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Draft-Day Dilemma: Picking at the Turn

These the three most exciting words in football:

"Grossman drops back!"

Wait, no. Those are the cruelest words. These are the three most exciting:

"Enter Live Draft."

They sit there on the screen, large and blue and inviting. Like Ben Coates used to look to Drew Bledsoe. After weeks of restless waiting, it's time. You've pre-ranked, you've mock-drafted. You've run that stupid Java test like 47 times.

You're ready. In fact, you're as ready for this as you've ever been for anything. Time to launch the applet. Is it possible that you're overconfident? No, not really. If you can back it up, it's not arrogance. You've participated in dozens of leagues. You've played all formats, owned basically everyone. There's no fantasy wrinkle you haven't considered. At this point in your fantasy career, you possess a kind of discursive wisdom that can really only …

Oh, (expletive).

The draft room just loaded. You're picking last.

In a default league, getting the last pick means you've got the 10th and 11th overall selections. You'll have back-to-back picks throughout the draft, so you'll have to wait forever between the second and third rounds, the fourth and fifth, the sixth and seventh, et cetera. This also means that position runs will begin and end and you'll have no chance to react. Plus everyone will complain if you take the full 90 seconds for both of your selections.

All things considered, picking last is not pleasant. Remember all those long hours you spent sifting through the second-tier running backs, assessing the relative merits of Joseph Addai and Frank Gore? Yeah, that was just wasted effort. You're not getting either of those guys. You're not getting anyone you'd intended to build a team around, in fact. For the next hour and a half, you might feel as though you're just getting whatever scraps your opponents don't want.

The draft room clock is ticking down. Other owners are chatting, using unknowable IM abbreviations, making vague references to late-round sleepers. But you're not chatting. All your icy confidence is gone. You're freaked. The draft begins in minutes, and the first-round selections won't take long.

You scan the Yahoo! default rankings, seeking out the 10th- and 11th-rated players, bypassing all the really coveted running backs. Laurence Maroney is rated 10th, Peyton Manning is 11th.

Hmm. Stupid experts. You flip to your pre-rankings. Maybe you've got Brian Westbrook, Travis Henry, Reggie Bush, Clinton Portis, Maurice Jones-Drew, Willis McGahee and Ronnie Brown in the mix, too. There's really a sizable group of running backs that are difficult to sort through. If we look at default league fantasy totals from 2006, the 10th highest-scoring RB (Addai) finished with 172 points, and the 15th highest-scoring RB (Jamal Lewis) finished with 163. That's just not much separation.

People are drafting now, and the truly elite backs are going off the board quickly:

1. LaDainian Tomlinson
2. Steven Jackson
3. Larry Johnson
4. Frank Gore

No surprises there, you think. Then another expected name goes.

5. Joseph Addai

Now there's a brief lull. The seconds tick away. 1:00 … 0:59 … 0.58 … 0:57. The guy who drafted Tomlinson posts this in chat: "CMON!!! KEEP TEH DRAFT MOVIG!!!"

Figures. It's always some spelling-impaired punk who gets the first pick. You're not complaining about the pause, though. Instead, you're creating a small queue of players to consider at 10 and 11.

Then one of them is drafted:

6. Willie Parker

Hmm. A little early for Willie, you're thinking. Must be a Steelers fan. That's OK. But then another name disappears from your queue:

7. Brian Westbrook

Whoa. Well, what are the chances that Rud–?

8. Rudi Johnson

Nope, guess not. Then, almost immediately:

9. Shaun Alexander

Just like that, it's your turn. The clock is moving. 1:25 … 1:24 … 1:23.

It occurs to you that there are two fundamental questions to consider before making your selections: "What's the scoring system in this league?" and "Who's going to be left when I pick again at 30?" The first question is really about Reggie Bush, and the second – which we'll table until the second round – is about Peyton Manning.

If you're in a points-per-reception (PPR) league, Bush's value is extremely high. He had more receptions last season (88) than Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Anquan Boldin, and Terrell Owens. Steven Jackson was the only RB with more catches in 2006, and you can reasonably expect Bush to overtake him this year. The Rams have added Drew Bennett and Randy McMichael; this might help Jackson overall, yet result in fewer receptions. A standard 10-team Yahoo! public league doesn't use PPR scoring, however, so Bush is a less enticing first-rounder.

