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Dear Mr. Fantasy: The year to think differently?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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When you pose a question to the Twitterverse, where does it go?

Some say it passes through the government, where it's submitted to an array of tests intended to detect and eliminate threats. Others say it becomes one with the Web, disappearing into an endless sea of worn-out memes and abandoned GeoCities pages.

Of course, those on the other end of the 'verse, such as myself, know it goes straight to CBSSpports.com Fantasy Football writers Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard ... or to social media coordinator Aleese Kopf, who then filters it to Jamey and Dave.

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But sometimes -- about once a week, maybe -- it bypasses those guardians and is absorbed directly into the lifeblood of Mr. Fantasy.

I said the lifeblood, as in the blood that keeps him alive, meaning as long as you keep asking, he'll keep living. It's just the laws of nature, sonny.

Rest assured, though, he's no blood-sucking parasite. As he absorbs those questions, he provides answers to them. And this is the space designated for those answers.

So congratulations to you eight, who thought you were seeking simple solutions to simple problems. You're now in a symbiotic relationship.

Better update your Facebook status.

Is the first round going to be dominated by running backs again, or is it time to take a quarterback No. 1 overall? -- Jason Wanke (via Facebook)

SW: Ah, yes -- philosophical changes from last year. Let's get the heavy lifting out of the way first, right?

No doubt, last year challenged my view on the league's transition to pass-heavy offenses and what it means for the value of running backs relative to quarterbacks. I assumed it made the high-end running backs even more of a priority. If more quarterbacks were destined to put up big numbers, why not wait longer to draft a quarterback?

But here's the possibility I failed to consider until it became the reality: Everyone started passing more. Not only did the balanced offenses become pass-heavy, creating a deeper collection of 4,000-yard passers than anyone had ever seen, but the pass-heavy offenses became pass-heavier, making 5,000-yard passers more common than anyone thought possible.

This development revealed two important truths about the quarterback position. The most obvious is that because the gap between the elite and the second tier stayed the same, you can't expect to get first-round production out of a seventh-round quarterback. But the more significant revelation is that because quarterbacks as a whole increased their production, they now have a greater say in the outcome of every Fantasy matchup -- to the point that, at least in leagues that reward six points per touchdown pass, the greatest determining factor in a team's success or failure is its performance at quarterback.

So then, the high-end quarterbacks are the priority, right?

Not exactly. I'm part of the way there, but what keeps me from going all-in just yet is my belief that enough scenarios exist for you to have your cake and eat it too.

The high-end running backs are in fact more of a priority than they used to be, which I know sounds like a contradiction after I just said the high-end quarterbacks are, but it's possible for both to be true. My theory last year did have some legitimacy to it. It's just that the high-end running backs are also fewer than they used to be. Really, there's only three: Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy. The other candidates all have significant drawbacks that eliminate them from consideration, such as the threat of a timeshare (DeMarco Murray, Matt Forte), the risk of an injury (Ryan Mathews, Adrian Peterson) or other extenuating circumstances (Maurice Jones-Drew, Marshawn Lynch). Some are excluded just because they play for an offense that doesn't give a hoot about running (Stevan Ridley, Kevin Smith). Because there's getting to be no such thing as a safe running back, if you have a shot at getting one of the three who are, you have to take it and just hope that one of the elite five quarterbacks, most likely Matthew Stafford or Cam Newton, falls to you in the second round.

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If not, all is not lost. The second tier of quarterbacks is still incredibly deep, and some in that group, such as Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, at least have a fleeting hope of closing the gap on the elite tier. Just don't make the mistake of reaching for one before you have to. The one positive to missing out on the elite five quarterbacks is that it gives you a chance to stock up at other positions instead. You'd only be compounding the problem by selecting Eli Manning in the third round.

Now, if you don't have a shot at one of the elite three running backs, then yeah, your next-best bet might be to go with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady in the first round. If you care to gamble, though, you can pass on them and hope to get Stafford or Newton on the bounce-back. They tend to slide there even though, in the end, I think they'll do more for their Fantasy owners than Darren McFadden or Steven Jackson will.

Of course, if your league deflates the value of quarterbacks by awarding only three or four points for a touchdown pass instead of the standard six, the whole picture changes.

Is taking Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski at No. 18 too early? Say I already took McCoy at No. 3. -- @durivage12 (via Twitter)

SW: I'm all about drafting Gronkowski and Graham this year. Well, I guess I can't say I'm all about it if my ideal plan involves drafting one of the top five quarterbacks. Most likely, you wouldn't want to do both. But if you miss out on those quarterbacks, drafting either Graham or Gronkowski with your second-round pick -- perhaps even earlier than 18th overall -- isn't such a bad fallback option.

