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Fantasy Football: Should Jimmy Graham Be Taken With The First Overall Pick?

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New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) tries to break free from the grasp of Oakland Raiders safety Mike Mitchell (34) at the O.co Coliseum. The Saints defeated the Raiders 38-17. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the news broke that Rob Gronkowski was undergoing a fourth forearm surgery and a second back operation, the fantasy community has been all  aflutter for what his absence could mean in terms of raising Jimmy Graham’s draft value.

Although there is still much unknown when exactly Gronk will return from his sabbatical to Cyberdyne in his quest to become a cyborg and a part of Skynet, one thing is certain: if he does miss any time at all, Graham becomes part of his own solo tier atop of the tight end position for fantasy football this season.

Despite being hampered by an early season ankle injury and an ongoing wrist issue that forced him to miss one game entirely (which he had surgically repaired after the season), Graham was the highest scoring tight end in both standard and PPR scoring in 2012 (due to Gronkowski missing five games himself).

As good as his season was (finishing with 85 receptions, 982 yards, nine TD), it was a still a far cry from his 99 catch, 1,310 yard, 11 touchdown stat stuffing season from the prior year.

The wrist injury definitely played a part in his decline. Per Pro Football Focus, Graham dropped 15 of 100 catchable passes (15%) thrown his way last year, which was the second worst percentage of dropped passes among all tight ends (Aaron Hernandez dropped 16.3%).

In 2011, he only let six of 94 (5.7%) catchable targets touch the ground, which was sixth best at his position.

The other reason for a dip in production was the loss of offensive guru, head coach Sean Payton. While Graham still reached the end zone nine times, he seen his red zone usage drop, receiving only 17 total looks inside the opponents twenty, down from 28 such looks in 2011.

Payton’s return to weekly offensive input should be a boon for all the Saint’s skill players heading into 2013, let alone for Graham.

Over the past two years, Graham has been targeted on average once every 3.8 snaps in route. That puts him in number one wide receiver usage territory. Only 13 WR were targeted at a higher average per route in 2012 than Graham’s 3.97 RT/TGT.

That’s all fine and dandy, but how did we get into taking Graham in the first round even, let alone selecting him as the first overall player?

If the WR drop-off is so gradual, while the TE drop-off is so steep, when will Graham pass Calvin Johnson in value and/or draft position? And, could you build a team around jumping early on that value?

People say there’s no way they will take a TE in the first, but is Graham really even a TE outside of the fantasy circle? Last season the Saints called a passing play 79% of the time when Graham was on the field, he was asked to block  (either run or pass) on only 24% of his plays. Just to add on, only 20% of the time did he line up in line at TE, lining up in the slot on 65% of his snaps, and 15% outside as a split end.

I decided to test the waters myself, wading into the public online mock drafting sites to get a gauge on what the semi-casual gamers would do around my plan. All of these drafts were done using a 4PT pass TD, PPR format, with a WR/RB/TE flex and 12 teams. For full disclosure, I am still an advocate of going RB-RB early this year, and in terms of Value Based Drafting, I had 10 RB and five WR still ahead of Graham for this league format.

But there’s a legitimate argument to be made on taking him so early outside of VBD, so I wanted to explore what would happen.

To start, here is my 2013 projected line for Graham this season:

REC YDS TD PPR PTS
Graham, Jimmy 99 1217 10 280.7

 

The first draft was done from pick number six, as I wanted to get right in the middle area to start testing this out.

RND STARTERS PROJ. PTS
8 LUCK 289.08
2 JACKSON, S 219.8
3 GORE 197.9
4 BOWE 246.3
6 JONES,JAMES 215
7 AUSTIN 214.5
1 GRAHAM 280.7
5 MILLER, L. 203.7
1866.98

 

I took Graham while Johnson was still on the board at six. I was still able to land a quality group of skill players and my projected lineup ranked fourth among starters, using my own PPR projections for totaling starting lineup points.

To test it out further, I upped the ante a bit a decided to see what I could do after taking Graham with the first overall pick (I apologize again to the mockers, just as I did that night, I wasn’t trolling your experience, honest).

RND STARTERS PROJ. PTS
7 STAFFORD 310.1
2 SPROLES 238
4 GORE 197.9
3 JOHNSON,A 262.1
5 AMENDOLA 229.2
8 MOORE,L 188.6
1 GRAHAM 280.7
6 VEREEN 192
1898.6

 

Now we’re on to something. I could really work with this if this were a real team, being able to land Andre Johnson and Darren Sproles at the return round 2/3 turn is PPR heaven. One ongoing thing I have noticed doing MyDailyFantasyLeague10’s and public mocks, is that most people in PPR drafts don’t like sinking a top 30 pick into Sproles. Don’t make that mistake come August if the opportunity presents itself; he is a legit top-12 PPR.

This team ranked third overall in projections.

Just to level out a baseline on what I was aiming to accomplish, I decided to draft a team from number one overall and select Peterson, to see how my Graham at number one team stacked up.

RND STARTERS PROJ. PTS
7 WILSON 320.7
1 PETERSON 298.2
3 SPROLES 238
2 THOMAS,D 280.1
4 COLSTON 234.6
6 SHORTS 203.4
1 FINLEY 164
5 IVORY 170.7
1909.7

 

This is an example of the kind of variance than can happen in your draft come August. Three quarterbacks went in the second round (Rodgers, Brees, Manning) as I’m sure @LateRoundQB just went into cardiac arrest.

This also pushed a guy like Chris Ivory all the way down to the 49th overall selection (about 10 spots after his ADP). No matter what strategy fantasy writers implore you to follow, crazy things are going to happen in your drafts, it’s inevitable.

But that actually helps us out here because in my opinion, this is just about as good as you can do from the No. 1 spot. The fact that I was able to tack on some players that fell further than they do normally and still only have this team projected to top the Graham at 1 team by only 11 points, shows me that there’s early first round value in cornering the TE market. And come August, it won’t have to cost you the first overall pick.

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