With fantasy draft season upon us, the group tackles a few of the toughest decisions owners face in building their teams.
1. How much does Chris Johnson's holdout concern you?
Will Carroll: It worries me in that he seems serious about not playing. There's some relationship between holdouts and injuries, but Johnson's lack of relationship with his new QB and new coaching staff worries me a bit more. I know Mike Munchak's been there and it doesn't take a genius to see what Johnson can do, but I worry that seeing Javon Ringer -- the guy that the Titans chose over LeGarrette Blount last year -- could split some of the carries off. I don't see Johnson getting the same touches he did last year, which is bad from a fantasy standpoint but maybe good from an injury view.
Gary Gramling: Not enough to panic. There's a clear drop-off after the top four -- FYI, Jamaal Charles isn't one of the top four -- and considering his schedule CJ's ceiling is so far through the roof that it warrants a nonsensical turn of phrase like "ceiling through the roof." If your league does in-season playoffs, Johnson gets Indy and Jacksonville in Weeks 15 and 16. You could play only Johnson and have a chance to win. But if he's still holding out on your draft day, consider him the No. 4 pick since you'll have to burn a fifth- or sixth-rounder on Ringer.
Eric Mack: Enough to consider Ringer and rookie Jamie Harper in the late rounds right now. Johnson was going to be a candidate to compete for No. 1 with Adrian Peterson. Now, you might be able to get Johnson after the top 5. Both sides want to make a deal, so his holdout might only benefit those with the third-to-ninth overall pick.
David Sabino: Quite a bit, especially this season when teams have such a limited amount of time to put their systems in place. Holdouts have a history of being plagued by nagging injuries upon their returns, and with a speed back like CJ, a nagging groin or hamstring could really be detrimental. I dropped him down a couple of notches prior to the prolonged holdout, but he was clearly one of the elite four. The longer the holdout goes, the riskier picking him becomes.
2. Who will come out of obscurity to become a star, such as Arian Foster last season?
Carroll: I like guys in systems -- plug and play, like Foster was last year. That means I won't look too far. I like Ben Tate. If he could stay healthy, he's as good a talent as Foster and I worry about Foster's ability to stay healthy this season.
Gramling: On the light sleeper list, Felix Jones. I swear this is the first year I've recommended him, but it's become a full-on infatuation since the spring. He's a steal outside the top 50. If you're going deep, I like Jacquizz Rodgers. I'd be surprised if Michael Turner makes it through the season healthy, and Jason Snelling isn't an every down back. Rodgers fits the bill of a Foster-type, productive in college but his draft stock tumbled because of subpar measurables. As far as his durability goes, his size (5-6, 196 lbs.) actually plays in his favor. He doesn't have that Maurice Jones-Drew legs-like-Mr. Tumnus thing going, but Rodgers is too small and slippery to get a clean, solid hit on him. He can handle a three-down role.
Mack: Well, Foster wasn't exactly out of nowhere last season. He was picked around Round 5 or 6 in drafts after Ben Tate's season-ending injury. That puts Foster roughly in the range where Felix Jones is going. Jones is an elite talent in a promising situation. He could rise up for 1,000 yards and 10 TDs, making him a great value relative to draft position.
Sabino: Last year, Foster, Peyton Hillis and Blount all were in perfect situations to succeed due to various factors. This year, I don't think we're going to see anyone of Foster's degree emerge. One player who could put up big numbers is the Lions' second-year back Jahvid Best, who will be the main ball carrier and force out of the backfield for one of the league's up-and-coming offenses. Fully recovered from the turf toe that plagued him as a rookie, Best got a boost from the season-ending Achilles tear for rookie Mickel Leshoure, which left only retreads Maurice Morris, Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell as challengers for workload.
3. Who's the best pick after the top-five tailback run ends?
Carroll: It's easy to say Maurice Jones-Drew or Rashard Mendenhall here, but I'm going with Aaron Rodgers. It's a dangerous strategy at 6, but Rodgers is going to put up huge, huge points and in a 10 team league, the RBs available on the turn will be guys like Ahmad Bradshaw, Matt Forte and Steven Jackson. I like the Rodgers-RB combo better than I do going Jones-Drew and a WR ... and I say this seeing lots of value in Ryan, Bradford, and a couple other mid-round QBs.
