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Draft-Day Dilemma: After the Running Backs

More Dilemmas: Picking at the Turn

Position runs are hypnotic. Like live interviews with Christian Slater or variety shows on Telemundo – even though you can't fully understand what's happening, they're almost irresistible.

Sometimes you really need to be an active participant. The opening rounds in most football drafts can basically be thought of as a position run. At least nine of the first ten picks are going to be running backs, and the second round will usually see another six or seven selected. You're not going to win a competitive league if you fail to involve yourself in the early RB binge. Sure, maybe this season an Ahman Green-Fred Taylor pairing can lead you to the playoffs, just like they did in 2003. Don't bet on it, though. It's not a position where you can wait for the third-tier and expect success.

But everyone knows that. The trickier position run begins with the first pick of the third round, when the wide receivers start going. Or rather, when the receivers who aren't Steve Smith, Marvin Harrison or Chad Johnson start going. Those three are generally taken in Round 2. Smith's average Yahoo! draft position is 15.3, Harrison's is 16.9, and Ocho Cinco's is, um … uno ocho decimal point tres.

Here's a look at the players who rank 21-40 in draft position in Yahoo! leagues, according to the "Draft Central" tab:

Player Avg Pick Avg Round 2006 Points
Torry Holt 21.9 2.8 172
Terrell Owens 21.9 2.7 189
Drew Brees 22.9 2.7 261
Maurice Jones-Drew 24.2 2.8 217
Larry Fitzgerald 25.6 3 126
Reggie Wayne 27.4 3.1 181
Willis McGahee 27.8 3.2 137
Randy Moss 30.1 3.5 67
T.J. Houshmandzadeh 30.5 3.5 155
Marques Colston 31.5 3.7 145
Roy Williams 31.8 3.7 161
Antonio Gates 32.9 3.8 139
Anquan Boldin 34.2 3.9 139
Marc Bulger 36.9 4.1 253
Javon Walker 36.9 4.1 167
Andre Johnson 40.1 4.5 137
Lee Evans 41.7 4.6 168
Donovan McNabb 42 4.6 200
Plaxico Burress 43.2 4.8 150
Donald Driver 43.3 4.8 173

If your 10-team draft were to follow Yahoo! ADP perfectly, then 14 of the 20 players selected in the third and fourth rounds would be wide receivers. That's definitely a run. It gets us to today's dilemma: Should you jump on the best available receiver in the third round? No one's going to mock you for drafting Houshmandzadeh or Boldin, certainly. It's a safe pick in terms of expected ridicule.

As with most fantasy draft dilemmas, this question is influenced by your league's settings. In my ideal fantasy league, we'd run the wishbone. Or possibly the wing-T. We'd start at least two running backs plus a flex position. I'd be perfectly happy with a configuration that included three RBs, one QB, and one WR. I just don't have much respect for receivers as fantasy contributors. Why? Because none of them project to be elite scorers. Last season there were 18 players who finished with 200 or more fantasy points. None of them were wide receivers. In 2005 there were 19 players who topped 200, and only one of them, Steve Smith, was a wide receiver. Basically, unless it's 1995 and you're drafting Jerry Rice, you're probably not getting a WR who will be significantly better than a guy you can draft two rounds later.

Look at the above list again. Last season the difference between the player at the top, Torry Holt (ADP 21.9), and the player at the bottom, Donald Driver (43.3), was exactly one point … and Driver had the point. They both played 16 games, too. In a 10-team league, the receiver you'd get with the first pick of the third round isn't likely to be much better than the receiver you'll get with the last pick in the fourth.

Two more things surprise me about that list of the 21-40 highest picks: Maurice Jones-Drew is on it, and Cedric Benson isn't. Jones-Drew was the seventh-best scorer among fantasy running backs last season. We've seen that he can successfully co-exist with Fred Taylor. Sure, I'd prefer to use my first-round pick on a guy who's not involved in any sort of job-share, but a player as explosive as Jones-Drew should be taken early in Round 2. You can't let the guy who drafts Tomlinson get MJD as his second back. If he does, well … good luck.

Cedric Benson would've been the 41st name on the above list. Doesn't that seem like a nice bargain? He's the primary back for a run-heavy offense, and the combination of Benson and Thomas Jones rushed for 1,857 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2006. If Benson gets a significant percentage of those totals in 2007, he'll be an elite fantasy RB. Not bad for your fifth round draft pick. In a league with a flex position, Cedric Benson, like Jones-Drew, needs to go much earlier. I'd draft either of them before getting my first wide receiver.

Which gets us back to the receiver dilemma.

Let's say you don't have a flex position. Maybe you had the sixth overall pick in a Yahoo! public league. You took Joseph Addai in the first round and Reggie Bush in the second. Your RB positions are filled. There's no wishbone here. It's a three-receiver formation. You're feeling like you've got two players who could both emerge as top-tier running backs by the end of the season. With the 26th overall pick, you're trying to sketch out your starting roster. Your team still needs a quarterback, three wide receivers, a tight end, and two positions you're not willing to consider until much later, K and DEF.

Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Tom Brady were gone by the end of the second round, and Drew Brees probably went a few picks before your third-rounder. So now you're looking at a collection of approximately two dozen wide receivers who should put up comparable stats. And you're looking at a quarterback, Marc Bulger, who outscored every receiver in 2006 by a wide margin. Bulger had 253 fantasy points last season. He threw for 4,301 yards, 24 TDS, and only eight interceptions. Oh, and his offense added Drew Bennett, Randy McMichael and Dante' Hall during the offseason. Another option here is Donovan McNabb, who scored 200 fantasy points last year in only 10 games.

If you pass on Bulger and McNabb, there's a clear drop-off in expected production from the next tier of quarterbacks. You're into Matt Hasselbeck-Vince Young territory. But in order to get one of those guys, you'll have to take them ahead of at least one – and possibly two – of your WRs. Vince Young's average draft round is 5.4 and Hasselbeck's is 6.5.

In a public league, I'm taking Bulger in the middle of the third round, not a wide receiver. The expected point differential between the Rams QB and the next highest-rated quarterback is simply too great. (Honestly, in a 10-team public league there's not a huge penalty for drafting Manning in Round 1. He scored 311 fantasy points last year. Maybe I should re-think the conclusion to my previous Draft-Day Dilemma. Hmm …) After taking Bulger, I'll still get either Javon Walker or Lee Evans in Round 4. Those two simply aren't so different from the top-rated receivers. In the fifth and sixth rounds, there's another vast tier of WRs – Hines Ward (ADP 45.1), Santana Moss (49.3), Darrell Jackson (50.2), Laveranues Coles (54.8), Terry Glenn (73.6), Reggie Brown (57.4), Calvin Johnson (56.9) and Deion Branch (61.0) are among them – that I can sift through.

Then by Round 7 I'll be dealing with the next dilemma: draft a bench-warming running back or a starting tight end?