July 26, 2012

There's no better way to ruin your fantasy football enjoyment from September through December than with a misstep in the first few rounds of your August draft. Fantasy football success is all about mitigating risk and hoarding superstars. All too often fantasy owners are blinded by upside in the first few rounds of their draft, instead of focusing on the most valuable asset a top pick brings to the table: a high floor. The first two or three picks isn't the time to screw around with upside. It's hard enough to win a fantasy football league, with the vagaries of injuries and scheduling. It becomes damn near impossible if you misfire with one or more of your first three or four picks.

While that's a simple concept around which to wrap your head, it's much more challenging to actually spot those land mines before the fact. After all, going into 2011, Michael Vick, Rashard Mendenhall and Reggie Wayne all looked like bankable stars. Identifying the players who will go in the early rounds of every single fantasy draft but won't provide the return on investment could be the difference between a fantasy championship and turning your mental calendar to 2013 before Halloween.

To be clear, there comes a time when I would take each and every one of these guys, and it might not be that much later than their average draft position. I just wouldn't expect any of them to be available at a time when I'm comfortable calling their names. Let's take a look at the players you'll want to sidestep...

Chris Johnson, Titans -- Everywhere I look, I see Johnson ranked very high, and I still can't figure it out. According to the indispensable guys over at FantasyPros, Johnson is sixth running back in the composite rankings of 86 experts, immediately ahead of Darren McFadden and Matt Forte. Johnson got off to a brutal start after his holdout and, despite a nice stretch from Weeks 10 through 13, he never really got it going. I was willing to overlook the slow start and chalk it up to his holdout, but that was contingent on him putting up the numbers we're accustomed to seeing from him over the second half of the year, especially the season's last few weeks. Instead, Johnson sputtered down the stretch, rushing for just 195 yards on 56 carries and zero touchdowns his last four games. To be fair, he caught 17 passes in that time, but he needs to produce more on the ground if he's going to be a first-round pick this year.

Tennessee looks like an offense in flux, especially if Jake Locker takes over as the starter. While fantasy owners shouldn't put too much stock into strength of schedule, the Titans do play the NFC North and AFC East this year, two divisions that should feature strong defenses. There are just too many question marks to take Johnson over McFadden, Forte, Larry Fitzgerald, Trent Richardson, Drew Brees or Tom Brady.

Victor Cruz, Giants -- This one hurts, because Cruz was easily my team MVP last year in the league I care about more than any other. Still, the wide receiver/salsa dancer is being treated as a top-20 pick, and I simply don't see him justifying that draft spot. Another grave mistake too commonly made by fantasy owners is chasing last year's stats. Cruz thrived in the slot last year, and indications are the Giants will line him up out wide more often this season with Mario Manningham now in San Francisco. I'm also wary of a guy who lacks a track record going so high. That appears a bit contradictory to "don't chase last year's stats," but the foundation of a multi-year track record is a rock for fantasy owners to lean on, not the same as chasing a career year, which can often be the result of good fortune. The Giants as a whole also played as an elite offense last year, despite a 9-7 record, and their ridiculous late season and playoff run has them a bit overrated going into the season, in my opinion. I'm expecting a step back for this entire offense, and Cruz will be held down by that. Give me Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Wes Welker and Mike Wallace over him.

Jimmy Graham, Saints -- I understand that I'm going to be mostly alone on this one, and after Graham's huge 2011 season and the emergence of the new-age tight end, I can't say I necessarily blame those of you who disagree with me. Having said that, Graham is going in the mid-second round, comfortably inside the top-20, and that makes no sense to me. Let's start out with the obvious. The absence of Sean Payton will have an adverse effect on this team. Yes, Drew Brees is as steady a hand to guide the ship as the Saints could hope for, but this is an offense designed and implemented by Payton. Without him on the sidelines making changes on the fly, they necessarily have to take a step back. It's also his play design that helped get Graham singled up on linebackers who don't have the speed to keep up with him, and safeties for whom he's far too strong. Like the Giants, I'm expecting a step back for this team as a whole. Is Graham still a strong fantasy pick? Yes. Is he still my second-ranked tight end behind Rob Gronkowski? Sure is. Is he a mid-second rounder? Absolutely not, especially when guys like all the receivers listed above plus running backs like DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles will likely be available.

Andre Johnson, Texans -- We know Johnson is a beast who is one of the league's most dangerous receivers. We also know that expecting him to play 16 games is folly. Again, the top of a fantasy draft is all about mitigating risk. You need to lock in certain statistical floors, and Johnson, now 31-years old, does not bring that to the table given his extensive injury history. Even when he was healthy last year, Johnson wasn't putting up the stats he usually does. He caught 33 passes for 492 yards and two touchdowns in seven games. His 70.3 yards-per-game was his lowest per-game average since 2005, his third year in the league. He also got just 4.1 yards-after-catch, the third-lowest total of his career. While receivers regularly remain effective well into their 30s, Johnson appears to be entering the downside of his career. That's not the type of guy you want to take at his current average draft position. According to Mock Draft Central, his current ADP is ahead of Greg Jennings, McFadden and Forte in expert drafts, which is lunacy. I'd also rather have Welker and Wallace ahead of him.

Michael Turner, Falcons -- 376, 178, 334, 301. Those are Turner's carries for the last four years, with the 178 coming in his injury-shortened 2009 season. That's a tough workload for any NFL running back, and Turner is now entering his age-30 season, typically the year when running backs start to show the wear and tear. After going 13-3 in 2010 and getting into the playoffs thanks largely to a weak schedule last year, the Falcons look like one of the textbook teams set for a tumble down the standings, and that generally exacts its greatest fantasy toll on a team's running back. Turner's a total non-factor in the passing game, a skill that's becoming a necessity for running backs rather than a luxury. Turner has an average draft position of 19.25 in all drafts and 31 in expert drafts, which is expecting him to be the same back he has been his entire Atlanta tenure. If you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.

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