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The Art of the Draft
David M. Dorey

Drafting can be approached scientifically and should for many reasons. You must know what players have been like in order to predict how they are going to be this season. If you dare to leave the comfort of someone else's cheatsheet, you had better research all those wonderful statistics available because in the end - that is what fantasy football is about. Numbers. Preferably larger numbers than your opponents, but it is about numbers all the same.

Using a scientific approach to drafting is sound and rather easy to do, given considerable time, unlimited resources and devoted pursuit. Hey - that was enough to split the atom. It might even get the Redskins into the playoffs again.

And yet, for all the calculators, databases and spreadsheets, that is only enough to get a piece of the larger puzzle. While there are lots of numbers to play with, the reality is that they are about people. And as past romances, family members and previous employers have likely taught you, that does not often make for guarantees or lend itself well to predictions. The only constant is change and you must be able to react to that. That is an art, not a science.

If science were enough, we'd see NFL head coaches eating nachos in the skybox all year and watching how the gameplans worked out. Fantasy drafting is not about paper, it is about people. It is using the science first and then applying your artistry to go beyond the mere numbers. There is no hard and fast rule (okay, maybe one - draft Terrell Davis). Let's examine some reasons why the art of the draft makes the difference.

Each season, there will be about half of the top ten within any given position who will repeat their last performance. Usually the top fifteen as well. Simply put, only about half of the players for any given year will turn in similar performances the following season. The reasons for the fallout are many - injuries, holdouts, retirement, a new offense to learn, a new team or a new direction for the team. As you draft, you can safely assume that up to half of the guys taken in the initial three rounds will not deliver as expected.

Injury is the most common detriment to having another good season. Runningbacks do get hurt more often than other positions, but quarterbacks are not far behind. When evaluating a player, consider his style of play and their historic durability. A bruiser runningback will receive as much punishment as he dishes out. A scrambling quarterback is like teasing eleven dogs with a steak. Barry Sanders rarely was nicked up since he never let defenders have a solid shot. Jerome Bettis and Natrone Means get hurt regularly because they are among the biggest cars in the NFL demolition derby. For every risky pick, make a conservative "safe" pick.

For what it is worth, they will all get hurt eventually, even Brett Favre. Look for the durable players first but beware the risky player who has gone more than two to three seasons without missing a game. Another suggestion is to watch the age of the player. Most RB's start losing steps and acquiring "nagging" injuries after the age of 30. Most WR's last until 32 if they are solid. QB's can nudge 35 or so as a rule. But the human body is not meant to take that sort of punishment. In spite of training and conditioning, the ability to take a shot and heal quickly diminishes. The senior tour this year? Emmitt Smith (30), Gary Brown (30), Ricky Watters (30), Jerry Rice (37), Andre Reed (35) and Cris Carter (33).

Holdouts offer interesting dilemmas to the draft. What to do? Squander an early pick on the hopes the player will come to your senses or take a chance on missing out? While each one is unique, the bottom line is that holdouts do not practice with the team and require more time to get in synch. They also may or may not be working out as they should. And if it is a rookie who has never played with the team, then tread very gingerly. Veterans like Joey Galloway and Rob Moore can likely get away with it. Rookie quarterbacks never will.

A new offense will bring fresh optimism. For 1999, there are new head coaches and new players all over. Will Holmgren replicate his Green Bay success in Seattle from the very first game? Can Andy Reid possibly do anything but improve the Eagles? Is Brad Johnson the savior for the Skins? Temper optimism or pessimism with objectivity. Do not ask a rabid fan what his favorite team's new quarterback will do this season. Do not ask a rabid "anti-fan" what his most hated team will do this year. Using both of these rules of thumb, however, will make it difficult to get the inside scoop on Rich Gannon in Oakland.

Prior to the season starting, most teams have only a few weeks of meaningful time together to practice, establish roles, get blocking assignments down, and so on. Remember, preseason is the time a team is looking at rookies, working in free agent acquisitions and trying to keep the best players from getting "Ki-Jana'ed". For those initial weeks of a season, it only takes one blocker to miss an assignment to cause a quarterback to hold the sideline clipboard. BLAM. Out go the lights. New offenses do not mesh overnight.