Gramling: I give Mendenhall a slight edge over LeSean McCoy. And I'd take both of them over Jamaal Charles (more on that later; really building up the suspense here). The Steelers are opening up the offense with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, and Mendenhall's role as a receiver should grow. Factor in an easier schedule (aside from two games against Baltimore, there's no one to fear) and you're looking at a potential 15-TD season.
Mack: Initially it was LeSean McCoy without question, but Ronnie Brown's post-lockout signing makes him a bit less intriguing compared to the likes of a Mendenhall, who doesn't quite have the same competition for touches. We could see McCoy give way to Brown late in blowouts, because Brown is more of a pounder, grind-out-the-clock back. The answer remains McCoy over Mendenhall, but barely.
Sabino: In PPR leagues I have to go with Darren McFadden, who quietly had a breakout year last season and is one of the top five guys in total yards from scrimmage. In non-PPR leagues I like Michael Turner, who is one of the league's worst pass catchers out of the backfield but is a consistent runner who'll score a lot in the Falcons improved attack.
4. Player who scares you the most?
Carroll: Michael Vick. He's not big, he's not that smart, and whether you believe he's changed off the field, he hasn't on the field. He got lucky that it was just a bruise last year. If he loses a knee or an ankle, his value goes to zero quickly.
Gramling: Jamaal Charles. I've been avoiding him like Albert Haynesworth steers clear of leafy greens. I don't think people realize how soft the Chiefs' schedule was last year. They had four games against the Girl Scouts of America! Oh wait, that was the NFC West. Regardless, K.C. will have it so much tougher in 2011, and they did nothing to improve the offense (gimpy Steve Breaston? Brawlin' Jon Baldwin?). I've got Charles at No. 8 overall on my draft board. It's downright un-American to take him in front of Foster/Rice/Peterson.
Mack: Vick. He scares for injury risk as much as he scares opposing defensive coordinators. It is based on the premium pick it takes to get Vick on draft day and the widespread expectation he won't play 16 games. He just plays so aggressively and leaves himself vulnerable to hits other quarterbacks taken in his range -- Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady -- don't absorb on a drive-to-drive basis.
Sabino: I've been worried about Peyton Manning since the lockout. The shroud of mystery surrounding his injury and rehab doesn't lend itself to confidence that you're going to be able to get top-three-round productivity from him this year. I have him sixth among QBs and the longer the saga drags on the more his place above the likes of next tier guys like Matt Schaub and Tony Romo is in jeopardy.
5. Which rookie is in the best position to contribute?
Carroll: Everyone may disagree, but I think it's Cam Newton. He's on a bad team and he might be better served to watch for a year, but he's not getting paid to watch Derek Anderson. If he's behind a lot or forced to run more, it's good for his fantasy numbers. I think he's Vick with the size to take hits. Given no other great options, I think coach Ron Rivera's going to have to turn him loose.
Gramling: Mark Ingram, but only by default. He's being overdrafted. He's a committee back on a pass-first team. I like Daniel Thomas, but it seems like the Dolphins want him to be a battering ram. Despite his size, that's not his game (he has passing-game skills and a better leg drive, but his style is very Ron Dayne). I bet he's in and out of the doghouse all season. I'd spend a late-round flier on Quizz Rodgers, and I reserved my spot on the Lance Kendricks bandwagon back in May. Grab him as a second tight end.
Mack: Ingram is still behind Pierre Thomas on the depth chart, but remember Charles doesn't technically start over Thomas Jones either. Few are balking at Charles in the top five picks in fantasy. Ingram is going to take off for the Saints and no other rookie -- amid Daniel Thomas' mediocre preseason -- looks to be close.
Sabino: Atlanta wideout Julio Jones, hands down. He's more than just an alternative to Roddy White in the Falcons offense. Reports on Jones have been outstanding in every aspect since he's joined the team. Although he plays a position that usually doesn't produce many rookie studs, he's in the perfect situation to learn the NFL game from the likes of White, Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez while starting from Day 1 for a team poised to take a major step forward in the passing game.
