The following countdown touts my personal vision of a 'Best-Case Scenario' draft, Rounds 1-16, involving 12-team leagues and standard-scoring rules.
A few important notes here:
1. Draft slot wasn't a big factor, although I'd ideally want each of the 16 assets at the top of their respective rounds.
2. My value picks are exclusively coming off Mock Draft Central's current Average Draft Position rankings (sign-up required).
3. I was obligated to draft five running backs, five wide receivers, two quarterbacks, two tight ends, one kicker and one defense/special teams.
4. I made a concerted effort to keep the draft balanced in the first eight rounds, with one QB, one tight end and three tailbacks and receivers apiece.
5. As you'll see with Fred Jackson (leg) and Ryan Mathews (collarbone), I'm not afraid to invest high picks on mild injury risks. However, I do draw the line on players still recovering from torn ACLs.
6. I reserve the right to alter my selections after the original posting date...just in case Maurice Jones-Drew continues his contract holdout past Sept. 1.
Enjoy the show!
Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's reigning rushing king, has slumped to Round 2 in most fantasy drafts—the result of a contract dispute with Jaguars management.
The following countdown touts my personal vision of a 'Best-Case Scenario' draft, Rounds 1-16, involving 12-team leagues and standard-scoring rules.
2011 Stats: 1,853 Yards Passing, 13 TD (0 Rushing)
Average Draft Position: 231st overall
Skinny: It's hard to recap Christian Ponder's rookie season without referencing the ugly finish (96 combined passing yards for Weeks 16 and 17).
But all in all, Ponder exhibited some flashes of real-world and fantasy goodness in his first go-round against NFL defenses.
Five consecutive games of at least one touchdown pass (Weeks 11-15). One outing of 395 total yards and three touchdowns (vs. Denver), and not one four-interception clunker on the resume.
Is that enough for Ponder to warrant a top-20 ranking at his position? Eh, probably not. But I have faith in Minnesota's Big Four of Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Toby Gerhart and Jerome Simpson enhancing Ponder's stock.
I also have faith in this: Ponder has a golden opportunity to post stellar stats in the first five games (Jaguars, Colts, 49ers, Lions, Titans), including a tough Week 3 home matchup with San Francisco (playing from behind).
Bottom line: Assuming full health for our No. 1 quarterback (hint: he plays in the NFC North), Ponder would only get one crack at starting for this squad (Week 10).
A nice safety net with tangible upside.
2011 Stats: 19-of-25 Field Goals, 30 PAT
Average Draft Position: 209th overall
3-Year Track Record: 65-of-78 Field Goals
Skinny: Contrary to public opinion, it was Matt Prater—and not Tim Tebow—who nailed the 59-yard field goal to force overtime in the Broncos' Week 14 win over the Bears last year.
It was also Prater who only had the chance to attempt two or more field goals seven times last season...meaning he endured nine regular-season games of zero or one attempt.
Bottom line: With Peyton Manning now running the show in Denver, I have 100 percent confidence that Prater will log more than 19 field goals and 25 attempts in 2012.
Defensive TD: 5
Kick/Punt-Return TD: 2
Fumble Recoveries: 7
Yards Allowed Per Game: 411.6
Skinny: The Packers defense may have drawn comparisons to Swiss cheese or Charmin's extra-soft toilet paper in real-world circles last season, but the fantasy outlook was much rosier.
In 2011, Green Bay was the only NFL team to boast 25 interceptions and at least five touchdowns from the defense or special teams; and all this occurred with only 29 cumulative sacks.
And in 2012, the club that already has Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, drafted six defenders with its first six picks (Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels, Jerron McMillian, Terrell Manning).
Bottom line: I would gladly grab the Packers D/ST (featuring kick returner Randall Cobb) in Round 14.
2011 Stats: 54 Catches, 528 Yards, 5 TD, 89 Targets
My Tight End Ranking: 17th
Skinny: In Week 10 against the Seahawks last year, Ed Dickson pulled off a 10-catch, 79-yard, two-TD heist, eliciting two hard questions that still haven't been answered:
a. Were Dickson's 14 targets the result of a game plan that didn't intentionally feature tailback Ray Rice (13 total touches)—or did the Ravens' early deficit prompt the heavy workload?
b. Was Dickson extra-motivated to perform well in Seattle, the closest NFL city to Eugene, Ore., home of his alma mater, the University of Oregon?
Last season, Dickson had four games of nine or more targets, the calling card of a physically gifted talent who's on the upswing.
Of equal importance, Dickson also crossed the acceptable threshold of five catches, 85 yards and/or one touchdown five times last year.
Verdict: Next August, we won't be discussing Dickson as a fantasy backup.
Skinny: When choosing a fifth running back in standard 12-team drafts, the rationale cuts one of two ways:
Either handcuff one of your top three backs with a first-, second- or third-year teammate who's trending upward (like Robert Turbin, Isaiah Pead, Jonathan Dwyer)...or splurge for a rusher with a high ceiling, who's also trapped in a running-back-by-committee situation.
In Mikel Leshoure's case, no current Lions rusher (not even a concussion-free Jahvid Best) can match Leshoure's power-speed combo.
