As I continue to blaze through mock drafts, the strategy I keep coming back to for my first-round pick is to take Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the middle of the first round, maybe even as high as fourth or fifth overall. Here’s why.
Most of your league is going to draft a running back in the first round. You know this. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise to see RBs get drafted with 15 of the first 16 picks (or something close to it), with Johnson representing the lone exception. It’s generally because bell-cow running backs feel like the safest picks, and with two starters at the position, teams need to stock up on clear No. 1 RBs, generally the most valuable commodity in fantasy football.
But what are you buying with that first-round RB pick? Here is the top-scoring fantasy RBs of 2012, according to NFL.com, along with their 2012 mock-draft ADPs from Fantasy Football Calculator. Note that the ADPs only count drafts during a 24-hour period right before the start of the season, so mock drafters had as much information as possible.
Due to different factors, many high picks like Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Jackson, DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden and even to some extent LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson and Matt Forte didn’t work out for the owners that invested premium picks in the position. On the flip side, a few unheralded commodities like C.J. Spiller and Alfred Morris rose from the muck to post elite numbers, and they were joined in the top 15 not just by first- and second-rounders, but also by players drafted in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. When you check out the ADPs of players that scored at least 150 points, you get: four our of seven first-rounders (with a fifth just missing the list), four out of seven second-rounders, three out of four third-rounders (with the fourth just missing the list), two out of three fourth-rounders and three out of four fifth-rounders. Even if you solely look at the top 10, you get two first, three seconds, two thirds and a fourth, ninth and 13th.
So again, what are you buying when you take a RB in the first?
Now, 2012 may end up being looked back upon as an outlier. If you look at 2011, the results look a little more in tune with what people expected:
Will new starting RBs continue to emerge at the pace they did in 2012, or will we revert back to the 2011 model of fewer surprises and busts? I tend to favor the 2012 side, with teams continuing to move to more time shares at running back and injuries continuing to be a factor, there are very few RBs that can be considered safe RB1s, yet we see owners continuing to emphasize the position in their drafts. How comfortable do you feel with those backs?
Can you rule out Mike Shanahan shenanigans relegating Alfred Morris to a one-year wonder? I wouldn’t put it past him to split time at RB three ways between Morris, John Wall and Bryce Harper. Will Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy keep their talented backups at bay, or will we see more of a split in workload between them at their quality No. 2s? Will Jamaal Charles hold up or succumb to injury yet again? Will Seattle start using the RBs they’ve continued to draft in early rounds? It seems like virtually every top running back comes attached with question marks.
That’s why after Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and maybe Foster come off the board, I’m going with Calvin Johnson.
After finishing as the sixth-best fantasy receiver in 2010, Johnson led all WRs in fantasy points by a comfortable margin in 2011 (Johnson’s total of 263.2 was nearly 50 points higher than the second-place finisher). In 2012, despite seeing his TDs decrease from 16 to five, Johnson still led all fantasy WRs in scoring, albeit by a much smaller margin. If you were to average his past two seasons together as a raw projection, you could pencil Johnson in for about 1,825 receiving yards and double-digit TDs. Considering he did most of this damage with a suspect supporting cast that caused him as the defensive focus on virtually every play, I don’t see why this isn’t repeatable.
Besides the safety that Johnson provides at the top of the draft, fantasy owners get to take advantage of both quality RB depth and WR depth while building a team throughout the remainder of a draft.
Once the first 15 RBs come off the board, we see teams start to slow down and explore other fantasy positions. At this point, I leap on the RBs. In fact, I might even draft four RBs after selecting Johnson with my first pick in the middle of the first round. Ideally, I’ll land two from a group that includes Reggie Bush, Frank Gore, Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Darren Sproles, David Wilson and Darren McFadden, with the outside chance one more of them falls to me in the fourth round. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll take two more backs from a group that includes the top four rookie backs along with Chris Ivory, Rashard Mendenhall and others. Are any of them going to be top-five backs? Not likely. But by adding a few key sleepers near the end of the draft, I feel confident I’ll be able to find two good starters and one solid backup at the position.
And once I have four RBs in the fold, I can switch back to WRs for a couple rounds and take a few upside guys I like, feeling comfortable that two will emerge as starters next to Johnson. These could be names like Antonio Brown, DeSean Jackson, Cecil Shorts, James Jones and Anquan Boldin, among others. Once we hit that seventh round, though, I do keep an eye on the remaining QBs to make sure I can pick up one of my top 12 options. The WR depth through nine rounds is enough that I feel comfortable doing that, then coming back with a quality QB2 in round 10 like an Andy Dalton or Jay Cutler.
I then use the remainder of the draft to pick up lottery-ticket RBs and a few late-round TEs I like as sleepers. Unless you’re drafting right before the season starts, remember that you’re better off holding on to lottery-ticket RBs (quality handcuffs, unknowns in murky RB depth charts) throughout the preseason and seeing if one emerges as a quality fantasy option. Then, you throw away the others to add a kicker and a defense with a quality matchup in Week 1.
Of course, much of the previous few paragraphs can be applied throughout if you go RB in the first round in WR in the second as well, especially if you particularly buy into one of the Tier 2 RBs. However, I would tend to avoid going RB-RB early, as it handcuffs your ability to build quality depth by using your third, fourth and fifth round picks on the position while others are draft WRs, QBs and TEs.
Be sure to run a few mock drafts with Calvin Johnson as your first rounder with one of the middle picks, and then other mocks with a first-round RB paired with Brandon Marshall or Dez Bryant in the second round, using both strategies before going heavy on RB in rounds 3-5. I bet you’ll be much happier with your team on average than you will by going RB-RB in the first two rounds.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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