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Faceoff: Early-round Risk and Safety

Footballguys staff members find risk and safety in Top 25 players

Looking at our Top 25, which player stands out as the biggest risk (with a very big downside)? Which player seems incredibly safe (with very little downside)?

Kyle Wachtel: The player inside my Top 25 with the biggest risk is an easy call: Rob Gronkowski. He's currently on the active/PUP list and there is still no clear timetable for his return. A Week 1 return would be optimistic at this point, but his absolute dominance at the tight end position is why he won't be leaving my Top 25 anytime soon. In fact, he's more likely to move up once a timetable is established. In 2011, his VBD of 144 placed him 7th overall and that upside is what makes him worth the risk.

As for which player seems incredibly safe, I would say Doug Martin. He's only 24 years old and played all 16 games last season en route to a second place finish among running backs in total fantasy points. Tampa Bay's offensive line should only improve with a healthy Carl Nicks and the addition of Gabe Carimi. In 2013, the sky is really the limit for Martin.

Stephen Holloway: I am going away from the crowd, but I am leery of C.J. Spiller this season. He has a current ADP of RB5 and #6 overall in ppr scoring leagues and RB7 and #8 overall in non-ppr. He finished as RB6 a year ago, but only had 207 carries, averaging 6.0 ypc. A closer look at the games where Fred Jackson played shows that Spiller actually had 113 carries compared to 115 by Fred Jackson. I understand that Jackson is 32, but he may continue to share carries with Spiller. The other factor is that Buffalo lost Andy Levitre in free agency and did not upgrade their offensive line otherwise. They are among the bottom tier of offensive lines. They also have a new starting quarterback, whether it is Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel, there will likely be a learning curve. All of this seems like a lot to ask for Spiller to improve on his numbers from a year ago.

Andy Hicks: I've already covered Steven Jackson elsewhere so for the sake of argument I'll choose Trent Richardson as the biggest risk. Backs that have a 3.56 yards a carry average, a big workload, and a very good offensive line don't last long in the NFL.

For comparisons sake the following are the only backs to post a worse yards per carry on 250+ carries in the last 10 years and the carries they had the next year in brackets with a yards per average:

  • Shaun Alexander at age 29 (207 - 3.46)
  • Emmitt Smith at age 35 (Retired)
  • Cedric Benson at age 28 (273 - 3.91)
  • Edgerrin James at age 28 (324 - 3.77)
  • Eddie George at age 30 (132 - 3.27)
  • Troy Hambrick at age 27 (43 - 4.49)
  • Ricky Williams at age 26 (168 - 442)
  • Jamal Lewis at age 26 (314 - 3.61)

Some of these are the best backs of recent years, but most were at the end of their careers or did very little the following year. Jamal Lewis is probably the best comparison and he did alright in 2007, but in the modern era Richardson's yards per carry is a total anomaly amongst other young backs. At his draft slot and with his injury problems, I cannot justify using a 1st round pick on him and although his downside isn't that steep, it is enough to wreck your draft.

As for the safe pick, you have to steer away from a running back as the injury risk for them all is much worse than at other positions. For that reason I'd go with Calvin Johnson. He finished 2011 with 16 TDs and 2012 with 5, yet still ranked No.1 in both years. Considering that 6 of his receptions stopped at the one yard line last year, 10 touchdowns is a pretty conservative estimate for his value. Add in at least 100 receptions and at least 1500 yards and there cannot be anyone safer in the top 25.

Ryan Hester: Andy's point on Calvin Johnson is a great one. In my eyes, there isn't a single player whose "non-injury worst-case scenario" is higher than Johnson's. When 80 catches, 1,200 yards, and 10 touchdowns are conservative stats, that's a sure thing. For a point of reference, out of our four projectors, the lowest totals for Johnson are 100 catches, 1,630 yards, and six touchdowns.

That said, I won't be taking Johnson in any of my drafts because I'm selecting a running back in the first round, and he won't make it to the second. The drop-off from a Round 1 or Round 2 running back to one selected in Rounds 4, 5, or 6 is much more significant than the same drop-off at the wide receiver position - even if Johnson is top receiver from which the drop begins.

The "riskiest" player near the top of draft boards to me is Arian Foster. His yards per carry has declined for three straight seasons; he led the NFL in carries last season and played two postseason games to add to his total; and he's already nursing a minor injury that landed him on the PUP to begin training camp. If you're sitting in the #2 position in your draft, your decision is not a no-brainer.

Mark Wimer: I agree with Ryan and Andy that Calvin Johnson is the least risky player among the top-25, and I have him #1 on my overall draft boards both PPR and non-PPR.

However, I disagree with the idea of not drafting Johnson due to an insistence on drafting a running back in the early rounds. I have Johnson at an X-value of +74 points in PPR leagues over Demaryius Thomas (my #2 wide receiver) and I have my #1 running back, Doug Martin, at +31 points over Adrian Peterson, my #2 running back.

In other words, I see Johnson having a MUCH bigger seperation from the field of other wide receivers than Martin (or any other elite running back like Peterson or Ray Rice) does over the field of running backs. While much is being made of the depth at wide receiver this year (and it certainly appears that there are a lot of receivers in striking distance of 1,000 yards receiving and mid-single-digit TDs, partially due to the rules changes that favor NFL passers and receivers over defensive players during the last few years), a lot of people are missing, in my opinion, the wide chasm between Johnson and the other wide receivers - even the other elite guys who figure to have over 100 receptions. I would strongly argue against the idea of passing on Johnson regardless of first round draft position due to an insistence on going RB/RB in the first two rounds.

