"Can I play in a league with you?"
I hear that a lot. In fact, it's probably the question I get asked most after "Whom should I start?" and "Seriously? They put you on TV?"
There are a lot of variations on it.
Sometimes they are very nice.
Joe (Cleveland): Hey TMR, been reading your stuff for a couple years now, and I'm a big fan. My roommate and I are setting up our annual fantasy football league and we have an extra spot.
Sometimes they are cocky.
Rob (Texas): I would like to be in a football league or baseball league with you. I dominate every other league I'm in. I'm incredibly active and check my email 10 times a day. Let me know.
And sometimes they are less than kind.
Rob (Pennsylvania): (sic) you have no clue what you are talking about and i have no idea how you have that job id love to play in a fantasy league with you so you can learn from a true fantasy king.
I always say no.
From "industry" leagues with people at other fantasy websites to leagues for radio stations and advertisers and marketing or publicity people, from people in the comments section of my articles to people from high school I haven't spoken to in 20 years who contact me out of the blue to say "we talked about it and decided it'd be fun to have you in our league," from employees of companies that are in business with ESPN to people who follow me on Twitter or Facebook or random people who reach out through friends of friends, I get requests all the time.
I always say no.
I feel bad about it. I'm totally flattered that people want to play with me, even though I know the main reasons I get invited are because (1) I work for ESPN, (2) they think if they can beat the "ESPN guy" it means something, or (3) after reading me, people are more convinced than ever that "I can definitely crush that idiot." Whatever the reason or tone, still the invites come, many times and from all over.
I always say no.
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It's not that I'm not appreciative or interested. I am. It's not that I don't love fantasy football. I do. It's just that I'm already in too many leagues as is. And it's not just double-digit fantasy football leagues. It's Pick 'Em leagues, Eliminator contests, salary-cap leagues like Gridiron Challenge, leagues where you draft NFL teams and compete based on wins (and, in one case, losses.) Many, many different types of fantasy football and football-related leagues. At a certain point, it becomes diminishing returns, and then, instead of disappointing someone by not playing, I disappoint them by being no fun at all to play with as I wind up not being as active or engaged in their league as they were expecting when they bothered to ask me.
So I always say no.
Until about this time last year. Once again, the question was asked.
"Can I play in a league with you?"
And this time, I was surprised. It was my 13-year-old stepson and, for the first time, he was showing an interest in what I do for a living.
If you remember, in this article last preseason, I told you about how I got married to a wonderful woman who happened to come with three boys. We also had twin daughters last year. It's chaos at home. Good, happy chaos, but chaos nonetheless.
Anyway, after we got married, everything sort of hit me at once. I went from seeing the kids a few times a week when their mother and I were dating to, now, living with them. I can barely take care of myself. And, other than my dog, I've never really been responsible for any other living being, and now, here I was, in the same house as three boys aged 7, 11 and 13.
It's a huge transition. And not just for me. Think about it from a kid's point of view. They've been through a lot in their young lives, and now, despite spending a lot of time with me before the wedding and all of us getting along, it's still a big adjustment to living in a new house with your mom and her new husband, right?
So we all started living together and I tried to walk a fine line. I wanted to be there for them but also didn't want to come on too strong. Show them I cared but not that I was trying to replace anyone. The big decisions were their parents' call, but I could be a sounding board, an advocate or, when necessary, a disciplinarian, as well. I tried to be positive and involved but not too pushy.
And although all three boys are sports fans and knew what I do, even occasionally watching "Fantasy Football Now" -- Sundays at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2; tune in for the preseason show all August long! -- none of them had ever shown a real interest in what I did. Until now.
"I want to play in a league with you."
"You do, huh?"
"Yeah. Actually, I want to do a team with you. Can we? Is it too late?"
Turns out, I almost always say no.
"No, it's not too late. We'll start a league."
And start a league we did. My wife and I are friends with the parents of all the kids' close friends. So I decided we should do an extended family league. It'd be an eight-team league; we'd invite parents to co-own with their kids and do it up. I would co-own with the 13-year-old.
The next day, we had just finished watching the 11-year-old's youth football game. As we were walking out, we ran into his father and his father's longtime girlfriend. And a thought occurred to me.
"Hey, uh, don't know if you'd be interested, but I think we're gonna do a little fantasy football league with all the kids. You wanna play? You could co-own a team with [the 11-year-old]."
He looked surprised by the invitation. We had always had a very cordial relationship, but it's not as if we ever socialized or anything. And this whole thing had to be an adjustment for him, as well; now there's some new guy living with his kids? He's always been respectful of me and I of him, but it's still weird, you know? Awkward. Divorce is never easy on anyone, and new partners entering the equation certainly don't make anything simpler.
But he looked at me and said "Sure. Sounds fun."
And that weekend, we all gathered at a friend's house. The kids and their friends, their parents, my wife and I … and her ex-husband and his girlfriend.
I was the only one who had ever played fantasy football before, so I printed out a bunch of ESPN cheat sheets and roster forms, explained the rules, keeping it super simple, and suggested that, if they were unsure, they should just go down the list and pick the next available guy. They could ask me anything they wanted during the draft; I'd help everyone equally and the 13-year-old would draft for us.
I have to tell you, doing a draft with a bunch of 11- and 13-year-olds who know nothing about fantasy is hilarious.
The kids grew up in Connecticut, so they've mostly watched just the local teams. That led to this exchange in the second round.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesThanks to the Jets' much-hyped offseason trade, the boys will each be able to draft a Jets quarterback this season. How can they possibly lose?
Kid 1: I'll take Mark Sanchez.
Kid 2: Aw, man! I wanted him. He's so good.
Kid 1: I know. I can't believe he didn't go in the first!
Totally genuine. The kids would help each other out: "You need a running back? Oh look, no one took Michael Turner yet. You should take him." "Oh, thanks!"
