They finally found the key and unlocked the door. Although most rosters around the NFL still aren't exactly firm, we do know a lot more about the landscape of the league today than we did a week ago.
The stagnant summer saw mock draft lobbies idle and inactive, with just a few dedicated nerds (ahem) assessing an incomplete market for talent in nearly empty applets. Suffice it to say, it was an exercise in futility to draft while the league and its players drafted a new deal.
Now that football is back, so is the value of mocking it up and preparing to dominate your league come early September. With this in mind, several members of the ESPN Fantasy staff conducted a mock draft on Aug. 2, using ESPN standard league settings and rules.
Use this draft as a reference tool for when you mock draft in the coming weeks. Or, simply have fun mocking it. You can see the team-by-team results by clicking here, or follow along for the round-by-round breakdown below.
My pick: I also had the fifth pick in our initial mock draft of the summer, and I selected Ray Rice. My stance hasn't changed in the past several weeks, as Rice bodes to get a workhorse workload in a contract year for a Baltimore offense that will continue to rely on him to move the chains. The addition of fullback Vonta Leach, arguably the best road grader in the game, can only help the total yards maven (a patriotic 1,776 from scrimmage in 2010) add some more touchdowns to his résumé.
The rest of the round: Not many surprises here. After the top five, which for me includes Rice, the debate over Andre Johnson, Michael Vick and a number of tailbacks begins. Nate Ravitz knowingly gambled on the dynamic Vick: "Tons of risk with the Vick pick. But I felt the next four backs (Rashard Mendenhall, LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore and Michael Turner) were all about the same."
Eric Karabell, a Philly guy himself, felt that the patience on signal-callers shown in the draft removed value from the Vick pick: "I thought the only quarterback that really wasn't a value was first-rounder Michael Vick."
My pick: Larry Fitzgerald and even Hakeem Nicks factored in here, but I'm admittedly down with "Megatron" mania. Fitzgerald affords a safer and more consistent option, with arguably just as much scoring upside, but I enjoy the gamble of rolling for a career campaign. If Matthew Stafford can stay on the field (big if), I could see some stellar statistics come from the talented duo.
The rest of the round: As was the case last year, the second round is particularly receiver heavy, with half of the round going to wideouts. Ravitz felt his risk was rewarded with Turner lasting to his second pick: "Actually, I might even like Turner best of all the running backs I had to choose from when I selected Vick."
Christopher Harris staked his claim in Darren McFadden for another strong season and might just get a value if his health can hold up, and resident medical expert Stephania Bell must believe in Steven Jackson's health holding up for an improving St. Louis offense.
My pick: I wasn't wowed by several options; call it the curse of the middle pick. In the end, Peyton Hillis represented netting two stud backs to start my team, and the wide receivers on the board came with their own definitive risks. I might be paying a bit for what he did last season, but, given how consistent he was, I'm confident I'll get some solid returns on this investment. And no, I'm not aware of that concept that rhymes with "The Nadden Purse."
The rest of the round: The third frame was even more receiver heavy, with six of the selections lining up outside. When asked about his "riskiest" pick, Tristan H. Cockcroft looked straight to his Dallas diva: "Dez Bryant, but I don't dislike the guy, and it was strategic. I knew Eric, who picked after me, had gone RB-RB in the first two rounds, so the chances were that he'd have gone Dez and Dwayne Bowe, and then I'd have been stuck with Mike Williams or Santonio Holmes as my No. 1 wideout, and I just don't see either's upside being as great."
My pick: Quarterbacks often fall in these staff leagues, as they are treated like closers in baseball, with more attention paid to positional talent, given that just 10 quarterbacks will start in a given week in this format. I was fine with this deflated market, landing Manning this late, sandwiched by names such as Knowshon Moreno and LeGarrette Blount.
The rest of the round: Two elite signal-callers are surrounded by a series of risks in the running back ranks. Ravitz feels he netted considerable value after taking on early risk: "The gamble of taking Vick in Round 1 (and passing on Gore, McCoy, Mendenhall) seemed to pay off, and I ended up still getting Ahmad Bradshaw, the best value for me. I'd have him as a borderline top-20 guy."
Harris believes Jahvid Best is well and one of the best upside investments to consider: "I think Best has a chance to be healthier this year, and his talent is completely off the charts. Sneak preview: He's going to be one of my 'flag-planted' players later this month."
Dave Hunter saw the QB run going too far when Keith Lipscomb landed the San Diego slinger: "Philip Rivers slipping to Keith Lipscomb at No. 40 overall was a major bell-ringer for me. Wow. Waiting on QB is always the norm with these guys, but I got sucked right into snagging Brees two rounds earlier."
My pick: Mono be damned, Jeremy Maclin has all the signs for a breakout campaign. He's entering the vaunted third year for a wide receiver and is on a particularly dynamic offense. As a fifth-round selection, even if he just repeats the 70 receptions, nearly 1,000 yards and 10 scores from last season, I'm earning a value here -- one with considerable upside.
