There's an old saying that fantasy leagues are won and lost in the late rounds. While that is somewhat true - and you gain a tremendous advantage by gaining value from players nobody else is counting on - you're still gonna win or lose with your studs.
I am a big proponent of playing it safe in the first round. High risk/high reward wins leagues, but the last thing you want is your top pick sidelined or not producing enough to keep you in games. So, let's break down the probable top picks, at least, the way I see them:
1. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
Pros: Led the league in rushing last year with 2,006 yards and has already said he not only wants to lead the league again this year, but break the single-season record for rushing yards. And it's really not that far-fetched. On a team built for the ground game (good D, ball control offense, no other real weapons) CJ is in a perfect position to thrive. Bonus: 503 yards receiving.
Cons: Umm, he can't throw any touchdowns or kick any field goals?
Outlook: He's the top pick in any draft. If you get him anywhere below that, consider yourself lucky.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Pros: Not only is he a threat to break a big run any time he touches the ball, he's also a goal-line beast. Another great receiver, too, and who else is Favre gonna throw to?
Cons: Those pesky fumbles (seven of 'em) make you think twice ... but only for a second.
Outlook: I have heard of Maurice Jones-Drew going ahead of him in drafts, my money's on All Day at No. 2.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
Pros: He actually had more rushing yards than Peterson, squelching any negative talk of him not being able to handle the full-time workhorse role. And barring injury, he's gonna get 300 carries.
Cons: He failed to top 100 yards or get into the end zone the last two weeks of the season, which can be worrisome, since that is crunch time for fantasy playoffs. And his team sucks. Seriously, who else on this squad is fantasy draft-able?
Outlook: I'd still be happy with him at No. 2. And things get questionable for everyone else behind him, so be happy with a top 3 pick.
4. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Pros: His 702 receiving yards put him over 2,000 from scrimmage (Johnson is the only other player to do that). It's only his third year, second as the every-down guy, so don't worry about wear and tear ... yet.
Cons: Only 8 TDs (7 rushing) is cause for concern, especially with WR Anquan Boldin up in the mix and QB Joe Flacco discovering a rather strong arm.
Outlook: He's still a pretty solid No. 4 in my book, but things are starting to get dicey. No more sure things, that's for sure.
5. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons
Pros: It was a tale of two seasons for "Burner" last year. He was on fire in the first half of the season, rushing for 10 TDs in the first eight games ...
Cons: ... And then a severe ankle injury limited him to just 40 yards in the final seven, and he only played in two. Ouch. Not only that, but he was a game-time decision for many weeks, meaning you had to roll the dice on starting him - what turned out to be a bad proposition. And just 11 catches in two season is not getting it done.
Outlook: I say he bounces back. He's scored 27 TDs in as many games with the Falcons and is a beast to bring down. Plus, they are trying to target him more in the passing game. The fifth pick is where you really have to start making some decisions, and I like his upside more than anyone else here.
6. Frank Gore, RB, 49ers
Pros: Four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Thirteen total TDs last year, even though he missed two games with an ankle injury. We like the sound of that.
Cons: More than 300 yards and four of those TDs came in just two games (including the final game, when fantasy playoffs are usually over) make his stats seem a little more pedestrian. And he had six games of 15 carries or less to go with the two missed contests. And if you really want to get scared, the Niners just signed Michael Westbrook as a backup. Ugh.
Outlook: First of all, you probably won't have to worry much about Westbrook taking too many carries. And you gotta love that bulked-up San Fran line. But the guy hasn't played a full season since his breakout year in '06, which is reason for concern, especially in the first round. Still, I'd take his bum ankle over Steven Jackson's bad back any day.
7. Andre Johnson, WR, Texans
Pros: Go ahead and pen (not pencil) him in for 1,500 yards and nine scores. He's done it the past two years, why would he stop now? You might worry about him now being the highest paid WR in the league, but he's never had any character issues, and all that cash has showed no signs of going to his head.
Cons: He had a healthy Matt Schaub at QB for the first time, which no doubt helped his stats. Other than that, it's tough to find a chink in this guy's armor.
Outlook: He's by far the best WR in the league. How high that ranks him ahead of other RBs is up to you. I like mid-first round for sure. If it's a points-per-reception league, I wouldn't have a problem with going even higher.
8. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
Pros: There are few more talented players in the game. And he's put up 1,000 yards each of the last three years, just like Gore.
Cons: Yeah, he's good, but the Rams just plain stink. Rookie QB Sam Bradford is a step forward, but that's still a very bad team. And that back is nothing to sneeze at. Though he only missed one game, he clearly wasn't the same player in December last year. Four TDs all year, none after November. Red flag!
Outlook: Maybe the back problem is being overhyped - he did have surgery in April. But to me, that's an injury that just isn't going away, especially with the pounding he takes. Because of that, I put him in the second tier of RBs.
9. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
Pros: While he might not win the Super Bowl every year, the guy's still gonna go for 4,000 yards and 30-35 scores. And that's a low estimate. Bank it for the best QB in the league (at least statistically speaking). And how can you not love all those offensive weapons? Best stat: He lowered his interceptions from 18 to 17 to 11 the past three years.
Cons: That Super Bowl hype is bound to push him up a little higher than maybe he should be. And he's still got that thing on the side of his face, although it's much smaller than his Purdue days. Not much else to complain about, though.
Outlook: Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are clearly the top tier of QBs, and this guy seems to be the cream of that crop. As long as he doesn't get distracted by the Super Bowl hoopla, he should put up another spectacular season. Others have Rodgers higher, but for my money, I'm taking Brees at the end of the first round whenever I can.
10. Randy Moss, WR, Patriots
Pros: Second in the league in receiving yards (1,264) and there's no reason to believe he won't get at least 13 scores this year. And he's playing for probably his last big contract. Never underestimate the power of "straight cash homey" to motivate. Will he get the 23 had three years ago? Well, let's not get carried away ...
Cons: He never had more than five catches after week 9. And he's always been a head case, even if he has kept somewhat quiet for the most part since coming to New England.
Outlook: He's the second-best WR, for sure. QB Tom Brady should be more comfortable not coming off an injury, and the Pats don't have as much of a jumble at receiver, meaning Moss is the man. Book him in the first round, and hope he keeps his mouth shut.
Other Guys I Would Be OK With Taking In the First Round:
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers: He's driven all the competition out of town, and now is his time to shine.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: A clear No. 2 on the QB depth chart, he should have another stellar year ... assuming all those sacks don't take a toll.
Shonn Greene, RB, Jets: I'm betting LaDainian Tomlinson doesn't have nearly the impact others think he will have.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers: Only in a keeper league where you can keep your top pick (make sure to read the league rules before the draft!)