Caveat Emptor: Avoiding Early Round Disasters
By Jason Wood
August 9th, 2010

This article was originally posted on The New York Times Fifth Down blog.

Previously, we talked about mastering the end game, and made the point that you're better off drafting high risk/high reward players in the last few rounds because chances are you're going to drop them for waiver wire pickups anyway. The transitive part of that philosophy is being risk averse in the early rounds. There's truth to the adage that you can't win your league in the first few rounds, but you can lose it. Now avoiding early round busts isn't as easy at it sounds. No matter how good a player may be, injuries can derail their season. If your 1st round pick tears his ACL in Week 2, well that's just the cruel fantasy fates playing a joke on you. I'm talking about avoiding undue risks. Players who simply have too many questions at their projected average draft position to justify taking given the alternatives.

Using our consensus average draft position data, I'm going to go through each round and highlight players I believe are too risky at their ADP:

ROUND 1

ADP
PosRank
Player
Team
1.01
RB 1
Chris Johnson
TEN
1.02
RB 2
Adrian Peterson
MIN
1.03
RB 3
Maurice Jones-Drew
JAX
1.04
RB 4
Ray Rice
BAL
1.05
RB 5
Frank Gore
SF
1.06
WR 1
Andre Johnson
HOU
1.07
RB 6
Michael Turner
ATL
1.08
QB 1
Aaron Rodgers
GB
1.09
QB 2
Drew Brees
NO
1.10
RB 7
Steven Jackson
STL
1.11
WR 2
Randy Moss
NE
1.12
WR 3
Larry Fitzgerald
ARI

Risky Bet = Larry Fitzgerald

Larry Fitzgerald is a fantastic receiver; he's probably the league's best all around pass catcher. But this isn't the year I'm comfortable taking him in the 1st round. The Cardinals have Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson on the roster. You could get a mad scientist to combine all the best aspects of Anderson and Leinart and you still wouldn't get a QB as effective as Kurt Warner. Now you may be saying that Fitzgerald has done well in the past without Warner under center, which is true. But he hasn't done this well without Warner AND without Anquan Boldin lined up on the opposite side. The combination of: poor quarterbacking, a commitment to running the ball more, and opposing defenses no longer having to respect Boldin's abilities on the other side of the field make Fitz too risky as a 1st rounder.

ROUND 2

ADP
PosRank
Player
Team
2.01
WR 4
Reggie Wayne
IND
2.02
RB 8
DeAngelo Williams
CAR
2.03
QB 3
Peyton Manning
IND
2.04
RB 9
Rashard Mendenhall
PIT
2.05
WR 5
Calvin Johnson
DET
2.06
WR 6
Miles Austin
DAL
2.07
RB 10
Shonn Greene
NYJ
2.08
WR 7
Roddy White
ATL
2.09
RB 11
Ryan Mathews
SD
2.10
WR 8
Brandon Marshall
MIA
2.11
RB 12
Ryan Grant
GB
2.12
QB 4
Tom Brady
NE

Risky Bet = Ryan Mathews

Don't get me wrong, I like Mathews well enough and think he's got a bright NFL future. Unfortunately, this rookie's hype has vaulted him all the way to the 11th RB off the board, which assumes a monster first season. Even if you think Mathews has the talent to be special (and I wouldn't disagree), his situation begs scrutiny. The Chargers offensive line was ineffective run-blocking last year. In spite of ranking 19th in carries, the Chargers ranked 2nd to last in rushing yards (1,423) and dead last in yards per attempt (3.3 yards). As if that weren't problematic enough, left tackle Marcus McNeill is embroiled in a contentious contract holdout that could last well into the regular season. Combine the offensive line risks with the presence of Darren Sproles, who will factor in on 3rd downs, and it's exceedingly difficult to view Mathews as a value pick in the 2nd round.

ROUND 3

ADP
PosRank
Player
Team
3.01
WR 9
DeSean Jackson
PHI
3.02
RB 13
Jamaal Charles
KC
3.03
RB 14
Knowshon Moreno
DEN
3.04
WR 10
Greg Jennings
GB
3.05
RB 15
Cedric Benson
CIN
3.06
QB 5
Tony Romo
DAL
3.07
WR 11
Marques Colston
NO
3.08
RB 16
Chris Wells
ARI
3.09
QB 6
Matt Schaub
HOU
3.10
RB 17
LeSean McCoy
PHI
3.11
RB 18
Jonathan Stewart
CAR
3.12
RB 19
Pierre Thomas
NO

Risky Bet = Knowshon Moreno

The Denver Broncos are shaping up to be a potential disaster, and Moreno is a risky bet in the early 3rd round for myriad reasons. He hit the rookie wall last year and we haven't seen him be able to carry a team for a full season. He got hurt last week and we're not really sure how quickly he'll get back to 100%. The Broncos best offensive lineman, LT Ryan Clady, tore his patella tendon a few months ago and has an uncertain timetable. Elsewhere on the line, the team is counting on rookies making a big contribution, but most have struggled to impress in the early going of camp. As if that weren't enough, Kyle Orton will be under center and have the likes of Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal as his primary targets. Rookie WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are too raw to contribute early. So will Moreno have any running room, even if he's healthy?

