Anyone who's ever seen HBO's Hard Knocks knows that by the time training camp rolls around, most jobs on an NFL team are spoken for and most systems are installed and running -- maybe not at 100 percent, but certainly well enough to play a competent game. Not so this year. Due to an offseason of closed training facilities, most of camp will be spent trying to acclimate new faces to unfamiliar playbooks, and getting players back into real playing shape, cramming activities that are usually spread out over a third of a year into one month. As a result, this season has the potential to be one of the strangest in a long time.
With all of the unpredictability, it's important to alter your fantasy draft strategy accordingly. Here are 16 tips to help you get through your first post-lockout draft, many with the underlying theme that for this year only, change is bad.
1. Based on his 2010 numbers (2,220 yards, 18 touchdowns from scrimmage) Arian Foster is the consensus No. 1, but Kansas City's Jamaal Charles will be the most valuable. The fourth-year Chief has carried 18 or more times in 10 games over the course of his career and has gone over 100 yards in nine of them. Thomas Jones turns 33 before real games begin and is much better suited for limited action, clearing the way for a huge season from last year's rushing crown runner-up.
2. Draft an elite quarterback earlier than you normally would. Players like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Michael Vick are all the unquestioned leaders of veteran teams who will have most of their offensive talent from 2010 back. (Peyton Manning would be in this group except for his mysterious recovery from offseason neck surgery.) That familiarity will prove invaluable this year. If you don't get one of the above with one of your first three picks, it's going to be a long season. And since you'll never bench them, you won't need to draft a backup quarterback until late, if at all.
3. Ben Roethlisberger is a good fallback if you fail to get one of the aforementioned signal callers. He has a young, emerging receiving corps (Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown) and placed ahead of Rodgers, Vick and Brady by averaging 266.7 passing yards per game after returning from a four-game suspension at the start of '10.
4. This year there is no undraftable running back. Have you ever noticed that backs who hold out tend to get injured more often than not during the regular season? Well, this year it's like everybody held out. Many players who missed organized team activities during the spring and early summer won't be as fully tuned and toned as they usually are during the season, so backups will have a huge impact in fantasy. And since injuries are so unpredictable, the more running backs you can carry, the more likely you will choose correctly.
5. Always take the best available player, no matter what your needs at the time. If you see a chance to overload a position with talent, do it. Remember that the draft is not the end of player acquisition. You can improve your team as much or even more through trades.
6. Let someone else take a chance on Austin Collie. The Colts slot receiver had a series of concussions that cut short his sophomore NFL season, and although it's believed that he'll feel no effect this year, Indy's medical staff will have no choice but to err on caution's side whenever Collie's shaken up. And we all know, there's nothing worse in fantasy than having a player who's in your lineup who is forced to leave early in a game. There are more than enough wide receivers to go around and no better position to play waiver wire matchups each week.
6. The team I love this season: Buccaneers. Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams may not have the name recognition yet, but they have the potential to be the NFL's next "Big Three." Freeman will be a great backup while Blount and Williams are every-week no-brainer starters.
7. Five fantasy rookies in the best position to produce (in order): 1. Mark Ingram, Saints, 2. Daniel Thomas, Dolphins, 3. Mikel Leshoure, Lions, 4. Julio Jones, Falcons, 5. Delone Carter, Colts.
8. Please note that Cam Newton, the top pick overall, didn't make the top rookie list. Nor did any other quarterback. There just hasn't been enough time for any of the rookie quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbart, Jake Locker) to be a reliable option in redraft leagues. Jones is the only first-year receiver worth taking in the first half of the draft.
9. The options are limited in Cincinnati. When all is said and done, fourth-overall pick A.J. Green may turn out to be one of the elite players to come from the 2011 draft, but for this season Cincinnati is a fantasy wasteland.
10. There are more than enough tight ends to go around. No fewer than 13 tight ends had 50 or more catches last year and 14 scored at least five touchdowns. With playbooks bound to shrink in the early part of the season, look for even more liberal use of the quarterback's favorite safety valve.
11. Seek out double-duty players. Receivers or running backs who also return kicks or punts are great sources of extra scoring that is often the difference between winning and losing. However don't even think of drafting a player whose primary duties are on special teams.
12. Now that the Raiders offense is back to being explosive, strong-legged Sebastian Janikowski is one of the few kickers who should be taken before the final round. In fact I'd take him two rounds before the end. The Packers are the only defense that I'd consider taking before the last two rounds.
13. The disappointing Cardinals running back committee of Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells gets new competition from rookie Ryan Williams. Barring injury or an unexpected transaction, Ken Whisenhunt's backfield is too convoluted to rely upon any one member (see New Orleans, 2010)
14. Mike Shanahan will cement the title "offensive genius" if he can win with a John Beck-run team with Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams in the backfield. There will be many weeks in many leagues when zero Redskins are active.
15. Stay up to the minute up to the time of your draft. There are going to be a lot of free agents left on the street at the time that many fantasy drafts are held. While it's not a good year to draft newcomers, they will adversely affect the playing time of someone who you believed you could rely on.
16. The 2011 All-Sleeper quartet:
QB Tim Tebow, Broncos: He won't match his passing totals but the poor man's Michael Vick will challenge the rich man's version for the rushing touchdowns lead among quarterbacks.
RB: LeGarrette Blount: Only Foster and Charles gained more yards from Halloween on than Tampa Bay's top back. Don't wait too long.
WR: Jordy Nelson, Packers: Aaron Rodgers' favorite target in the Super Bowl is primed to leap past Donald Driver as the team's second option on the outside.
TE: Jimmy Graham, Saints: Big, strong and fast, Graham became Drew Brees' most reliable receiver down the stretch last season when many fantasy owners had stopped paying attention. Swoop in once the old guard of Gates, Finley, Clark, et al are gone.
David Sabino will be answering your fantasy football questions all season. Follow him on Twitter @SI_DavidSabino and send in your requests.
ON SALE SOON: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and statistical analysis you need to win your league. Available in mid-August.