It was, like, the 12th round.
Kickers went in the third. Kids took back-to-back quarterbacks in the first two rounds. I just smiled. A lot. It was great.
But best of all, it was normal. We were in a big circle, the adults with beers, the kids with cheat sheets trying to figure out what tight end to pick now that Kevin Boss was off the board in the fourth. And most importantly, the kids saw their mom and dad and their parents' current significant others all hanging out, having fun. It wasn't weird or awkward.
I can't exactly describe it. It's like there was this collective sigh of relief. Everything had always been pleasant and cordial, but now it was more than that. All of our mutual friends now realized it would be fine to have the four of us at the same party or out to dinner. The kids realized they didn't have to tiptoe around anything. Said one child of divorce to our kids after the draft; "I wish my mom and dad got along like that."
And the good feelings from the draft continued through the season. If their dad and I are at one of the kid's Little League games or whatever, we'll now sit next to each other. They've come over for drinks or parties. He'll text me pictures or video of the kids at a game I can't make, and I'll do the same for him. As opposed to having two different households, we're all raising these kids together. It's terrific.
During the season, whether it was picking up free agents, reviewing trade offers, setting our lineup or going over the matchup scores the next day, my stepson and I always had something to talk about and look forward to. Something for us to do together.
Just like at the draft, being in a league with a bunch of young kids who had never played before was fantastic. Kids at that age are so blunt and honest.
Kid 1: Dude, your team sucks.
Kid 2: I know. (hangs head)
No attempt at a comeback. Just an acknowledgement that his brother was right.
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson's crazy Week 17 ended up winning it all for my stepson and me, and watching that comeback together was a great moment. And everyone is already excited for Year 2, to come back and try to take down the champs. My wife and our (now) 8-year-old have already claimed one of the expansion teams.
I always say no. But thank goodness this one time I said yes. What was a silly little eight-team league turned out to be the most important one I participated in last season. When you say yes, you never know what will be a throwaway league and which one will help transform a group of people into a family.
Which brings us, meandering slowly, to this year's edition of Love/Hate. For the many of you for whom this is old hat and for the new kids in class, allow me to explain the premise, as I am switching it up a bit this year.
The truth behind Love/Hate
Let's start with this: I hate the terms "sleeper" and "bust." I believe there are no such things. Or rather, that there are such things, but whether a player can be a "sleeper" or a "bust" is entirely dependent on what it costs to acquire said player.
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Take Matt Ryan last year. Some people labeled him a sleeper, with dreams of Julio Jones opening up the offense. The Falcons would be the "Greatest Show on Turf, Part 2" -- none other than Roddy White proclaimed that on our Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast last season.
I actually had Matt Ryan on the Hate list last year in this very column, in which I wrote that, although Ryan was going in the seventh round, I would not take him until the 10th. These are direct quotes from my piece last year; "A very good real-life quarterback, there's no reason he should be going two rounds ahead of guys like Eli Manning. … Solid and safe? Very much so. Big upside? Not so much. If you don't get one of the big seven, you can get similar stats much later."
So I had him as a "bust" based on the seventh-round average draft position. So what happened? Was Ryan a sleeper? Or a bust?
And I'd argue … both. It all depends where you got him. If you drafted him in the seventh and bypassed Eli Manning, who went, on average, in the ninth, then yes, he was a bust for you. Eli threw for almost 5,000 yards and was the sixth-best fantasy quarterback.
But if you waited on quarterback and you got Ryan late (he was going as late as the 12th round in many drafts), then he was a sleeper for you. Ryan had another very solid, if unspectacular, season, finishing as the eighth-best fantasy quarterback, with more points than some quarterbacks drafted much higher than him, notably Philip Rivers and (ahem) Michael Vick.
Not to get all businessy on you (or all non-Englishy), but a common and basic business term that gets bandied about in fantasy is "return on investment," or ROI. Let's say you were a company that made two products, but had to downsize to making just one. If one product sells for $1.05 and the other sells for 50 cents and you're selling as many of the first as you are of the second, you'd think you'd want to keep producing the $1.05 product, right? But if it costs $1.00 to produce the $1.05 item and just 10 cents to make the 50-cent one, well, now you're changing your tune.
Fantasy is the same way. Every player has value. It's simply about what it costs to get him. And this column is all about players who, based on ESPN.com draft results for standard 10-team leagues, are costing too much (or not enough) to acquire.
So please use this column as intended. It is not a sleepers and busts column. Rather, it's a market inefficiency column. With puns.
AP Photo/Kurt StrumpfKarl Marx also dabbled in economic theory and wrote a manifesto that was fairly popular, but he never had much fantasy football success because he believed kickers should be treated as the equal of quarterbacks.
It's a market, as I view it, and a market you will understand in greater detail after you read my Draft Day Manifesto. If you don't have the time, do me a favor and just click on it. I really only care about your clicks. In return, here's the super-abridged "CliffsNotes" version: You want an elite quarterback and, to a lesser extent, an elite tight end. Wide receiver is crazy deep, so you can wait on them, running back is filled with question marks, so load up on them in the middle rounds, hoping one or two of them pop. And I'm sorry about Vick, but I bought the Big Salad, OK?
Back to this year's Love/Hate. Not only is it not a sleeper and bust list, it's also not a comprehensive list of players I really like or don't like. For example, I absolutely love Matthew Stafford (who appeared on this list last year) to repeat his stellar performance. However, I have him ranked as a second-round pick and he's going in the second. Right where I think he should be. So he doesn't make the list this year.
If you want a comprehensive list of whom I value and where, please check out my top 200 rankings, which will be updated throughout the preseason.
