As mock draft season rolls on (programming note: take part in mock drafts with your favorite ESPN fantasy experts each Monday throughout August during our #MockDraftMondays), our most recent exercise was our last before a critical juncture: It was the final mock draft among ESPN Fantasy staffers before true, honest-to-goodness game action.
OK, two caveats: One, the mock draft took place Aug. 7, days after the Giants and Bills played in the Hall of Fame Game. And two, while preseason football is cause for excitement, we have to take the games themselves with a grain of salt. Those who don't, end up drafting Zach Sudfeld as their starting tight end (note: guilty as charged).
I joined 13 of my ESPN compatriots for a PPR mock. That represents a larger-than-normal crew, as our previous staff mocks have been 10- or 12-team routines.
When I polled the masses on how a 14-team league changed their drafting strategy (separate and apart from the PPR factor), a couple of notes that were gleaned:
• Positional scarcity is a factor. Running backs are hard to come by in 10-team leagues, so get 'em while you can in a 14-teamer.
• And while streaming defenses isn't for everyone -- I'd be fine starting Seattle every week -- those who do prefer that strategy feel as though there's less efficiency in a 14-team league. That's the nature of a larger pool of participants.
Without further interruption, below are the results of our mock draft, which included the following participants (listed in order of picks): Brian Gramling, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Field Yates, Matthew Berry, Pierre Becquey, Tim Kavanagh, Jeff Dooley, James Quintong, Keith Lipscomb, Christopher Harris, Jim McCormick, Matt Williamson, Scott Clark and KC Joyner.
Aside from two-quarterback leagues, there's been little variance in the top six picks of most mock drafts I've participated in or viewed: six running backs -- including the "Holy Trinity" -- lead things off.
Dooley bucked the trend and snagged the first non-running back in the proceedings, Calvin Johnson at pick seven. I picked his brain into the selection:
"Johnson was my favorite pick at that point with the top five running backs gone, and I incorrectly thought I'd have either Ball, Martin or Bernard fall to me at No. 22," he said. "I was really hoping to come away with one of those three in addition to Megatron. When none were there, I went with Jeffery over Bush, Ellington and Stacy. I just didn't love any of those three."
"Brees has such incredible upside value that I would take him fifth overall in PPR leagues. In QB-centric leagues (those with two QBs, six-point TD passes, etc.), he would rank first overall," he said.
KC didn't waste any time pairing Brees with his favorite target, Jimmy Graham, but while it took just six picks for six running backs to come off the board initially, only six more went in the next 15.
And it was the final two of those six that intrigued me most: Arian Foster and Doug Martin. They rank ninth and 11th overall, respectively, in our standard scoring ranks. Neither struggles to catch the ball, but each has been polarizing during mock drafts. The concern for Foster is his health, while Martin looks primed to share more carries in a crowded Tampa backfield.
From their respective owners:
Quintong on Martin: "I'm not a huge fan of Martin this year, but in a PPR format, he's still going to have decent value. And he did fall a bit in this draft, so I was happy to get what I think is an OK RB1 at this spot. There were plenty of wideouts available, for sure, but I realized that there would still be enough solid options for me in Round 3 for my WR1. I probably would've been stuck with an even bigger question mark as my RB1 had I gone wideout in Round 2 and running back in Round 3."
Lipscomb on Foster: "I was fine with taking him at 20th overall (since he's definitely top-10 caliber when healthy), and had he been taken the pick before me, I had Jordy Nelson ready to rock instead. I thought it would be wise to get at least one quality starting back, and while Foster's health is a concern, he should be very productive when he's on the field."
After a round-and-a-half gap, we finally saw another QB go off the board, as Becquey landed Newton. Meanwhile, the Gronk flew off the board as well, to Berry. A healthy Gronk who plays 16 games has top-20 overall value, so landing him at 32 is a calculated roll of the dice.
"All of those factors, including Spiller's injury history and usage last year, scare me a ton," he said. "But I just thought the upside for him was huge (especially in a PPR league) and if you look at my team, that is a recurring theme. For the most part, I took a lot of gambles on high-upside young players as well as some with injury concerns. That wasn't my plan, instead, it was just how things fell. To be honest, if we did 10 mocks, I bet Spiller would only end up on my team once or maybe twice. He is scary for sure."
While we previously alluded to the tendency of our drafters to target RBs earlier in the draft due to position scarcity, Clark went with a different approach: nabbing three straight receivers before selecting Julius Thomas near the top of round four.
Here's his take on it: "Knowing that KC had already picked Jimmy Graham and that he was the only person picking between my third- and fourth-round picks, I knew that Thomas would be available to me in the fourth round. I wanted Victor Cruz as my flex thinking he has major PPR upside in the new Giants offense. I liked Chris Johnson and Trent Richardson as options there, but wanted to lock in Cruz. Then KC picked both Johnson and Richardson, so I went with the No. 3 tight end instead of a group of running backs that included Toby Gerhart, Rashad Jennings, Ryan Mathews, Shane Vereen, Joique Bell and Ray Rice. Picking near the end of the draft, I opted for elite wide receiver/tight end instead of second-tier running backs in the early rounds."
There are many players whose value doesn't dramatically fluctuate in PPR scoring, be it a top-tier running back or a stud receiver who lives off of both yardage and volume of catches. But some backs are more difficult to assess due to a lack of usage in the passing game.
"It was a concern, given the PPR format. My first answer explains how I ended up going wide receiver 1-2, but I was also really split on Morris and Spiller in Round 3," he said. "Ultimately I went with Morris and then Gore in Round 5 because I felt like they were values where I got them and relatively reliable, which I needed after not getting a running back in the first two rounds."