Thanks to free agency and the salary cap, the exact same team never steps onto the field two years in a row. It is not until the season is three or four weeks old that a new offense starts to gel. If you like to trade (who doesn't?), then these "new team" guys are the ones to find after they have gone through their learning curve and before they do what everyone expected they would. Look for the impatient owners.

Free agents always spawn optimism, but how well did the bigger names do last season?

Adrian Murrell - actually had a career year with 8 TD's
Rob Johnson - Got hurt and was replaced
Chris Warren - Got hurt and played sparingly
Derrick Alexander - Had a nice season after a very slow start
Sean Dawkins - Less than Saintly
Lamar Smith - Even less than Dawkins
Gary Brown - Had nice season after a slow start
Jeff Graham - Oops. Philadelphia.
Natrone Means - Had a nice season for 9 games until injured.
Ricky Watters - Good season after slow start
Bert Emanuel - Got injured
Yancey Thigpen - Got injured

Of free agents, only the runningbacks did notably well. This bodes well for Marshall Faulk as he was the lone major runningback to switch teams. There are a number of quarterbacks on new teams this season - Trent Green, Scott Mitchell, Tony Banks, Ty Detmer, Kerry Collins, Doug Pederson, Jim Harbaugh, Neil O'Donnell and Brad Johnson. It should prove interesting to see which and how many are able to do hit the ground passing for their new employers.

The chance that a new receiver instantly improves a new team is also very remote. Fryar did it a few years ago. Most fail and at times do so spectacularly considering their cost. The new team receivers to be wary about - Chris Calloway, Rocket Ismail, Tony Martin, Eddie Kennison, Charles Johnson, Torrance Small, Jeff Graham and Sean Dawkins. Ismail and Dawkins may be stepping into the most favorable situations. Newbies Johnson and Small now are relying on newbie Doug Pederson. In Philadelphia no less.

Once you are comfortable with players and your plans, pay attention in your draft! Each draft takes it's own personality and soon enough you will get a feel for what types of players are being drafted in what order. Keep tabs on all your fellow drafters. You can often delay picks for a round if you know there are more players in the desired position than there are teams likely to draft one. However, and this is a critical caveat, do not wait too long for a quarterback. Conventional wisdom has it that there are only a few studs this year and plenty of decent others. I have repeatedly heard from people who have delayed taking their first quarterback only to notice other teams grabbing backups. In almost all leagues, you only use one quarterback and you must ensure it is someone that will deliver for you. The difference between drafting a player too early versus waiting too late is that only one scenario gets you the player.

The art in drafting is to take only educated, reasoned-risks and understand the NFL from the perspective of team dynamics, new player/coach impacts, injury-potential and objective realities of each player as they relate to specific teams. The true art in drafting is to know your stuff, read all available information, discover and understand trends well enough that by draft day you have a strategy to get those guys for whom you "just got a feeling about". Nothing can replace having knowledge and a genuine feel for the game. If you consider the player and his opportunity, production and consistency, then learn about the team as a whole, their schedule and direction, and keep current on all the news. You'll find that not only will you develop strong hunches, but that you can't exactly point as to why you feel so strongly. What's more, you'll be surprised at how right you can become.

And so draft using science, but understand it is an art form more than anything. For all the analysis and research, you just never know sometimes. Think of the time and money that went into the process that resulted with "oh - let's trade up to get Leaf". Learn enough to develop hunches and follow through on them. If you want a player, then resist the urge to play the waiting game and just pull the trigger. We'll never believe you wanted him otherwise. If you want to have the best draft ever, you'll improve if you consider statistics. You'll do even better if you use the art of the draft in assessing players, learning the positions in your league, your league mate's tendencies and working the draft as it evolves. Use science and art together, and you'll be certain to succeed.

Oh yes, and above all else, don't forget to wear your lucky hat...