Fantasy draft strategies must change as the NFL evolves

If it's no longer prudent to draft two running backs in the first two rounds, then what sort of strategies do you suggest? - A. Berg, Rockville, Md.

Michael Fabiano: I think draft position will be more important than ever in determining strategies in 2010. Say you have the third overall selection in a 12-team league. Your first pick should be one of Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson or Maurice Jones-Drew. But if running backs go flying off the board (as I expect) between that pick and your next pick), there is no reason to reach for a runner that isn't worth a second rounder. That's been a trap a lot of people have fallen into in the past. Instead, it makes more sense to grab an elite quarterback like Philip Rivers or a superstar wide receiver like DeSean Jackson or Reggie Wayne. If you have a late first-round pick, however, I think it can make sense to take two backs in the first two rounds. Here's an example. If you have the No. 11 overall pick in Round 1 and take Rashard Mendenhall, there's no reason to pass on Shonn Greene, Jamaal Charles or DeAngelo Williams in Round 2. In that case, you would have to focus on a quarterback and a wide receiver in the third and fourth rounds. Again, it's all about value.

You mentioned in your "evolution of fantasy football" column that it makes sense to pass on running backs in committees in favor of elite quarterbacks and wide receivers. I agree that the NFL is changing, but doesn't it make even more sense to focus on running backs in the earlier rounds? I would think that there will now be far more productive options at quarterback, so it makes sense to wait to target the position. - D. Hart, Boston, Mass.

M.F.: I'm not saying that you should pass on all committee backs, and I agree that the first two rounds will be littered with runners. But I am advising people not to reach (as I mentioned above) to fill the position. In 2007, I can remember people taking Ahman Green in one of the first four rounds because he was expected to be a featured back in Houston. That is the epitome of a reach. Fast forwarding to 2010, there is no reason to take a back who'll share carries ahead of an elite quarterback or wideout. I do agree that there is now a greater number of signal-callers that are viable fantasy starters, so the position will run deeper into drafts. But why take someone like Jonathan Stewart, who will lose carries to Williams, when you can pick Tom Brady instead? If you can land two solid running backs in the first two rounds, that will dictate that your strategy could be to sit back and wait on a quarterbacks. But be aware, more and more people are going to target signal-callers in the earlier rounds.

I'm in a 12-team PPR keeper league and can retain two players, but each player has to be at a different position. Who should I keep from Donovan McNabb, Jamaal Charles, Frank Gore, Michael Turner, Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker and Brent Celek. I was leaning towards Gore and Welker. - C. Cruz, San Diego, Calif.

M.F.: You have a very nice stable of running backs, but Gore is the one to retain. He doesn't have a ton of wear and tear on his body, and the PPR format makes him a very attractive choice. Charles is also a viable option because of his versatile skill set, but I see Gore as the safer choice. At wide receiver, you have to keep Fitzgerald ahead of Welker. I do realize the absence of Kurt Warner makes people a little scared of him, but Fitzgerald is an elite talent and still a solid keeper. You also have to keep in mind that Welker's status for the start of next season is in serious doubt. I've even read reports that he could be out until Thanksgiving as he recovers from major knee reconstruction, so the immediate value of the Patriots wideout is questionable at best right now.

How do you feel about LaDainian Tomlinson now that his new coach, Rex Ryan, said he wanted to give him 15 carries a game? I think you're underrating L.T. heading into next season. Who's to say he can't overtake Greene on the depth chart? There's also no way I'd take Darren McFadden ahead of Tomlinson, as you suggested in your last blog. McFadden is a bust! - W. Stevenson, Alpharetta, Ga.

M.F.: Ryan's quote on Tomlinson's role in the offense started with the word "hypothetically," so it was by no means a guarantee that the one-time fantasy superstar will see at least 15 carries a game. Furthermore, Ryan also called Greene "a superstar in the making." Does Tomlinson's presence put a cap on Greene's statistical ceiling? Of course. But do I think this is going to be an evenly-split backfield committee? Not a chance. Greene is still the top man on the depth chart, and I'm projecting him to see far more carries than Tomlinson. The fact that the Jets have a stout offensive line is a real positive, but let's not forget that L.T. will be 31 in June and is not the same player who filled up the stat sheets earlier in his career. As it stands, I have Greene ranked 10th among running backs and Tomlinson at 33 behind McFadden. Speaking of McFadden, I'd rather take a chance on him ahead of Tomlinson as a flex starter based on a few factors. He's still young, possesses statistical potential and could end up being a featured back for coach Tom Cable. McFadden also has a favorable FPA rating. Is he a risk-reward player? Absolutely. But I'd rather roll the dice on a young player with a chance at a prominent role over a thirty something veteran with little to no chance to start.

I'm in a 12-team non-PPR keeper league and need to retain three players from Ben Roethlisberger, Steven Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson and Tony Gonzalez. Thoughts? - M. Phipps, Twin Cities, Minn.

