Michael Lombardi
Friday August 29th, 2008

The biggest NFL draft weekend in NFL history is upon us. But there won't be any television coverage or analysis from Mel Kiper Jr. or scenes from the Dallas Cowboy War Room or disappointed Jets fans. And It won't be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York. But rather it will be held all over the world among the five million people who play fantasy football.

This past April, I wrote a column offering advice to all NFL teams on what I would do in the draft and how I might best position myself to acquire what I thought were the most coveted players. Since there are more fantasy fans than actual teams, I thought it would be only fair to offer some fantasy advice for your big weekend. So settle back, take good notes and always trust your instincts.

On a side note here: The other day I was on Jim Rome's radio show and he asked me if I was compromising myself, being a 23-year veteran of the NFL, and now embarking on giving out fantasy football tips. I reminded him of the great line I learned from Bruce Springsteen. When asked about being a rock star, the Boss said "I can live without being a rock star, but I can't live without the music. Well, I can live without working for a team, but I can't live without the football. And fantasy football is still talking about football.

So, here is some of my advice to all of the fantasy football draftniks ...

Have a game plan

After you've familiarized yourself with this year's talent pool, you need to start formulating a game plan that outlines the players you deem draft worthy, plus the guys you want nothing to do with (like Larry Johnson and Jerry Porter). Think about the mock drafts, and how you can get maximum value with every single selection. A solid foundation for analyzing value is to group similar position players with closely projected outputs into tiers. For example, I believe you will get similar value by drafting Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Tony Romo or Peyton Manning. Call that "QB Tier 1." The advantage to this strategy is that while Brady is the No. 1 QB, you can snag any of the other three QBs who will get you similar statistical output and acquire them later in the draft at a higher value. Rather than taking Brady in the first round, you could take Brees early in the third round (or late in the second, depending on how many teams are drafting), therefore using your first two picks on a top flight RB and WR. Imagine you're Bill Belichick maneuvering your way through the draft and having certain combinations in mind. Would you rather have Brees and Marshawn Lynch, or Brady and Willis McGahee? You have to think in terms of draft management, which is key for fantasy players and critical for NFL teams.

Group each position (excluding kickers) into several different tiers and have your results outlined on your cheat sheet for draft day. Use color codes and letters, to help rank your players. When you show up at your buddy's house you'll be two steps ahead of the game because your mind will be thinking about high value players to build your team around, and the other guys will be thinking about what time the pizza arrives.

When selecting players in the second half of the draft, you need to keep the following rules in mind:

1. By all means, DO NOT DRAFT A KICKER UNTIL THE LAST ROUND. The kicker position is unstable and unpredictable. There is absolutely no reason to waste your 15th-round selection on one when you could get the same value in the 16th round. Use your 15th-round pick on someone like Ricky Williams (Bill Parcells loves him, he's in shape, and Ronnie Brown blew out his knee last year). Keep in mind, the difference between the top fantasy kicker last year and 10th was a grand total of 23 points. It's just not worth it, especially considering there are always kickers who come out of nowhere (see Nick Folk). And I have a rule: Never ask me about kickers, because I don't know anything about them other than if the ball goes through the uprights.

2. Protect your investment and handcuff your top RB. Drafting LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, Marion Barber and Marshawn Lynch all require you to draft their backups as well. Your opponents know this, so they may try to pull one over on you. Do some mock drafts and analyze the average draft position of you handcuff RB so you can pull the trigger at the right moment. Keep this in mind, if you had Priest Holmes in 2005 that meant you drafted Larry Johnson as a handcuff. Holmes went down to injury that year. The rest is history.

3. Take players with a high upside. Once the second half of the draft arrives, fantasy football players tend to get tired and sloppy. They see Isaac Bruce available, remember his '00 season, and figure he may regain his old form. He won't. Bruce is playing on grass this year and has a poor offense around him that is going to struggle. Don't play the "remember when" game, it never works in fantasy and never works in the NFL. Instead, take a risk on a younger player who just may have huge seasons. Players such as rookie running backs Matt Forte from the Bears, Steve Slaton from the Texans and Chris Johnson from the Titans have tremendous upside and will no doubt get significant playing time. Use the later rounds to stock pile your "high-ceiling" talent because the risk is definitely worth it. You could end up with a low cost starter on your team or better yet, he could wind up as trade bait for a more proven prospect.

My top five sleepers

1. Jake Delhomme, QB, Carolina Panthers. He is primed for a big season and having two legitimate running backs to help the offense and a vastly improved offensive line will benefit his numbers.

