Fantasy Football $19.95 or $39.95 for 3 teams
Draft a team and dominate your league
($9.97 for SI subscribers, $19.97 for 3 teams)
Beat the Experts FREE!
Compete against your friends, SI experts and celebrities in this pro football pickoff
Last year, when I played in my first fantasy football league in years, I learned a lot of painful lessons on the way to finishing in the middle of the pack in a league with other media folks. But the most important one is that it's not very close to real football. The genius who invented fantasy football thought it would be a great idea to make running backs more important than quarterbacks, and thought it would be right to make a defense that had six sacks in a game, but gave up 30 points, more valuable than a defense that held the opposition to 10 points and 178 yards without getting a sack. And so, I'm not crazy about the realism of the game.
But there is no denying the game's popularity. From what I learned last year, 27 million people, give or take a few mill, will be in fantasy leagues this year. A nose-to-the-grindstone buddy of mine took the day off from work the other day for his draft, which was a six-hour affair. I think it's probably the popularity of the real game, the NFL game, that makes it so hot, but whatever, I thought I'd spend this column providing you any help I can with your drafts. (Sorry if yours already happened.) I'm hoping I'm not too late to help the Derek Lowe-DougMirabelli team in their league up in Boston.
I want to warn you about my fantasy knowledge. Two years ago, I told you to pick Danny Wuerffel as your quarterback. I admit it: I thought Steve Spurrier was competent. I screwed up. That alone should make you scroll down to the other parts of the column immediately.
Anyway, with that as a major grain of salt, here are my 30 pieces of advice heading into fantasy draft day:
1. I don't care what anyone tells you: Pick Peyton Manning first overall, unless you have a top-three pick. I know, I know. Pick a running back first, you'll be sorry if you don't, blah, blah, blah. But unless you can take LaDanianTomlinson, Priest Holmes or Ahman Green (in that order, by the way, because I fear the injury toll on all but Tomlinson), go for the guarantee of 4,200 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes. Manning is never hurt. Ever. Do you realize he's missed one snap due to injury in six years? Amazing! And he's averaged 4,148 yards and 28 touchdown throws a year. Just pick him and be smart about getting backs with your next two picks, even if they're of DuceStaley quality.
2. The most underrated player in the draft is Rudi Johnson. I was stunned to see him ranked 23rd in SI.com's overall ratings. I think he'll have more yards than Clinton Portis. I think he'll be a 1,400-yard back with 13 touchdowns, minimum. I'm not saying Chris Perry won't get some carries there, but MarvinLewis will go with Johnson as long as he's hot.
3. Be careful about ranking the backs. My top 10: Tomlinson, Holmes, Green (Green bruised his kneecap Friday night in Jacksonville, and Mike Sherman said Saturday it's no big deal, but the reason I put an asterisk there is to tell you to make sure you check his condition before you bet the franchise on him), Jamal Lewis (could miss three weeks with a bye and the trial), ShaunAlexander, Johnson, Deuce McAllister (I love this guy), Portis (great player, but I'm a victim of watching him try to run behind a leaky line Friday night in St. Louis), Brian Westbrook, Travis Henry/Edgerrin James (tie).
4. Don't pick Fred Taylor. Then you'll be able to sleep at night.
Rudi Johnson ran for 957 yards and nine TDs for the Bengals last season.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
5. Don't give Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison too much respect. They should both have great years; the reinforcement of the five-yard bump zone will help them. But the bump clarification will be great for Laveranues Coles and ChadJohnson, guys you can get four rounds after Moss.
6. Trust Bill Belichick. No one thinks the Patriots had the best defense in football last year -- everyone thinks it was the very good Ravens D -- but New England allowed 43 fewer points than Baltimore last year. The Pats will reward you with a top-three defense, guaranteed.
7. Pick Marshall Faulk at your own risk. How can you not love this guy? But if you pick him, you'd better pick Steven Jackson in the next round, because history says there's a better chance in 2004 of Faulk lasting eight weeks than 16.