M.F.: I'd retain Jackson, McCoy and Johnson. While I do have some reservations about Jackson because of the lack of offense in St. Louis, he's still a featured back and is capable of posting solid numbers. McCoy's value is on the rise, especially in keeper leagues, as he's the top back in the Eagles offense after the offseason release of Brian Westbrook. The team has brought in Mike Bell, but he won't put a major dent into McCoy's playing time. In fact, I see Bell as more of a complementary short-yardage and goal-line back. That will keep McCoy from posting big touchdown totals, but he should still record 50-60 receptions and 1,300-plus scrimmage yards. At 21, McCoy has a bright future for the Eagles and fantasy owners alike.

I'm interested to know what your thoughts are on the Bears wide receivers. With Mike Martz running the offense, it seems like any of their wideouts could have sleeper value. How would you rank their receivers and where would you take them in fantasy drafts? Also, what sort of numbers are you expecting from Jay Cutler? - L. Horton, Addison, Ill.

M.F.: The true order of the depth chart won't be determined for months, but right now I see Devin Aromashodu and Johnny Knox as the starters with Devin Hester seeing time in the slot. Earl Bennett is also in the mix, but he had knee surgery last month and is in danger of missing some offseason workouts. That could put him behind the learning curve in the offense of coordinator Mike Martz.

Cutler loves Aromashodu, who showed flashes of potential last season and will be a popular fantasy sleeper in 2010. Knox, who can use his speed to stretch defenses, is also a player on the rise. Hester's role could be similar to that of Az-Zahir Hakim, who played the slot and also saw time as a return man under Martz in St. Louis. Based on the past success of quarterbacks in Martz's system, Cutler should throw for 4,000-plus yards with 25 to 30 total touchdowns. If he can cut down on the interceptions, he should be a viable No. 1 fantasy option.

Which rookies do you think will make the greatest fantasy impact in 2010? - J. Hudson, Lakeland, Fla.

M.F.: Running backs almost always make the biggest fantasy splash among rookies, and this season will be no different. C.J. Spiller, who has been compared to Chris Johnson and linked to the Seahawks in many mock drafts, could be the first rookie off the board in fantasy leagues. NFL.com senior writer Pat Kirwan feels Spiller could see 20 touches a game as a runner, receiver and return man. Another rookie with major fantasy potential is Ryan Mathews, who could end up starting if he lands with a team like the Chargers. Fantasy owners should also remember the names Jahvid best, Toby Gerhart, Joe McKnight and Dexter McCluster. Among the other offensive skill positions, Sam Bradford could end up starting as a rookie if he is drafted by St. Louis. However, I wouldn't expect him to make much noise in 2010. The wide receivers to watch are Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Arrelious Benn, Golden Tate, Eric Decker and Damian Williams. Remember, opportunity will play a big part in which players can actually make an impact. That was proven last season when lesser knowns like Julian Edelman and Mike Wallace came out of nowhere to have fantasy value. If a team like the Buccaneers drafts a wideout, for example, that player could turn into a low-end sleeper.

I read a report this week that the Cowboys will give Felix Jones a chance to start ahead of Marion Barber next season. How do you see this backfield shaking out? I've always been a huge fan of Jones, but I wonder if he can handle being a featured back. - D. Commons, Little Rock, Ark.

M.F.: It does look like Jones will be allowed a chance to pass Barber on the depth chart, but I don't expect him to be a featured back. In fact, a committee that includes Jones, Barber and Tashard Choice is imminent. Jones will certainly be more valuable if he earns the starting role in training camp. But the presence of Barber and Choice coupled with his recent lack of durability will limit the upside Jones possesses in fantasy drafts.

Give me a few players who could be undervalued in fantasy drafts next season based on their 2009 performances. I love finding out about these little gems! - P. Haynes, Tacoma, Wash.

M.F.: The players that come to mind include Cutler, Matt Ryan, Ronnie Brown, DeAngelo Williams, Greg Jennings, Steve Smith (Panthers), Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels. As I mentioned earlier, I can't see Cutler posting fewer than 4,000 passing yards (barring injuries) in Martz's offense. Ryan should put up career bests in passing yards and touchdowns, while Brown and Williams could fall based on missing the end of last season due to injuries. The same holds true of Daniels and Cooley, who both remain No. 1 fantasy tight ends. I also see Jennings bouncing back from a mediocre 2009 campaign, while Smith should reach the 1,000-yard mark once again.

I'm in a 10-team non-PPR keeper league where we can retain two players, but we lose the rounds of the players we keep. We start one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one defense. Who would you retain from Ryan Grant (Round 1), Calvin Johnson (Round 2), Ray Rice (Round 5), Matt Schaub (Round 8) and Rashard Mendenhall (Round 12)? - H. Tolleson, Trenton, N.J.

M.F.: I would keep Rice and Mendenhall. Rice will be a top-five pick in countless leagues, and Mendenhall has late first-round value in leagues with 12-plus teams. This frees you up to draft a quarterback and a pair of wide receivers in three of the first four rounds. Since you're in a 10-team league there should be plenty of talent available at those positions.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com!

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