There seems to come a point in every mock draft where we see a run on lottery ticket players, guys whose natural talent is so intriguing that even without a clear-cut role, they still represent enough upside to take. We haven't quite reached that point yet, though my selection of Watkins is on the borderline of it. While I'm not an EJ Manuel apologist, I'm confident enough in Watkins' skills to see him rise into a flex role.
My buddy and co-host of the Fantasy Underground podcast, Chris Harris, has a propensity for waiting on tight ends in mock drafts. So I bothered him to see why he went Witten in Round 6.
"The fact that it's a 14-teamer makes me a little less patient, not only because more tight ends need to start but also because if you're picking near one of the ends and get caught on the wrong end of a positional run, it can really hurt," he said. "Jordan Cameron was going to be my pick, then he went one slot ahead of me. I actually have Dennis Pitta ahead of Witten in standard ranks, but it's close, and in PPR I see the logic of leaning toward Witten."
Three upside picks shine through in this round: Robinson, West and Hunter. Hunter is the only guaranteed starter for his team (in real football, not fantasy), but he's a work in progress. The Saints running backs are downright Patriots-esque to predict from one season to the next, but I wondered if Kavanagh would've taken Ingram over Robinson if this were a standard scoring league.
"For me, the Robinson-versus-Ingram debate isn't really that close, especially considering I was taking this player as my RB4; I'll go upside in that situation every time," he replied. "We know who Ingram is by now, and it's not someone I want on my fantasy team, even as a bye-week sub."
I appreciated Tristan's approach to selecting Kaepernick at this juncture, as he explained his stance on the position at large first. "Value at QB this season. Value. Study your competition and maximize value," he said.
"After Kaepernick's relatively disappointing 2013, I think where I got him is about right, or maybe slightly on the higher end of his draft value curve," he noted. "In most people's drafts, you're probably not going to get a Kaepernick (or a Brady or Wilson or Foles or even Romo) as late as you might with this group. As always, it plays to my point to 'know your competition;' it's also one I made in The Mag mock, when I took Doug Martin first and Drew Brees. Yes, in retrospect, selecting Martin was absolutely the incorrect pick, being that I should've taken Arian Foster or Zac Stacy, both of whom I now rank higher. (It was early May. Things change.) But at the time, I knew I was getting Drew Brees -- my No. 1-ranked QB this year -- in the second round, so my first-rounder was an effective second-rounder, and vice versa, because I knew I'd sneak the QB through. Same story here: I knew either Kaepernick, Wilson or Brady was making it into Rounds 6-8, knowing the competition, and I'd be perfectly happy with that."
And ... the next QB run. Plus a defense! While I'm a wait-until-round-15 defense kind of guy myself, KC is counting on the Seahawks replicating last year's production. This just in: They were pretty good last year.
How about this? The order in which QBs were taken this round: Brady, Ryan, Wilson, Cutler, Romo. Their respective ranks on ESPN.com: 12, 11, 10, 15, 13.
While I'm not disappointed in Romo, I was ready to take Cutler if he fell to me.
I asked Berry which of the five quarterbacks he would've taken had he had the chance at any of them.
"I have Brady just ahead of Cutler, so of that group, I would have preferred him, but my take all along has been if you are not one of the first guys in your league to grab a QB, be the last," he said. "It's a little tougher in a deeper league, like a 14-teamer, but I'm thrilled with Cutler, who I have ranked as a top-10 QB this year."
First the QB run, now the rookie-RB run. Four rookies plus second-year stud Christine Michael found work in Round 9, but Becquey took a veteran. Rather than taking the flier on a young guy, he bought Arian Foster's backup, Andre Brown.
"For me, this pick is all about 'what happens if Arian Foster falls off a cliff?'," Becquey said, "which is a possibility considering the workload and the surgery he's coming back from. The younger players could also be in a position to supplant a veteran starter -- Christine Michael was almost the pick -- but we've seen Brown be successful at an NFL level, whereas the rookies haven't shown anything yet. And really, what are the chances Brown breaks his leg for a third time? Don't answer that."
More lottery tickets here, so let's hear from two of the buyers.
Williamson on Zach Ertz: "Dynasty is really my true love in the fantasy world, so at times, I have a habit of drafting a player too early in redraft leagues. Might that be the case with Ertz this year? Sure, but I don't think I paid much of a premium for him and I don't think it is unrealistic to suspect that he leads the Eagles in receptions and/or red zone targets in 2014. As Jaws [ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski] mentioned a few weeks ago, expect the Eagles offense to become more horizontally rather than vertically inclined from a year ago. To me, that screams a major spike in production for Ertz."
McCormick on Markus Wheaton: "Emmanuel Sanders' 112 targets were tied for 30th among NFL pass-catchers last season, while Jerricho Cotchery was one of just 10 wideouts to register double-digit touchdowns last season. The workload void combined with a thin depth chart in Pittsburgh offers Wheaton rare upside, even as an unproven player."
Somebody from the Panthers' receiving corps has to catch passes, right? Kudos, Matthew, on the Benjamin pick. He's raw, but he's so darn talented, that pick could win you a week down the line.
Round 12 is dedicated to you, Oakland. While there's reason to wonder if any Raiders skill player will actually prove to be fantasy relevant, four make it off the board here. If Latavius Murray gets a shot at some carries, he has some freakish tools to work with.
The pick that will draw attention in Round 13 is Gordon. I asked Becquey how many games Gordon needs to play in order to justify the investment.
"One," he said. "This was my second-to-last bench spot. You're trying to hit a home run here, and that means you need to be willing to strike out. We'll know real soon if this pick has any viability, and at that point, I'll either have a heck of a weapon stashed away, or a guy I can dump to the waiver wire and I'll swing for the fences with someone else."