The first round should be easy. In theory, these are the 12 best football players for fantasy purposes in the world. No matter where you pick, your selection should be a slam dunk. In theory.
In practice, we know that is not the case. Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, Steven Jackson and Randy Moss were all in the top-12 according to average draft position in 2010. Moss was a complete bust, and Jones-Drew, Gore and Jackson fell short of expectations, although injury was a mitigating factor for both MJD and Gore. Attacking it from another angle, Arian Foster, Michael Vick and Peyton Hillis stormed the top-12 with ADPs of 63, 299.79 and 299.8, respectively.
Clearly, there are pitfalls to avoid in the first round. You may just be settling in, grabbing a beverage and polishing off a plate of wings when your turn in the opening round comes up, but you need to be on your game right away. Your great draft plan and your stealthy sleepers may go to waste if you whiff with your first take. Luckily, we're here to provide the road map for takes one through 12.
All picks are based on a standard scoring system: a point for every 10 rushing/receiving yard, a point for every 25 passing yards, rushing and receiving touchdowns are worth six points, passing touchdowns are worth four, no PPR.
One more note: The "You better not take" recommendations are meant to present a realistic option for that draft slot that you should avoid. OK, that's enough ado.
I appreciate the argument for Foster here, but Peterson has been an elite back since his rookie year. If his dominance on the ground weren't enough, he has caught 79 passes for 777 yards the last two seasons. No player in the league has a higher floor than Peterson. That's the sort of rock-solid stability you need with your first selection. I wouldn't put up a huge argument against someone who had Foster ahead of Peterson. Personally, I prefer the guy with a four-year track record.
Foster posted otherworldly numbers last year, racking up 2,220 yards from scrimmage with 18 touchdowns. He failed to top 12 fantasy points in a game just twice all season, while scoring more than 20 points eight times. The Texans' offense returns intact, and I simply don't buy the argument that there are too many mouths to feed in Houston. There was plenty to go around last year, and there isn't any reason that won't be the case this year.
If Johnson weren't holding out right now, he'd be my third player on the board. As it stands, you can't take him when you have options like Foster, Rice and Jamaal Charles available.
Even with Ricky Williams stealing goal-line carries, I expect a career year for Rice. Last year was a slight disappointment for Rice, as he ran for fewer yards despite getting more carries, caught 15 fewer passes and scored just six times. He did, however, play some of his best football down the stretch while carrying a huge workload. His final three games included a 233-total-yard outburst against the Saints and 82 total touches, quieting those who doubted his durability. He's one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL, making him a near lock for 1,800 total yards, even if he has to continue scoring from distance.
Charles and Rice are almost mirror images of each other in stature, style and circumstance. They're both smallish backs with explosive speed who do a ton of damage in the passing game and are a threat to score every time they get their hands on the ball. They both have veteran, goal-line vultures stealing some of their fantasy value. I prefer Rice because the Ravens are a much better team than the Chiefs, who fluked their way to the 2010 AFC West crown. When all else is equal, give me the guy who plays for a winner. He's likely to be in a better fantasy environment. We know Charles is going to be a yardage beast, with 2,000 yards from scrimmage squarely in his sights. We also know that we can't expect any more than 10 touchdowns as long as he isn't getting goal-line carries.
As for Turner, don't let the name brand fool you. He's a non-factor in the passing game and the greatest injury risk in the first round this side of Michael Vick.
We've settled on a consensus top five with the only argument being where each guy is ranked. Due to his holdout, Johnson is fifth for me. How many backs in the NFL would jump at the chance to call 1,364 rushing yards, 245 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns a down year? That sound you heard was every back in the league raising his hand. Johnson also dealt with dysfunction under center all year long, something that shouldn't be a problem with steady Matt Hasselbeck in Nashville. The Titans feature one of the league's better offensive lines, and new head coach Mike Munchak has been running that line since 1997. As I said earlier, if not for his holdout, Johnson would be third for me.
The only thing that kept Johnson from his third straight season with at least 100 catches, and likely 1,500 receiving yards, was an ankle injury that caused him to miss three games. Still, he caught 86 passes for 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns. Extrapolate that to 16 games, and he finishes the year with 104 catches, 1,507 yards and nine or 10 touchdowns, depending on your rounding style. One of the more surprising facts of the last decade is that Johnson has never had more than nine touchdowns in a season. Receiving scores are among the most volatile stats in the game, and for a player with Johnson's unique abilities, that is bound to change. This is the year he finally gets the double-digit TD monkey off his back.
There are plenty of toys for Vick to play with in Philly, but McCoy is his most dangerous weapon. In his second year out of Pittsburgh, McCoy gained nearly 1,700 yards from scrimmage and caught 78 passes, most in the league among running backs. He had just seven carries at the goal-line, and the Eagles brought in Ronnie Brown, but McCoy is a constant factor thanks to his ability as a pass-catcher. His status as Vick's favorite outlet keeps him in the game when the Eagles are deep in the red zone, as well.
I'd stay away from McFadden here mainly because he's McCoy Light. If you're thinking McFadden, you might as well go McCoy.
We talked about Turner as an injury risk earlier, but this is an acceptable spot for him. He's still the workhorse back on one of the league's best teams, and they will turn to him to ice plenty of games this season. He's still a zero in the passing game, which limits his upside, but 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns is a safe floor.
Like Turner earlier, don't be fooled by the MJD name. He's still a borderline first-round talent, but his knee remains an issue.
The true workhorse back is a dying breed in the NFL, but Mendenhall is keeping the tradition alive in Pittsburgh. The Steelers fed him the ball 324 times last year, which he turned into 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's the unquestioned guy at the goal-line, and he has played all 32 games the last two years after breaking a shoulder his rookie year. His 23 goal-line carries last season were among the league leaders.
There are seven quarterbacks who could conceivably end the year as the No. 1 QB. You shouldn't pay such a high premium to get one when you can wait another 40 or so picks and get Philip Rivers or Tony Romo.
McFadden put it all together last year after struggling in his first two seasons. He racked up 1,157 yards with 5.2 yards per carry while catching 47 passes for 507 yards. He led the league with 14 runs of 20 yards or more, showcasing his home-run ability. Michael Bush will once again vulture the short-yardage touchdowns, but McFadden is a great pick at the back end of the first round.
With backs like McFadden, Jones-Drew, and Matt Forte on the board, you have to pass on Gore. He's simply too injury prone to count on this high.
If Matthew Stafford could just stay healthy ... We've still yet to see what Megatron can do with a competent quarterback playing 16 games (although Shaun Hill played better than most realize last year). Johnson's physical traits are on par with Andre Johnson's, as he puts size, speed and strength together into a scary package. There really isn't a reason for him to have a career-high of 78 receptions. A monster year is coming.
I'm very high on Fitzgerald with Kevin Kolb in Arizona, but I can't put him ahead of either of the Johnson boys. Fitz is an early second rounder, in my opinion.
In standard-scoring leagues, Jones-Drew averaged 14.3 points per game, which comes in at eight among running backs. His touchdown total plummeted to seven, but he still managed to rack up 1,641 yards from scrimmage. He'll have to deal with Rashad Jennings, but Jones-Drew's demise in the minds of fantasy pundits feels overstated. He remains worthy of a first-round selection.
Even for an anti-quarterback zealot like myself, I admit we're getting close to QB territory. With that said, the first signal callers off the board should be Rodgers and Vick, in that order. Brees will get plenty of attention thanks to his reputation, but I'd rather have Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers.