I would like to start by saying, if you are in a local league or run a local league as a commissioner, please do yourself a favor and DO NOT have the draft any earlier than this weekend. The league I run, which happens to be one of the premier leagues around the Midwest, is having it's draft this upcoming Sunday night, August 26th. Even that could be considered a tad early, due to it taking place before every third week preseason game is finished. Also, if you haven't already, definitely consider using 3rd round reversal draft formatting. It is very simple (1-12, 12-1, 12-1, 1-12 through the first four rounds) and will cause the normal snake draft to be obsolete.
Now onto the information you came for. First off, let's talk running back. In particular, Jamaal Charles. If you were not paying close attention to the Kansas City running back, I will let you in on a little secret. There is nothing to worry about. Charles belongs in the conversation with the likes of Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray, in the tier right below the consensus Top 5 backs.
Charles has a clear advantage when you talk about his progress in recovering from his injury, in that, the man carries less than 200 pounds around. It is a big deal. If you have never had an injury of significance, whether it be back, foot or knee. Weight loss, or in this case, just being a naturally lighter player, will take a lot of pressure off of the injury in comparison to somebody who is 230 pounds. More importantly than all of that, Charles is extremely excited to get back on the football field, is motivated and looks to be as quick as ever. Maybe some will want to see him break a long run and showcase his sprinter speed before they are convinced, but I am here to tell you I saw the old Jamaal Charles and by the second half of the season the Chiefs running back might be producing like a Top 5 back behind an improved offensive line.
Another back that I feel has slid down draft boards for reasons unknown is Bills star Fred Jackson. Jackson's talent really can no longer come into question after what he put on display in 2011. The Bills were an entirely different team once they lost him to injury. An injury which has been completely healed for quite some time now. In essentially nine9 games last season, Jackson touched the ball just under 22 times per ballgame. During that same span, CJ Spiller had just over three touches per game.
Obviously, a big discrepancy from what we are about to see in the upcoming months. The problem with the theory that we might only see Jackson getting 15 touches to Spiller's 10, is that Chan Gailey was not finding ways to keep them both on the field during the first nine games of 2011. Now, knowing that these two are the staples of what the Bills will do on offense, you will see Spiller playing a lot more receiver than one might expect. You will see Fred Jackson playing QB in the Wildcat, something Ryan Fitzpatrick already acknowledged will be used enough to make defensive coordinators prepare for.
In point-per-reception leagues, especially ones that play a flex or two, drafting both of the Bills RBs would be ideal. Spiller presents pretty good RB3 value with his receiving skills and big play ability. If that isn't possible though, Fred Jackson should not be overlooked in any format in Round 3. Jackson is a proven commodity, will get his 18 touches per game and actually has quite a bit of upside. There is no denying a players' upside when he was on pace to be a Top 3 running back before his injury. Don't be the guy scared off by the thought of touches in this offense being spread out; Jackson is someone to target if you grabbed a top QB or Calvin Johnson in the early rounds.
The Forgotten Men:
It's shocking sometimes to see how much a little hype out of training camp can change the perspective on a given fantasy player. Be the manager in your league that sees the big picture. I am not recommending reaching on the following players, rather, I am just reminding you to not forget about them in the mid-to-late rounds.
RB Pierre Thomas - The New Orleans Saints starting running back, Thomas is the most gifted runner on the team. It wasn't long ago he was being drafted as high as the 2nd round. Back in 2008, he lit up the league his last six games which lead to his high draft status in 2009. Thomas still has that kind of talent and it will be clear he is the more effective runner between him and Mark Ingram. A 5.1 yards per carry average in 2011 compared to Ingram's 3.9 make it evident.
WR Jerome Simpson - Most famous for flipping over a defender for a TD, in college this guy would catch anything and everything. It took him much longer than I expected to adjust to life in the NFL, but he has made the transition to solid NFL starter now. Once he gets back from suspension, the Vikings offense might present more problems to defenses than most assume. Simpson showcased flashes of brilliance versus the Ravens and Broncos in 2011. Expect to see even more of these moments, as he will provide constant WR3 production when he returns.
RB DeAngelo Williams - In the couple early and rather insignificant drafts I have done, he might be the most disrespected player in all of fantasy football. Williams, in the last seven sevengames of 2011,scored about 12.5 fantasy points per game in standard leagues, despite only getting 78 total touches. He scored on average over one fantasy point every time he got his hands on the ball. He possesses big play ability, will get the most total touches of any of the RBs for Carolina (a team that averaged 5.4 yards per rush). Also, Williams carries the enormous upside of taking on a bigger workload if Jonathan Stewart fails to stay healthy. Williams had his second best year in terms of yards per carry in 2011, only behind the season in which he was the top fantasy back in all the NFL.
RB Joe McKnight - Trust me when I say, the Jets offense will need a spark. It will happen sooner rather than later. And while we can debate Mark Sanchez vs. Tim Tebow all day, and who is better for the team, it is only a matter of time before McKnight is given a shot to receive a steady diet of touches. He is easily the most explosive back on the Jets' roster and while you will hear all the hype about Bilal Powell, who I happen to like, it will be McKnight given the opportunity at some point this season out of necessity.
WR Lance Moore - I consistently see this man drafted as a backup when he has only finished outside the Top 36 wide receivers once in the last four seasons. Moore should see an increase in targets with the departure of Robert Meachem. Moore only saw 72 targets in 14 games played in 2011, and still finished as the 34th ranked WR. Give him those two extra games, and add those targets in, his year ends the same way as 2009, as the 26th ranked WR and one of the best WR3's in fantasy football. Twenty-six touchdown catches in his last 46 healthy games and a possible uptick in targets? Sign me up.
I don't think you can dismiss Frank Gore and what he means to the 49ers at this point. He is the consummate professional running back. His role will be lessened, but I don't think Jim Harbaugh can afford to just rotate his backs freely when it comes to protecting the passer and getting the tough yards. Make no mistake about it, his vision alone makes him a much better short yardage back than a healthy Brandon Jacobs.
One of the main things to watch this third week of games will be the performance of Giants RB David Wilson. I was getting the impression that Danny Ware had pretty much secured his role as the backup RB, but if Wilson can showcase the skills that made him the most explosive offensive player coming out of the 2012 NFL draft; he could move himself all the way from 3rd string to part of a legitimate running back by committee.
The Seahawks wide receiver situation definitely warrants monitoring as well. I have my feelings about the types of talent on that roster, but it is difficult to pinpoint which players will be filling which roles. I still believe Golden Tate, when it is all said and done, will play the most snaps on the team this season at the WR position for Seattle.
I haven't heard anyone else say this, but, one of the safest bets of round two to repeat his performance from a year ago is Matt Stafford. Five-thousand yards and 40 TDs in 2011 has to be one of the most overlooked, staggering outputs in fantasy history. The Lions still can't stop people on a consistent basis and the Lions offense is so out of touch with the running game, Titus Young will become the teams second best offensive weapon. Stafford is ultra confident, has plenty of weapons and has the most dominant force in any passing attack in the NFL. Only once in his last nine games of 2011 did Stafford pass for under 275 yards, expect more of the same.
Just remember, reading about and hearing about how players performed in the exhibition season can only take you so far. Some fantasy football managers are new to the game, but nothing will replace watching the games, even if it is only a few drives to get a feel of how the team looks in motion and not just on paper. You might develop a gut feeling about a player, or a team, because of it. DVR all the game replays on NFL Network if you have it, and watch them. You will start to believe in your own instincts and value your own opinion.
For now though, follow me on twitter @JLanfranca and I will help you out. Feel free to tweet me any questions you might have as well. Good luck and Happy Drafting!