Tight end, like quarterback, is deeper than it used to be, but Gronkowski and Graham are still head and shoulders above the rest at the position. Last year in standard leagues, they outscored the No. 3 tight end by more than the top four running backs (Maurice Jones-Drew included) outscored the fifth-best and by more than the top five quarterbacks outscored the sixth-best. If you're looking to head into each week with a clear advantage over your opponent at a position, these two are the best way to accomplish that.

Granted, assuming they'll repeat last year's numbers is dangerous -- particularly in the case of Gronkowski, who was setting records left and right -- but they wouldn't drop off enough to lose their advantage at the position. Both still play for prolific offenses that subscribe to a pass-first philosophy even in the red zone, and both still have freakish ability that makes their production not so dependent on matchups or schemes.

Of course, if you had to settle for a shaky running back in Round 1, you might prefer to fortify that pick with another high-upside back in Round 2. But you can't do it all, right? You might as well have something halfway assured.

And if you were lucky enough to get McCoy, a relatively safe running back, in Round 1, it's even more of a slam dunk.

Does Philip Rivers bust again, or is he possibly the greatest value pick in recent memory? -- @joshmcguire60 (via Twitter)

SW: Oh, I'm definitely going with the latter there. In fact, if I miss out on the top five quarterbacks, Rivers and Matt Ryan are my preferred fallback options, even ahead of Michael Vick and the Manning brothers.

I think part of his value stems from the misconception that he was a bust last year. I understand he had a down season by his standards, particularly because of some early struggles with interceptions, but if you look at his final line, it really wasn't that bad. His 4,624 passing yards were the second-most of his career and only 19 short of Aaron Rodgers' total. He also completed a higher percentage of his passes than Matt Ryan, Eli Manning and Matt Schaub. Keep in mind that was a down year.

And yeah, you might worry a down year could become the new standard for him, but he already bounced back in the second half last year, throwing for 2,155 yards with 16 touchdown passes, six interceptions and a 96.8 quarterback rating over his final eight games. If you project those stats over a full 16 games, he would have scored about the same number of points as Manning in standard formats.

Why all the concern over him? Because Vincent Jackson left? Yeah, because Rivers didn't just go through that when Jackson held out for much of 2010. He only had his best season statistically. If anything, Antonio Gates' improved health should help Rivers' chances this year.

"Greatest value pick in recent memory" might be overstating it a bit. It's not like he's going in the Jake Locker range. But yeah, I expect Rivers to outperform his draft position.

I'm in a 10-team standard league for the first time. I've never done one so small. How does draft strategy change vs. that of a 12- or 14-team league? -- Bryan Fitz (via Facebook)

SW: It makes a difference. The shallower the league, the harder time you'll have differentiating your team from everyone else's. For ones like yours, newcomers tend to think everyone winds up with a roster full of superstars, which is true to an extent. But someone still finishes first, and someone still finishes last. How do you make sure you're closer to the former than the latter?

Position scarcity is a big part of it. I understand it's more of a baseball term, but it's relevant in shallower football leagues as well. In 12- or 14-team leagues, you can probably get away with having a tight end or second wide receiver who's merely OK, but in 8- or 10-team leagues, that's the weakness that'll keep you coming up short time and time again. If everyone else has a roster full of superstars, the one who's a superstar short is the cellar dweller. It just makes sense.

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Thus, anyone who stands out at his position deserves added emphasis on Draft Day. That includes the big five quarterbacks, the big two tight ends, Calvin Johnson, etc. If you decide Johnson is your best bet in the first round and then see Cam Newton still hanging around in the second, why not take him? You won't have a running back yet, which is generally unadvisable after two rounds, but a 10-team league offers more than enough capable running backs to go around. Chances are you could still get someone like Ahmad Bradshaw in the third round, and is his outlook all that different from Marshawn Lynch's or Steven Jackson's? You won't get another shot at someone like Newton.

I don't mean to suggest all running backs are equal or that you should completely disregard them in the first two rounds, but aside from Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy, who really stands out the position? Get a stud while you're still able to get a stud and hold off on the pretty good until pretty good is all that remains.

As for the later rounds, I'd advise shooting for upside over assured mediocrity. In deeper leagues, where you're just trying to make sure you get some kind of production from every position, I could understand why you might opt for a Nate Washington. But in a shallower league, with so many adequate options available, why not gamble on a Terrell Owens instead? Sure, he's been out of the NFL since 2010, is 39 and might not win a roster spot. But even if he becomes moot before the season begins, chances are you'll find a Washington type still available on the waiver wire.

