Upside Down Drafting - Gut Check #226
By Matt Waldman
August 4th, 2011

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Prologue

Things to remember as you read this column:

  • The title of this column is accurate.

  • However, the title of this column does not accurately describe the drafting approach herein.

  • The title of this column accurately describes the drafting most people have used prior to what you'll learn today.
  • In the infinite wisdom of Mother's Finest, "The truth is gonna set you free."

    Introduction: You are in the Draft Matrix

    You can call me Morpheus.

    I am here to give you a choice for the first time in your fantasy football career. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire fantasy career, that there's something wrong with the conventional draft strategies. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.

    I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?

    Yes, the Fantasy Football Draft Matrix.

    Do you want to know what it is?

    The Draft Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, when you turn on Fox Sports or ESPN, or when you listen to podcasts and satellite radio. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you read draft magazines or Internet articles when you're sitting on your private throne... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

    You are a slave. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

    The Draft Matrix is a system, my friend. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

    This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Waldmanland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

    I'm trying to free your mind, my friend But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.

    Welcome to the real world.

    The construct for the Draft Matrix is Average Draft Position data.

    Don't get me wrong ADP is vital information. However to borrow from Mark Twain, most people use ADP like a drunk uses a lamppost; for support rather than illumination. Most fantasy owners base decisions off ADP that at best, limits them to drafting a decent team and at worst, trap them into building a poor roster that requires a lot of transactions to fix.

    ADP comes from mock drafts and it is the hardcore fantasy owners and "experts" who are steeped in the Fantasy Football Draft Matrix who participate in most of the offseason mocks. They establish the baseline values with their traditional drafting philosophy that the rest of the fantasy world uses without second thought.

    I'm not referring to the baseline values of individual players. I'm looking at something bigger; the fairly predictable order of the positions that fantasy owners select in the early and middle rounds of drafts. This is the structure of the Draft Matrix that few question.

    The reason most fantasy owners accept the Matrix is because of the enforcers of its rules:

    Experts.

    In this hobby, the term expert has become an individual whose goal is showing his audience how good he is. He or she may be on television or have a by-line, but most often the experts are individuals participating in the herd mentality on message boards, blogs, and local fantasy leagues around the world.

    You're here because you're past the entire chest thumping that comes from trying to look smart rather that acting smart. In the current climate of fantasy football, most people select running backs in the early rounds without question. I'm going to show you why this approach is nothing more than people leaning on data rather than using it as illumination.

    Drafting two RBs in early rounds is the true risk.

    Most fantasy leagues use starting lineups with a maximum of two running backs and a minimum of three receivers, one quarterback, and one tight end. If your leagues use flex-plays that include a third running back and a scoring system that still favors this position over the rest, then you're playing the fantasy football version of poker with wild cards. What I'm going to show you will still work, but it is not as foolproof of a method for drafting a high-scoring team.

    We all know that in most leagues the most valuable players are the top-scoring running backs. Get two of them and you're well on your way to a deep playoff run. Conventional wisdom dictates if the best running backs are the most valuable fantasy players then they should be the first priority in a draft.

    Experts know this better than anyone and they spend an inordinate amount of time projecting which runners will provide starter-caliber production. That's their job. However, they too frequently lean on the previous year's stats of individual running backs to determine their projections for the following year. These projections fuel ADP data and the convention of drafting two runners in the early rounds becomes an entrenched fallacy.

    The Fantasy Football Draft Matrix.

    The chart below profiles the dynamics of fantasy starters at the RB position from 2008-2010. The data reveals that there is more annual turnover with RBs than any position in fantasy football (the higher the percentage the worse the churn). You're about to see why once something becomes conventional wisdom, that convention is no longer wise.

    Three-year Avg
    Turnover Pct
    Avg # Players
    Top 12 RB Turnover
    64%
    7.7
    Top 24 RB Turnover
    43%
    10.3
    Top 12 QB Turnover
    42%
    5.0
    Top 12 TE Turnover
    47%
    5.7
    Top 12 WR Turnover
    61%
    7.3
    Top 24 WR Turnover
    47%
    11.3
    Top 36 WR Turnover
    43%
    15.3

    You have a significantly better chance acquiring a quarterback, a tight end, and receivers in the top 24 and the top 36 than a top-12 running back. The five-year average isn't much different.

