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Early-round Risk and Safety

Footballguys staff members discuss the safest and riskiest players at the top of the draft board

Welcome to the 2015 Footballguys Discussion series, where we get a few staff members and toss them an open-ended question. Check out their answers.

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

Jason Wood: History tells us that a great many early round picks are high risk. Roughly half of last year's Top 10 running backs and almost as many of the best receivers won't finish in the top ranks again, yet as analysts we rarely put forth a set of rankings that mirrors that kind of historical volatility. The closer we get to the season, the more I think a great many of the Top 10 running backs are huge risks.

Adrian Peterson is 30 and has been away from the game for more than a year. Jamaal Charles is 29 and hasn't finished in the Top 5 in two of the last three years, yet most view him as a lock for Top 5 production. Eddie Lacy is young, but has a spotty injury history and plays in an offense where it's hard to see how his touches will ever amount to the Top 2 or 3 ranking most put him. Marshawn Lynch has a massive career workload and is on the wrong side of 30. C.J. Anderson has a half season of elite production to his credit. Matt Forte is on the wrong side of 30. DeMarco Murray switched teams and had a workload last year that is almost beyond comprehension. LeSean McCoy appeared to have lost a step last year and then switched teams. Justin Forsett had one good year, and no running to break out at his age has ever come close to matching that season the following year. In other words, there are landmines up and down the first two rounds.

The one who worries me the most? DeMarco Murray. I know the Eagles are paying him a boatload, but that's not going to stop Chip Kelly from using Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles liberally. Combine that with Murray's crazy workload last year and the stepdown in offensive lines, and I can see Murray falling off a cliff. I'm not projecting that, but I'm fearful of it.

Andy Hicks: Top 25 or so let's me continue my warning about Jimmy Graham, but I'll wander elsewhere instead this time.

Jamaal Charles is seen as a top 3 running back by almost everyone this year. As Jason mentioned he is getting towards the end of his career and apart from his number 1 ranking in 2013 has looked like a bottom tier RB1 in recent years. He lost 50 carries in 2014, mainly to Knile Davis and dropped 30 receptions and 400 receiving yards on his fantastic 2013 season. Even his touchdowns dropped by 5 overall. These stats were still good enough to finish 7th overall, but why is the assumption that he'll return to his best? Movement the other way is more likely. In his final 6 games he recorded only 1 rushing touchdown and only broke 60 yards rushing in one of his last 5 games. Maybe he was carrying an injury as all running backs do at this time of the year, maybe the Chiefs were phoning it in? Whatever the reason was for this precipitous drop in production it concerns me. A running back should be able to take advantage of tiring defenses in winter weather and Charles wasn't given the opportunity. Maybe he bounces back in 2015, but I'm putting my options elsewhere.

Daniel Simpkins: LeSean McCoy is the top twenty-five player that has the most downside to me. The wear on the tires, how he ran last season, the fantasy wasteland that is the Bills offense, and his offseason shenanigans leave me to believe that he’s going to end up being a bust for owners. Whether that happens by injury or ineffectiveness, I’m not sure, but I do know that I want no part of him at his current purchase price.

Antonio Brown would be my top twenty-five safety option, especially in PPR leagues. The recent move by the Steelers to entertain talks to improve his contract told me all I need to know about how they feel about him. Despite having the talented LeVeon Bell and the emerging Martavis Bryant to feed, Ben targeted Brown a whopping 181 times. Even more astounding is the fact that Brown came down with 129 of those balls. The rapport those guys have together is amazing. Brown is basically a lock to catch 100 balls, score double-digit touchdowns, and log 1,200 yards receiving. Doesn’t seem like there is downside with “Downtown” Antonio Brown.

Jeff Pasquino: I am right there with Daniel on McCoy. You cannot run the ball 100% of the time, and it sure feels like that is what Buffalo really wants to do. McCoy was not quite the same as he once was when he joined the Eagles, which is part of the reason why he is in Buffalo now.

I also think that Gronkowski could be a tough pick this year in Round 1 - I would avoid that if at all possible. I just see more value in the TE3-7 range and even later, and the price you pay for a tight end who could be missing his main quarterback for the first few weeks of the season sounds like a recipe for disaster.

The safest pick in PPR leagues and possibly in any format is Antonio Brown. His numbers are ridiculous, and every team he faces knows that he is the main target for Ben Roethlisberger - yet you can pretty much guarantee 6-8 catches and around 100 yards every game. Considering his very high floor, he would be the best player to pick if you want to minimize the downside risk in Round 1.