2. Ricky Williams, RB, Miami Dolphins. Ricky is finally playing football for the right reason -- he loves the game. His head coach, Tony Sparano, is an old line coach, his offensive coordinator, Dan Henning, goes back to the days of the Hogs and both know how to run the ball.

3. Chris Chambers, WR, San Diego Chargers. Chambers is going to make big plays down the field in the passing game as he will benefit from the play action pass. Plus, coach Norv Turner knows how to get the ball down the field.

4. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers. I advised NFL teams to draft him in my last report, and to be consistent, I am advising all the fantasy players to draft him now. His toe is fine, his speed is amazing and he never goes down after the first hit.

5. Matt Schaub, QB, Houston Texans. In Houston, Schaub has great skill players around him and plays in a system of offense that thinks pass first (a must in fantasy football). Schaub's only concern is durability, and if he does manage to stay healthy, he will produce great numbers.

Remember, trust your instincts and have fun. And like all drafts, it is very important to get quality with each pick. So have a great draft.

FROM THE AP ... Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren says he doesn't know much about fantasy football leagues, now a national obsession and booming industry. But Calla, one of his four daughters, does. "My daughter, who's a doctor in Salt Lake City, she captained one of the fantasy teams and then was thrown out of the league because of 'inside information.' But I will say, she was clean," the 60-year-old Holmgren said, chuckling. "It was the appearance. She did not phone me about it. And she was very upset about it. But she knows football, as all my girls do."

OK, so this is my last fantasy football comment for the season, but you have to love the seriousness of the league Calla was in. But what does appeal to me about fantasy football is the intensity and the passion and for someone like myself who grow up playing Strat-O-Matic baseball. I admire those qualities.

• FROM THE SACREMENTO BEE ... Question to Mike Martz: It's supposed to be a fair competition and you almost feel like Alex Smith should have been able to play a half with the starters. Answered Martz: "First of all, let me tell you this, and let's get this straight: There's nothing fair about this league. All right? If you establish yourself as an incredible player within a quarter of the game, then that's just the way it is. There's nothing fair about this game. Understand that first of all, OK?"

The NFL is not fair, and no one ever said it was before we all entered the league. But in the case between quarterbacks Smith and J.T. O'Sullivan, this was not close. Smith is not suited for the Martz style of offense. He does not have the arm or the lower body quickness to handle the tight throws and needs a clean pocket to drive the ball. And Smith needs to be in offense that is heavy run and play action passes. Once the 49ers hired Martz and this style of offense, they made it very difficult for Smith. Maybe that is not fair, but that is the NFL.

• FROM THE WASHINGTON POST ... Sentiment among NFL leaders to reduce the preseason to two or three games per team and lengthen the regular season to 17 or 18 games, up from the current 16, is growing, and it seems generally accepted that such an adjustment likely will be made within the next few years. "I think it would be a positive," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this week, "and I do think it will happen."

This is well overdue. By playing just two games, the preseason might actually mean something in the overall preparation for the season, thus allowing the fans to get their money's worth from all the games. And who could ever argue about more "real" football?

• If I were the Cincinnati Bengals, I would prepare for Joe Flacco in the opening game against Baltimore. The Ravens have injuries to both Kyle Boller and Troy Smith and Flacco might be the only healthy man standing. Flacco will get a very quick education from Mike Zimmer, the defensive coordinator of the Bengals. Flacco will see a completely different NFL, in terms of speed and scheme, than the one he has played in so far this summer.

• If I were the Chicago Bears, I would be very nervous about my investments. Last year Chicago ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed on first down and so far this summer, it appears the Bears might be even worse. The Bears have spent big money on the defense, extending the contracts of Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher to very large deals. The Bears defense this summer looks very soft and vulnerable against the run.

• If I were the Washington Redskins, I would be very nervous about how my offensive line has played the past three weeks. With every starter over 30 and very light on depth, the Skins will be challenged to block the very rugged defensives lines of the NFC East. By the way, I don't like how the Redskins have looked at all this summer.

• If I were the San Diego Chargers, I would find a way to get the ball to Darren Sproles more and try and keep LT fresh for the stretch drive. Sproles is a different back up to Tomlinson than they had with Michael Turner. Sproles is more accomplished in the passing game and can make people miss. He is short, but does not play like a little back. He will really help the Chargers and maybe this year Tomlinson will be fresher at the end of the season.

My best wishes to my friend and mentor, former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi. Accorsi had triple by pass surgery several weeks ago and is on the fast mend but never fast enough for Ernie. Take your time and be well.

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