    Five-year Avg
    Turnover Pct
    Avg # Players
    Top 12 RB Turnover
    63%
    7.6
    Top 24 RB Turnover
    45%
    10.8
    Top 12 QB Turnover
    43%
    5.2
    Top 12 TE Turnover
    45%
    5.4
    Top 12 WR Turnover
    62%
    7.4
    Top 24 WR Turnover
    48%
    11.6
    Top 36 WR Turnover
    45%
    16.8

    One thing that these charts don't show is that that the three- and five-year turnover averages for a top-three tight end has been a nice 40% and 25% respectively. There is also an anomaly with the 7- and 10-year averages. On the surface that data reveals a bit of a decrease in RB turnover and an increase in WR turnover. However, 2003's RB stats skew the total average because 9 of the top 12 backs repeated their production from 2002 - the most unusual year in a decade - and this deflates the rate of turnover for the position.

    Seven-year Avg
    Turnover Pct
    Avg # Players
    Top 12 RB Turnover
    61%
    7.3
    Top 24 RB Turnover
    45%
    10.9
    Top 12 QB Turnover
    42%
    5.0
    Top 12 TE Turnover
    42%
    5.0
    Top 12 WR Turnover
    64%
    7.7
    Top 24 WR Turnover
    50%
    12.0
    Top 36 WR Turnover
    46%
    16.4

    10-year Avg
    Turnover Pct
    Avg # Players
    Top 12 RB Turnover
    58%
    7.0
    Top 24 RB Turnover
    44%
    10.6
    Top 12 QB Turnover
    42%
    5.1
    Top 12 TE Turnover
    45%
    5.4
    Top 12 WR Turnover
    62%
    7.5
    Top 24 WR Turnover
    50%
    11.9
    Top 36 WR Turnover
    46%
    16.7

    Although the total fantasy points that a top RB generates might be similar from one year to the next, one cannot count on the same backs producing those numbers year after year. Since fantasy owners traditionally pick running backs with two of their first four picks, this translates to a greater chance that fantasy owners are picking a lot of the backs that won't repeat - especially fantasy owners picking at 1.05 and later.

    This leads back to the Fantasy Football Matrix; the construct that is supposed to show people where to adjust, but people lean on the pattern rather than break it. Fantasy owners are more preoccupied with the ADP of individual players (the trees) than the larger patterns of the draft itself (the forest). Because the average fantasy owner frequently uses the same old strategy of selecting runners in the first 3-4 rounds that are statistically less likely to repeat a commensurate rate of production, a more aware fantasy owner should be considering his pick of the litter at quarterback, wide receiver, and/or tight end.

    Think of it this way: most of your league is picking last year's difference makers at RB while you're picking most of this year's top guns at a majority of the spots you need to fill out a starting lineup. Better yet, when it's time to select runners the rest of your league is focused on the other positions. Let's match some of the names with those numbers: Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis, Darren McFadden, Ahmad Bradshaw, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ladainian Tomlinson, LaGarrette Blount and Mike Tolbert were at best, mid-round selections in 2010 fantasy drafts. All of them posted starter-caliber fantasy seasons. Foster, Hillis and McFadden were three of the top six producers at the position.

    Further, Ricky Williams, Ray Rice, Joseph Addai, Jamaal Charles, Rashard Mendenhall, Fred Jackson and Cedric Benson were all mid-to-late picks in 2009 drafts and they posted starter-quality fantasy production. The numbers reveal this isn't just a two-year thing. If you look at the scenario clearly, you'll realize that even if you only land one starter-caliber scorer at running back but strike it rich at every other position you are better off than most teams drafting the traditional way.

    Using ADP to your advantage

    This strategy I'm describing is just a tool to express an overall conceptual approach: using ADP to illuminate the best path. If the competition decides to pick positions other than runners in the first two rounds and some of the safest bets at the position are available then by all means take two backs! However, until the rest of your fantasy world catches on, spots 5-12 are the ideal places for the proposed strategy.

    By then end of round four, a fantasy owner should have two excellent receivers, an elite tight end, and either a third receiver or top quarterback. This year, I would even consider the idea of waiting on a tight end until round five and opt for one third- or fourth-round runner. The reason is the current ADP of Antonio Gates (3.09). The Chargers tight end is still dealing with plantar fascia issues and players like Dallas Clark (4.11) Jermichael Finley (5.01), Vernon Davis (5.08), and Jason Witten (5.09) are available 1-2 rounds later. Gates might have a fantastic year, but when Jene Bramel explains that Gates will always be dealing with a pain management issue I'm concerned.

