NFL fantasy roundtable: Top picks, busts, breakouts, more predictions
With baseball on hiatus thanks to the All-Star break, the SI Fantasy Roundtable takes a look at the coming football season.
1. Who's the No. 1 pick this year?
Will Carroll: For the first time in a while, I don't think there's an easy answer. There's a handful of RBs who are worthy picks, but I'm going to stretch just a bit and make people think about my No. 1 -- Adrian Peterson. Yes, he's coming off knee surgery, but he's been ahead of schedule and 80 percent of Peterson is better than most backs. It's possible that he could be just as much of the Vikings offense, since they didn't really upgrade back there. That helps and hurts him, but I think that absent the injury, Peterson would be right up there. I can see Ray Rice or LeSean McCoy, but too many people are taking Peterson (long, known track record) behind Arian Foster (still developing track record).
Eric Mack: Since you shouldn't pick a quarterback, outside the rarest of leagues, you need to limit your choices to Foster, McCoy or Rice. Any of the three would be a great option, but Foster is the one with the highest ceiling and the one that has been there before. Before the Texans met the Ravens in the postseason a year ago, this writer said whichever back between Foster or Rice performs better against the opposing elite defense should be the No. 1 pick this August. That should be adhered to. Despite losing the game, Foster rushed for 132 yards against a still-vaunted Ravens run defense. He is the most explosive fantasy back in football, even if Ben Tate cuts into his production some.
David Sabino: Despite the pronounced trend that has the passing game at the forefront of NFL fantasy play, there's still no better asset than a full-time, double-threat running back. This year there are three clear candidates for the top job: Foster, McCoy and Rice and all are worthy of being 1A, 1B, and 1C. Foster seems to be the consensus choice to lead off straight drafts, but I'm going a bit against the grain and choosing Rice, who is coming off of a season during which he gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 15 touchdowns. The Ravens entire team revolves around a strong defense and running game, and Rice, 25, is not only the centerpiece of the offense, he's the only real rushing threat on the team, virtually guaranteeing that (barring injury) he'll be among the league leaders in touches and touchdowns from scrimmage and really has no negatives. Foster, on the other hand, has to contend with a history of injuries and the presence of Ben Tate to take away carries and yards, especially in games that get out of hand. McCoy has to play with Michael Vick, who is just as likely to call his own number on offense, and a stronger understudy group that includes Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown and possibly undrafted free agent Chris Polk. Again, all of them are worthy of the top spot, but I favor Rice.
2. What fantasy star has you worried most this season?
Carroll: Cam Newton. He goes from no expectations -- if that's possible for a 1-1 -- to a superstar in two weeks, but the team stinks, so it's all him. People have seen him now and won't be caught off guard. Can he adjust? Is the work ethic there? He had a quiet offseason. I'm also a bit curious about his shoes. He's wearing a new UnderArmour product, a boot that is light but very high. I can't remember a player going into a season with a nearly completely untested piece of equipment like that. The change could be anything from great to terrible to no real effect, but it shows you just how closely people are watching Newton this year. That said, I think his upside is so huge that he's probably my fourth or fifth QB off the board.
Mack: Probably Peyton Manning, because the offseason hype of his move to Denver keeps his name in the news, but his age and injury risk makes him a dangerous proposition all over again. You probably shouldn't pick Manning among the top eight quarterbacks, if not 12, in fantasy; yet, a healthy preseason will certainly lead to someone picking him among the elite options at the position. He might play a full season, but there are no guarantees he performs anywhere close to his prior NFL MVP level, particularly outside that Indy dome and in those brutal Colorado winter Sundays.
Sabino: Nobody knows how Manning will react in his return from neck surgery that sidelined him for all of 2011 while playing with a completely different cast of characters in Denver, but that's cherry picking. A less obvious choice that has me concerned and quite skeptical is the darling of the offseason, Ryan Mathews. There's been a full-on assault of glowing reports on him, ranging from him leading the league in carries and challenging 2,000 yards to being the second coming of Emmitt Smith in Norv Turner's offense. The praise is all well and good during the spring, but he has carried the ball over 20 times in just seven of his 26 career games, cracking the 100-yard mark in just five. He has yet to catch an NFL touchdown, and last I checked, Philip Rivers still likes to throw more than he likes to hand the ball off, especially when Antonio Gates is healthy. So I'm not sure Mathews will get the work that's been projected for him. Even if he does, there has been little indication that he can handle it, especially as someone with a checkered injury history who no longer has a bruiser like Mike Tolbert to take the crushing blows in short yardage for him.
3. Who has the potential to be the biggest breakout?
Carroll: Call me crazy, but I think Jake Locker could be a sleeper. The base skills are there, the opportunity is there, and the team around him should be pretty good. What I think people forget is that he -- like Newton -- is big and mobile. He could run and actually be the "big back" to Chris Johnson's "speed back." I don't think he's going to be great or bust out like Newton, but a TD here or there on top of solid numbers is a good late-round pick. I also love Julio Jones and AJ Green, as well as Coby Fleener in PPR leagues.
Mack: Robert Griffin III is entering the league on the heels of the greatest rookie season in fantasy history, that of Cam Newton, the player to whom he is most often compared. You have to consider RGIII the greatest potential breakout candidate for that reason alone. His ceiling, when compared to Newton, is extremely high. If you want a lower-tier option who carries significantly less risk of being a bust, go with a Joe Flacco, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones or Mark Ingram. These are elite talents who haven't shown their best yet, and this very well could be their year. We might have suggested RGIII's fellow rookie Trent Richardson, and the promise of a heavy workload has him getting picked in Round 1 in some early drafts. That is just setting the bar too high and putting Richardson closer to the potential bust category than breakout.
Sabino: This one's easy and brings us back to Denver, where Demaryius Thomas is a superstar waiting to happen with Manning. Look at what he was able to accomplish with Tim Tebow at QB, with whom he consistently got behind secondaries for long touchdowns, including the 80-yard OT game-winner to end the Steelers 2011 season. Thomas has been healthy all offseason and has been a full participant in Manning's boot camp. He's also been training with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Stephen Hill and Cam Newton at Georgia Tech. He has the potential to have a Victor Cruz-like breakthrough and should be a starting WR every week in every league.
4. What strategy do you follow in building a team?
Carroll: I'm pretty traditional in what I want, but I'm not married to any construction orthodoxy. I lean to QB a bit earlier than most and I'm probably going to go WR a bit earlier than most as well. I want to focus on touches for everyone. I want the most scoring opportunities, period, and the best way is to have the ball. I want the red zone guys, the guys who get the most targets (whether their team is good or not), and the guys who are durable. Once I get past that, I go for upside guys, flexibility guys, but I always default back to "who gets the ball more?"
Mack: Every draft is different. Generally, waiting on the QB position and loading up on backs and receivers is the most common path to take. With that said, it becomes difficult if everyone is following those same rules. You then have to change it up, take an elite quarterback in the latter part of Round 1 or during Round 2 and then backfill your running back position with strength in numbers. With the modern NFL limiting the number of workhorse backs and increasing the committees, the latter strategy is become more commonplace. If you see a number of quarterbacks and receivers going in Round 1, it is back to the traditional strategy again. Be prepared to adjust on the fly and don't fall in love with any one way to rule a fantasy football draft.
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