- Brian Gramling, Fantasy
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When the ESPN.com experts conducted the season's first mock draft in early June, there were obviously a lot of unresolved camp battles, some of which have produced a winner -- such as Eddie Lacy winning the top RB job for the Green Bay Packers -- but many others that are still a work in progress, such as the Denver Broncos' running back situation.
To see how much has changed just nine days before the NFL season kicks off, the final mock draft of the 2013 season was held on Tuesday with the following 10 owners: James Quintong, Jim McCormick, Pierre Becquey, Field Yates, Shawn Cwalinski, KC Joyner, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Christopher Harris, Keith Lipscomb and me. The league is standard scoring with the draft order randomly selected. While many of the teams and players stayed the same, there were still plenty of differences to dissect.
When compared to Mock Draft 1, there were 14 players who rose up the draft board at least 20 slots -- or two full rounds in a 10-team draft -- for Mock Draft 7: RB DeAngelo Williams (63 spots), RB Ronnie Hillman (47), WR Rueben Randle (36), RB Daryl Richardson (35), RB Lamar Miller (28), RB Eddie Lacy (27), WR Sidney Rice (25), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (24), RB Reggie Bush (23), TE Greg Olsen (22), RB Ryan Mathews (22), QB Matthew Stafford (22), WR Miles Austin (21) and RB Giovani Bernard (20). These are 14 important names to remember, as many of these one-time sleepers are costing owners a much steeper price to draft them. If you want them on your team, especially a gaggle of RB2-worthy players, be prepared to pay a fair price in your draft or auction.
Not counting those who were drafted in Mock 1 but not in Mock 7 (such as injured skill players Percy Harvin, Danario Alexander, Jonathan Stewart, Jeremy Maclin and Dennis Pitta, plus a former New England Patriots tight end with legal troubles), there were a dozen picks that fell at least 20 spots: RB Joseph Randle (49 spots), RB Vick Ballard (43), RB Fred Jackson (38), WR Greg Jennings (28), RB Montee Ball (27), WR Jordy Nelson (27), RB Le'Veon Bell (27), RB Isaiah Pead (25), WR Kenny Britt (25), D/ST Denver Broncos (23), RB Chris Ivory (21) and D/ST Houston Texans (20). While you can't label this whole group as "do not touch," especially because they were all drafted by an expert in Mock 7, there are some names here that are no longer moving the needle, such as Ballard and Pead, who are now firmly in backup roles, and the Broncos' defense, which will be hampered by LB Von Miller's six-game suspension and CB Champ Bailey's foot injury. However, players like Ball, Nelson, Britt and Ivory are all in positions to make a significant impact.
I had the privilege of participating in all five weeks of #MockDraftMonday, where my role was to discuss and implement differing strategies with an ever-growing population of highly intelligent fantasy football beings. Although fantasy players are way more sophisticated and prepared than even three years ago, there is always hidden value in "steals" and unnecessary "reaches" in all fantasy drafts, even ones involving folks who make a living off their decades of fantasy sports wisdom. In the below analysis, I'll discuss which players have been hot topics in the ESPN.com mock chat rooms in terms of rising or falling draft stock. Below is a round-by-round breakdown of the 53-minute draft (an average of less than 20 seconds per pick).
If you'd like to see each team's full roster, click here.
Just like in Mock 1, the first round of Mock 7 was comprised entirely of running backs, who were the same exact 10 names picked nearly three months ago. Both I and McCormick passed on Arian Foster for what we deemed a safer pick, and Foster's two-spot fall delighted Becquey: "I was happy getting Foster at No. 4. Now that he's back practicing, I have zero issue taking him at No. 2, let alone No. 4." I personally think No. 2 is the absolute worst place to draft this year, especially in 12- or 14-team formats. Because I have a clear-cut top eight of Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Foster, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice, I would prefer to have draft slots six through eight to make sure I got one of these stud RBs to then also get a more valuable second-round pick than those picking in the first few draft slots. I asked Quintong if his strategy differed picking in the first overall draft slot: "My strategy seemed to be the same with the No. 1 pick as other drafts. And it mostly went according to form." Yup, practice makes perfect.
This was another déjà vu round, as all 10 players picked in the second round of Mock 1 were also picked in Mock 7, just in a slightly different order. Cwalinski jumped on Maurice Jones-Drew at No. 15, four picks earlier than MJD lasted in June, while the three RBs picked after him (Matt Forte, Stevan Ridley and Frank Gore) all dropped three spots from the season-opening mock. Again, no big surprises, which just goes to show what a fantastic job we all did setting the rankings in the spring! But the real reason the top 20 names remained the same was that there was no major preseason drama (save for some fleeting injury news) that occurred with any of these top-flight players. I personally think Chris Johnson was picked too high, but Joyner knows a thing or two about great blocking metrics, and the offseason bolstering of the Tennessee Titans' interior line could make the artist formerly known as CJY2K very happy.