The reason for all this preamble is because of the way I am formatting the column this year. I did this for the preseason baseball Love/Hate, and it worked well, so I'm doing the same format here. Based on the ESPN.com live draft results as of the weekend of Aug. 4, I'm going to go round by round and pick one or two players who are going a little too late (the "loves") or are going a little too early (the "hates") for my taste.
Hopefully, the round designations will stop questions like "You hate Frank Gore and love Jacquizz Rodgers, which one should I draft?" But I'm not holding my breath. Use your brain. It's by round. With each player, I tell you the round he is going in and the round when I would take him (based on my rankings), but use your common sense. If a guy is going in the 12th and I say he's an eighth-round guy for me, but you feel as though he'll last until the 10th or 11th in your draft, take him then. It's just that I feel that player is going to return an eighth-round value. The less you invest in terms of your pick, the better the return on the investment.
Addressing the last (fingers crossed) of the questions I get every year, people wonder why there are so many more loves than hate. That's just the nature of the beast. It doesn't do you any good to say I hate Blaine Gabbert. His value and rank already reflect that he is not highly thought of. I'm still going round by round, and, in a standard ESPN league, there are 16 rounds, so you're getting at least 16 hates. But be aware that, in general, I am from the "no such thing as a bad pick after Round 12" school of thought. So you're really choosing "hate" only from the guys who are considered at a high enough level to be drafted with big expectations, which pretty much eliminates most guys in the lower rounds.
Finally, please remember this is being written in the first weekend in August. No preseason games have been played; camps haven't been open that long; much can and will change in the next month. Last year, in this column, I wrote about Knowshon Moreno as a "love," highlighting the fact that John Fox loves to run and it seemed as if Moreno had no competition for the job. Two weeks after that column, I wrote a preseason "100 Facts" column that highlighted that Willis McGahee was going in the 12th round and how Fox loved to run in the red zone. I then wrote a "10 Lists of 10" column that listed McGahee as one of my Top 10 positive "flag guys" I wanted to be judged on. And then, in my "You Heard Me" bold prediction column last year, my bold prediction for the Broncos was "1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns for Willis McGahee." As training camp unfolded, I changed my tune on Moreno and was pumping McGahee as a nice draft value in Denver, a perfect fit for my "unsexy running backs in the middle rounds" theory.
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I bring this up not to brag about McGahee (or excuse Moreno) -- I will get many calls right and wrong along the way -- but rather to point out that fantasy value changes all the time. Roles and opportunities, information about players and schemes, draft trends, and heath and results in the preseason all play a factor, and, if you refuse to keep your mind open and are unwilling to change an opinion on a player once you get new info, that's a quick way to lose. And this next month is the most crucial.
Follow me on Twitter. Become my friend on Facebook . Listen to the podcast, watch Fantasy Football Now on Sundays, and read all the articles and ranking updates until your draft, then make the decision. Or, if you choose to ignore that, don't blame me for it. Remember, only a poor craftsman blames his tool. That's all I am, your tool. Wait, that came out wrong. Which is odd, given that I've used that joke three years in a row now. Huh. Well, no time to dwell. Let's get it on.
Players I Love this season
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers and Tom Brady, QB, Patriots (going in 1st round, I would take with top two picks): Obviously, I'm not out on any limb with these two picks, but I put them here for a few reasons. One, it's the first round, so there's no round I can go higher on them, but I am as high on them as can possibly be, with Rodgers and Brady as my top two players overall. But also because their ADPs are at No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, and I've seen Rodgers go as low as fourth and seen Brady drop into the second round.
I've already written a ton about why an elite QB is crucial this year, but the biggest reason I have them at 1 and 2 overall is the premise that you can't win your league in the first round but you can lose it. I love Ray Rice and Arian Foster, but you can't tell me there isn't more inherent risk with a running back than there is with a quarterback. Three of the first four running backs taken last year were Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson. How'd that work out for you? More injury risk, more risk of poor performance. Rodgers and Brady are as close to money in the bank as there is in fantasy. That safety is worth something.
Matt Forte, RB, Bears (going in 2nd, I would take in 1st): "Michael Bush! Goal line! Injury!" It's not hard to spot a Forte hater. They're insane. And they don't speak in complete sentences. First, about the injury. He played in the Pro Bowl last year, OK? Before that, Forte had not missed a game in his career, playing in 62 consecutive games, including the playoffs. Not worried about the injury. As for Michael Bush, last year, Matt Forte averaged 14.2 fantasy points per game (not counting the Chiefs game he left very early). For comparison, Adrian Peterson averaged 15.0 points per game in the 12 games he played. And while Forte was averaging those 14.2 points a game, do you know how many goal-line touchdowns he had? Zero.
In fact, he had only three rushing touchdowns all of last season. That's not his game. It's not why you draft him. Obviously, you hope the touchdowns will come, but you can't be worried about Michael Bush vulturing Forte's goal-line carries because he doesn't have any to vulture. You are drafting Forte because he will be an integral part of an offense that wants to run even more under Mike Tice than it did under Mike Martz. Forte led the NFL in offensive touches over the first eight games last year. He is a three-down back who is a great pass-catcher -- only Darren Sproles had more targets over the first eight games last year -- and he is safe and consistent and has never had fewer than 1,400 total yards in a season. Never.
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIt's highly doubtful that Sean Payton's last words to Drew Brees before his suspension began were "Listen, Drew, I'm not going to be around to guide the offense next season, but if you want to win, whatever you do, stop throwing it to Jimmy!"
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints (going in 3rd, would take in 2nd): And not only do I have him as a second-rounder but I have him as my No. 1 tight end, ahead of Rob Gronkowski, which I don't think is the norm. I still think Gronk will be a stud this year, but there are more mouths to feed in New England (the Patriots added Brandon Lloyd) and fewer in New Orleans (Robert Meachem is gone) this season. Also, Graham had 25 more targets than Gronk last season. The argument for Gronk over Graham is the touchdowns, and they are just too tough to predict.
