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Stuck in the Middle With You
David M. Dorey
1999

Ah yes, those wonderful middle round picks in your fantasy drafts. If you want a way to distinguish the true fantasy football guys from the cheat sheet holding, "who's he play for" team owners, just take a gander at the picks from the middle rounds. During the initial portions of a draft, selections are made and there are few surprises except those accompanied with the terms "homer" or "bonehead". Pretty much everyone who has access to any magazine, website or cheat sheet all know who is within the top forty. Hard to make a difference on your team when so many are following conventional wisdom that likely mirrors your own.

And then comes that magic time, the middle rounds. When suddenly the choices are no longer "top receiver, hot quarterback or promising rusher?". When risk increases as well as potential reward or disaster. This is the time that fantasy championships are made. This is also the time that makes for a very long season.

This is truly the most fun, challenging and important phase of your draft. The tension of gaining those well-known players is over and the selection of roster depth begins. While those newer to the hobby may think that wonderful first-string will last untouched through the league championship, the reality will prove otherwise. Cheat sheets and most team owners take the previous season heavily into account which proves about 50% accurate on the next season's performance for a top ten player. Where does that other half of the new top ten come from? The middle of the draft of course! Let's take a look at those middle rounders by a few of the more critical positions you will be drafting.

Quarterbacks

The need for a back-up quarterback is more than a mere bye-week filler. Last season only six quarterbacks played for all 16 games. Most missed out two or three games plus a bye week and without a credible backup, you will find your team hard pressed to gain the "W's" with a benchwarmer as your second string. Even more important than those fillers are the quarterbacks that who end up starters and yet were drafted well into the deeper rounds. Guys like Cunningham, Testaverde and Flutie proved to be the saviors for many fantasy teams.

If your league allows only two quarterbacks, your best bet is to draft someone who you can feel fairly certain will be around when you need him. Make sure to take someone who is unlikely to be benched for performance even if it means accepting lower numbers. Players like Marino, Aikman or Chandler. Their age present some injury risk, so you'll have to monitor that as well and be prepared to grab a free agent if need be. Never think you can get away with one quarterback.

Another key for a back-up quarterback is to consider your starter's actual back-up. In the event you have an injury to your star, there are often decent replacements waiting in the wings. This is important for those high-powered offenses and makes several quarterbacks fit for "box sets" as backups. Consider the value of pairs like Cunningham/George or Flutie/Johnson. Also watch training camps to ensure who the starters will be behind Bubby Brister and Steve Young since both have had injury problems in the past.

If your league allows three quarterbacks on the roster, then you should both take either a conservative, safe back-up or a box-set, and then grab a higher risk pick with upside. Quarterbacks like Jeff Blake, Charlie Batch, Kordell Stewart, Rich Gannon or Billy Joe Hobert carry a fair amount of risk but could certainly surprise given how deep into the draft you will be able to acquire them. With the amount of injury that quarterbacks incur, getting good depth not only pays off for you in the event, it also makes for good trade bait with other owners who suddenly find themselves without a decent prospect on their roster.

Lastly, avoid those quarterbacks with a fair expectation of sharing time or who are potentially on the hot-seat with their team. If there is not a strong indication that a player will be "the man" for his team by the season's start, it is safe to assume he will not end up being the man for you either.

Running Backs

Gaining an advantage in back-up running backs is likely the toughest of all feats. Consider that in most fantasy leagues there are twelve teams starting two rushers each game. That leaves only seven, and the worst seven at that, starting rushers that are not being used. Add in that rushers offer the most consistent, often highest points in a league and the run starts early and often on them.

That does not necessarily mean you cannot still find a diamond or at least a credible backup. Tougher since everyone else is doing the same, but not impossible. In the same vein as with quarterbacks, you have to make a decision between two types - safe, conservative players you want to be there when you need them versus risky, upside guys who can yield little or in some cases shine for your team.