0:57 … 0:56 … 0:55. The draft clock is a tyrant. That Tomlinson dude is whining again in chat. No time to respond, though. 0:54 … 0:53 … 0:52 …

You've really got to take at least one running back with these picks. As talented as Jones-Drew and Portis are, they aren't alone on their rosters. Fred Taylor and Ladell Betts are threats to their stats. In a default league, the choice is really between Maroney, Henry, and Brown.

Maroney is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and he just told the Boston Globe, "I don't have a projection. I'll be out there, hopefully, when I get out there." Did that reassure you? No, didn't think so. It's enough to nudge him into Round 2.

0:41 … 0:40 … 0:39 …


Henry

Henry is a nice fit in an unquestionably great Broncos system. You could do worse. The potential issues here are fumbling, suspensions, and injuries. In 2002 and 2003, the only years in which Henry had 300 or more carries, he fumbled 18 times. That wouldn't sit well with Mike Shanahan. Injuries and substance-abuse led to Henry missing 12 games between 2004 and 2005. These are not small things. Still, Mike Anderson ran for 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns for Denver just two seasons ago, and Henry is better. He had six 100-yard efforts for Tennessee last season. Hmm.

0:17 … 0:16 … 0:15 …


Brown

OK, meet our last candidate: Ronnie Brown. No, before you meet Ronnie, meet his head coach: Cam Cameron. This was the guy who directed the San Diego offense from 2002 to 2006. During that stretch, LaDainian Tomlinson scored 101 touchdowns. Brown is not Tomlinson, of course. He did finish last season with a pair of 100-yard efforts, though, and he ran for a career-high 157 against a Bears defense that was undefeated at the time. But what about those distressing reports regarding Brown's weight? Here's what the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Dolphins' blog said today: "RB Ronnie Brown, who isn't nearly as overweight as articles and a certain (sports radio) personality has reported, is heading to Arizona to work out." So that's encouraging.

0:09 … 0:08 …

Alright, Brown's the guy here, though it's clearly debatable. But of all the backs in that 10-15 range, he has the greatest chance to crack the top five. Ronnie Brown is the last pick of the first round.

"FINALLY!!!" types the caps-lock jerk who drafted Tomlinson. As the next 1:30 begins to tick away, you offer a semi-profane rebuke.


Manning

Then you're dealing with the Peyton Manning question. Your next pick is either Travis Henry or the Colts quarterback. Here are the essential arguments for Manning: he never misses games, he's never thrown fewer than 26 touchdowns in a season, and he was 50 points better than the No. 2 quarterback last season in a default setting. With 311 points, Manning had the fourth-highest fantasy total of any player last year. He finished just behind Johnson (317) and Jackson (314), but well ahead of Michael Vick (261). It should surprise no one if he repeats that effort in 2007. Other than LT, no other player at any position offers that sort of differential. Manning is certainly a safe choice. No one will criticize you.

1:05 … 1:04 … 1:03 …

But if you don't take Henry here, you won't get another top-20 running back. You'll miss out on at least the next dozen. Most of your opponents will take a second RB in Round 2. Some of them will take a third in Round 3, while others will begin to grab the top wide receivers and QBs. You won't draft again until picks 30 and 31. Brandon Jacobs will be gone. So will Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones, Marshawn Lynch, Edgerrin James, and possibly every other RB you could feel good about starting.

With both Brown and Henry on your roster, you'll have the option of drafting QB/WR in Round 3-4. That might get you, say, Marc Bulger (253 fantasy points in 2006) and Javon Walker (167). If you draft Manning, you'd have to go RB/WR or RB/RB with your next picks. And you'll be selecting from running backs in the 20-25 range. Last season, the running back with the 25th highest fantasy total (Julius Jones) finished with 136 points. A reasonable full-season projection for Travis Henry in Denver might look like this: 1,250 rushing yards, 200 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns, and three fumbles lost. That's 211 fantasy points. The Bells combined for 227 last year.

You've decided that the difference between Henry and a running back rated 20-25 will be greater than the difference between Manning and another top-five QB.

0:44 … 0:43 … 0:42 …

You take Henry. "NICE!!!" types the Tomlinson dude. You don't know if he's referring to the pick or the fact that you made it with time to spare.

If touchdown passes were worth six points instead of four, Manning might've been the guy. But not in a default league. If you felt better about Maroney's shoulder, maybe. You might be kicking yourself over Bush by October, too. Still, you have a pair of useful running backs. You can't hope to topple Tomlinson without that.

Take a breath. Get a beverage. Then start fretting about picks 50 and 51.