Graham is safer to me because of how involved he is in the Saints' offense: Forget tight ends, Graham was fifth in targets (149) among all players last season, tied for second in red zone targets, third in total receptions and seventh in receiving yards.
And lest you think that last year was a fluke, or that I won't drop a word like "lest" on you, consider this: Since 2008, no quarterback has thrown more balls and completed more passes to a tight end than … Drew Brees.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs (3rd, 2nd): "Injury! Peyton Hillis! Didn't you hear me on Michael Bush!" Yes, the Charles haters get half-price membership and a free lube job when joining the Matt Forte Haters Club at the same time. Look, until we see Charles on the field, we won't know whether he has recovered all of his burst and elusiveness after ACL surgery. So I am reserving my right to bail on this after a few preseason games, OK? But, as of right now, my thinking is this: After the first few guys, you start getting into serious question marks.
Darren McFadden's health. Maurice Jones-Drew's ongoing holdout (as of this writing). Will Marshawn Lynch get suspended? What about DeMarco Murray and his health? And we have a very small body of work on which to judge him. Is Trent Richardson good enough to overcome everything else that is wrong with the Browns? So, as long as we are into the "question mark running back territory," I'd rather take the guy who had his injury almost a year ago, who is young enough to recover fully (just 25) and who claims to "have his mojo" back. Remember Charles' killer 2010 season? He averaged fewer than 15 carries a game. Volume is not his game. Frankly, I am happy that Hillis is there and, as you'll see, I feel both backs will have good years. For you aspiring writers out there, that is called "foreshadowing." And not to show off all my writing tricks, but this next one is called "a bad transition." Next player!
Michael Vick, QB, Eagles (4th, end of 2nd): The logic from last year remains the same, the price is just cheaper this year. If he stays healthy, he has the ability, the weapons around him and the offensive scheme to put up the greatest fantasy season ever. Period. Tons of upside, obvious downside, as well. Clearly, I am a counselor, campfire song leader and organizer of the overnight canoe trip at Camp Rewardisworththerisk. One of the few times I go away from my "safe early, upside later" mantra. His upside is that great. If you don't agree with me, don't draft him. But the year after I'm all-in on him? There's no way he's not going off.
Steven Jackson, RB, Rams (4th, 3rd): Friend-of-the-podcast Steven Jackson is the main guy on a team that will run the ball a lot. He has missed just two games the past three seasons, and as bad as the Rams were, he was still tied as the 10th-best fantasy running back last year. In a year with so many question marks, Jackson is a solid No. 2 running back to grab in the third, as there will still be lots of good wideouts left in the fourth. And the fifth. And the sixth.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Bears (4th, 3rd): Make no mistake, the off-the-field issues are a concern, but he has acknowledged in interviews the great opportunity he has in Chicago, and I expect a more mature Marshall. Being reunited with Jay Cutler and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates (who was with both guys in Denver when Cutler and Marshall connected on back-to-back 100-catch seasons) is key. Those years were Marshall's best two years as a pro, leading the NFL in targets. Since 2007, Marshall has never had fewer than 1,000 yards and never finished lower than 13th among fantasy wide receivers, and he has had to play with nine different quarterbacks. Back with Bates and Cutler, he's safe, with upside for more.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (4th, 3rd): Someday, in the near future, we will all gather 'round and chortle heartily at the idea that you could once get Julio Jones in the fourth round. In the near present, we will high-five the TMR for winning a bet that he couldn't find a natural way to get the phrase "chortle heartily" into a column.
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaAfter years of being underthrown on deep, outside routes, we can just imagine Brandon Lloyd's delight at a barrage of perfectly thrown Tom Brady spirals.
Brandon Lloyd, WR, Patriots: (6th, late 3rd/early 4th): There are three schools of thought regarding Mr. Brandon Lloyd. The more conservative approach (and one drafters seem to be taking) is that there are only so many targets to go around in New England and, although he'll have some good games, he also will have some in which he'll disappear, and, for that, he's worth no more than being a low-end No. 2 , the 17th wideout off the board at the top of Round 6. There's another school of thought that stipulates that, now that he's been reunited with Josh McDaniels and combined with Tom Brady, the sky is the limit. And, of course, there's a school of thought among bitter Redskins fans who can't believe this is the same guy who stank in Washington (23 games, zero touchdowns). I am a member of the latter two groups. But let's focus on the positive. Big year coming for Brandon Lloyd.
So what's fair to expect from a McDaniels deep threat? In the 23 games Lloyd has played for McDaniels, he has been targeted 236 times, or 10.2 a game, aka 163 in a 16-game season. In 2007, the last time McDaniels was the offensive coordinator for Brady, Randy Moss had 23 touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards. And he was targeted 159 times. Hmm. We might be onto something.
Now, with the '07 Patriots and when he had Lloyd in Denver and St. Louis, McDaniels did not have the array of weapons to use that he has this season with Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and a pretty decent pass-catching trio of running backs hanging around. That's why our projection for Lloyd is a very reasonable 103 targets. But that's just a projection. What if Welker or one of the tight ends gets injured? What if Bill Belichick suddenly decides he doesn't want his running backs catching balls? A lot can happen in a 16-game season, and, for Lloyd, 160 targets isn't unattainable, it's merely his ceiling; unlikely is not impossible.
But here's the thing. Lloyd doesn't need 160 targets to have a great season. Remember, he was the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy in 2010 with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow throwing passes to him. My 100 Facts You Need to Know column had some good Lloyd stats (among them: most deep targets in the NFL the past two years. Yes, more than Calvin Johnson), but here's one stat I didn't include, courtesy of John Parolin from ESPN Stats & Information: We know that Lloyd lines up wide or "outside the numbers" almost exclusively. Well, over the past two seasons, Lloyd has been underthrown on throws outside the numbers 27 times, more than any other receiver in football. In fact, Lloyd's quarterbacks in that time frame have completed just 48 percent of their total passes to Lloyd outside the numbers. Meanwhile, Brady completed 64.2 percent of those throws the past three seasons.