The rest of the round: Some interesting running back investments were made, and the tight end run started, beginning with a man not named Gates (which speaks to the health concerns).
"I was happy to get Felix Jones at 41," Lipscomb said, "He has big-play potential, which often times can win you a week or two. In addition, he is set up to get more opportunities than he's ever received before, which intrigues me. For whatever reason, Jones became a greater factor when offensive coordinator Jason Garrett added "head coach" to his résumé. In those final eight games of the season, he averaged nearly 100 yards from scrimmage per game. I'm feeling the breakout."
Karabell thinks the Broncos' murky quarterback situation can be of value in drafts: "I think Brandon Lloyd is a terrific value; the threat of the team going to Tim Tebow has scared everyone off, but I think Lloyd is just a late bloomer that will thrive -- to a degree -- with either Tebow or Kyle Orton again. Fantasy owners have a tendency to hear that someone has bust potential and then just ignore him. Lloyd is falling too far."
Brendan Roberts on selecting Cedric Benson: "I've never been able to explain the weakness I have for this guy. I mean, if I'm gonna have a weakness, why can't it be for a better player? No worries, I'm going to therapy for it. But apparently it didn't work on this day. I was captured by his status as one of the few remaining workhorse backs and his 1,111-yard rushing season in 2010, but the Bengals will be terrible, meaning Benson's TDs, and probably touches, will be affected."
Meanwhile, Hunter explains his affinity for the New England tailback: "I may have reached a bit on BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but looking at the rest of the running back field at that point, I have more confidence in BJGE putting up good No. 2 back numbers than I do Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant and now Jonathan Stewart. To me, it was more about the TD chances with BGJE than anything. He may lose a good amount of touches to Danny Woodhead, Sammy Morris and others, but he's still the Patriots' TD guy. I'm not expecting a repeat of last year yardage-wise, but I see double-digit TDs for the 'Law Firm' in 2011."
My pick: Risk met reward here with Shonn Greene, who reeled me in again this year if only because of his middle-round price tag. LaDainian Tomlinson still looms, but he clearly wore with the workload last season, and one would think the team would look to run often, as the passing offense remains a work in progress. Fred Jackson was a consideration, but I went with the better offense.
The rest of the round: The risks really start in these rounds, but so do the payoffs. Here is what some of our analysts had to say about their investments.
"As long as Percy Harvin can manage his migraine issues," Lipscomb explained, "I was thrilled to get him as my flex. With Sidney Rice gone and Donovan McNabb under center, I expect Harvin to have a strong season."
Cockcroft consolidated the Carolina running game like Monopoly properties, "I didn't have any intention of landing either of the Panthers' backs and then when it came to value points at those picks, those were easily the best on my board, which is awfully convenient because I wasn't even actively trying to handcuff the Carolina backfield. It just worked out, and I have to say, I'm pretty happy about it. As for the QBs? Yeah, they stink. But think about this: They stunk something awful in 2009, yet both backs ran for 1,000-plus yards. And in 2008, Jake Delhomme was certainly average if not below it (my opinion is that he was below average), and DeAngelo had a career year. All I need is for Cam Newton to steal that job -- not hard to imagine -- and, with an arm like his, he should keep defenses just honest enough that my backs won't be completely shut down. I'm hopeful."
My pick: This one just jumped out at me. I know that the Miami quarterback situation remains underwhelming, especially after the team didn't acquire Kyle Orton, but Brandon Marshall's talent surfaced as the best of the seventh for me.
The rest of the round: Karabell seems to have been similarly motivated by Rice, who -- despite a questionable quarterback situation -- has the talent to produce big dividends this late. If Kenny Britt can stay on the field and out of trouble, James Quintong might have netted a legitimate steal. Miami's Daniel Thomas should only rise as draft day approaches.
"Steve Johnson at No. 63 overall in the draft was the best value for my club," Hunter said, "especially since he should've gone an entire round or two earlier. Although being the Bills' No. 1 WR isn't saying much, he's still a talented kid. I love his brash attitude and his incredible downfield speed. Sure, defenses might [give him more attention], but give me the talent in Johnson every time."
Said Cockcroft: "I was particularly pleased with Wes Welker, who I judge a little better than a seventh-rounder."
My pick: I went with upside and the somewhat unknown here with Mikel Leshoure, who just entered my spell check. My thinking is that even if Best holds up, as Harris believes is possible, the touchdown vulture potential alone in a burgeoning offense could return this level of investment. Harris isn't as enthused as I am, "I can't get terribly worked up about Mikel Leshoure yet. Listen, he was a TD machine in college, but he's never touched a professional football yet, and we're already ceding him a huge role?"
The rest of the round: A Plaxico Burress sighting, and the Indy boys go back-to-back in a somewhat surreal round.
"As far as Burress is concerned," Lipscomb explained, "because I already had three receivers, I felt I could take a chance on Plax with one of my two wraparound picks in the eighth and ninth rounds. I didn't expect him to be there at 100, so I took a shot on him over Steve Smith and Santana Moss. While it's hard to guess what Burress will provide, I think 900 yards and 7 TDs is a reasonable expectation, but clearly I felt the upside was worth it."