    Whether you wait until round five to pick your first RB or take one in rounds 3-4 and then follow up with a tight end, once you reach the middle rounds it is time to begin picking running backs in earnest. I suggest drafting at least four backs between rounds 5-10 and then alternating backs with other positions in the late rounds.

    The early-pick exception

    If you're drafting at the early turn (spots 1-3), I suggest picking a running back in round one because you have the pick of (nearly) any back you wish. Players like Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, and Chris Johnson are elite runners in run-first systems. Even Jamaal Charles and Ray Rice are options to consider because of the run-first system, their top-notch talent, and like Peterson, Foster, and Johnson, they are head and shoulders better than the backs behind them on the depth chart.

    After a round-one back, receivers, a tight end, and a quarterback become the priority until round five or six. Then, as outlined earlier, you should begin taking backs with you next five picks by round six. A fantasy owner in this spot might also consider waiting on tight end until round five and selecting a second runner in round three or four. Once the owner with an early-pick exception reaches round six, he would benefit from alternating backs and receivers for several picks.

    The strategy in action

    I must forewarn you, the runners I'm recommending for 2011 will elicit an initial wave of terror at the thought of beginning the season with them as your starters. But as Morpheus would say, "You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, disbelief. You're your mind."

    Remember, history shows that these players and their low ADPs will be bargains by year's end.

    Mocks

    The mocks I'm using are examples of the first 15 rounds of 20-round drafts. The first mock uses variations of this strategy with spots 1,2, and 11. Team 1 uses the early round RB exception with a second RB in the third round in place of a quarterback. Teams 2 and 11 use a pretty straightforward version of the Upside Down Strategy. In the coming weeks, I'll do additional mocks from others positions on the draftboard.

    Rnd/Pick
    1
    2
    3
    4
    5
    6
    1
    Adrian Peterson
    Arian Foster
    Chris Johnson
    Jamaal Charles
    Ray Rice
    Andre Johnson
    2
    Reggie Wayne
    DeSean Jackson
    Vincent Jackson
    Larry Fitzgerald
    Hakeem Nicks
    Peyton Hillis
    3
    LaGarrette Blount
    Greg Jennings
    Dwayne Bowe
    Mike Wallace
    Tom Brady
    Peyton Manning
    4
    Brandon Lloyd
    Santonio Holmes
    Jahvid Best
    Tony Romo
    Deangelo Williams
    Shonn Greene
    5
    Jermichael Finley
    Jason Witten
    Vernon Davis
    Ryan Grant
    Steve Johnson
    Austin Collie
    6
    Mario Manningham
    Cedric Benson
    Ben Roethlisberger
    Fred Jackson
    Marshawn Lynch
    Mario Manningham
    7
    BenJarvus Green Ellis
    Josh Freeman
    Ladainian Tomlinson
    Kenny Britt
    A.J. Green
    Jimmy Graham
    8
    Roy Helu
    Michael Bush
    Marcedes Lewis
    Deion Branch
    Tony Gonzalez
    Ryan Torain
    9
    Matthew Stafford
    James Starks
    Steelers Def
    Reggie Bush
    Mikel LeShoure
    Randy Moss
    10
    Ronnie Brown
    Willis McGahee
    Braylon Edwards
    Tim Tebow
    Steve Breaston
    Sam Bradford
    11
    Joe Flacco
    Kevin Kolb
    Danny Amendola
    Thomas Jones
    Ravens Def
    Montario Hardesty
    12
    Shane Vereen
    Emmanuel Sanders
    Brent Celek
    Chris Cooley
    Kellen Winslow
    Lance Moore
    13
    Jason Hill
    Jerome Simpson
    Greg Little
    Visanthe Shiancoe
    Mark Sanchez
    Eagles Def
    14
    Giants Def
    Saints Def
    Dexter McCluster
    NE Def
    Donald Brown
    Randall Cobb
    15
    Toby Gerhart
    Bernard Scott
    Javon Ringer
    Eric Decker
    Jalen Parmele
    Jacoby Jones
    Rnd/Pick
    7
    8
    9
    10
    11
    12
    1
    Mike Vick
    LeSean McCoy
    Rashard Mendenhall
    Darren McFadden
    Calvin Johnson
    Michael Turner
    2
    Maurice Jones-Drew
    Aaron Rodgers
    Frank Gore
    Steven Jackson
    Roddy White
    Matt Forte
    3
    Ahmad Bradshaw
    Ryan Mathews
    Miles Austin
    Phillip Rivers
    Drew Brees
    Antonio Gates
    4
    Dez Bryant
    Marques Colston
    Brandon Marshall
    Jeremy Maclin
    Dallas Clark
    Mike Williams (TB)
    5
    Anquan Boldin
    Sidney Rice
    Matt Schaub
    Percy Harvin
    Mark Ingram
    Matt Ryan
    6
    Daniel Thomas
    Knowshon Moreno
    Felix Jones
    Owen Daniels
    Jonathan Stewart
    Chad Ochocinco
    7
    Johnny Knox
    Santana Moss
    Steve Smith
    Julio Jones
    Pierre Thomas
    Steve Smith  (Car)
    8
    Eli Manning
    C.J. Spiller
    Malcolm Floyd
    Brandon Jacobs
    Beanie Wells
    Michael Crabtree
    9
    Hines Ward
    Mike Tolbert
    Zach Miller
    Mike Williams (SEA)
    Ryan Williams
    Mike Thomas
    10
    Jay Cutler
    Rob Gronkowski
    Plaxico Burress
    Donald Driver
    Jacoby Ford
    Jets Def
    11
    Danny Woodhead
    Bears Def
    Matt Cassel
    Mark Clayton
    Rashad Jennings
    Darren Sproles
    12
    Danario Alexander
    Mike Sims Walker
    Aaron Hernandez
    Donovan McNabb
    Robert Meachem
    Jordy Nelson
    13
    Greg Olsen
    Kyle Orton
    Tashard Choice
    Brandon Pettigrew
    Delone Carter
    Chester Taylor
    14
    James Jones
    Dustin Keller
    Davone Bess
    DeMarco Murray
    Derrick Mason
    Jared Cook
    15
    Donnie Avery
    Nate Burleson
    Kendall Hunter
    Taiwan Jones
    Matt Hasselbeck
    Terrell Owens