At worst, Lloyd is the deep threat on one of the best offenses in football, whose playcaller loves and trusts him. At best? He's Randy Moss, circa 2007. Anywhere in between is a fine return for the sixth round, or even earlier to make sure you get him, as I'll be doing in my drafts.
Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings (6th, 4th): Call me nutty, but you know what I like? Crazy-fast wideouts who get to have the ball in their hands a lot. Once Christian Ponder took over in Week 7, Harvin lead all wide receivers in offensive touches, with 100. Second-most was Wes Welker ... with 74! Harvin finished the year as the eighth-best fantasy wide receiver and yet is going outside the top 20, well behind the other big "breakout" guys from last season, Victor Cruz and Jordy Nelson.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Bengals (6th, 5th): I did eight of my 100 Facts on Green-Ellis so I'll merely say this: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the poster boy this year for the "unsexy running back you can get in the middle rounds that no one will go 'oooh, great pick' but will help you win your league." Among the guys in this column last year that I labeled that way were Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and Matt Forte. Green-Ellis will get the majority of carries on a team that likes to run, and he's never gotten the chance to get all the work. Enjoy the good production for a low cost, and enjoy the fact that I made it through this without some terrible joke about how Cincy needs a law firm.
Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (6th, 5th): We have two sets of data to use when evaluating Rivers. The first 11 games of 2011, when he was terrible, or the final five games of last season plus, you know, every other season in his career. As the smart kids over at numberFire tell me, even off his bad year, "Rivers still finished No. 7 in the league in total efficiency added, adding 130 points to the Chargers' offense above what a league-average offense would have scored if put in similar situations. In fact, Rivers is the only quarterback to add at least 100 points above expectation in each of the past five years." I'm not convinced the loss of Vincent Jackson is a big deal. Rivers' best season was 2010 (4,710 yards, 30 TDs) and Jackson played all of five games. Was Rivers hiding an injury last year? Was he just under more pressure from an offensive line beset by injuries? Remember, the Chargers had to sign Jared Gaither off the street and he was starting a few days later. I don't know. I do know that over the final five games, Rivers averaged 17.8 points and 282 yards a game and had 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. I'm back in.
Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, WR, Broncos (7th, 6th): You know how, after years of thinking about it, you finally did it and were like "Whoa! That's even better than I ever imagined!" I can only assume that's what Thomas and Decker feel like after going from Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning. Don't be surprised to look over at the Broncos' sideline after the first game and see these guys smoking a cigarette.
Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers (7th, 5th): Starting with his breakout game in Week 7, he was the better fantasy wide receiver than Mike Wallace the rest of the way. Period. More targets, more receptions, more yards and more fantasy points per game (9.8 compared to 8.0). There's a reason Brown got paid this offseason, you know? When a quarterback is on third down, trying to move the chains, he looks to his safety blanket, right? Well, last year only Roddy White had more third-down catches for a first down than Brown.
Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers (8th, 5th): Excuse me, can you move over? And you, yes you, if you'll just turn to your right. And if you, sir -- no, not you, him, yes, that guy -- sir, if you can squeeze two steps to your left. Great. There you go. See? Still room on the bandwagon. Among the quotes from Greg Schiano about Doug Martin in his press conference about Martin: "He's a three-down back"; "He's good in pass protection"; "Yes, I do see some Ray Rice in him"; and "I love this kid." Been taking the first-team reps in practice, and I don't think there's any way he lasts until the eighth round as preseason progresses.
Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers (8th, 7th): Running backs coach Kirby Wilson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Redman was going to be the third-down back this year as well. I'm sorry. Did you say I can get a good three-down back on a team that will run … in the seventh round? OK, I'm listening. Who knows when or even if Rashard Mendenhall comes back and how effective he'll be when/if he does. Meanwhile the wacky kids at numberFire tell me this: "Last year, out of running backs with at least 100 carries, Redman ranked as the No. 11 most-efficient (whether the team performed above or below league-average standard) running back and had a success rate over 39 percent; No. 6 in the league in that category. Pittsburgh was right in the middle of the league last year in pass-to-run ratio at 1.34, so expect a heavy reliance on Redman in the early going."
Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens (9th, 8th): Last year, only four teams attempted more passes of 21-plus yards than the Ravens, but most of them didn't go for completions. But you keep throwing deep, and in Smith's second year, good things are going to happen. He's fast, son. Country fast. If you're asking me, "Who could be this year's Jordy Nelson?" -- and, since I'm writing your dialogue, that's exactly what you are saying -- Torrey Smith is my vote. What's that you say? I'm handsome and smart and you love me? Stop, please, you're embarrassing me.
John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesRG3 as seen from the floor after one passes out after instantly hyperventilating upon meeting him. Or so I've heard.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins (8th, 8th): They are going to pass a lot and his potential rushing and ... whatever. I am not rational when it comes to Robert Griffin the Third. I am a teenaged girl and he is my Justin Bieber. #ILOVEYOURG3.
Peyton Hillis, RB, Chiefs (10th, 7th): The hate's gone too far. Even a 100 percent healthy Charles isn't carrying it more than 15 times a game. Hillis will get goal-line carries, is a good pass-catcher in his own right and will definitely get some between-the-tackles work. Last year, new Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was calling plays in Miami, where the Dolphins had the sixth-most rushing attempts in the NFL. Remember, in 2010, when Charles was setting the fantasy world on fire, Thomas Jones had over 1,000 total yards and six touchdowns on 259 touches for the Chiefs. Oh, and speaking of 2010, that was Peyton Hillis' breakout year with Cleveland. Where his offensive coordinator was … Brian Daboll.