Round 3 finally got the chat room buzzing, specifically for high-rising RBs Lacy and Bush, who were respectively drafted 27 and 23 spots higher this time around. Yates explained why he broke the seal on rookies so early in the draft: "Lacy is my riser, and not just because DuJuan Harris was placed on IR. He's been clearly the best back in Green Bay this preseason, setting him up for enough goal-line opportunities to be a stud. Oh, he's really good on carries that don't come on the goal-line as well."
While Cwalinski wasn't enamored with the Bush pick at No. 26, saying, "I think he is rising because people are looking at the weak remaining backs," the new Detroit Lions rusher has been a hot commodity in draft rooms, to the point where I've actually seen him go as high as No. 11 overall. McCormick explains the recent Bush love as "In terms of risers -- Bush turned a few big preseason game receptions into a big ADP rise. Even in non-PPR formats, he's now a Round 3 fixture and even higher." Harris agreed, but had a different take on why, saying, "I think Bush is rising particularly because of how bad Mikel Leshoure has looked, with TD thievery becoming somewhat less of a factor, potentially."
This was also the round in which top tight end Jimmy Graham was selected, 28th overall to Cockcroft, six places after where he went in June. I've seen Graham go anywhere from No. 17 to 30, so if you want him, you'll definitely have to spend one of your top three picks to get him. And that's exactly what Becquey felt he should have done: "My third-rounder should have been Graham. I love Demaryius Thomas as a WR1, but I could have easily passed on him and still fielded two capable wide receivers with Graham in the tight end spot every week."
Lipscomb started off Round 4 with another riser, RB Lamar Miller, who leaped up the charts from No. 59 in Mock Draft 1. I've been championing Miller as a sleeper since April, but when you see the players he's being picked ahead of, the Miami Dolphins' probable bell cow likely will not last past the fourth round in any draft with at least 10 teams. Three quarterbacks were scooped up in the fourth, with Cwalinski choosing young Cam Newton over future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. While I've seen Tom Terrific go anywhere from the mid-20s to the low-50s overall, I have to agree with Harris, who said, "Brady at No. 40 is loony value." I was very pleased that Andre Johnson (1,036 receiving yards in final eight games of 2012) slipped to No. 39 for me, as I have him ranked higher than both Reggie Wayne and Victor Cruz.
While I was thrilled that my strategy of hoping RB2 DeMarco Murray would still be there at No. 42 worked, we finally saw our first big plummet, as Montee Ball, the 21st pick overall in Mock Draft 1, when he was thought to be the Denver Broncos' workhorse, went to Cockcroft at No. 48 as the 23rd running back taken. While the rookie with 55 rushing touchdowns over the past two college seasons may wind up sharing carries with Ronnie Hillman and/or Knowshon Moreno, Joyner explains why this situation in Denver is so important to keep an eye on. "The big plus for any Denver running back is they will be operating behind one of the best run-blocking walls in the NFL," said Joyner. "Last year, the Broncos had a 48.9 percent good blocking rate, which is a metric that gauges how often an offensive blocking wall gives its ball carriers good blocking (very roughly defined as when the offense doesn't allow the defense to disrupt a rush attempt). That ranked fourth in the league and will likely stay that way good given (A) Peyton Manning is superb at audibling into favorable run plays and (B) Denver has the fifth-easiest schedule in the NFL in terms of opposing run defenses, according to my metrics. The prediction here is that Ball will end up as a two-down and goal-line back, with Ronnie Hillman rotating in on third downs and on sporadic drives to give Ball a rest."
Darren McFadden continues to slip on draft boards across the land, as many owners like me are steadfast in not risking a high pick on the oft-injured ball carrier. While he fell only one spot from Mock Draft 1 to Harris at No. 48, it seems crazy that a guy with so much talent would be the 24th running back taken. Lipscomb sums up McFadden nicely: "I just think people have been bitten too much by DMC's injury woes, and are scared to trust him with a No. 2 RB slot ... and to get him where Harris got him actually could be a potential value. Key word is 'potential' ... not necessarily likely." Harris agreed: "Right, though in a 10-teamer, taking the upside of someone like that as a flex is a no-brainer. I will have a half-dozen other flex possibilities by draft's end."
Round 6 was the time for the rising running back, as top riser DeAngelo Williams and fellow 20-plus-risers Mathews, Bernard and Bradshaw all were taken as well. Williams was the 48th RB taken in Mock 1 when he was thought to be second on the depth chart behind soon-to-be-healthy RB Jonathan Stewart, but with "Daily Show" placed on the PUP list for the first six weeks of the season, it appears Williams will be the man for the Carolina Panthers.
Round 7 was highlighted by a pair of young quarterbacks who seemed to go much later than they should have, even for a 10-team format in which everybody was going to wind up with a top-10 quarterback, right? Harris went off the grid to take a QB2 in the form of Colin Kaepernick. Following a friendly heckle to the QB-less owners in the room, Harris explained why he took his backup signal-caller so early: "Kaepernick is my No. 6 quarterback and No. 35 player overall. If he's going to fall to No. 69, I'll scarf him up, even in a 10-teamer. If my ranks are right, he'll be three rounds better than Tony Romo. I don't like to draft with a trade in mind, but at some point you don't have a choice."