ROUND 4

ADP
PosRank
Player
Team
4.01
WR 12
Sidney Rice
MIN
4.02
QB 7
Philip Rivers
SD
4.03
WR 13
Anquan Boldin
BAL
4.04
TE 1
Dallas Clark
IND
4.05
WR 14
Steve Smith
CAR
4.06
RB 20
Joseph Addai
IND
4.07
TE 2
Antonio Gates
SD
4.08
WR 15
Steve Smith
NYG
4.09
WR 16
Chad Ochocinco
CIN
4.10
WR 17
Michael Crabtree
SF
4.11
TE 3
Vernon Davis
SF
4.12
RB 21
Matt Forte
CHI

Risky Bet = Sidney Rice

This round screams risky, with a case to be made against drafting half of these players at their current ADPs. But the one who stands is clearly Sidney Rice. Rice was amazing last year (83 receptions for 1,312 yards and 8 TDs) but I wouldn't bet on a repeat of last year's Top 10 numbers. Brett Favre probably will return, but it's looking a lot less certain than it did a few weeks ago. Without a healthy Favre under center, Rice will struggle because his game is predicated on getting deep and making plays on the outside. Neither Sage Rosenfels nor Tarvaris Jackson will be able to get Rice the ball with as much consistency; and that will hurt him because he doesn't have the all around game to transition into more of a possession role. But even if you're willing to discount Favre's ankle worries, you can't ignore Rice's hip injury. Just before training camp it was announced that Sidney Rice was bothered by the same hip injury that cropped up late in 2009. Rice hasn't practiced, and there's been alarming hints that he may need further evaluation and no one has ruled out the need for surgery. You just can't use an early pick on a guy with one good season under his belt, a potentially serious injury, and a question mark about his starting QB.

ROUND 5

ADP
PosRank
Player
Team
5.01
RB 22
Ronnie Brown
MIA
5.02
RB 23
Jahvid Best
DET
5.03
RB 24
Felix Jones
DAL
5.04
TE 4
Jason Witten
DAL
5.05
TE 5
Jermichael Finley
GB
5.06
WR 18
Mike Sims-Walker
JAX
5.07
WR 19
Hakeem Nicks
NYG
5.08
RB 25
Brandon Jacobs
NYG
5.09
WR 20
Percy Harvin
MIN
5.10
QB 8
Brett Favre
MIN
5.11
TE 6
Brent Celek
PHI
5.12
WR 21
Dwayne Bowe
KC

Risky Bet = Felix Jones

Favre could've been the pick here, but it seemed like a cop out to highlight the same situation in back-to-back rounds. So instead I'll surprise you and talk about Felix Jones. There's no question Jones is a home-run hitter, leading the league last year with 5.9 yards per rush. He also gets to run behind a terrific offensive line and plays in an offense with a dynamic passing attack such that opposing defenses can't and won't key on him. But those positives don't outweigh the uncertainties. Jones has just 146 carries in two seasons. You have to look long and hard to find former 1st round RBs that had such light workloads and suddenly went on to greatness. Jones' ADP is also benefiting from a misunderstanding about Marion Barber. Barber seemed to lose a step last year, but let's remember he played 13 games on a torn quad. He's healthy and has been getting tons of work with the 1st team. In 2009, Jones was actually on the field for only about 35% of the Cowboys plays. Tashard Choice, the 3rd stringer, was on the field almost as much. So expecting Jones to be your RB2 this year is RISKY. He splits time with two very talented runners and has never proven he can be an every down back.

ROUND 6

ADP
PosRank
Player
Team
6.01
WR 22
Vincent Jackson
SD
6.02
WR 23
Hines Ward
PIT
6.03
RB 26
Marion Barber
DAL
6.04
TE 7
Tony Gonzalez
ATL
6.05
RB 27
Reggie Bush
NO
6.06
WR 24
Wes Welker
NE
6.07
QB 9
Jay Cutler
CHI
6.08
RB 28
Ricky Williams
MIA
6.09
QB 10
Kevin Kolb
PHI
6.10
RB 29
C.J. Spiller
BUF
6.11
RB 30
Justin Forsett
SEA
6.12
WR 25
Donald Driver
GB

Risky Bet = Vincent Jackson

Based on what we know, you cannot draft Vincent Jackson this early. At WR22, someone is counting on Jackson to be their WR2 and an every week starter. I can only imagine the people drafting Jackson are fixated on what he did last year and not paying attention to the news wires. Jackson (and Chargers LT Marcus McNeill) are embroiled in bitter holdouts with no end in sight. Even though most hold outs usually end amicably before Week One, this one is different. Jackson is a restricted free agent and was tendered a one-year deal that he refused to sign because he wants a long-term extension. GM A.J. Smith gave Jackson a deadline and upon its expiration, he reduced Jackson's tender offer from $3.268 million to $583,000. Jackson now faces the very real possibility of sitting out the first 10 weeks of the season – before reporting for the final six weeks in order to protect his year of service time. As if that weren't risky enough, Jackson has also been levied a 3-game suspension to start the season. I just don't see how you can draft Jackson this early unless he miraculously rethinks signing his tender or the Chargers trade him.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I'm sure you may think some of the guys I've highlighted are easily worth their projected ADP, while others may scream out to you as risky. That's okay. After all, if we all agreed about every situation, what would be the point of drafting and competing in leagues each season? The great thing about Footballguys is that we're not one singular voice, but rather a collection of dozens of fantasy pundits. If you enjoyed this article, you may want to give our Overvalued and Undervalued articles a look. Each staff member was asked to highlight a number of players at each position whose value is out of place with their current ADP. Footballguys co-owner David Dodds has also just released his annual Top 300 list, which highlights each players projected 2010 value and compares that against their ADP. He's kind enough to highlight his overvalued choices in red and his value plays in green. If all that's not enough, we've got droves of other articles, rankings, projections, message board discussions and podcasts for you to dig into. Drafts are coming soon for most of us – GOOD LUCK!

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

© 2010 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved