It's crunch time for fantasy football owners getting ready for their drafts. There are just a handful of days left before the 2014 season opener between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, which means the time for preparation is dwindling.
For most, that means taking a look at the rankings following the final preseason games and participating in some mock drafts. A combination of those two things should give you a pretty good feel on how things are going to fall in the draft room.
The entire effort is an attempt to make sure you're able to maximize value in each round. With that in mind, let's check out the top players for the upcoming season based on Fantasy Pros' consensus rankings followed by a pair of popular strategies to test in late mock drafts.
Top Players for 2014
Running backs still dominate the first round. While there's more variety than in years past, with three wide receivers and one tight end inside the top 12, a majority of the picks still come from the backfield. And ultimately that makes sense.
The top backs are extremely valuable because there's a lack of three-down rushers these days. Many teams are going with a committee approach instead. So those that thrive in every role, like LeSean McCoy are the biggest fantasy assets. The Philadelphia Eagles star is expecting a huge year, too:
This is THE YEAR!!!! My potential is #2000yards. Will I reach it? Stepping up my training and signs point to yes.— Lesean McCoy (@CutonDime25) August 7, 2014
After the first wave of running backs are gone, the focus shifts to the pass-catchers before switching back to close out the round. Noticeably missing are the quarterbacks. Don't be surprised if Peyton Manning slips into Round 1 in some leagues despite being ranked outside the consensus top 20.
All told, most of the top players are agreeable. Perhaps DeMarco Murray is too risky for fantasy owners who prefer to play it safe given his injury history, but the potential is certainly there. A majority of opening rounds will look pretty similar to those rankings.
Mock Draft Strategies
Basically there are two strategies for drafting this season and they are going to take a fantasy owner down markedly different paths. Getting used to both of them so you're prepared regardless of how the draft plays out in Round 1 is essential.
Running Back First
This is the most common approach. As the above rankings illustrate, around two-thirds of all teams will end up taking a running back in the opening round. Obviously there's a difference between getting Jamaal Charles or Marshawn Lynch, but the same slot is filled.
Christopher Harris of ESPN The Magazine believes this is easily the better option because the top backs are still the most reliable players on the board:
So running backs no longer fetch the largest raw point totals. But the scarcity of elite RBs is real, and despite the carnage of 2013, you should still target rushers in your first round. They're not safe. But they feature a better combination of safety and upside than any other first-round option.
Though taking a rusher first is still popular, gone are the days of taking somebody from the position with each of a team's first three selections. There simply isn't enough depth to warrant putting that much stock in the position like there was a couple years ago.
The question is where to go next. If you're at the back end of Round 1, try a couple of different techniques. Go with Peyton Manning should he be available. If not take, the best receiver available. Then also try taking a second running back.
If you're lucky enough to land McCoy, Charles or Adrian Peterson, those elite options elsewhere will likely be gone. That's when it's probably best to take a second running back and then follow up right away in the third round with a receiver. If there's been a run on backs, take two wideouts.
This is the option that provides a lot more flexibility after Round 1. Filling the No. 1 RB slot is crucial, which is why most will opt for one right away to take away the burden. But it's important to make sure you also have a plan in place on how to capitalize on that in the rounds that follow.
Another Position First
There's an obvious appeal to going against the grain in Round 1. Instead of taking the No. 6 running back, you can get the best player available at any other position. That's a lot of upside whether it's Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham or the aforementioned Manning.
Last year, 18 running backs scored north of 150 fantasy points, while 16 pass-catchers managed to reach that same plateau. If your options in the middle rounds are a number of backs trapped in a committee, or someone in the vein of Cordarrelle Patterson or T.Y. Hilton, for the love of the fantasy gods take the wide receiver!
Taking one of the best available pass-catchers with your first pick could very well provide more value, but it cuts down on your flexibility for the next few rounds. It's still vital to get a running back on the roster before it's too late.
Which strategy do you prefer for 2014 fantasy drafts?
Players like Giovani Bernard, Arian Foster and Doug Martin are perfectly fine options. If you can start your draft with a top receiver or Graham and one of those backs, it's a great strategy. But once it gets into the range of Toby Gerhart or Ryan Mathews there's a boatload of risk.
Try the strategy multiple times from the seven to 10 range and see how often it works out. The rankings and mock draft should be pretty settled now that the preseason is over. So if you're able to emerge with a solid one-two punch in the mocks at a high rate, it should carry over.
If you do go this route, make sure to keep tabs on some sleeper options at running back. Without an elite rusher on your roster, it would be smart to use a few extra middle-round picks at the position. If one of them turns into a key asset, the plan should work out perfectly.