8. I have a bad feeling about TravisHenry's production. I'm not telling you not to take him, but I was at Buffalo's camp, and I can tell you that folks there are on high alert about making sure Willis McGahee doesn't explode over a lack of use. You can see each back already marking his turf with dueling I-better-be-playing-a-lot utterances in August. I think McGahee, at least, will take away a lot of Henry's third-down time. There's no doubt in my mind that, even with the bad ribs, Henry will still be the man in Buffalo. But when they draft someone that high at the same spot, he's going to get time. So Henry's had 325 and 331 carries the last two years and maybe now he gets 300.
9. Pick Najeh Davenport. You'll be able to get the backup Green Bay back in the eighth or 10th round, probably. And you'll be happy when you do. "The only thing standing between Najeh and a rushing title is Ahman Green,'' Brett Favre told me. What a load. MikeSherman's going to try to get him eight or 10 touches a game, to lessen the load on Green, and if Green ever goes down, Davenport is a rumblin', stumblin', 145-yards-a-week bomb waiting to explode. Watching him run in training camp, he was the single most impressive player I saw this summer.
Najeh Davenport averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
10. Pick Darius Watts. Who's Darius Watts? The guy who's been beating Champ Bailey in Bronco practices, that's who. The second-round wideout from Marshall will wedge his way into MikeShanahan's lineup very soon.
11. Be very happy to get Byron Leftwich as one of your two quarterbacks. I am a USA Today SportsWeekly subscriber, and it's a good thing. But the paper had a top 200 players listing this week, and rated Mewelde Moore, Dorsey Levens, Troy Hambrick, Justin Gage, Aaron Elling, Tony Hollings, Josh Scobey, Itula Mili and Reno Mahe ahead of Leftwich. Byron, that's what I call a fantasy slap in the ol' puss. I say he throws for 3,300 yards and 24 touchdowns.
12. Be happier to get Jake Plummer. You watch. He'll put up MVP numbers.
13. Avoid Jeremy Shockey. He's missed eight of his first 32 NFL games with injuries, and he's nursing a hammy right now. It's tempting to pick a guy like Shockey because, healthy, he's Tony Gonzales -- maybe better. I just don't think he'll ever be healthy consistently. Wait until the 12th round and pick Chargers TE AntonioGates. When the line is caving in on Philip Rivers on every pass play, Gates will become a go-to guy.
14. Pick Jacksonville's defense right after New England, Dallas and Baltimore. Great set of defensive tackles (Marcus Stroud, John Henderson) and a fairly advantageous schedule, with nine games against offenses (Buffalo, Tennessee, San Diego, Oakland, Houston, Chicago and Detroit) that enter the season with a good chance of struggling.
Vinny Testaverde is entereing his 18th season in the NFL.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
15. Pick Vinny Testaverde as your backup quarterback. Bill Parcells will protect him. He'll have an excellent eight-yard-curl target (Keyshawn Johnson) and a couple of good deep threats in Terry Glenn and Antonio (Mea Culpa) Bryant. My over-under on Vinny's starts is 13, and I'd take the over.
16. Be careful of Michael Bennett. He's got a tweaked knee and he might be the Shockey of running backs. Lots of potential, great flashes, but in sick bay too much.
17. Respect Jeff Fisher and his wunderkind defensive coordinator, JimSchwartz, but don't overrate the Titan defense. It's always good, you say. And it is. But Kevin Carter has moved inside to take the spot of Robaire Smith (gone to Houston), and Jevon Kearse has moved to Philly. The four top pass-rushers this year, in all likelihood, are Carlos Hall, Juqua Thomas, Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy. OhBoy.
18. Here's how to pick the quarterbacks. My top 15: Manning, DaunteCulpepper, Brett Favre, Trent Green (vastly underrated in all the projections I've seen), Matt Hasselbeck, Tom Brady, Mike Vick (obviously he could be incredible, but there's probably just as much of a chance for him to be OK), Steve McNair, Chad Pennington, Jake Plummer, Donovan McNabb, MarcBulger (the Ram line worries me), Jake Delhomme, Jeff Garcia, Leftwich tied with AaronBrooks (turnover-prone) at No. 15.
19. Take Chris Simms late. I can't tell you if it'll be Oct. 15 or Dec. 15, but JonGruden will give Simms a shot at some point this year.