that we can get some of these question marks turned into exclamation points, and the fantasy season can get truly underway without any further delay!
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass