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Sure-fire tips for draft day

(Aug. 27, 2001) - Okay, I admit it. I drafted J.J. Johnson last year. Faced with the choice between Johnson and Lamar Smith, who were locked in a tight battle to become Miami's starting tailback, I took one look at Johnson's 85 yards in the team's preseason finale (Smith, who already had a reputation for being injury-prone, sat out the game nursing a sore calf) and decided he was the better choice.
Turns out that Smith was named the starter that day. Smith said he was surprised, but not half as surprised as I was.
Smith went on to tally 1,139 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns. Johnson had 168 rushing yards and 1 touchdown. Don't make my mistake...
Remove the guesswork from Draft Day
Do your homework. There's no shortage of up-to-date material on the Web and lots of expert analysis, including that of NFL.com's own Gil Brandt, the former personnel guru of the Dallas Cowboys.
But go the extra yard and do your own research, too. Had I read the Florida newspapers only hours before our draft last year, I would have known that
Smith still had the inside track for the Miami job even after sitting out that last preseason game. How do you get to the local papers? You can go directly to any newspaper site on the Web, using a search engine for guidance. Some fantasy sites even have links to hometown papers.
Better yet, streamline the process yourself by going to a site such as newspaperlinks.com, the Newspaper Association of America's gateway to papers around the country, and find papers in NFL markets. Bookmark the pro football pages and keep them in a separate folder (the procedure differs slightly depending on your browser, but it's relatively simple). It will take some effort up front, but even long after Draft Day, you'll refer to the pages when it comes to setting your lineup each week. The investment of time is worth it.
Speaking of investments, remember that's what rookies are. By definition, investments are for the future. So, on Draft Day...

Don't rely on rookies
That's not a knock on first-year players. It's the nature of fantasy football, which doesn't afford you the luxury of waiting for a player to develop. Sure, one or two rookies will make a big fantasy impact this year, but let the other owners in your league burn high picks trying to guess which ones. Remember Peter Warrick? Plaxico Burress? Thomas Jones? Shaun
Alexander? Sebastian Janikowski? All probably were drafted way too high in your league last year. The biggest impact rookie of 2000 was draft pick number 189, Denver's Mike Anderson, who began the season as the Broncos' third-string running back and wasn't even drafted in most leagues.
Disclaimer: "Running back is the one position in the NFL where guys can play sooner," Vikings coach Dennis Green says. Green just happens to have one rookie who figures to play soon in speedy Michael Bennett. And Green just happens to be the coach for whom wide receiver Randy Moss burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1998 and quarterback Daunte Culpepper emerged last year, even though he hadn't thrown an NFL pass entering the season. Makes you wonder if there's something to Green's approach. Which brings us to...

Draft the system
Think Broncos, Rams, Vikings, Colts, 49ers. Denver has had three different 1,000-yard rushers in three seasons. And quarterback Gus Frerotte stepped in for injured Brian Griese last season and passed for 462 yards and 5 touchdowns in one game against San Diego.
When Kurt Warner was injured in St. Louis, the Rams didn't miss a beat statistically. Trent Green took over and passed for 15 touchdowns in six games. Of course, when Green was injured the year before, we all know what Warner did.
Warner is one of those players around whom you can build your squad. Which reminds me...

Make sure you get a franchise player
Brilliant advice. As if you're going to pass up an Edgerrin James or Marshall Faulk or Warner or Peyton Manning. But the point is: Make your initial picks count. The early rounds are not the time to go out on a limb or act on the hunch that this will be someone's breakout year. Get players you can rely on each week before taking any chances. Then...

Follow your game plan
Decide ahead of time which players you really want at a given position and which players you can live with at others. If there are only two or three quarterbacks you really want, but a dozen wide receivers you rate almost equally, grab the quarterback. There's time to wait on the receivers.
Obviously, you'll have to make adjustments as the draft unfolds, but take the initiative. Don't let other owners dictate your team.
After all, once the season starts, too many things are out of your control: injuries, coaches' decisions, bad luck. Draft Day is the one time when you are totally in control. So make the most of it. Stick with your blueprint.
Then, when it's all over, you can light a ceremonial cigar and quote George Peppard as the immortal Col. John (Hannibal) Smith of the A-Team: "I love it when a plan comes together!"

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