Don't like Owens? Fine, that's just one example. I could have suggested Roy Helu over Tim Hightower, Andrew Luck over Joe Flacco or Jared Cook over Tony Gonzalez. You get the idea. To stand out in a 10-team league, you need the best of the best. Anyone who doesn't stand a chance doesn't make the cut.

I drafted Robert Griffin III as my starting quarterback. Should I be worried? -- @DundeeNFL (via Twitter)

SW: Yeah, I'd worry. The two clearest drop-offs at the quarterback position are after the top five and after the top 11. Even in the most optimistic projections, Griffin is no better than No. 12.

And that's something of a miracle in and of itself. The only reason any Fantasy analyst can get away with ranking him that high is because of what Cam Newton did last year. Before him, even the best rookie quarterbacks in recent memory, such as Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, were fringe starters at best in a 12-team league. And nobody was willing to grant them even that much heading into the season.

But Newton changed the standard last year, dominating the league even though scouts at the time weren't as unanimous about his NFL readiness as they are about Griffin's. True, Newton's rushing ability helped compensate for some of the mistakes he made as a passer, but Griffin can run. So why not him?

And to be honest, other than the obvious response of "he's a rookie," I don't know. But I do know what Newton did was unprecedented, and I wouldn't want to bank on lightning striking twice.

If for some reason you miss out on the top 11 quarterbacks and have to draft Griffin as your starter, your best bet would be to pair him with the best backup you can possibly get, perhaps even by investing back-to-back picks in the position. Matt Schaub is a great choice. He won't be the most consistent Fantasy performer given the Texans' extensive use of Arian Foster, but he'll have some big games and has an decent shot at a 4,000-yard season. Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer would be adequate alternatives to Griffin as well. The idea is to get someone relatively safe so that you won't be dead in the water if you don't strike gold with the rookie.

Of course, if you've already completed your draft and weren't able to get one of those backups for Griffin, that information does you no good. You could try trading for a Schaub, Roethlisberger, Cutler or Palmer, but if the cost is too high, you'll want to sit tight for now.

You wouldn't want decimate your roster only to find out two weeks from now, when Griffin is coming off back-to-back 300-yard games, that you didn't have to.

Is Donald Brown worth more than his average draft position in a points-per-reception league? -- @firefighterg50 (via Twitter)

SW: The more I see of Andrew Luck and the Colts offense this preseason, the more I begin to buy into Brown as a Fantasy sleeper.

Joseph Addai is gone, so playing time was never the issue, as it is for so many of the running backs that rank outside the top 20. The issue was an offense that scored 15.2 points per game last season, tied for fourth-lowest in the NFL. But that team was led Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky -- who might as well have been Larry, Curly and Moe -- and this one is led by prospect of all prospects Andrew Luck. And while it's true you don't know how any player will fare in his first NFL season, so far -- at least in games that don't count -- so good.

I don't mean to oversell Luck here. He threw two interceptions in the team's second preseason game and, as a rookie quarterback, faces the same challenges I mentioned for Robert Griffin III in an earlier question. But I'm not assessing Luck's Fantasy value now. I'm assessing Brown's, and as far as Brown is concerned, Luck's preseason performance has been exactly what you want to see.

The rookie is clearly capable of moving the ball, completing passes and picking up yards, but he makes mistakes and, as a rookie still adjusting to the speed of the game, will often be asked to throw high-percentage passes. Brown was the beneficiary on Luck's very first preseason snap, taking a screen pass 63 yards for the score.

You expect the Colts to fall behind in games. Whatever rookie mistakes Luck makes will help ensure it. But falling behind means more pass attempts, with many of them expected to come Brown's way. So even if the Colts' weaknesses prevent him from showing off his rushing ability as much as you'd like, he'll make up for it with receiving yards.

And in points-per-reception leagues, he will with receptions as well. I'd take him over players like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Frank Gore, Shonn Greene, Kevin Smith and Stevan Ridley, most likely.

Which three of these should I hold on to in a 10-team league: LeGarrette Blount, Kendall Wright, Evan Royster, Jon Baldwin, Austin Collie, Mikel Leshoure and Shane Vereen? I have Kenny Britt and Doug Martin, if it makes a difference. -- @mlbmark888 (via Twitter)

SW: Knowing you have Martin, Blount immediately stands out to me as a player you should continue to roster. Handcuffing your starters brings a sense of security that you won't get from a middling DeAngelo Williams type, especially when the backup is a relatively established player himself. Shoot, you don't even know for sure yet that Blount won't end up starting over Martin.