"For where you get to draft them, I actually think Austin Collie is a smarter pick," Harris said. "Yes, of course, there's tons of risk with his concussions. But if he wasn't a health risk, don't we think he'd be rated quite a bit above Pierre Garcon? And considering in a 10-team league you don't need to draft either of those guys to be a starting player, I'll take the guy with the higher best-case scenario. It's true that Dallas Clark may cannibalize Collie's production in the middle of the field, but I still love Collie to approach double-digit TDs if his head's OK."
"As for Joseph Addai," Quintong said, "I suppose most of the Colts' options at the position are still iffy overall, but he is still the main guy, and they will have to use the backs somewhat. Addai doesn't have a ton of upside, and I suppose he might've been a better No. 4 running back, but on the other hand, I probably trust him as much (or more than some of the other options that went around the same spot)."
My pick: Moss just stood out as a known commodity. The quarterback situation could be scary in D.C., but Moss is the man there and continues to produce at a level comparable to, or above, where he lands in drafts.
The rest of the round: In regards to the best pricing of his draft, Harris believes that Wells is in a position to provide value, "I'll say Beanie Wells. Not that I believe everything that comes out of Ken Whisenhunt's mouth, but with Tim Hightower gone from Arizona, I do think Ryan Williams is the only real pass-catching option the Cardinals have, which means Wells has a decent chance to play on early downs. Listen, I'm not hyping Beanie as a must-start, must-draft guy. But I think the needle is pointing too far down on him he's good value where you can get him, and pray for the upside to come true."
My pick: The big bruiser appeared to be a value as a backup back capable of scoring in any given week, with multiple scores a distinct possibility.
The rest of the round: "As for A.J. Green," Cockcroft said, "of any rookie wideout, that's the guy to get. The No. 1 option has the skills to back it up. The pick was more of an upside-plays strategy on my overall team than it was personal interest in Green; this was a case of seeing where I was picking, what was falling to the pick and just loading up on high-ceiling players. Green? He could be a sneaky top-30 guy. I could see it."
Lipscomb was had by the clock, "Ronnie Brown signed with the Eagles about two hours after the draft was over, which makes me feel not as good about his prospects. Let's just say Philly doesn't exactly represent the "run-heavy" outfit I had hoped for.
Karabell enjoys landing Southern California's favorite bowling ball, "I'm starting to wonder about second-year running back Ryan Mathews and his ability to stay healthy. He's off to a bad start in camp, and we know Tolbert is a bowling ball capable of scoring touchdowns even if Ryan Mathews is the main guy, which is no sure thing. Tolbert is a bye-week fill-in for this team I drafted, someone unlikely to produce better numbers, but a nice value in Round 10."
My picks: Two somewhat upside selects that could just as easily be waiver-wire material a month into the season. Mike Sims-Walker was sitting there, and it seems that Sam Bradford has some star-maker in him and that "The Hyphen" has some production pedigree to bank on. Donald Brown is simply in the mix in a good offense, and that's about the best thing you can say about him fantasy-wise.
The rest of the round: Harris thinks Roberts got an absolute steal, "I like Mike Thomas in the 12th; he was going to be my pick later in the round, when I took Deion Branch. Thomas' upside probably isn't that high, but I think his downside is pretty low; the Jags seem convinced that he can be their No. 1 receiver, and there's really no competition for him."
"Marion Barber was sort of an 'I can't find anyone I really like here, so I guess I'll take him in the blind hope he's got something left' pick," Ravitz said.
"I think I panicked a bit getting Reggie Bush where I did," Quintong admitted, "but my depth-at-running-back strategy was thrown off slightly when Brandon Jacobs went one pick before me in the 10th round. I have no problem with LaDainian Tomlinson, but was really stuck between Bush and Montario Hardesty, whom I still like as a sleeper."
The final four rounds: Cockcroft summarizes the twilight rounds well, "Those Rounds 11-14 picks, when I'd be doing a heck of a lot of sleeper hunting, were largely a crapshoot, a smattering of still-free agents and maybe second- and third-tier guys on the depth chart, and I felt like, at any given time, I wanted to toss a dozen names into a hat and pick one that way. I think that partly explains why a lot of running backs we have ranked much lower than where they got picked went sooner, why defenses didn't wait generally until Round 15, and I know my own approach was not to sweat it with either of those things. Don't get married to your 11th-14th rounders this year was kind of my takeaway. Usually it's only the 14th- and 15th-rounders that I'm prepared to cut instantaneously (if needed)."
In kicker territory, we found a recently retired, Canton-bound diva. "The Randy Moss selection was a lottery ticket on the possibility he doesn't stay retired," Lipscomb said, "because if he returned, he'd do it only with a championship contender and, therefore, he'd be motivated. If he doesn't come back, I'll gladly hit the waiver wire once we know more about position battles late in camp."
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN Fantasy and the high school football editor for ESPN RISE.