    Note: I had some friends of mine assist me with these mocks. As a result you'll see some players that went higher or lower than their common ADP. Although we drafted 20 rounds I'm only showing the first 15.

    Eric (Team 1)

  • QB: Matt Stafford and Joe Flacco

  • RB: Adrian Peterson, LaGarrette Blount, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Roy Helu, Ronnie Brown, Shane Vereen, and Toby Gerhart

  • WR: Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd, Mario Manningham, and Jason Hill

  • TE: Jermichael Finley
  • Analysis: Eric took what I joke is the "toe in the water" approach to this strategy. He simply couldn't pass up Blount in round three, but I think it cost him another potential WR in Greg Jennings or Dwayne Bowe. While I like Jason Hill and Mario Manningham as match up plays until one hopefully shows he's a consistent fantasy threat, I'd rather have the two receivers Eric passed up than Blount. Still, on paper it appears on paper that Eric's only holes are at WR3 and possibly QB - and neither is glaring. I could roll with this team and feel confident that I could address the receiver or QB issue during the season.

    Susie (Team 2)

  • QB: Josh Freeman and Kevin Kolb

  • RB: Arian Foster, Cedric Benson, Michael Bush, James Starks, Willis McGahee, and Bernard Scott

  • WR: DeSean Jackson, Greg Jennings, Santonio Holmes, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerome Simpson

  • TE: Jason Witten
  • Analysis: Although I'm a little worried about the up and down nature that can be DeSean Jackson and Greg Jennings, Susie's corps of starting wideouts could make anyone envious. Santonio Holmes as a WR3 seems like a steal to me. Witten is a fifth-round bargain in my eyes. I don't like the Cedric Benson pick that much, but Bush, Starks, and McGahee are upside players this year. I believe one of them becomes a solid RB2 to pair with Foster. While I don't expect as much from Freeman as he showed last year, its still a nice pick in the seventh round - especially with Kolb as the backup. Six of her eight starters I'm evaluating are capable of huge games any given week. I'd love to begin the season with this team.

