Early Trends in 2014 Fantasy Football Drafts

Eric Mack@@EricMackFantasyFantasy Football Lead WriterJuly 31, 2014

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You and hundreds of diligent and astute fantasy football analysts have spent months compiling your 2014 rankings, draft boards and notes on things to watch in training camp. You are just waiting for the dominoes to fall.

Before everything starts changing with the opening of the preseason this Sunday, we give you an in-depth, data-packed look at the early trends that are impacting fantasy football drafts, from the early first-round decisions to where to pick certain positions and rookies:

Who's No. 1?

No. 1 Pick Tale of the Tape
Jamaal CharlesKC2711220.8
LeSean McCoyPHI2622117.5
Source: B/R, FantasyPros.com and FFToday.com

B/R RK=Emack rankings | ECR=FantasyPros.com consensus rankings | C-ADP=FantasyPros.com consensus average draft position | FPTS/G=FFToday.com fantasy points per game 2013

This is a split decision here and almost everywhere. Jamaal Charles vs. LeSean McCoy. The choices are split and changing.

Charles is 27 years old, coming off a career year and still the feature back in an Andy Reid offense. The problems are he has had a history of injury woes, including a concussion that knocked him out of a playoff game last January. Plus, the Chiefs lost three offensive linemen to free agency (Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah).

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McCoy has been gaining steam over Charles in recent weeks, especially when Charles was at risk of holding out before signing his contract extension. Charles is signed now, but the McCoy train is still rolling for No. 1 overall drafters.

You can point to the addition of Darren Sproles being a drain on McCoy's value, perhaps, but Sproles is now 31 years old. The Eagles are so confident in the reigning NFL rushing leader's ability to stay healthy at age 26, they cleared big back Bryce Brown off their depth chart, trading him to the Buffalo Bills.

Brown just didn't fit the Chip Kelly style for his backs, who need to be quick and able to handle the tempo.

I wrote an argument for Charles being No. 1 in Athlon Sports Fantasy Guide for 2014. Yet, I'm trending toward taking McCoy over Charles now. That said, you won't go wrong with either selection if you have the No. 1 pick.

A.D. Should Not Be No. 1 Overall

For reasons I cannot quite discern, there is some love for Adrian Peterson over Charles and McCoy. Before ripping that thinking apart, here is what the major draft sites have for average draft position for each of the top three candidates:

Top Picks By Average Draft Position
1LeSean McCoy222121.8
2Jamaal Charles131232.0
3Adrian Peterson313312.2
Source: FantasyPros.com

While Peterson does have more year-to-year consistency, he is past his prime at age 29. There were a few notable statistical studies done on fantasy performance this winter that showed running back performance peaks at age 27 and suffers a sharp decline at age 30.

The first one was ESPN.com's visual showing average yardage production of running backs and wide receivers at ages 21 through 34.

The second was a Twitter follower's far more complex regression analysis of fantasy points production for running backs and wide receivers from ages 21 to 36. The data is shaped conveniently in a bell curve that declines after the age of 27. (Statisticians get all sorts of excited when data can be represented nicely with a best-fit line that can be reproduced by simple algorithms.)

Peterson is dangerously close to 30, but that isn't the only reason he shouldn't be picked over Charles or McCoy. The Minnesota Vikings have a far less potent offense than the Eagles or Chiefs. They also have a far less certain quarterback situation. As good as Peterson makes everyone around him, you cannot be as sure of his supporting cast positioning him for another big year at his age.

Big-Money Draft Results

To give you some more perspective on how ESPN.com and NFL.com drafters are misguided in their selecting of Peterson No. 1 overall, I was able to pick Peterson at No. 6 overall in a Fantasy Pros vs. Joes draft conducted Monday night. 

That league is set up between top fantasy analysts and the top high-stakes fantasy football players in the world. These high rollers are the maniacs (term of endearment here) who risk $1,000s to play for huge cash prizes in the Fantasy Football National Championship (NFFC) every year.

Here are the pick positions of Peterson in those drafts: fifth, sixth, fifth, sixth, fourth and third. In only one of those drafts did Peterson get picked before Charles or McCoy. That draft was the first one held (July 21).

The big money is on Charles (four times), McCoy (once) and even Matt Forte (once) over Peterson.

Jimmy Graham Is a First-Rounder

There was a time this offseason I lamented the fact of having to project a tight end as a first-round pick. Riddle me old school, running back stubborn and generally anti-tight end.

Even I can be converted, and I have been. Jimmy Graham is clearly a middle-of-the-first-round pick in all leagues this year.

Every preseason I write fantasy strategy pieces admonishing owners to wait a long time on drafting that position.

"Tight ends can be dime a dozen," I argued here at B/R earlier this summer.

Everyone loves Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron among the elite likes of Graham and Rob Gronkowski now. They forget how quickly Thomas and Cameron rose to fantasy prominence a year ago out of the much later rounds. Heck, Thomas wasn't picked up in many leagues until after a huge Week 1 performance last year.

There can be great value had at the tight end position if you miss out on the studs.

The high-stakes players above are even drafting Graham before Peterson. Graham went second, fifth, fourth, second, fifth and third. Only once did Peterson go before Graham. Graham also went before McCoy twice and Charles once.