If you carry more than one extra rusher, consider the safe route for at least one opening. Guys like Tommy Vardell, Mike Alstott, Leroy Hoard or Chris Warren. Find either a fullback who actually scores or a viable third-down back. They will likely not get you two scores and 100 yards rushing each game, but they also will be less likely to give you that nasty goose-egg in your weekly score,

The one saving grace that makes backup running backs valuable is injury. No other skill position gets the pounding of a running back. Much like the box sets for quarterbacks, look for the more likely to be injured running backs and take their back-ups "just in case". Also look for the powerhouse teams that even an average back can do well with opportunity. The great thing is you do not need the original starter to do this. Suddenly having the new guy instead of your opponent is even sweeter. Guys like James Stewart, Ahman Green, Byron Hanspard, Michael Pittman or Terrell Fletcher could get you little or could prove genius in the event of an injury to the team starter.

Lastly, this position is the one and only one that you should never discount rookies for roster spots. Running the ball is probably the one role where individual talent and opportunity matter more than the team around a player. True - blocking is a nicety, but regardless there will always be surprise rushers who burst on the scene and yet were not drafted highly or expected to do as well. Think of the first round busts in recent years (Curtis Enis, Robert Holcombe, Ki-Jana Carter). Then look at the rounds where the current studs were taken in the NFL draft - Terrell Davis (6), Curtis Martin (3), Jamal Anderson(7). A great running back does not need a pedigree coming in, they only need opportunity. Rookie running backs this season include Amos Zereoue/PIT, Cecil Collins or James Johnson/MIA, Joe Montgomery/NYG, Mike Cloud/KC, Madre Hill/CLE, De'Mond Parker/GB, Terry Jackson/SF and Sedric Irvin/DET. Chances are good at least two or three of these will contribute well above their cost in your fantasy draft.

Wide Receivers

This is the position with the most difficult to forecast performances. This is also the one spot that offers more players who come from humble backgrounds to sudden stardom. There is no offensive role as filled with one-year wonders, unrealized potential and overachievers as the receiver. No wonder the good ones are taken early and the bulk are then left for later.

The art of catching passes is complicated since it is final link in a chain of events. The offensive line has to successfully keep the quarterback from getting planted, who must instantly read the defense coverage and the placement and speed of the receiver, who must reach an exact spot at an exact split second and actually receive and maintain possession of the ball in the field of play. Oh yes, and there are eleven guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage who are paid millions to prevent this very event from being successful.

Since this dynamic collection has to come together, it pays to look for receivers on the better teams. It sounds obvious, but this also means taking non-primary receivers from great teams before the best receiver of a bad team. Want proof? Of the fifteen leading rushers (yardage) in the NFL last season, six did not play in the playoffs. In fact, it was six of the top thirteen rushers. For the leading receivers (yardage) in the NFL last season, every single one played in the playoffs. All of them. Think the team counts?

In addition to looking for a good offense first, another factor plays heavily in the development of a receiver. Given that the game is complex and it takes time to understand and establish chemistry, receivers rarely excel in their first or second years. Yes, we are all aware of Randy Moss. There is a reason why he is called "The Freak". The players hitting their years to step up performance include Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, Rae Carruth, Albert Connell, and Dedric Ward in their third year. The fourth year guys include Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad, Eddie Kennison and Bobby Engram. While breakout seasons can occur later in a receivers career, they are unusual and almost always a one year wonder. If there have not been signs by their fifth year that they are going to be a star, it is unlikely they ever will.

Lastly, for those still wide-eyed over Randy Moss, there are a few rookies to consider since they should gain opportunity. Consider Torry Holt/STL, David Boston/ARZ, Troy Edwards/PIT and Kevin Johnson/CLE. They will not score 17 touchdowns, but will be in their respective team's game plans and likely contribute more as the season progresses.

"Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you,
and I'm wondering what it is I should do.
It's so hard to keep this smile from my face.
Losing control running all over the place."

(With apologies to Stealers Wheel)

So get ready for those middle rounds of your fantasy draft and make better choices than the first cheat sheet name you see without a line drawn through it. Half of the top ten next year will be drafted in the middle of your draft. Do your homework and prepare to capitalize. Above all, have some fun with it this year. After all, there'll be clowns to the left of you and jokers to the right. And there you are, taking Jeff George away from the Cunningham guy.

Have a great draft!