Among the other six, the choice in a 10-team league should come down to who has the most upside, and by that criterion, Royster and Leshoure are the obvious standouts. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan can't stop raving about Royster, which I understand doesn't mean much given the source. Ever since Clinton Portis was done in Denver in 2003, Shanahan has played hot potato with his running backs, swapping them out from week to week and year to year. Still, his rushing scheme is productive enough that if he ever does settle on just one guy, that guy will be a Fantasy stud. And though I think Roy Helu's ability makes him more likely to be the guy who distinguishes himself from the others, the potential that I'm wrong and that Royster breaks out with a 1,300-yard season is high enough that I wouldn't want to be the dope that cuts him now. Leshoure, because of his continued brittleness, is in a similar situation in Detroit, but he's more like the Helu to Kevin Smith's Royster.

Granted, neither of those two is a can't-miss option, but how much can you reasonably expect from the other four? Even if Britt misses significant time to injury and suspension, Wright would still be competing for looks with Nate Washington, Jared Cook and Damian Williams in a passing attack that isn't so prolific to begin with. Baldwin's situation is about the same with the Matt Cassel-led Chiefs. Collie is already dealing with concussion issues and would be at best a tertiary receiving option for a rookie quarterback. And everything you read out of New England suggests Stevan Ridley is the far superior back to Vereen.

I'm not saying those four don't have their place in Fantasy, but they're clearly on a lower level than Blount, Royster and Leshoure.

I've been offered Greg Jennings for Darren Sproles in a 10-team points-per-reception league. I also have Ray Rice and Ryan Mathews. Should I take it or wait? -- @KurtisSpade (via Twitter)

SW: I'd be inclined to wait there. I understand why you'd want to spread the wealth to other positions, particularly in a shallower league, but it's not like going from Sproles to Jennings is an upgrade. In points-per-reception leagues, Sproles is more or less a stud.

He's not even really a running back. He's a Wes Welker-type receiver who happens to come out of the backfield, and if you don't recognize the value of that sort of player in points-per-reception leagues, consider that Sproles was the fifth-ranked running back in those formats last year even though he accumulated only 603 yards on the ground.

Besides, Jennings' greatest asset, yards after the catch, is almost a drawback in points-per-reception leagues. More productive receptions means fewer receptions, which means fewer points. Would you believe Jennings, for as long as he's been a high-end Fantasy option, has had only one 80-catch season in his career? See for yourself. I'm not making it up.

Granted, penalizing a player for being more productive with his catches seems kind of backward, but no one ever said points-per-reception leagues were a more adequate reflection of real football. They are what they are, and being what they are, the occasional statistical oddity will result.

Because few Fantasy owners take the time to understand those oddities, a player like Jennings is as overvalued in a points-per-reception league as a player like Sproles is undervalued. If the other guy offered you Larry Fitzgerald, it'd close the gap a bit, but I'd still probably stand pat just to see what happens with Mathews and his collarbone. Even when he returns, you might discover he's the lesser option of the two.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB or Facebook . You can also follow Scott via Twitter @CBSScottWhite .

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Player News
Reggie Bush says he doesn't plan to retire
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Three days after being released by the Lions, RB Reggie Bush said he has no plans to retire. 

TMZ reporters confronted Bush outside a Beverly Hills restaurant and asked if Bush, who turns 30 on Monday, was going to quit football. Bush responded with, "No." 

Bush rushed for 297 yards and two touchdowns last season. 


Report: Cowboys to let DeMarco Murray test free agency
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) The Cowboys will let RB DeMarco Murray test the free-agent market, according to a report from Fox Sports Southwest

Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said that negotiations with Murray's agents have been "slow". 

Jones said that Murray "is probably going to get some peace and see what's out in the market, and then we'll talk and see. I do believe deep down he'd love to stay in Dallas."

Murray rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. 


Report: Cowboys to use franchise tag on Dez Bryant
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) The Cowboys will use the franchise tag on WR Dez Bryant on Monday, according to a report by Fox Sports Southwest

The team has been trying to negotiate a long-term contract with Bryant, a free-agent to be. If a deal can't be made by Monday's franchise tag deadline, the Cowboys will use the tag to keep Bryant a Cowboy. 

"I still think that (it) would be a stretch to think that we would have something done by Monday and beat the franchise-tag deadline," Cowboys VP Stephen Jones told Fox. "Looks like we're eyeing a franchise tag on Dez, but certainly won't stop us from working hard to get a long-term deal. ... We just don't want to lose his rights."

Bryant had 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. 