In my mock drafts so far this year, I've taken Johnson in the first round multiple times in multiple different league formats, and ended up with the following running back corps in two representative leagues:

12-team PPR league, 18-round draft:

  • Darren Sproles
  • DeMarco Murray
  • Ahmad Bradshaw
  • Vick Ballard
  • Lance Dunbar

12 team PPR IDP league, 34-round draft:

  • Darren Sproles
  • DeMarco Murray
  • DeAngelo Williams
  • Jonathan Stewart
  • Joseph Randle
  • Shonn Greene

As you can see, I've landed Sproles and Murray regularly - they are #11 and #12 on my PPR running back board, and 16/17 on the consensus rankings for running backs in the PPR paradigm as of August 3. I don't feel that my running back stable is uncompetitive due to taking Johnson first - in fact, I think I've got a superior stable to many of the teams that went RB/RB in the above-referenced drafts. Sproles was a top-five PPR running back during 2011 when Coach Payton was with the team, and the Saints are back in that mode heading into 2013. Murry definitely has top-ten potential in Dallas if he can stay healthy for 16 games.

In short, I've accepted more risk at running back as a result of drafting Calvin Johnson early this year, but I don't think it has made my team uncompetitive at the running back position.

Anyway, regarding the riskiest top-25 pick, I would say that Trent Richardson has that distinction, as Andy pointed out earlier. He's in the third tier of running backs on my boards in the PPR paradigm, and I have him 28th overall in that scoring system. And all this assumes that the shin injury is going to be OK. Even with Norv Turner talking about 300 carries and 60 receptions for Richardson, I don't trust the Cleveland offense to deliver that level of opportunity to Richardson during 2013, and I worry about his ability to handle that massive workload on a week-to-week basis.

Ryan Hester: This is why I love being a part of footballguys. The differing viewpoints can really make you think and sharpen you mentally. In my original point, I didn't mean to say that everyone should blindly draft RB-RB. As always in fantasy, when value presents itself, you take it. As a matter of fact, I selected Dez Bryant in the second round (17 overall) in our latest Staff mock held last Wednesday.

The fundamentals of Mark's point above are based upon two things: 1) the assumption that Johnson will outscore the rest of the field at receiver by a significant margin; 2) placing a high value on mid-level RB2's like Sproles and Murray. Speaking of those two, here are the backs currently being drafted between 16 and 21 at the position in PPR leagues: Darren Sproles, DeMarco Murray, Stevan Ridley, Darren McFadden, Frank Gore, David Wilson.

The reason I personally advocate RB-RB is that I don't feel comfortable having any of those guys as my second running back. But that's what makes fantasy football great. If you do feel comfortable with that, then you probably agree with Mark's views above. If these guys are being drafted as RB2's yet I don't feel comfortable with them as my RB2, that - to me - signifies a steep drop-off at the position.

This season, I feel that Dez Bryant will narrow the gap between Johnson and the rest of the wide receiver field. Also, when I look at the receivers being drafted in the same neighborhood as the backs listed above, I see names like Roddy White, Randall Cobb, and Victor Cruz. Those players, teamed with two top-15 backs, would make me feel better about my fantasy team than having Johnson and two of the middling backs discussed above. And, to Mark's point above, I don't think my team is uncompetitive at receiver.

Great discussion, Mark. I hope our Insiders gain some insight by reading it!

Mark Wimer: Ryan, I definitely agree that Dez Bryant has a good shot to close the gap between himself and Johnson, and a few others may do so as well - but Johnson's edge over the vast majority of the field will still (in my opinion) be large enough to offset waiting on running back until the second and third rounds. Among all the wide receivers, Johnson is also the best bet to retain elite status, so I place him first above Bryant and Demaryius Thomas...

We'll see soon enough.

Will Grant: I'll take a different look at this. While I agree that Calvin Johnson is probably the guy with the safest downside, I'll say that in the top 25, your safest pick relative to his position is Jimmy Graham. As people here have pointed out, Rob Gronkowski is is a pretty serious injury risk, and with Aaron Hernandez being out of the picture now, if you're a team that would consider spending a first or second round pick on a tight end, Jimmy Graham is your guy. Graham has over 180 receptions and over 300 targets over the last two years. He's been the #1 and #2 ranked tight end from a fantasy prospective, and has 20 receiving touchdowns during that same timeframe. With the injury to Dennis Pitta now, only Tony Gonzales and Jason Witten are guys that could challenge him and I doubt that either will be a big enough part of their offense to be the top tight end. Personally, I don't think you need a top tier tight end this year, Graham is probably our safest bet.

I'll join my dynasty partner Stephen in saying that C.J. Spiller is a guy that I'll probably avoid this year. I think Kevin Kolb has an incredibly short shelf-life as the Buffalo quarterback, and I think that E.J. Manuel will be the signal caller before the end of the season. With a rookie quarterback and a stable of young rookie wide receivers like Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin, I think Spiller has the potential to fall out of the top 12 for fantasy running backs this season.