It happens every year. The calendar hits August, and suddenly it becomes fantasy football season. Training camps get going; preseason games whet the appetite; and folks around the country start playing fantasy GM, trying to dissect each and every potential draft pick.
It's a beautiful thing.
But you need all the help you can get—we all do—so below is a look at the players you should be targeting in the first round, along with a few sleepers you should be keeping in your back pocket for the later rounds.
Breaking Down the Studs
|1||LeSean McCoy||Philadelphia Eagles||RB|
|2||Adrian Peterson||Minnesota Vikings||RB|
|3||Jamaal Charles||Kansas City Chiefs||RB|
|4||Matt Forte||Chicago Bears||RB|
|5||Peyton Manning||Denver Broncos||QB|
|6||Marshawn Lynch||Seattle Seahawks||RB|
|7||Jimmy Graham||New Orleans Saints||TE|
|8||Calvin Johnson||Detroit Lions||WR|
|9||Eddie Lacy||Green Bay Packers||RB|
|10||Drew Brees||New Orleans Saints||QB|
|11||Aaron Rodgers||Green Bay Packers||QB|
|12||Arian Foster||Houston Texans||RB|
Why should LeSean McCoy be the first player off the board?
For starters, his value last year came from yards accumulated much more so than touchdowns scored. Simply put, yards are a more sustainable form of production than touchdowns are. Does anyone think Jamaal Charles will score 19 touchdowns again this season?
It's possible, yes, but highly unlikely. Keep in mind that his previous career high in total touchdowns was eight. Yes, he's the perfect fit for Andy Reid's offense, but the fact that he scored one less touchdown through the air (seven) last year than his previous high in total touchdowns over the course of his career should indicate that Charles will regress a little closer to his average this season.
McCoy, on the other hand, had a huge chunk of his value come from his 1,607 rushing yards (268 more than any other back in football) and 539 receiving yards. His 2,146 yards from scrimmage were a career high, yes, but so were his 314 carries.
In Kelly's system, his 5.1 yards per carry were the second highest in his career, and with Bryce Brown now in Buffalo, there isn't a player likely to steal that many carries from McCoy. Yes, Darren Sproles will almost assuredly reduce the 52 receptions McCoy had a year ago, but McCoy should once again be a workhorse for this Eagles offense.
Remember, the Philadelphia Eagles led the NFL with 160.4 rushing yards per game last season and were fifth with 500 rushing attempts. Kelly wants to run the ball, and McCoy is the most talented player he has. His work load may be slightly lessened this year, sure, but his production should remain about the same in his second year in Kelly's system.
While you can't go wrong selecting any of McCoy, Charles, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte with the top overall pick—and you want to take a running back with that top pick, given the uncertainty at the position again this year—McCoy also seems like a safer option than the alternatives.
Peterson is 29, has undertaken a huge work load in his career and has battled injuries in two of the past three seasons. Forte has also battled his fair share of bangs and bruises, though he stayed healthy last season and finally got over his touchdown-scoring woes, accumulating 12.
But where the Eagles seem likely to emphasize the running game again this year, Marc Trestman's offense will likely be about the pass first. Keep in mind that the Chicago Bears ran the ball 404 times last year, 24th in the NFL. Forte makes the most of his opportunities—and he'll continue to be a dangerous option in the passing game—but McCoy is in an offense built around his abilities.
After those four players, don't hesitate to take Peyton Manning. Yes, it's unlikely he'll throw for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards again, but do you really think the drop off will be that steep? In standard-scoring leagues, he finished 58 points ahead of Drew Brees and 124 points ahead of Cam Newton.
That's pretty insane.
Even if he regresses, Manning is still first-round material. And with the weapons he has, he'll still likely finish with around 5,000 yards passing and 40 touchdowns.