Denarius Moore, WR, OAK: (10th, 8th): See Palmer, Carson, 15th round.
Donald Brown, RB, Colts (10th, 8th): Is he a great football player? Not really. Are his totals skewed by one 80-yard run against the Titans in Week 15? A little, yeah. But, per FootballOutsiders.com, Brown averaged 4.86 ypc from two-tight-end sets last year, which is similar to what Andrew Luck ran in college, and you'll see a lot of that this year, as well. Brown also doesn't have a ton of competition for the job. I expect Chuck Pagano to want a more conservative, between-the-tackles, control-the-clock type offense than we're used to seeing in Indy, given Luck's inexperience and the so-so talent around him. Brown will be a good flex/bye week fill-in guy, and to get a starting running back in the eighth is pretty solid.
Fred Davis, TE, Redskins (11th, 9th): A word about Washington's offense, from our team at Scouts Inc.: "Shanahan's rollout passing game … features waggles and bootlegs off play-action and that leaves [Griffin] with a lot of half-field reads, which should really help his early production and they will throw in multiple two-tight end sets." Last year, through the first 12 games (before his suspension), Fred Davis had 88 targets, sixth-most in the NFL and just five fewer than second place. Over that same time frame, Rob Gronkowski had … 90 targets.
This offense is designed for both RG3, Davis and his impressive yards-after-catch total; only Gronk and Jimmy Graham had more than Davis' 363 yards after the catch through 12 games last season. This means a lot of rollout plays to Davis and then letting him do the work. If you don't get one of the big studs, reach a round or two to make sure you get Fred Davis.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts (11th, 9th): Currently going as the 37th wide receiver. Come on. He's not dead, he's just in Indy. There IS a difference, you know.
Jacob Tamme, TE, Broncos (12th, 11th): In case you waited on tight end and the guy right before you read everything I wrote about Davis, console yourself with Jacob Tamme and this thought: Remember my Drew Brees stat above about how he has the most pass attempts and completions to a tight end since 2008? Well, guess whose quarterback is second, despite missing an entire season?
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Raiders (13th, 9th): See Moore, Denarius.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, Bucs (13th, 12th): Because there's a chance I am as wrong about Doug Martin as I was about Blount last season.
AP Photo/Stephen MortonDon't hate me for hating on MJD. Hate the fact that you know I'm probably right.
Jared Cook, TE, Titans (14th, 11th): A physical freak who is both big and fast, he could easily be this year's Jimmy Graham/Rob Gronkowski. He could also do nothing, like last season, when he was also on my Love list. As FootballOutsiders.com points out, he was targeted more than seven times in seven different games last season. And three or fewer in another seven. If I wanted a huge-upside tight end after the top 10 were gone, he'd be the guy I grab. Which is why I list him here. His upside is very much worth an 11th- or 12th-round pick. But I'm also going to give this caveat: I wouldn't want to go into the season with only him as my tight end.
Brent Celek, TE, Eagles (14th, 11th): This is crazy low. Is he amazing? No. Nor does he have the upside of some others, but he's also a bit safer. We know he's been a stud before, and he seemed to get back to that toward the end of last year. Over the second half of the season, he was top-10 in the NFL among tight ends in targets, receptions, yardage (fourth!) and touchdowns. Nowhere to go but up for Philly's offense this year.
Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals (15th, 8th): Tore his right patellar tendon last year. Still healthier than Beanie Wells.
Carson Palmer, QB, Raiders (15th, 13th): From Nov. 6, which was the first game that Palmer started for the Raiders last season, he was top-10 in the NFL in passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards and yards per attempt. In fact, he was first in pass plays of more than 25 yards. And 11th in touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp loves short passes and crossing routes and, luckily, Palmer has two burners in Moore and Heyward-Bey, along with a hopefully healthy Darren McFadden. Palmer could pad those yardage totals without throwing as many of those interception-making deep passes that he loves.
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers (16th, 12th): The best yards-after-catch average of any Packers wideout last year, he's initially going to be tough to count on week in, week out. But a young burner with talent and Aaron Rodgers throwing to him? Rather take a late gamble on a guy like him, who could easily blow up, than a "safer" guy like Nate Burleson, who is what he is at this point. In the late rounds, you want upside. And Randall Cobb has it by the bushelful. Do they still sell bushels? They do, right? At least in Green Bay? Go look that up while I get to the next guy. Let me know. Thanks.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Falcons (undrafted, 12th): We know some backup running backs will pop at some point this year. So if we're placing bets, gimme the guy behind Michael Turner.
Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers (undrafted, 14th): Every time I've seen this guy, I like what I see. I have the opposite reaction to Malcolm Floyd and Robert Meachem.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings (undrafted, 14th): You can't teach 6-foot-6.
A love so deep …
So, standard ESPN leagues draft only 160 players (10 teams, 16 roster slots) and 20 of those are defenses and kickers. So you're really dealing with 140 players who can be drafted. Now, obviously, I know some people play in deeper leagues; this list is for you. Here are some deeper guys who are not being drafted in ESPN standard leagues but who I have inside my personal top 140. I've divided them up into sections, since toward the end of your draft you're probably looking for "one more wideout" or "a backup tight end" or "that last piece of pizza or the leftover ribs?"
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills: Was among the hottest things going, averaging 248 passing yards and two touchdowns a game for the first seven weeks. Then he hurt his ribs. The ribs are better. (That is also the answer to the pizza question).
Matt Cassell, Chiefs: Nice weapons, good dump-off options, and Brian Daboll is a really good coordinator.