    Matt (Team 11)

  • QB: Drew Brees and Matt Hasselbeck

  • RB: Mark Ingram, Jonathan Stewart, Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams, Pierre Thomas, Rashad Jennings, and Delone Carter

  • WR: Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Jacoby Ford, Robert Meachem, and Derrick Mason

  • TE: Dallas Clark
  • Analysis: This is the team I drafted and I didn't make any early RB exceptions. Ability-wise Ingram and Stewart is just a mouth-watering combination, but Ingram is the only back I have on this roster with a true opportunity to project 250-plus carries. Adding Pierre Thomas is also a nice safety net. While I'm not thrilled about the offensive line situation in Arizona, Wells and Williams are talents capable of RB2 production if one earns the job. One of these seven runners should deliver and complement what I think is a strong rosters. Brees, Johnson, White, and Clark are elite players at their position capable of huge weeks and if Jacoby Ford can build off his rookie season, I could have a dominant receiver corps. Worst-case scenario is Derrick Mason continues his steady play as a re-signed Raven or returning Titan.

    Mid-Round Targets at RB

    In order of preference, I'm going to recommend three runners per round. This should supply you with a solid game plan. I'll update this as necessary in future columns.

    Round 5 Targets

  • Mark Ingram (5.09): I always worry that I'm too enthusiastic about rookies, but Ingram in New Orleans is akin to Edgerrin James or Joseph Addai with Peyton Manning; great passing offenses run by quarterbacks with great pre-snap skills and lots of red zone opportunities for a running back to accumulate double-digit touchdowns. In return, Ingram will create more efficient downfield plays for Brees and he'll close out games with his rugged interior skills. Ingram is the type of back who can turn a less the perfectly blocked play into a four- or five-yard gain. If I'm drafting from spots 5-12, I'm considering Ingram as a potential exception in round four - just to make sure I get him.

  • Ryan Grant (5.05): Another back in a great offense with a downhill interior running style, Grant is capable of 1200-1300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. I like Jonathan Stewart's talent a great deal more, but Grant's situation is slightly more appealing. The reason I say "slightly," has to do with James Starks, whom I believe has more upside than Grant. Since you're taking backs in bulk at this stage of the draft, and Starks is generally available in the ninth round, this pairing is likely a better deal than the ultra-talented duo of Stewart and Deangelo Williams.

  • Jonathan Stewart (5.08): The talent/upside is just too glaring to ignore here. Carolina's passing game couldn't get much worse than last year and the offensive line play should improve. If it doesn't, Stewart has already demonstrated the explosiveness, balance, and versatility to turn football lemons into lemonade. With the threat of Cam Newton's legs there should be plays that the Panthers will install that can force opposing defensive ends, outside linebackers, and/or defensive backs in the box to account for Newton rather than the RB. This should create some big-play opportunities for Stewart and Deangelo Williams. Although we don't know how Ron Rivera will split the carries with this duo, taking Stewart in the fifth round is what I call a good risk even if you don't have Williams.
  • Round 6 Targets

  • Felix Jones (5.11): We all know that Jones is a true talent who hasn't been able to stay healthy. He's also in a great offense and the value of the runners vying for time on this depth chart is low enough that you can likely acquire one of Tashard Choice or DeMarco Murray, if not both. I'd rather have Jones as my RB2, but his explosiveness and the Cowboys passing game makes him a player with RB1-upside if he can manage to stay on the field. If he drops to the early part of the sixth round, I'd consider him over the rookie Daniel Thomas. Monitor Thomas' performance in camp before pulling the trigger.

  • Marshawn Lynch (6.10): Ignore his stats for the past two years and think about the fact that the New Orleans Saints tried to acquire him from Buffalo. This should tell you that the Saints scouts had a high enough grade on Lynch to consider his services appealing. Although the Seahawks were near the bottom in Football Outsider's adjusted line yards metric in 2010, Football Outsider's writer Doug Farrar explains that they were 11th in open field yards (yardage gained when a back gets 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). I just offered that stat in case you thought Lynch's "GET OUT OF MY WAY!!!" game-sealing playoff run versus New Orleans was a fluke.