6. Player poised for a bounce-back season?
Carroll: Matthew Stafford. I can't believe he's so fragile that he'll break down a third year. All he has to do is be upright to be a second tier QB
Gramling: I think DeAngelo Williams, and the Panthers in general, will surprise this year. Sure, Newton isn't going to throw for 3,000 yards, but at least there will be a second guy on the field defenses need to worry about, you know, tackling and stuff. Williams should get back to 1,500 scrimmage yards with 8-10 TDs.
Mack: Plaxico Burress is going get the thoughts of the NFL mainstream, but in fantasy we should go with Ryan Mathews. Technically, to bounce back you would have had to already had your best foot forward. Mathews hasn't but he still surged in the first round in some drafts last preseason. He is still downgraded with Mike Tolbert taking the tough yards and goal-line carries, but Mathews still is a breakout talent on the verge of fantasy awesomeness.
Sabino: The Cardinals quarterback situation was so dire last season that arguably the most skilled receiver in the league was easily neutralized. Now with Kevin Kolb -- granted, not the second-coming of Dan Marino, but certainly an NFL-caliber passer -- at the helm, we'll see Larry Fitzgerald return to the ranks of the elite wideouts.
1. Who should be the No. 1 pick?
Carroll: Jamaal Charles. I like the opportunities, the surrounding personnel, and the upside. He's STILL not a feature back making 25 carries and he's still in this discussion.
Gramling: It's Arian Foster. Clearly. People get caught up in the "No. 1 never repeats" fallacy, but that's talking Foster vs. the field. There's no one you can logically argue should go before him. He's a true three-down back in an explosive offense, and there's no running back on Houston's roster threatening for a bigger role.
Mack: Adrian Peterson All Day, which just happens to be his nickname. Brett Favre's disaster last season ruined the Vikings, which is about the only reason Peterson isn't a unanimous No. 1. He should be, particularly since he is in a contract year and is the clear focal point of his offense. You cannot say that for anyone else -- even Foster (deals with that passing game and the Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson connection).
Sabino: Charles. He finished second in the league in rushing last season and he's poised to see a significant increase in the number of touches as Thomas Jones' role continues to diminish. The other three candidates all have other factors that could curtail their production: Peterson could see defenses stacked against him should McNabb go down; Foster will suffer from the loss of Vonta Leach at fullback and the return of Owen Daniels will take away some red zone opportunities; and Johnson is already behind because of his holdout and faces stacked defenses if Matt Hasselbeck gets hurt.)
2. What quarterback should be drafted first: Vick or Rodgers?
Carroll: Rodgers -- see above.
Gramling: Vick. Yes, you'll have to hold your breath every time he takes off, but his ceiling is too high.
Mack: No way should Vick be the No. 1 quarterback. The only real debate is whether it should be Rodgers or Tom Brady. This guy is one of the few that goes with Brady. Sure, Rodgers didn't have Jermichael Finley a year ago. But Brady outscored him last year and his receiving corps added Chad Ochocinco, gets Wes Welker another year removed from major knee surgery, a full preseason and year with hook-up buddy Deion Branch and has the emerging talents of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Tate. That Pats offense will be impossible to game plan for, stop or even slow down.
Sabino: In a perfect, injury-free world, it would be Vick, who is the most dangerous two-way weapon we've seen since Steve Young, but his habit of getting hit hard at the end of long runs makes him just enough of an injury risk to give the edge to Rodgers and the vast arsenal of receiving talent he has surrounding him.
3. The first wide receiver: Andre Johnson or Roddy White?
Carroll: White. Johnson needs everyone else to be healthy while White has as good a supporting cast and one that's more durable. With Jones and Gonzalez, I'm not sure how you double White like teams did last year.
Gramling: Edge to Johnson. The Falcons added Julio Jones and get Harry Douglas back. That's a few too many targets on a team that's relatively run-heavy anyway.
Mack: Johnson is the consensus pick, but the top three receivers are pretty interchangeable, which includes Calvin Johnson working with the emerging Stafford. The top of the position shuffles every year. Heck, Brandon Lloyd was the No. 1 fantasy receiver a year ago. Larry Fitzgerald is a sneaky pick for the No. 1 receiver by the time 2011 is over. The injury risk never seems to go away, but Johnson has the highest ceiling going into the season, so he is No. 1 for now.
