Three weeks from today, the National Football League season begins in earnest.
That means that preparations for the 20th season of my beloved National Feetball League and a million other fantasy leagues are already well under way.
By now, many leagues have their team owners in place, and those owners are going through the painstaking process of coming up with the perfect team name that will make them the envy of the league. Emails are being exchanged fast and furious for the purpose of setting the menu for this year's draft.
There may be some actual draft preparation going on as well.
Draft day is still the most sacred day on the fantasy calendar, and in some redraft leagues, the draft order has already been set. That means hardcore players are having trouble sleeping, constantly poring over all the possible scenarios for how the first couple of rounds will play out.
Rest easy, I say. Here's a look at how to best approach those critical first two picks whether you're at the top, at the bottom or in the middle of the draft order in a 12-team league.
TOP OF THE HEAP: If you're fortunate enough to hold one of the top four picks, you probably feel like you're sitting pretty, just waiting to see which elite running back you'll build your team around. But, with a traditional "snake" draft, your focus should be on not getting bitten by a second-round mistake.
In most scoring systems, I believe that a certain four running backs should be the first four picks in some order: Adrian Peterson likely first, then Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Marshawn Lynch.
This year, I think that's how anyone with a top-four pick needs to start their team, and that belief has a lot to do with how the bottom four picks in the second round could shape up. Running backs are going to go fast this year, and it's not a stretch to say that someone planning to pick a running back late in the second round could be faced with picking the lesser of two injury risks like Darren McFadden and DeMarco Murray. The only "DM" I'd even consider anchoring my backfield with is Doug Martin, who could also be a top-four overall consideration for the adventurous.
With that in mind, I'd start out with a running back, then plan to take the best available player in the second round. There will be plenty of fantasy studs left there, just not necessarily at running back.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE? If you're picking fifth through eighth, you likely face a tougher decision in the first round. If the four aforementioned backs are gone, where do you go? The good news is that you have options, but figuring out which one is best won't be easy.
Perhaps the best course of action is to take the best available player regardless of position and move on. If you're picking seventh and just running backs have come off the board, you might take the top quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) or the top receiver (Calvin Johnson) and get ahead of the pack at one position instead of choosing the No. 7 running back. There will surely be one of the top 15 running backs awaiting you in the second round, and the difference between the No. 7 and 15 backs isn't that great.
However, depending on your scoring system, you might feel better about your final roster if you pick that mid-level No. 1 running back in the first round with the intention of picking one of the last available top-15 running backs in the second round. The reality is there's lots of depth even at the very top of the quarterback and wide receiver positions this year, so securing two of the top 15 backs and then moving onto those positions might well be the way to go this season.
BOTTOM OF THE ORDER: As always, the silver lining about being at the back of the pack is that you'll draft your first two players before your fellow owners. The bad news is they will have already scooped up the Petersons and Fosters, but a savvy owner can survive.
Conventional wisdom is to not be very conventional with a late pick. In a running back dominated league, look to get a leg up on those teams with early picks at positions other than running back rather than settling for seconds. This year, however, that might be tough to execute because by the time you make your third-round pick, the pickings could be very slim in the backfield. Being one of the few owners able to grab a pair of quality runners and then capitalizing on the depth at quarterback and wide receiver may be the way to go.
This is a good spot to mention a draft twist that your league could consider if it has yet to draw a draft order (once the order is set, it's a tough sell). My league has long employed something called "third-round reversal." We have a traditional snake style of draft with one significant exception: The owner who drew the No. 12 pick selects first in the third round in addition to the second round. The draft then snakes the rest of the way, with the No. 1 overall pick selecting last in the third round but first in the fourth round and so on.
This obviously could change the draft strategy for those at the bottom. I'd still take one running back for sure at the end of the first round, but other positions could be up for consideration with the other pick if you believe a quality back will last into the third round.