    To build on Lynch's potential, Pete Carroll brought in ex-Raiders head coach Tom Cable to fix the offensive line and develop a power running game. Will the improvements come this year? Russel Okung is a talent and if healthy, I think he'll be a solid left tackle. Left guard Robert Gallery is a good acquisition and a player who will be familiar with Tom Cable's system. Gallery will provide necessary on-field leadership. If a healthy Max Unger plays to potential at center, this team should be able at least run consistently to its left with a lot of success. I'm buying.

  • Daniel Thomas (6.03): I have concerns that Thomas' first year might be a disappointment for fantasy owners. He showed some difficulty maintaining good pad level and patience at Kansas State. It might take his rookie year to address these deficiencies. However, I still recommend him for consideration based on his athleticism, balance, and rugged style. He's a powerful, agile runner who I think will develop into at least a higher-carry two-down back. Whether or not it happens during his rookie year is the big question. So is the Dolphins' scheme. If they continue using the Wildcat extensively (and Thomas was a JUCO QB), and lack confidence in the quarterback then Thomas might have some exciting plays, but I think they will be the exception rather than the rule. Without confidence in a quarterback, Miami is heading in the wrong direction as a team.
  • Round 7 Targets

  • Joseph Addai (7.03): Perhaps Addai has seen his best days in the NFL. Perhaps rookie Delone Carter or the underachieving Donald Brown will develop quickly and force Addai into a supporting role. And perhaps Addai will get hurt yet again and miss enough time that he won't pay off as a seventh-round investment. But perhaps Addai will stay healthy, remain the lead back for one more year, and produce an RB1-caliber performance. Considering he was ranked 11th, 9th, and 5th among fantasy runners for the three years he played in at least 13 games should indicate that this Addai guy is pretty good. He's also in an offense capable of getting him 7-12 touchdowns in a season. Perhaps this isn't this what you'd want from a seventh-round pick? Find another hobby.

  • Pierre Thomas (7.12): We all know Thomas can play. Although I disagree with Mark Wimer that Mark Ingram will be an overrated fantasy commodity as rookie, I do agree that Thomas will still be capable of RB2 numbers if needed. Although I like Chris Ivory's talent between the tackles, he's still recuperating from injury. If Mark Ingram gets hurt, Thomas is the handcuff I want to the Saints running game.

  • James Starks (9.05): There are too many promising backs in the ninth round and not enough in the seventh for me to wait on Starks. He's a solid handcuff to Ryan Grant with potential to take the lead role with a strong camp. I've talked enough about him this summer for you to understand why I like his potential. Because he's in a great offense, I'd take him over the other backs in the ninth- or eight-round group.

  • Ryan Williams (9.10): I'll discuss Williams in the round nine's section, but I would consider reaching for the rookie here if he flashes in training camp. By then his ADP will jump at least a round. I prefer him to Wells.
  • Round 8 Targets

  • Brandon Jacobs (8.05): Jacobs is a great selection this late because there's nothing that has changed with the team that should dramatically alter his opportunity to perform as at least a low-end RB2 regardless of whether Ahmad Bradshaw re-signs. The offensive line is solid, the passing game is solid, and the defense keeps the Giants in situations where it can continue to run the football. Ahmad Bradshaw might be the upside back on this depth chart, but Jacobs is capable of delivering as the handcuff. He's not an exciting option and he has less upside than the other backs in this round, but I'd consider him for another year.

  • Michael Bush (9.04): He may also have a ninth-round ADP, but I don't trust Darren McFadden to stay healthy and Bush still earned enough carries last year to produce as a flex-play. He has the talent to deliver strong RB2 potential if the Raiders call on him. And Oakland might have to do it because the offensive line is in flux and I think McFadden is the type of back that offensive lines look good more often than the other way around.

  • Chris Wells (8.03): Wells has talent any fantasy owner could love, but his difficulty playing through injury coupled with a floundering offense motivated his team to select Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams. The Hokie runner has a killer instinct that many believe Wells lacks. The presence of Williams and the uncertainty of the Arizona Cardinals offensive line doesn't inspire me to take Wells. However, I regard him as an upside down handcuff; a player with an ADP higher than the more promising teammate. Take Wells and make it a point to grab Williams and then the third-year Ohio State star has some upside.