Sabino: There's no way White's going to approach the catch total he put up last year while running across the field from Michael Jenkins, who's biggest asset was as a blocker. Over the last three years nobody has more yards than Johnson, and only Wes Welker has more catches. Johnson is as consistent as they come.
4. Who is the best WR on the next level behind the elite: Hakeem Nicks or Larry Fitzgerald?
Carroll: Fitzgerald. When did Nicks become elite? Is anyone talking about Eli Manning as an elite QB? I know Kolb's not either, but Fitzgerald's been pretty good with scrap heap guys. Kolb's going to at least be league average.
Gramling: Fitz. How else are the Cardinals going to move the ball: Beanie Wells' two yards and a cloud of dust? And I always worry about Manning after Halloween. He struggles when the weather gets colder, making Nicks a prime suspect for a late-season fade.
Mack: Initially Nicks was ranked here above Fitzgerald. A decent quarterback in Kevin Kolb upgrades Fitzgerald to the verge of the top three. In fact, Fitzgerald is a decent bet to wind up the highest-scoring receiver in fantasy. Jump back on the Fitzgerald bandwagon.
Sabino: This is a trick question since Nicks is the best next level wideout. Fitzgerald and Detroit's Calvin Johnson are already a level above, along with Johnson atop the wideout heap.
5. Who leads the next tier of running backs: Rashard Mendenhall or Darren McFadden?
Carroll: Mendenhall. I worry about Mendenhall's workload, but McFadden is fragile.
Gramling: Mendenhall by a mile. There's a lot of changeover on the O-line in front of McFadden, not to mention a new blocking scheme. It's not a coincidence that the Raiders averaged 93.8 rushing yards per game with power blocking in the four years before Tom Cable arrived, and 129.2 yards per game zone-blocking during Cable's four-year stint. Al Davis never cared for this fangled new blocking style (and don't even get him started on those kids and their rappin' rap music), so back to the power scheme it is. Plus, at this point, expecting McFadden to play 16 games is the definition of insanity.
Mack: The knock on McFadden is not talent; it is the shaky supporting cast. A bad quarterback -- and Jason Campbell still is one -- ruins an offense, a team and a season. The Raiders got by a year ago, but there were a number of reasons is took McFadden so many years to prove product for fantasy owners. The likes of busts like JaMarcus Russell is the leading reason. The Raiders could really crash and burn all over again. Mendenhall is a pretty safe bet to be the ground-pounder in a consistent Ben Roethlisberger offense.
Sabino: Despite two poor seasons and a growing injury history, I still lean toward McFadden, although there's certainly nothing wrong with Mendenhall. Call it personal preference.
6. Which young QB will make the biggest leap forward: Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman or Matthew Stafford?
Carroll: I love Bradford, but I'll take any of these guys, and that's why I question rating Rodgers so high. Then I remember how good Rodgers is and I'm back in my happy place.
Gramling: I'm not thrilled about any of them, but Freeman has the best combination of talent and supporting cast. Bradford's breakout comes in 2012; it's too much for him to run a new offense successfully with this St. Louis receiving corps (I don't understand why they don't just try to coax Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson out of retirement). Stafford's too risky, both because of the injuries and a tough 2011 schedule.
Mack: It will be next to impossible for Freeman to be better than he was as a sophomore last year. Stafford has Megatron, which gives him a perceived edge over Bradford, but the Rams sophomore looks like the real thing. He also has an insanely deep group of receivers to spread the ball around. You have no idea who the primary target is for the Rams. It should be a wide-open year for him behind the new offensive guru Josh McDaniels. Freeman and Stafford will go off the board first, but Bradford has the higher ceiling and the potential to be big time among these relative fantasy backup QBs.
Sabino: Tough choice. Stafford has the most balanced offense and the most spectacular weapons but hasn't been able to stay on the field enough to be more than a QB2. Once the rest of his offensive teammates are upgraded, Bradford may be a No. 1 overall fantasy quarterback, but not yet. So this year I'll go with Freeman, who is improving, has two potentially great receivers (Mike Williams, Kellen Winslow), and seemingly gets better with each week he plays.