I've always been one to preach the "take the best player available on your fantasy draft board" strategy, but I'll admit it - I've always leaned toward taking two or even three running backs to start my fantasy drafts.
Running backs have always been the most scarce position; if you had two stud backs (or three if you could use one in a flex), you probably dominated your league. On the other hand, if you were forced to start the Earnest Grahams or the Sammy Morrises of the world, chances are that your didn't make the fantasy playoffs.
I never thought I'd say this a few years ago, but it's time to change this strategy - at least for this year. The wide receiver position is that incredibly thin right now.
Why is the position so scarce? Take a look for yourself:
Washingon Redskins: Santana Moss has looked great in minicamp, thanks to being paired with the best quarterback of his career. Unfortunately, he might be suspended for four games in the wake of HGH allegations. As of this writing, Roger Goodell is looking into the matter.
Green Bay Packers: Donald Driver, now 35, had not one, but two knee surgeries this offseason. He hasn't been able to practice at all during minicamp. I really like James Jones to step up, but he's an unknown. Driver's career as we know it could be over.
Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith was expected to have a major rebound season before he fractured his forearm playing flag football. Smith could still have a great 2010, but his injury makes him a much more riskier pick.
Arizona Cardinals: Make no mistake about it, Larry Fitzgerald (and Steve Breaston) will have a decline in production with Kurt Warner gone. Early Doucet, a potential sleeper with Warner, is now just a late-round fantasy prospect with minimal upside. Matt Leinart sadly isn't very good.
Seattle Seahawks: T.J. Houshmandzadeh had sports hernia surgery this offseason. Sports hernias have a tendency to resurface, so it's probable that Houshmandzadeh will miss some time.
St. Louis Rams: Not that Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson were on many fantasy radars, but they'll struggle to put up solid numbers while Sam Bradford adjusts to a pro-style offense. Look what happened with Calvin Johnson last year.
New England Patriots: Wes Welker tore his ACL and MCL in the 2009 season finale. While his recovery has been remarkable, he's still expected to start the year on the PUP list. Julian Edelman will fill in early on, but it's unknown how long it'll be until the Patriots ask Welker to come back. And what if Welker returns too soon and suffers a relapse?
New York Jets: Santonio Holmes, a third-tier fantasy receiver in 2009, is suspended for four games. Even when he returns, he won't match last year's numbers, seeing as how he's in a brand new offense with a raw quarterback. It's also worth noting that Holmes' production will decrease Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery's.
Cincinnati Bengals: Chad Ochocinco is now 32, and has spent his entire offseason appearing on stupid $10 reality shows. Receivers who are 32 years old can't just show up to training camp and expect to be in great shape. It's very reasonable to believe that Ochocinco isn't 100-percent mentally and physically prepared to play football this year.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger has been suspended for 4-6 games, meaning Hines Ward and Mike Wallace won't be effective in that time frame. When Roethlisberger comes back, there's no guarantee things will improve; in the wake of an ugly rape allegation, it's unlikely that Big Ben has been concentrating on football this offseason.
Indianapolis Colts: I can't believe some fantasy magazines have Reggie Wayne ranked as high as the No. 2 receiver. Sure, let's just ignore 1) his horrific finish in 2009, 2) his knee injury, 3) the fact that he turns 32 soon, 4) all of the other talented receivers on the Colts roster who will take targets away from Wayne, and 5) his contract dispute. At this point, I'll be shocked if Wayne comes anywhere close to matching his 2009 numbers.
Tennessee Titans: Some like Kenny Britt and I did too, until I learned how poor his offseason was (poor conditioning, behavior). Vince Young's legal problems aren't helping either.
San Diego Chargers: Vincent Jackson will be suspended to start the year, but that may not even matter if he chooses to sit out due to a contract dispute. General manager A.J. Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he fully expects Jackson to hold out well into the 2010 season.
I just listed 16 receivers who have a high probability of suffering a down year, thanks either to injuries, suspensions and/or a decline at the quarterback position. And speaking of which, I didn't even list the quality wideouts who will once again struggle because of ineptness at the signal-caller position (Dwayne Bowe, Lee Evans, Eddie Royal).
With all this in mind, if your league starts three wideouts, you almost have to draft two of them in your first three rounds. I would still secure an elite or second-tier running back early on, but there is enough depth at that position to focus primarily on receivers.
Let's take a look at a fantasy PPR mock draft I conducted with three other people (full results will be posted tomorrow). I made sure to draft a pair of wide receivers in the first two rounds with one team. With another, I ignored the position until Round 4, opting to go with the top player available (and an intentional quarterback in Round 2). Let's take a look at those two squads:
Of course, the running backs on Team 2 are better, but I have a deep unit on Team 1 with Knowshon Moreno, Jonathan Stewart (slipped because this was a PPR league), C.J. Spiller (great for PPR), Justin Forsett and Steve Slaton. Now, as far as the receivers, there's no question that Team 1's starters (Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe) dwarf Team 2's (Greg Jennings, Jeremy Maclin, Braylon Edwards/Dez Bryant/Demaryius Thomas).
Now, if this were a real draft, I probably would have gone Jamaal Charles/Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson/Steve Smith in the first three rounds from the No. 8 spot to give myself more balanced running backs and receivers, but you get the picture.
Meanwhile, my friend (and WF.com forum member) Body Burners controlled three teams of his own. He drafted Andre Johnson in the first round with one team, and waited a while to take a receiver with his second team. Let's compare the two rosters:
Andre Johnson Team
No WR till Round 5
** If you're wondering, Steven Jackson fell to Round 3 because everyone in the room was convinced that he's going to bust this year. No one wanted him. Round 3 was great value for him though. **
The Body Burners' running back corps on Team 1 (DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson, Jerome Harrison, Darren McFadden) and Team 2 (Jamaal Charles, Chris Wells, Ronnie Brown, Laurence Maroney) are pretty comparable. Team 2 is deeper, but they're about equal.
The disparity comes at the receiver position. Team 1's starters (Andre Johnson, Chad Ochocinco, Pierre Garcon) absolutely slaughter Team 2's (Percy Harvin, Santana Moss, Steve Breaston).
And I'm not the only one who thinks so. The Body Burners announced that he hated his Jamaal Charles team, asking me to call it the "Body Warmers" instead.
Looks like I won't be the only one taking multiple receivers early in our real fantasy draft come August.