Chad Parsons: I will pile on with LeSean McCoy as a significant risk. Team change is worrisome, especially from the friendly scheme in Philadelphia. Plus McCoy is on the wrong side of the peak production window for running backs historically and did not look particularly good in 2014. The Bills quarterback situation could squeeze McCoy's running lanes, unless Tyrod Taylor is under center and stressing the defense with his own rushing prowess.

In terms of safety, I really like Julio Jones. Injuries are tough to predict, so I take that mostly out of the equation with players with elite upside. Jones has the strongest combination of floor and ceiling. I do not think Jones has peaked yet and his floor is close to what we saw in 2014 due to his paltry six touchdowns. On the flip side, Jones is one of the small handful of receivers with a 2,000-yard season in play over the next few seasons if the perfect storm hits.

James Brimacombe: As much as I love LeSean McCoy, I have to agree with the others that he offers a ton of risk when you select him in the second round. The Bills offense doesn't even have a starting QB and now their core of RBs behind McCoy are all banged up. McCoy will see a lot of work but he also saw a lot of work last year in an offense that could move the ball with ease up and down the field. McCoy looks to be in line for a very up and down season and that is not something you want to risk with a 2nd round pick in your draft.

With the safest pick early, it has to be Rob Gronkowski for me. When you draft him you are knowing what you are getting, the top TE in the league and a head start each week over your opponent at the TE position. Gronkowski and Brady have one of the best histories as QB/TE connections and even with Brady suspended for a few games to start the season, Gronkowski will still see a healthy amount of targets. In 65 career games, Gronkowski has 54 touchdowns. As much as we like receptions and yards, it is touchdowns that make the big difference in winning your fantasy games week to week.

Stephen Holloway: McCoy was the first one that came to mind for me and it seems like the majority of us feel that way. He just looked less explosive last year. Combine that with the hamstring issue and the quarterback situation with the Bills, I will be likely avoiding him altogether. Another one to be concerned about is Matt Forte. A year ago, he was excellent, particularly in ppr scoring, but his yards per carry dropped below 4.0 for the first time since 2009. His production was largely tied to the 102 receptions and that number will drop significantly this year.

For me the safe early round pick is Andrew Luck. Entering his fourth season, his completion percentage has risen each year and a year ago, his touchdown passes increased from 23 up to 40. The Colts added receiving weapons to what was already an outstanding group. Look for Luck to again improve his completion percentage and threaten to top 5,000 passing yards. He also can scramble in a pinch and has averaged 4 rushing touchdowns for his career.

Phil Alexander: Adrian Peterson is routinely going as the number one overall pick in drafts, which means none of his substantial risk is being factored into his asking price. Not only is he one the wrong side of 30 years old and coming off a lost year (as Jason pointed out), but his recent injury history is downright scary. From 2011-2013, Peterson tore his ACL, had a mid-foot sprain, high-ankle sprain, and two groin surgeries. Yikes.

On the flip side, I'll also go with Antonio Brown as the safest. While I happen to be lower on Brown than most FBG rankers (he's my WR5), it's because I value upside more than most. It's not that Brown doesn't offer immense upside, but if he goes over 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns for a second consecutive season, he'll be the first player ever to do so. Some regression is coming, most likely in the touchdown department (he never scored more than eight times in a season before catching 13 touchdowns last year), but Brown's week-to-week floor can't be overstated. There were only two games last season he failed to finish inside the Top-24 fantasy scorers at his position, and only five games in which he failed to finish inside the Top-12. With the way Ben Roethlisberger peppers him with targets all over the field, there's virtually zero chance Brown busts without getting injured.

Chris Feery: The biggest risk that jumps out to me is Matt Forte. The running back himself has acknowledged that his receptions will take a hit this season with the new offense in place. While Forte could be in line for workhorse duties, John Fox has a history of spreading the love around with his running backs. Look for Jacquizz Rodgers to mix in a bit in a change of pace role and for rookie Jeremy Langford to work himself into the mix to steal a few carries. Add it all up and Forte will see a drop in targets and touches and is no guarantee to finish as a top 10 RB.

For safest pick, I'll jump aboard the Antonio Brown bandwagon. His consistency on a week-to-week basis is incredibly valuable and the Steelers offense figures to be even better this year. Daniel's projection sounds accurate - 100/1200 plus double-digit touchdowns. Sign me up.