Granted, the scoring system of that league rewards 1.5 points to receptions for tight ends, but it won't mean Graham falls out of Round 1 in other formats. Graham is eighth in FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings and ninth in ADP among the major draft sites.

Only at ESPN.com is Graham not a first-rounder in eight-, 10- or 12-team leagues. He is 14th there. Ah, those crazy ESPN.com kids. First, Peterson No. 1 overall then Graham as a second-rounder.

If you need another reason to amp up Graham's draft position, he is 27 years old this season. That is another one of our favorite strategies above, targeting players in their prime.

Rookie Rankings

Fantasy players are creatures of habit. They tend to use historical perceptions of players and last year's stat sheets to determine their draft values. They have some missing code in their DNA when it comes to rookies. Those guys have no track record to fall back on.

We give you a rough guide for how the top rookies are slotted right now through my rankings at B/R, consensus rankings, ADP data and some recent drafts.

Early Preseason Rookie Draft Trends/Rankings
11.0Bishop SankeyRB631541521
22.0Sammy WatkinsWR712932892
34.0Mike EvansWR11959831144
44.7Terrance WestRB12371044943
55.0Jeremy HillRB102311261336
67.7Brandin CooksWR1701311051205
78.3Kelvin BenjaminWR1226133814711
89.0Tre MasonRB1034164141389
99.7Carlos HydeRB14910138914610
1010.0Eric EbronTE1399163131358
1110.0Devonta FreemanRB15411130715112
1211.0Odell Beckham Jr.WR12581561216913
1311.3Johnny ManzielQB18616151111347
1412.7Jordan MatthewsWR171141431017614
1514.7Andre WilliamsRB164121851622116
1616.7Teddy BridgewaterQB193172001817815
1717.0Marqise LeeWR200+1817215247+18
1817.3James WhiteRB200+181921722317
1917.7Cody LatimerWR1741520720247+18
2018.3Jace AmaroTE200+1820319247+18
Source: B/R and FantasyPros.com

I will be adjusting some of my personal rankings after reviewing this data and watching things unfold early in training camp. In particular:

  • The St. Louis Rams' Tre Mason is not challenging Zac Stacy like we thought he would. He needs to be downgraded, while Stacy is moved up closer to Round 1 status.
  • We are seriously underrating early camp star Brandin Cooks and overrated the currently injured Odell Beckham (hamstring). We probably should swap their positions at B/R right now.
  • Terrance West is gaining steam on Ben Tate in Cleveland Browns camp.
  • Carlos Hyde should rise with the early camp fall of multiple Frank Gore handcuffs, Kendall Hunter (knee), LaMichael James (elbow) and Marcus Lattimore (slow recovery from major knee surgery).
  • Devonta Freeman is gaining steam on Steven Jackson in Atlanta Falcons camp.
  • Minnesota Vikings' Teddy Bridgewater and New England Patriots' James White are earning a lot of early reps, too.

Round-By-Round Generalizations

Using the aforementioned consensus rankings, we give you a round-by-round blow of what positions are generally getting picked in the first half of standard fantasy leagues:

  • Round 1: Still running back heavy but there are the tight end and a few wide receivers going. Surprisingly, no quarterbacks (but this is common until the masses get to their draft because analysts hate picking QBs early by comparison).
  • Round 2: We see the first QBs going, but this looks like a heavy wide receiver round as the elite running backs dry up.
  • Round 3: Historically this is the wide receiver round, but the rise of wideouts into Rounds 1 and 2 has made this a crapshoot round between QB, RB, WR and TEs.
  • Round 4: Back to the WRs. The NFL is still decidedly a pass-happy league, after all.
  • Round 5: Another crapshoot round with a balanced mixed of positions going.
  • Round 6: This is the heaviest of the quarterback rounds. You might want to have your QB locked up at this point to avoid being left picking through the scraps.
  • Round 7: More QBs and TEs, but we would wait on QBs and suck up the remaining starters at RB and WR.
  • Round 8: This is the last round of starters, with only a handful of teams not having all their QB-RB-WR-TE-FLEX positions filled by now.

Injury/Suspension Updates

In case you have been under a rock or on an extended summer vacation this July, the following players are no longer draft-worthy:

  • RB Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers (torn ACL, likely out for the season)
  • RB Vick Ballard, Indianapolis Colts (torn Achilles, likely out for the season)
  • RB Johnathan Franklin, Green Bay Packers (retired)
  • WR LaVon Brazill, free agent (one-year suspension and subsequently released by the Indianapolis Colts)
  • WR Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville Jaguars (suspended indefinitely and not currently seeking reinstatement)
  • WR Ace Sanders, Jacksonville Jaguars (taking a personal leave of absence)

You will notice we didn't include Cleveland's Josh Gordon on that list. He is still in play, perhaps, at this point. He will have his appeal on his one-year suspension heard Friday in New York, according to ESPN.com's Pat McManamon. Gordon will reportedly argue his positive results were due to second-hand smoke, and there were varying results in his two positive tests, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

The NFL responded via email, as McManamon reported:

"A cornerstone of both of our drug testing programs has always been that you are responsible for what is in your body," Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of communications, said via email Tuesday. "It is stated that way in the policies."

A reinstated Gordon would be a first-round pick if he wins his appeal, so watch that closely Friday.

Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.

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