Joyner also got quite a steal two picks earlier when he snagged Robert Griffin III, who is poised to start Week 1, something that wasn't a given three months ago. "RG III lasting until Round 7 offers more evidence that quarterback depth is still off the charts."
While I felt it was imperative that I pick my WR3 in Round 8, all four wideouts in my queue (Jordy Nelson, Tavon Austin, Steve Johnson and T.Y. Hilton) were all gone, so I switched gears and grabbed RB4 Mark Ingram. I couldn't believe Nelson lasted this long, but I've seen a tendency for mock drafters to go with the flashier "upside" receivers rather than the more reliable ones like Nelson and Johnson. While Nelson has the best quarterback on the planet throwing to him, Johnson should thrive as the only proven receiver in what promises to be an up-tempo Buffalo Bills offense. With no desirable wideouts left, I took injured Pittsburgh Steelers rookie RB Le'Veon Bell as my fifth running back. With Bell reportedly already out of his walking boot, I expect him to return to action no later than Week 4. And if I'm wrong, I'd still rather have an eventual No. 1 back for a good team than pick one of the many healthy handcuff options that were left on the table.
Speaking of picking players who would be watching Week 1 from the sidelines or their living room, Lipscomb's pick of suspended Cleveland Browns WR Josh Gordon was pretty cagey at No. 90 overall. "I am happy to get Gordon in the ninth or 10th round in mock drafts this summer," said Lipscomb. "I know he'll miss two weeks, but it's not due to injury, and he should have some solid games this year, and be a worthy flex play often." Yates concurred: "Totally agree, Keith. You won't need him until Week 8, anyway, so it's worth the investment."
I realize the D/ST position isn't the most valuable fantasy position, but I don't see why owners take WR5 and RB6 before securing a defense. This is especially true when you have a shot for the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks, the two defenses that I feel are in a league of their own this season. If DT Justin Smith can stay healthy all year, the Niners are stacked in every position on defense and will be the unit teams least want to face.
Fantasy owners are trying to figure out what's going to happen in New England with all of Brady's new receivers to break in. While Brady hasn't had a whole lot of Pro Bowl wideouts to use in his career other than Wes Welker and Randy Moss for a magical 50-TD season in 2007, there seems to be something really special about WR Kenbrell Thompkins, who has 13 catches for 142 yards in his first three preseason games. He went to Cockcroft at No. 108. Said Cockcroft: "I actually had Thompkins and Michael Floyd as my only two in the queue and went back and forth. Tipping point: WR is my roster 'weak spot' (if those even exist in 10-team, two-WR formats) and I wanted an upside guy since Boldin was my WR4. I just felt there's a greater chance Thompkins puts forth more start-able weeks than Floyd."
The draft concluded with the usual stable of low-end D/ST picks and kickers. We also saw a slew of interchangeable tight ends to fill a roster. I usually pick two tight ends in a 10-team draft, which worked out well for me in 2011, when I took a flier on Rob Gronkowski in the final round of the final mock, which I knew would net me 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns! But seriously, I think it's better to draft a high-upside guy like Jared Cook than to comb the waiver wire during a bye week or after a major injury to your starting tight end. In nearly all of the mock drafts I participated in, the smiling face of Houston Texans TE Owen Daniels was always tops on the list of available players as TE No. 6, and I just don't think he's any better than some of the players below him such as Greg Olsen, Antonio Gates, Cook, Brandon Myers or Jermichael Finley. Although Harris is instrumental in the ESPN.com groupthink rankings and chose Daniels in the 14th round, he wasn't championing Daniels being much of an upgrade to any of those TEs listed: "The TE middle class is kind of all the same. I couldn't swear Daniels doesn't wind up TE6." McCormick agreed: "Yeah, not a ton of differentiation after the top five tight ends are gone."
Lipscomb made an interesting comment on why he took the Patriots' D/ST, which I figured was because he had them ranked in his top-10: "The only reason I took the Pats D/ST is that I didn't have any sleepers that I HAD to have during this long wait ... and I like to stream defenses, so my sole reason is to have New England for Weeks 1 and 2 against very poor offenses (Jeff Tuel-led Buffalo Bills and New York Jets)."
Apparently, this picking a D/ST based solely on its early-season schedule is catching on. Said Yates: "Following Lipscomb's lead on a streaming defense, I take Indy's D against the prolific -- er, lowly -- Raiders O in Week 1."
Good luck in your "real" fantasy drafts and make sure you keep checking back with ESPN.com for all the experts' advice with ESPN Insider, chat rooms, the Answer Guys and Scribble Live. Because no matter how well your draft goes, fantasy league championships are not won in September.
Brian Gramling analyzes the final ESPN Fantasy staff mock draft for 2013, a 10-team standard league.