It's all about the backup, of course; you're hoping for the starter to put on a poor performance or to get injured (just slightly, don't really wanna root for injury, but hey, it's the NFL -- it happens). See my ranks for specific order, but here are the backups with the best upside in terms of who is in front of them, and who I believe would have success if given the carries.
Rashad Jennings, Jaguars: how is no one drafting MJD's backup? MJD could easily hold out into the season.
Mike Goodson (and Taiwan Jones to an extent), Raiders: Darren McFadden, but I can't "like" him to good health.
Bilal Powell, Jets: Contrary to popular belief, Tim Tebow is not the Jets' third-down back.
Phillip Tanner, Cowboys: If something happens to DeMarco Murray, I believe Tanner, and not Felix Jones, would be the guy.
Tim Hightower, Redskins: Currently running with the first team in Washington but being drafted behind Roy Helu and Evan Royster.
Danny Amendola, Rams: Was a sleeper last year, too. Doubling down.
Greg Little, Browns: A better PPR guy than for standard scoring; at some point the Browns have to throw it. Little was top-20 in the NFL in targets last year.
Kendall Wright, Titans: Hearing great things, and you know Kenny Britt-le will provide opportunity. (I warned you there'd be puns.)
Leonard Hankerson, Redskins: So sue me. I'm an optimistic Redskins fan. It only happens once every decade. Liked what I saw in limited time and they will be throwing.
Steve Smith, Rams: Hearing really good things about "the other Steve Smith."
The Baldwin Brothers: Doug in Seattle, Jon in KC and Alec on planes. All ready to show some growth this year.
Austin Collie, Colts: See Wayne, Reggie.
Coby Fleener, TE, Colts: Luck's security blanket. And has been for a while now.
Players I Hate this season
Jim Brown/US PresswireJared Cook is what we in the industry like to call low-risk, high-reward. This kind of player is way more desirable to own than its counterpart, the high-risk, low-reward player.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars (being drafted in 1st, I would draft in 2nd): You wanna talk about something I hate? I hate putting MJD on this list. A great guy, a great promoter of fantasy and obviously a great running back. But he's holding out. We saw what happened to Chris Johnson last year. Has any player ever come back from a holdout and had a better year than the previous? I don't think so. Even if you ignore the usage last year (386 offensive touches, most in the NFL), the new offense MJD has to learn and the fact that defenses are likely to focus on stopping him and make Blaine Gabbert beat them (hehehe -- dammit, I almost got through that without laughing and everything), you're still left with the fact that Maurice is a proud guy (rightfully so) and may very well hold out for a long time. You can't take that risk in the first round.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals (1st, 2nd): It's not that I hate Larry. He's awesome. No matter who is throwing to him. I have him at 17 overall, my No. 2 wide receiver this year. I just have a tough time taking any wideout (even Megatron, whom I have at 10) in the first round given how deep wideout is. Seriously. Jeremy Maclin and Steve Johnson are going in the seventh round and outside the top 20 of wide receivers. Seventh round. Maclin and Johnson. And Antonio Brown, whom I love. Any one of them could end up as a top-10 guy. Crazy. Deep.
Andre Johnson, WR, Texans (2nd, late 4th/early 5th): This one is not just about depth at the position; 12 missed games the past two years, he has never had double-digit touchdowns in a season, and the Texans ran 52.2 percent of the time in '11, 2nd-most in the NFL.
Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers (3rd, 5th): I promise, I'll get off wideouts here in a second, but again, if you're gonna use a third-round pick on a wide receiver, how about getting one who isn't holding out and wasn't even the best wide receiver on his team over the second half of last season?
Eli Manning, QB, Giants (3rd/4th, take in 5th): Great year for Eli. Really great year. Threw for almost 5,000 yards, the sixth-most in NFL history. And he still wasn't a top-five fantasy quarterback. He's thrown more than 30 touchdowns once in an eight-year career. And with Mario Manningham being replaced by rookie Reuben Randle (whom I like, but still), I don't see that trend being broken. So now it's about his yardage. Here's the percentage of pass plays the Giants have called under Tom Coughlin the past five years.
2011 -- 60 percent
2010 -- 53.6 percent
2009 -- 56.4 percent
2008 -- 50.8 percent
2007 -- 54.9 percent
One guess which season was the outlier? The Giants are traditionally a power-running team, and this year they will get back to that, controlling the clock and yes, Eli's fantasy value. And that's before we even get to Victor Cruz.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants (4th, 5th): So as our player profile observes, last year Cruz scored touchdowns of 4, 24, 25, 28, 68, 72, 74, 74 and 99 yards. I agree with Christopher Harris, who wrote all the profiles; the repeatability of long, crazy, acrobatic touchdowns will be tough, especially now that he's on everyone's radar and the Giants will be throwing less. Think he's pretty good, don't think he's this good.
Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (4th, 4th): I reserve the right to take him off this list soon. We're dangerously close to "the hate has gone too far" territory. I still like the upside of Jaquizz, and Turner will be on other people's teams in most of my leagues, but there does come a point where you're like, so what if he's slowing down, had tons of touches and was bailed out last year by a few big games but overall wasn't a great fantasy contributor? He's still the main guy on a good offense. But until we reach that point, he's on the wrong side of 30, the miles have piled up on him by now, and his late-season numbers (excluding the Tampa Bay game) looked brutal.