Marshawn Lynch drops to No. 6 because he's averaged a whopping 329 touches over the past three years, and given his bruising, physical style, those touches surely have taken a toll. At 28, he still should be a strong performer, but it also wouldn't be shocking to see his production and workload take a slight hit this year.
Most folks are hesitant to take a tight end in the first round of fantasy drafts, but Jimmy Graham is the rare exception. Only five running backs (Charles, McCoy, Forte, Lynch, Knowshon Moreno) and three wide receivers (Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson) had more than the 211 fantasy points Graham accumulated in standard-scoring leagues last year.
More importantly, his value compared to other players at his position is off the charts. I'm a big fan of calculating fantasy WAR, which is essentially trying to determine how much value a player gives you compared to the best player who should be on fantasy benches each week.
In 12-man leagues, that "bench player" at the quarterback and tight ends positions is defined as the 13th-best player in the rankings (since the first 12 players should be considered "starters"), while at running back and wide receiver it is the 31st player. (This because you not only start two players in your lineup at each position per week, accounting for 24 starters, but you can also flex a player at the position. I split the difference and consider six receivers and six running backs worthy of flex position.)
In 12-man leagues, Graham averaged 8.1 more points per week than the best bench player at his position, Coby Fleener. Only Charles (11.7), Manning (10.3), McCoy (9.7) and Forte (9.0) had higher marks. Suffice to say, Graham gives you more value at the tight-end position than almost any other player will offer at his respective position.
And he did that battling plantar fasciitis. He's a fantasy stud, folks.
After Graham, I think you should jump at the chance to draft Calvin Johnson. Despite battling injuries last year, he still finished with 84 receptions for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns on 156 targets. There are two ways to evaluate the additions of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron, of course—the first is to assume that those players will reduce Megatron's targets.
That might be a fair assumption, but the counterpoint to that discussion is that the added weapons in the passing game should force teams to focus less attention on Megatron, meaning that he should be more efficient per target than he was last year.
If Tate and Ebron consistently hurt teams, open looks will slowly make their way to Johnson. He's still fantasy's safest bet at wide receiver.
With those top eight off the board, trust your safe options. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are the safest quarterbacks after Manning, and have been for years. Eddie Lacy should only improve in his second season at running back, especially since he's the ever-rare every-down back.
And while Arian Foster's durability has to be questioned after last season, he also had at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage and at least 12 touchdowns in the three seasons preceding last year. He'll be 28 once the season opens, yes, but a healthy Foster is still one of the most productive players in fantasy.
Breaking Down the Sleepers
|Player||Team||Position||Average Draft Position|
|Matt Ryan||Atlanta Falcons||QB||89.4|
|Rashad Jennings||New York Giants||RB||66.8|
|Shane Vereen||New England Patriots||RB||74.3|
|Bishop Sankey||Tennessee Titans||RB||79.5|
|Jeremy Maclin||Philadelphia Eagles||WR||75.6|
|Kendall Wright||Tennessee Titans||WR||91.2|
|Tavon Austin||St. Louis Rams||WR||132.1|
|Ladarius Green||San Diego Chargers||TE||144.9|
ADP via ESPN leagues
When it comes to Matt Ryan, the analysis is pretty simple—he lost his best receiver, Julio Jones, to injury, and his offensive line was atrocious. Well, this year he gets Jones back, and the Falcons upgraded the offensive line by drafting Jake Matthews and signing Jon Asamoah, while also adding Mike Tice to coach the offensive line.
Matthews in particular has impressed.
"We knew when we drafted him that he was farther along than other tackles in the draft," Tice told the The Sports Xchange, via Yahoo! Sports. "We felt like we were going to get a guy that was ready to step in early. From the second week since he's been with us, he's taken all of the reps with the [first team]."
An upright Ryan is a productive Ryan. Look for a major bounce-back year.
At the running back position, keep an eye on Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen and Bishop Sankey. Jennings is available in the seventh round and was an absolute terror when he took over for the Oakland Raiders last season, scoring nine or more fantasy points six times in the final nine weeks of the season.