Yes, he has yet to take one live snap in an NFL regular season game.
Yes, he'll serve a league-imposed drug suspension for Weeks 1 and 2.
And yes, Leshoure (1,893 total yards, 20 TD with the University of Illinois in 2010) only had a measly seven yards on six touches against the Raiders on Aug. 25. That said, he's still worth the low, low price of a Round 12 flier pick.
Bottom line: Leshoure—the single-game rushing record-holder at Wrigley Field (college or pro)—is still a good candidate for eight touchdowns in his de facto rookie season.
Maybe even double digits.
2011 Stats: 74 Catches, 1,023 Yards, 7 TD, 121 Targets
Average Draft Position: 121st overall
My Receiver Ranking: 25th
Skinny: Nate Washington tallied nine games of eight or more targets last year and had a bold finishing kick in the final seven games (35 catches, 522 yards, 6 TD).
He also crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 85 yards and/or one touchdown eight times.
With Kenny Britt back in the fold and lightning-fast rookie Kendall Wright vertically stretching the field on every passing play, I love Washington's chances of seldom getting double-teamed on standard down-and-distance situations.
And even if Britt (torn ACL last September) should miss a few games to injury or suspension in 2012, I'm supremely confident that Washington will carry the extra load.
In other words, last year was no fluke.
2011 Stats: 64 Catches, 975 Yards, 4 TD, 115 Targets
Average Draft Position: 111th overall
Skinny: Here are four ways to detail my fantasy fascination with Darrius Heyward-Bey:
1. Heyward-Bey racked up seven or more targets in 10 of his 14 games last year, including 17 in the finale against the Chargers. (DHB had nine catches for 130 yards and one TD on that day).
2. He crossed the elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one TD six times, or roughly 43 percent of his games.
3. DHB boasted separate four-game streaks of at least 70 yards (Weeks 4-7/Weeks 13-16).
4. In his six final games, with Carson Palmer as Oakland's quarterback, Heyward-Bey collected 60 targets and three touchdowns.
Bottom line: IF everything goes right, I'll own DHB in each of my 11 fantasy leagues. He's the 2012 symbol of latter-round gold.
2011 Stats: 1,395 Total Yards (977 Rushing), 8 TD
Average Draft Position: 101st overall
Skinny: If Michael Bush had signed with the Bengals or Packers during the offseason, he'd most certainly warrant a higher ranking in fantasy circles.
But as Matt Forte's backup in Chicago, I don't foresee Bush having many chances at 1,100 total yards by season's end, assuming full health for Forte.
On the flip side, since Forte has never been a beast in the red zone, Bush has a golden opportunity for eight touchdowns. After all, seven of his eight scores from last year (with Oakland) came from within three yards.
Bottom line: Bush is a certifiable must-handcuff to Forte on draft day...provided he's still on the board after Round 8. In a full-time scenario (Forte injury), he's a top-20 running back.
That's one heckuva security blanket for a Round 9 price.
2011 Stats: 62 Catches, 811 Yards, 5 TD, 97 Targets
Average Draft Position: 89th overall
My Tight End Ranking: 9th
Skinny: For the sake of convenience, let's ignore Brent Celek's de facto disappearance from the Eagles offense for Weeks 1-5 last season.
Instead, we'll focus on his top-10 production for Weeks 6-17—53 catches, 78 targets, 738 yards and five touchdowns.
In those final 10 games, Celek crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 75 yards and/or one touchdown eight times.
With Michael Vick starting at least 13 games this year (fingers crossed on 14-16), Celek would be a safe bet to match or eclipse his numbers from 2009 (76 catches, 971 yards, 8 TD).
If he should pull that off, the conservative ADP from above will look foolish by season's end.
2011 Stats: 81 Catches, 1,159 Yards, 5 TD, 142 Targets
Average Draft Position: 80th overall
Skinny: Citing mock drafts and the numerous publications devoted to this fantasy season, I'm sensing a general lack of respect for Dwayne Bowe's potential.
To counter that, I have no dissenting opinions of this supreme talent in his athletic prime. In fact, I may be Bowe's biggest fan among the guru circuit.
Last season, Bowe posted 10 games of nine-plus targets despite the club's injury-related problems at quarterback. That figure trumps the targets production of his 15-TD campaign in 2010.
In a four-week span with Matt Cassel at quarterback (Weeks 2-5 last year), Bowe also tallied 21 catches, 403 yards, four touchdowns and 34 targets.
Bottom line: Bowe has been remarkably consistent in targets, catches and receiving yards the last two seasons. The only wild momentum swing lies with touchdowns...and Bowe is a better bet for 15 TDs than five in 2012.
In other words, he'll be a Round 7 steal in 12-team leagues.
2011 Stats: 63 Catches, 859 Yards, 5 TD, 96 Targets
Average Draft Position: 62nd overall
Skinny: Jeremy Maclin is not a classic No. 1 receiver in standard-scoring or PPR circles.
He rarely collects nine targets or seven catches per game, and yet there are enough tangibles to believe a Year 4 breakout will occur.
Here's a big caveat, though—this pre-draft ranking will have little significance if Maclin doesn't tally at least eight touchdowns.