Frank Gore, RB, 49ers (4th, 5th): Pick a stat, any stat. As the notes on our player cards, er, note, Gore's touches went down last year (and significantly so in the second half). Pro Football Focus notes that, using their metrics, Gore was "near the bottom of the league with a 23.8 elusive rating and a plus-2.1 overall rating last year". FootballOutsiders.com notes that using DVOA, their metric, Gore was lowest among running backs with at least 275 carries and that "he had just 12 broken tackles last year, very low totals for a starting back." And then there's the Matthew Berry metric that points out he's had just one season with double-digit scores and only two seasons with all 16 games played (those late West Coast games with Gore listed as questionable are always fun to deal with) -- and the 49ers just added Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James to their backfield, and they already had Kendall Hunter. Gore's stuff percentage was third-highest in the NFL on runs between an opponent's 1-9 yard line, and six of his eight scores last year came from 5 yards in, which isn't something you want to count on for your touchdowns. Receptions were way down (after 40-plus receptions for five straight years, he had just 17 last year). I always say, I'd rather jump off the bandwagon a year too early than a year too late. I'm off the bandwagon.
AP Photo/Stephen CherninNo fantasy points are scored for football lineage, "Saturday Night Live" appearances, or commercials in which you and Deion Sanders dress up as faeries.
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos (4th/5th, 6th): Archie, if you're reading this, I swear, I don't hate your kids. Just where they are being drafted. You can't tell me Peyton isn't a risk. He's 36, off four major neck surgeries, has missed a year, has new teammates, at least some slight changes to the offense and 15 of 16 games will be outdoors. There is upside there, of course; he's Peyton Manning. But there is also upside with Tony Romo and Philip Rivers. All three guys could have injuries or regress, all three have 4,700-yard/35-TD upside. Only difference is Romo and Rivers are going 1-3 rounds later than Peyton.
Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers (6th, 11th): Two. Because of last year's playoffs, people will forget the number two. As in, last year, Vernon Davis had just two games in which he scored more than five fantasy points without also scoring a touchdown. (Tony Gonzalez, by comparison, had six such games last year.) I hate a tight end who is so touchdown-dependent for his fantasy value. And I don't believe the playoffs are a harbinger of things to come; the 49ers are not going to win with Alex Smith throwing it 42 times like he did against the Saints (he averaged 27 attempts a game last year). Davis was only 10th in targets among tight ends, as the 49ers went with a ball-control, running offense last year. And as our player profile, er, profiles, Vernon's 6.7 yards at the catch was outside the top 20. So not a ton of looks his way, comparatively, and they're not throwing deep when they do. Remains to be seen if Mario Manningham and possibly Randy Moss open things up for Davis or take that many more balls away, but my projection is that he'll score a handful of touchdowns over the course of the season, but those will be hard to predict. You can get that kind of tight end much later. For where Davis is being drafted (No. 4 at the position), he needs to be much more than that.
Roy Helu, RB, Redskins (6th, 9th): Current reports have him third on the depth chart. That changes every second with Mike Shanahan, but that's the problem. He's a Redskins running back. Don't trust the lot of them.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Buccaneers (6th, 7th): He's just so many things I hate: A guy who just got paid, who has never really proven he's worth it; he's on a new team with a new playbook and quarterback; he has downgraded his QB and he's a fantasy whack-a-mole; he'll have huge games and then disappear. And with V-Jax, be it injury or contract or controversy, it just seems there's always something with him. Considering that guys like Harvin, Maclin, Steve Johnson, Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas are being drafted after him and can be had cheaper, Jackson won't be on any of my teams this year.
Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots (7th, 11th): Just can't imagine a scenario where I'd ever feel good about starting a Patriots running back. Lotta mouths to feed in their run game, which takes a back seat to their pass game; he's as good a guess as any to have the most value of any New England back, but good luck trying to hit that lottery.
Jonathan Stewart (7th , 9th) and DeAngelo Williams, RBs, Panthers (9th, 10th): See Ridley, Stevan. Barring injuries that thin the herd, would never feel confident starting either guy.
San Francisco 49ers D/ST (8th, 15th): Really, guys? A defense in the eighth? Also going in the eighth round as of this writing: Doug Martin, Robert Griffin the Third, Isaac Redman, Aaron Hernandez, Ben Roethlisberger. Really, guys? Really?
Jahvid Best, RB, Lions (9th, 14th): Can't stay healthy. Even if he could, the Lions can't run. Even if they could, there's competition there. Too many question marks to be going ahead of guys like Hillis, C.J. Spiller or Michael Bush.
Santonio Holmes, WR, Jets (10th, 12th): Well, unless your league gives points for blocking on the QB option.
Stephen Gostkowski, K, Patriots (11th, 16th): All you 49ers defense-drafting fools I just insulted? All is forgiven. Sigh.
Sidney Rice, WR, Seahawks (12th, 16th): When a team says, "You know what? We think the drama of an almost-40-year-old Terrell Owens is a better option than having you as the undisputed No. 1 receiver," that's a hint. Lotta wideouts with more upside and less injury risk and better quarterback situations going later than Rice.
Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys (12th, 16th): Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me every single season…
Andy Dalton, QB. Bengals (13th, wouldn't draft): Very tough division, conservative offense, single-digit fantasy points in three of his final five games. He doesn't have the fantasy upside of Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco or even Andrew Luck, all of whom are being drafted after him.
Kellen Winslow, TE, Seahawks (14th/15th, wouldn't draft) As our player profile, er, notes, yes, that's it! As our player profile notes, he's never had more than five scores in a season, has gone an insane 39 starts with just one 100-yard game and now he's on a new team trotting out a new offense with questionable quarterback play. He's going ahead of much higher upside guys like Jermaine Gresham, Kyle Rudolph, Dustin Keller, Scott Chandler and Martellus Bennett, whom I should have mentioned in the love section above. I actually think Bennett could have a nice year in New York, free from the shadow of Jason Witten.
And there we have it, Love/Hate for the 2012 preseason is in the books. Many more updates, articles, podcasts, video, "Fantasy Football Now" episodes, rankings, mock drafts, tweets and Facebook posts coming your way before we kick the season off, but in the meantime, when you saw this link and any other link to a something I've done … thank you for saying yes.http://sports.espn.go.com/fantasy/footb ... MRlovehate