With David Wilson on injured reserve, Jennings should be the go-to guy in this backfield. At the price of a flex player, you'll potentially be getting a high-end RB2.
Vereen missed eight weeks last season, which is truly a shame, because he was in line for a big fantasy season. In the eight weeks he did play, he scored nine or more fantasy points five times and six or more fantasy points seven times. He's an excellent receiving option out of the backfield and, given Stevan Ridley's fumbling woes last year, could end up being the top rusher in New England, too.
Finally, there is Bishop Sankey, whom Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post believes will be the Offensive Rookie of the Year:
Sankey has the benefit of opportunity. He is expected to be Tennessee’s starting running back from Week 1 behind one of the league’s best offensive lines in the game. According to Pro Football Focus, the Titan’s O-Line ranked eighth in the league for run blocking while their tight end, Taylor Thompson, led his position with a 4.0 run block rating in 2013. Their other TE, Craig Stevens, ranked eighth.
The one position in fantasy at which rookies regularly thrive is running back. Look no further than Eddie Lacy a year ago. Sankey could be in line for a very big year, and at a very cheap price for you.
At wide receiver, Jeremy Maclin is a steal in the eighth round of drafts in 10-man leagues. With DeSean Jackson in Washington, Nick Foles will need someone to step up and take the No. 1 role in Philadelphia's passing game. Maclin is just the man to do it.
No, he doesn't have Jackson's blazing speed, but he is the perfect fit for Philly's scheme, as he's more physical off the line than Jackson ever was and is a better route-runner. Don't be surprised when Maclin has a career year.
Kendall Wright has also done nothing but trend upward in his first two seasons. In his rookie season, he caught a respectable 64 passes for 626 yards and four touchdowns on 104 targets. Last season, he very quietly upped that production to 94 receptions for 1,079 yards and two touchdowns on 140 targets. His 140 targets put him at 14th in the NFL, by the way.
Yes, he needs to find the end zone more often to work his way into the realm of WR2 status. But the fact that he is already such a huge source of catches, yards and targets means that he is entrenched in Tennessee's passing game. Five more touchdowns last year would have put him firmly in the WR2 realm.
Expect more yards and more touchdowns this year, all for the cost of a 10th-round pick.
And then there is Tavon Austin. Frankly, if the St. Louis Rams were a bit more creative in finding ways to get the ball in his hands, Austin would probably have been a dynamo for fantasy owners. Think a healthy version of Percy Harvin here.
The Rams certainly seem aware of the fact that they need to get Austin more touches, per Myles Simmons of Rams.com:
He’s a player who excels in making defenders miss and evading them with breakaway speed. After practice on Monday, head coach Jeff Fisher said that the key to Austin’s success is just getting him the ball in space.
'You could see a couple times today he made people miss and picked up big gains, so that’s what we’re looking for,' Fisher said. 'We’ve got a good feel for him. He’s got a good feel for the offense. It’s just a matter of finding enough footballs to go around.'
Austin is the type of player who doesn't need a ton of looks to leave his imprint on a game. He was dramatically over-drafted last year, but after being such a bust in his rookie season, he's potentially one of the best values heading into his sophomore campaign. If you have the stomach for such a hit-or-miss prospect, take a gamble on Austin.
And finally, we close with the tight ends. Ladarius Green is being largely ignored by most owners, but he is the most likely player this season at the position to have a Julius Green-esque breakthrough. He's a big, athletic target, and Antonio Gates is 34 years old, so the torch should be passed this season.
For a more comprehensive look at Green, check out the scouting report Cian Fahey of Bleacher Report wrote up on him. If you don't come away from that excited about his potential, well, you probably work for a PR firm representing Gates.
Draft him as a TE2, but don't be shocked if he becomes a force in the red zone and a viable fantasy starter this year.
He's a deep sleeper, yes, but so was Orange Julius last year.