Extrapolating last year's stats, Maclin's 13-game numbers translated to 78 catches, 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tell me you wouldn't take that figure for this season, no questions asked?
2011 Stats: 68 Catches, 1,263 Yards, 15 TD, 96 Targets
Average Draft Postition: 49th overall
Skinny: Jordy Nelson crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one touchdown 10 times last season. He also recorded 10 games of six or more receiving targets.
And with four multiple-touchdown games last year, Nelson has a proven track record of carrying fantasy teams to victory in head-to-head matchups.
Bottom line: If Nelson can rack up double-digit touchdowns for back-to-back campaigns, he'll have no problem clinching a top-10 spot, among receivers, by season's end.
But here's the rub: On the heels of 15 out-of-nowhere TDs, Nelson might have to pay a Victor Cruz-like tax of mild disrespect heading into this season.
It's the prudent response for a player who posted five touchdowns of 50-plus yards last year—and yet had only one 10-target game and zero days of 10 or more receptions.
2011 Stats: 1,546 Total Yards (1,091 Rushing), 6 TD
Average Draft Position: 42nd overall
Skinny: This could be a defining season for Ryan Mathews, in terms of his capacity to fill the numbers void of Vincent Jackson (Tampa Bay) and Mike Tolbert (Carolina) leaving San Diego for greener pastures.
A healthy Mathews could notch 1,300 total yards in his sleep for the Chargers, but can he rack up double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career?
Can he produce long scoring runs or catches, fueling San Diego's need for a big-play, quick-strike attack? And can he be the week-in, week-out centerpiece of an offense that's developing largely untested wideouts on the fly?
There's a plausible reason why Mathews can be had in Round 4. His collarbone injury on Aug. 9 was one of the most significant fantasy-related occurrences of the preseason.
But the real question is this: Would you rather invest a Round 4 selection on an elite tailback who's returning from a collarbone injury, a torn ACL or high ankle sprain during training camp?
2011 Stats: 1,376 Total Yards (934 Rushing), 6 TD
Average Draft Position: 27th overall
Skinny: Fred Jackson was the AFC's leading rusher at the time of his season-ending injury (leg), a setback that helped perpetuate the Bills' late slide in 2011.
Backup C.J. Spiller filled the void admirably, leading some to wonder if he was finally ready to assume the No. 1 rushing duties.
That sounds great for offseason chatter, but Buffalo execs are probably more comfortable with a two-back attack, with Jackson having the bigger name on the marquee for now.
After all, that should always be a courtesy extended to backs averaging 137.6 total yards per game—a figure that trumped the amazing Ray Rice last year.
(Note: I was very tempted to take WR Julio Jones here).
2011 Stats: 1,980 Total Yards (1,606 Rushing), 11 TD
Average Draft Position: 18th overall
Skinny: Maurice Jones-Drew's insane finishing kick in the Jaguars' final 11 outings (10 games of 100-plus total yards, 9 TD) was the stuff of fantasy legend, but it might have prompted unrealistic expectations for 2012. Seriously.
Let's start with opportunities: You have a better chance of winning the lottery in the next 10 days than Jones-Drew has of replicating last year's 386 touches (343 carries).
Let's talk scheduling: Instead of terrorizing the hapless Bucs for 136 total yards and four TDs during Week 14 last year, MJD will have to contend with physical defenses from the AFC East and NFC North in 2012.
Let's talk coaching: New head man Mike Mularkey did wonders with Michael Turner's running success in Atlanta (offensive coordinator), but he was hired by Jacksonville to develop QB Blaine Gabbert and bolster a passing attack that's been anemic at best.
Let's talk holdout: It's still a 50-50 bet on whether Jones-Drew will end his contract dispute before the Jags' opener against the Vikings.
Let's talk common sense: If MJD had a full training camp under his belt, he would have been the No. 4-ranked tailback in fantasy circles and no worse than the eighth pick overall. If he should fall to Round 2 in 12-team drafts...isn't he worth the leap-of-faith investment?
(Note: For Points-Per-Reception drafts, I would have taken Matt Forte).
2011 Stats: 4,643 Yards Passing, 48 TD (3 Rushing)
Average Draft Position: 4th Overall
Skinny: Aaron Rodgers' 15-game contribution in 2011 might have been the most efficient season of any quarterback in NFL history:
1. Sixteen straight games of a positive TD/INT ratio (including the playoffs).
2. Twelve games of 300 total yards or more and 10 outings of at least three touchdowns.
3. Zero games of two or more interceptions.
Yes, history has shown that quarterbacks who throw 45 or more TDs one year endure a noticeable dip the following season...but it's still not enough to bump Rodgers from the highest perch of a deep class of elite passers.
The ultimate question is this: For all his greatness, is Rodgers a better fantasy buy than a consensus No. 1 running back, like Arian Foster?
In my delusional world, it's an apples/oranges comparison. Foster may hold the greatest value to fantasy owners who need to fill five or six 'RB' slots in 12-team leagues.
But from a game-by-game standpoint, Rodgers remains fantasy's surest bet every fall Sunday.