  • C.J. Spiller (8.08): It's likely that this year we'll learn whether Spiller has the promise to earn a larger role in Buffalo than Reggie Bush's former New Orleans haunts. In a good enough offense, Spiller could crack the RB2 threshold. However, Spiller has to develop more patience that he demonstrated in his limited opportunities as a rookie. This was Spiller's problem at Clemson and Chan Gailey levied similar criticisms in the media. I like Spiller's big-play upside even if I don't see the same kind of potential in him as a back like Jamaal Charles. At the end of the eighth round I'd take a chance. Of course, I'll also be taking a shot at UNC rookie Johnny White very late in the draft because I have seen lead back potential from him.
  • Round 9 Targets

  • Ryan Williams (9.10): Williams has the talent and mentality to make a mediocre offensive line look better than it is. He runs hard and works hard. He might lack Chris Wells' bulk, but there's no question he was the perfect match to light a fire under the Ohio State star. However, Wells has been about as durable as kindling and if his toughness is as brittle, Williams could easily engulf Wells' opportunities and smother the third-year runner's career in Arizona. I'd consider moving on Williams a round higher on my priority list.

  • Mike Tolbert (9.08): I believe Ryan Mathews will break out this year. However, Tolbert delivered RB2 production in Mathews' stead for much of 2010. Since Mathews is one of my early-round exceptions, Tolbert is a valuable handcuff with redzone potential as a bye-week or flex-play option.

  • Mikel LeShoure (9.08): The offensive line still concerns me in Detroit, but the skill players are potential dynamite. If the front five of the Lions can deliver, LeShoure should have some nice games as a red zone back. If Jahvid Best can't stay healthy, the Lions rookie has feature back potential.
  • Rounds 10 (and beyond) Targets

  • Willis McGahee (12.11): This ADP will increase dramatically if he wins the lead role in Denver. Based on Cecil Lammey's reports, it's a strong likelihood. If McGahee's rise to the top of the depth chart doesn't become official before your draft, I would consider him as the top back in the eighth-round grouping. If it does become official, the 5-7 range of the draft might be a better match.

  • Rashad Jennings (12.09): Jennings has feature back talent. His hands are among the best on the team and he's a big guy with speed and patience. It's also possible that Jennings could split time with Jones-Drew with a strong camp. Blasphemy, I know. But this is the NFL. I'd consider him in round 10 without batting an eye.

  • Montario Hardesty (11.07): The health issues are a true concern. The talent is not. At this point in a draft, he's a must-have to handcuff to Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis.

  • Tashard Choice (13.06): Jones goes down, and Choice produces at a 1,200-yard pace in a good offense. He's not exciting, but he's consistently good. DeMarco Murray is a must-watch as well.

  • Delone Carter (NA): Carter could steal goal line opportunities from Joseph Addai, if not the actual lead role. He's a strong back with a low center of gravity with enough shiftiness and patience to win the Colts job if he develops as a pass blocker.

  • Shane Vereen (NA): Vereen is a versatile cutback runner with all the skills to develop into a feature back. The Pats have been fine without using a runner as such since the days of Corey Dillon, so expecting much more than flex-play potential is unrealistic. However, taking Vereen in the late rounds allows one to dare to dream.
  • Early-Round Exceptions

    These are runners I think are worth a pick between rounds three to five. I only recommend taking one during this period of time. The position I would sacrifice for this RB is quarterback. Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, and Matt Stafford have enough fantasy potential to wait on a signal caller if you must. Taking a runner this early is not my first recommendation, but these two players are at least worth serious consideration.

  • Mark Ingram (5.09): If he flashes the skills in the preseason that I think he will, Ingram might vault to the top of my exceptions list. Right now, you can wait on him, but monitor his ADP.

  • Ahmad Bradshaw (3.09): This is because Bradshaw has remained in New York. Bradshaw is a big play waiting to happen and he earns enough opportunities to produce as a low-end RB1. In the late third round, I'd feel comfortable taking Bradshaw and still finding a quality tight end and third receiver. If Bradshaw's ADP rises, I may have second thoughts.

  • Ryan Mathews (3.11): I'm a believer in Mathews as a back with 250-carry potential in 2011. If he stays healthy, I think he'll deliver as a fantasy RB1.
  • Jonathan Stewart (5.08): If Deangelo Williams gets hurt Stewart becomes a priority exception to the rule.

  • Jahvid Best (4.10): If Mikel LeShoure disappoints or gets hurt, Best also becomes a priority exception.
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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