It happens too early every year in fantasy drafts: Somebody breaks up the first-round run on running backs and takes Peyton Manning.
This, of course, elicits knowing smirks from the wiser members of the fantasy league. There might even be eye-rolling and looks of disgust, as if the person just butchered the pronunciation of Houshmandzadeh.
The more experienced fantasy players know the poor sap just took Manning too early. There were still good running backs available, after all, and everybody knows you never take a quarterback until the best backs are gone.
This year, however, that sap just might be right. While running backs remain at the heart of any respectable draft strategy, the annual reach for Manning may not be a reach after all. In fact, you could argue he's worth taking as early as third.
The premise of the traditional running backs-Manning-then more running backs draft order is that there aren't enough backs to go around. If you take Manning too early, the strategy holds, you'll get saddled with a Julius Jones-Chester Taylor backfield.
But this year there are at least 25 backs who could be good fantasy starters, meaning you might land Manning and a pair of decent runners.
Holes at the top of that deep running back crop also make Manning attractive early. Usually there are seven or eight runners before you think QB. But the warts start showing this year right after LaDainian Tomlinson and Steven Jackson go 1-2.
Frank Gore already has a broken hand. Larry Johnson has contract woes, a bad offense and is due to wear down from too much work. Shaun Alexander is getting old and already wearing down. Willie Parker has a sore knee and his offense is passing more. Joseph Addai has big potential but is unproven.
You'd love all these guys, but Manning's a sure thing.
He's coming off a year of 31 touchdowns passing and four rushing, his top receivers are back, and his defense is a lot worse. Throw in the fact that everybody will be gunning for the champs, and it's easy to see Manning launching 45 times in weekly shootouts.
For the vast majority who won't luck out with Manning, here's a position-by-position look at basic draft philosophies that should help regardless of your league's format or size.
- Quarterback: After Manning, there are four guys close to fantasy guarantees: Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Marc Bulger. Make landing these a priority, but not at the cost of a top back or receiver. The next 10 or so quarterbacks could be suitable starters, so no rush. Whatever you do, get a solid backup. That's what somebody was thinking last year with Drew Brees, after all.
- Running backs: You can never have enough, which is why most people take them with their first two or three picks. The thing to remember is to not abandon the position later in the draft, when all the big stars are long gone. There are still plenty of time-share gems and backups who could wind up producing. Last year, for example, Travis Henry and Ladell Betts emerged for 1,000-yard seasons.
- Receivers: There are about 20 gamebreakers. Make sure you get one, but don't panic too much beyond that because plenty will slide. Also remember that every year a few nobodys will blossom and be available on waivers. (Know anybody who drafted Marques Colston or Mike Furrey last year?)
- Tight ends: If you're in a league that still uses tight ends, you have my sympathy and this simple advice: Get Antonio Gates early or don't worry. Many leagues just count tight ends as receivers, to avoid the weekly stat rundown of 120 yards and a score for Gates, 47 yards for everyone else.
- Defense: If your lineup looks great after seven or eight rounds, or if you traded for an extra midround pick, take Baltimore or Chicago. Otherwise, wait until the last round or two. In the age of free agency, it's too hard to say who's going to be really good beyond the top few.
- Kickers: Make this your last pick. I mean, come on, you're devoting a lot of time and energy to being a total geek by pretending you're a general manager. Do you really want to waste time thinking about an unathletic 140-pound guy who only moves one body part?
- Rookies: You know that guy in your league who can figure out the good rookies, or at least always tries? It's OK if you're that guy. When you get in trouble is when you try to copy that guy. As a rule, only the top couple running backs drafted by the real NFL are worth taking.
- Overthinking: Don't do this. Don't work up spreadsheets to ensure you don't have too many players with the same bye week or too many who will face AFC North defenses. Just draft the best players available, as analysts endlessly repeat during the real NFL draft telecast.
- Have fun: Sure, it's a cornball piece of advice, but there's no point in doing this if you make it stressful. Draft night's what you've been waiting for all year, so free your inner geek and have a good time.

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