Major League Baseball is in the midst of one of its most competitive, entertaining, and unpredictable seasons in recent memory, epitomized by last week’s wild trade deadline. Despite this, national sports media outlets lead their programming with recaps of NFL training camp practices, highlighted by interviews of backup rookie quarterbacks. The National Football League is undoubtedly the most popular sport in America.
For many of us, the start of a new season means one thing above all else: the return of fantasy football. Growing annually in popularity, fantasy football is something different to almost everyone. Some play for high-stakes money, others as friendly competition amongst family. It’s a tool to keep in touch with college friends once you all go your separate ways, or a way to one-up your boss without getting yourself fired. Regardless of the circumstances of your league, everyone can agree: it’s a lot of fun. And it’s a lot of fun to win.
To win, you have to have a good team. And to have a good team, you need to have a successful draft. Whether you’re in a 10-team or 14-team league, PPR, flex, etc., a good draft strategy universally applies.
A common mistake is to not differentiate between a “good” player and a “valuable” player. If everyone has a good player at a position, no one does. To get value, you need to be able to draft someone that gives you a distinct advantage. For example, tight end Jimmy Graham is extremely valuable in 2014 because he is a clear-cut upgrade at his position over anyone else, and is worthy of a late first-round pick.
People who have been playing for years have undoubtedly seen the value of running backs. Almost every year, more than half of first-round picks are running backs. This is because the drop-off from a first-round running back to a fifth-round running back is drastic, more than any other position. It’s no different in 2014, despite the fact that the NFL is devaluing the position in general. If there’s an elite running back sitting there in your first-round, take him.
On the other side of the coin, wait to take your quarterback. Yes, it’s the glamour position in the NFL and a QB is almost always named league MVP, but unlike running backs or wide receivers, the drop-off from round to round is minimal. Unless one of the big three of Peyton Manning (rd. 2), Aaron Rodgers (2/3), or Drew Brees (2/3) falls to you, I recommend waiting until round 5 or 6 to pick a solid starter like Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, and loading up on quality players in the earlier rounds.
No Consensus #1 Pick
Unlike last year, when Adrian Peterson was the unanimous choice for the first overall pick, there are several options this season. Along with Peterson, running backs Jamaal Charles from Kansas City and Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy should be in contention if you have the first pick.
Jamaal Charles led all running backs last season in fantasy points as he was utilized both on the ground and the through the air in his first year in Andy Reid’s system. He finished the year with 1,287 yards rushing, to go along with 693 receiving and 19 touchdowns. As long as he remains healthy, Charles will produce.
Another beneficiary of a coaching change last season was LeSean McCoy, as he put up big numbers with the innovative Chip Kelly at the helm. He totaled 1,607 rushing yards with 539 yards through the air, and contributed 11 TD. The Eagles acquired Darren Sproles in the offseason, which could cut into McCoy’s numbers this year, but he’s a safe choice that should go in the top 3 picks of the draft.
Adrian Peterson is certainly the most accomplished of this group, but in terms of projections that may actually be a negative for him. The Vikings’ workhorse running back is entering his 8th season in the NFL, and last year had the second-worst yards-per-carry average of his career. Peterson finished 2013 with 1,437 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s still an incredible player and should be a consistent star for your team, but is no longer a no-brainer first-overall selection.
At the end of the season, everyone likes to be the guy who thinks he’s a genius for picking a player who far exceeds expectations. Being able to get your second running back to perform like a first-round pick, or drafting a Pro Bowl wide receiver in the 7th round, are the types of moves that make teams championship contenders. Here are a couple of under-the-radar players that could prove to be fantasy stars this year.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville
The former Stanford star running back brings fresh legs to Jacksonville with only 276 carries in four seasons as Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota. Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley indicated that Gerhart will receive the bulk of the team’s carries this season, making him an intriguing RB2 for most teams, likely to go in rounds 4-6.
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona
After being the 187th player taken in the NFL Draft last season, Ellington took no time establishing himself as a productive player. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry en route to 1,023 all-purpose yards. He’s not a marquee name yet, so this may be the last season to make Ellington a great value pick. He’ll likely be picked in the third or fourth round.
After a disappointing 2013 season, some players saw their value take a significant hit. Don’t let an outlier season prevent you from taking these players who are primed to perform well in 2014.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
Talent has never been a question with Gronk. When he’s on the field, he puts up incredible numbers, but due to injury he’s only played in 56% of the Patriots’ games over the past two seasons. He tore his ACL last season, and assuming he’s ready for Week 1, could be a nice value pick around round 4 if you’re willing to roll the dice on him staying healthy.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
2013 was a disaster for RG III and Washington’s football team. The team went 3-13 and the media portrayal would’ve made you think Griffin was in jeopardy of being out of the NFL. He actually finished with respectable numbers: 3,203 yards passing with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, to go along with 489 rushing yards. Certainly not as good as the numbers that won him Rookie of the Year in 2012, but with the addition of receiver DeSean Jackson and another year of recovery from his knee injury, there’s a high chance for him to rebound and be a top 5 fantasy QB this year. He’ll likely go in the 5th round.
The Ravens, despite winning consistently on the field, don’t produce a significant amount of stars in fantasy. However, it’s always more fun to have some of your favorite players contributing to both the Ravens and your fantasy team. The key is knowing who to take and when to take them.
Ray Rice, RB
Rice is one of the most complicated players in all of fantasy in 2014. He’ll start the season with a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. But even when he’s on the field, it’s difficult to predict which Ray Rice we’ll see. Over the course of his career Rice has been a consistent first-round pick in fantasy. He rushed for over 1,000 yards each year from 2009 to 2012. Last year Rice fell off a cliff, only managing 660 yards with an awful 3.1 yards-per-carry. This year new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is installing a zone-blocking scheme that should allow Rice to find his old form. Assuming you can find a replacement for the first two weeks, Rice is worth a pick from rounds 4-6.
Torrey Smith, WR
Torrey Smith is entering his fourth year in the NFL, and has increased his number of catches and yards in each of his first three seasons. The University of Maryland product accumulated 1,128 yards last season and will look to build on that number even further in 2014. The acquisition of veteran Steve Smith in the offseason will help to draw coverage away from Torrey. It also helps that the young receiver is entering the last year of his contract. Smith will be a solid starter for your fantasy team and should be taken as early as round 4.
Joe Flacco, QB
Flacco, simply put, should not be drafted in 2014. Despite the unparalleled success he’s seen in terms of team wins, and the physical skill set he possesses, this has not equated to fantasy success. Flacco is coming off of a season in which he threw a career-high 22 interceptions, and finished 2013 as the 19th ranked fantasy QB. Root for Joe on Sundays, just leave him off your fantasy team.
The 2014 NFL season should be another entertaining one, and along with that comes the ups and downs of a fantasy season. Try to outsmart your friends and colleagues, just remember to have a great time doing it.
Scott DeWeese is a geographer from the Baltimore area. One of the final graduates of the University of Maryland from the ACC era, DeWeese is an avid sports writer and fan. When he’s not looking up remedies to counteract male pattern baldness, you can find him at Camden Yards on his phone checking the fantasy football waiver wire. Follow him on Twitter @SDeWeese7.