QB Josh McCown's contract with Browns worth $14 million
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Quarterback Josh McCown's deal with the Browns will pay $14 million over three years, a league source told CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora.

With incentives related to playing time and playoff berths, McCown could earn $20 million over the course of the deal.

McCown will earn $6.25 million in fully guaranteed money, with $5.25 million of it coming in the first year of the deal.


Report: Panthers won't re-sign Greg Hardy
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Panthers DE Greg Hardy is scheduled to become a free agent on March 10. He missed most of last season while appealing his conviction for domestic violence. 

Even though the charges were dropped on appeal, the Panthers have no intention of bringing Hardy back, multiple league sources told BlackandBlueReview.com's Bill Voth


Texans' Brian Cushing has had three offseason surgeries
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Texans LB Brian Cushing has had three surgeries since the end of the season. 

In a public appearance on Saturday, Cushing told the Houston Chronicle's John McClain that he's had surgery on his broken right wrist as well as arthroscopic procedures on his left knee and left ankle. 

"It’s not uncommon for stuff like that to happen," he said of the two arthroscopic surgeries. "It’s just little things here and there, the residual effects of two major surgeries and injuries, the wear and tear of playing throughout the season. There were still some things bothering me a little bit. Just went in there and had real good success in both areas."

Cushing has a cast on his wrist. “It’s coming along real well,” he said. “I’m going to start working out a little bit. From a pain standpoint, there’s really nothing going on there. I’m real happy about that. I’m real happy to get the cast off and start doing some physical therapy on it, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore."


Report: 49ers to release wide receiver Steve Johnson
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) The 49ers are expected to release wide receiver Steve Johnson, according to Dianna Marie Russini of NBC Washington D.C.

The move will reportedly save the team $5.5 million in cap space. Johnson had 35 catches for 435 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games last season.


Patriots running back Stevan Ridley: 'I have something to prove'
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Patriots running back Stevan Ridley is expected to become a free agent in the coming weeks and he is ready for the experience.

"I'm excited about it," Ridley told Sirius XM Radio Friday. "As a player coming into the league, you get there and your first contract you kind of have to establish yourself and see what you can do. Everybody is a good player if you get to make it to the NFL, but there is something to be said if you get to that second contract."

Ridley has rushed for 2,817 yards and 22 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the league with the Patriots.

"Where I'll be playing, and who I'll be playing for, is still unknown, but I know I've come in and done my job up to this point and now I have to put it in my agent's hands to get me on another team, or stay where I'm at, and make sure I’m in pads playing ball somewhere next year. I know if you think about it too much it will worry you sick."

Ridley has played in 20 of a possible 32 games the last two seasons, starting in just 11 of them.

"I take it personal to any team or anybody that says I can't be a very productive player on whatever team I land on," he said. "I've been playing ball my whole life, I'm going to come in and be a leader, and I'm going to be a guy that comes in and busts his butt in the weight room and busts his butt on the field. I'm a good teammate, I have fun with my guys, but when the lights come on Sundays, it's all business and I plan on going out there and making plays."


Patriots' Aaron Dobson doing well in rehab of hamstring injury
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson is still recovering from a hamstring injury that ended his season in 2014. Trainer Brett Fischer said Friday he thinks Dobson is going to turn heads when he heads back to Foxboro for training camp, according to the Boston Herald.

"He was talking about, 'When I go up there (to Foxboro) and they see me again, I want to make sure they know I'm in the best shape of my life.' He is really determined," Fischer said. "That is the underlying theme every day: 'Hey, I've got to be ready when April comes, be ready as far as the best shape of my life.' It's frustrating with two years of freaky-type stuff."

Dobson finished a disappointing 2014 season with three catches for 38 yards.

"He is doing great," Fischer said. "I'm really excited for him. He has put the time and effort into it, comes in early, gets all his work in and he is hungry. There are a few specific things we found, minor little things we're working on, that make his program a little bit unique to everybody else's. Nothing major."


Report: Should be a 'very active market' for Broncos' Julius Thomas
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Broncos tight end Julius Thomas turned down a five-year, $40 million contract for a reason. That's because it's believed he will have a "very active market" when the new league year begins on March 10, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. 

Two teams that are expected to target Thomas in free agency are the Raiders and Jaguars, both of which need to upgrade considerably at their skill positions to help out their young quarterbacks. The expectation is for Broncos general manager John Elway to let Thomas test the waters in free agency to see what he's offered. 

The Falcons have also reportedly been interested, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. 

Injuries slowed what was an otherwise fast start to his 2014 season. Thomas' season ended with 489 yards and 12 touchdowns. 


 
 
 
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