This article is part of our Fantasy Football Draft Strategy series.
Start with RB or WR?
The key decision in the first round of your draft is whether to take a running back or wide receiver. If your league starts two quarterbacks, has a superflex (that allows for a quarterback) or has some sort of non-standard scoring rules, then the equation may be different. If it's a PPR or standard scoring league that features any typical combination of starters, then they are really the only two positions you should select. Quarterback is super deep this year and no top quarterback goes in the first two rounds in most leagues anyway. Tight end is too injury prone and I haven't seen a draft where you need to take a tight end in the first round to get Rob Gronkowski
Start with RB or WR?
The key decision in the first round of your draft is whether to take a running back or wide receiver. If your league starts two quarterbacks, has a superflex (that allows for a quarterback) or has some sort of non-standard scoring rules, then the equation may be different. If it's a PPR or standard scoring league that features any typical combination of starters, then they are really the only two positions you should select. Quarterback is super deep this year and no top quarterback goes in the first two rounds in most leagues anyway. Tight end is too injury prone and I haven't seen a draft where you need to take a tight end in the first round to get Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce.
My philosophy is that with so much chaos in any fantasy football draft (remember that nine of 24 players taken in the first round in the last two years have been busts), it's better to think of certainty and floor in the first two or three rounds. There will be plenty of players with upside later in the draft. Typically that philosophy results in drafting two or three wide receivers in the first three rounds.
Taking a wide receiver early have three major benefits:
a) Top wide receivers remain healthier and are safer than players at other positions. The telling stat is only seven of the 45 wide receivers (15.5 percent) taken with a top-15 overall Average Draft Position (ADP) since 1998 have finished the year as busts (which I define as outside the top 30 at the position). Meanwhile, 18.6 percent of running backs (32 of 172) have finished as busts over the same period. (Though that gap has narrowed after two of five top-15 ADP WRs were busts last season).
b) Because wide receiver production fluctuates week to week - even Antonio Brown had four games last season where he had fewer than 59 yards receiving (and only caught one touchdown in those games) - it's hard to succeed mixing and matching with lesser options at the position, i.e., it's easy to leave a lot of points on your bench. By taking top wide receivers, you have the peace of mind of plugging them into your lineups every week and not second guessing your matchups, knowing in the long run you'll get plenty of production from those WR slots.
c) While elite receivers are safer than most players, the second-and third-tier of wide receivers are less productive than equivalent running backs. Teams that roster running backs early in drafts pick weaker receivers in the middle rounds than teams picking running backs in the same spots.
Draft Slot Selections
There's a consensus on the top five players in almost all formats. Running backs David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell are the top two, followed by wide receivers Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones. After those five players the rest of the first round varies somewhat between ADP sources. Mike Evans has an ADP of 6 in the NFFC, but I've seen him go as late as 18th in a non-PPR league.
Historically a running back taken in the top few picks of drafts has had the most upside (think Emmitt Smith or LaDainian Tomlinson in their prime), so the top two picks in the draft have returned the most value. This year looks no different, so the top two draft slots are the best choices if your league gives you the option to pick your draft slot. The next best draft slot would be to be in the top five in order to get any of the top five consensus players. After the top five it's uncertain who you may get, so you may as well get the best second round pick (assuming it's a snake draft or third-round reversal format). My preference for pick selections would be 1,2,5,4,3,12,11,10,9,8,7,6.
If you have one of the first two picks, it's optimal to take one of the consensus every-down running backs in Johnson or Bell. Those type of running backs at the top of the draft have produced the best historical returns. Anywhere after the top two running backs, I'm very likely to take a wide receiver with my first two selections.
Unfortunately more fantasy players are realizing that taking wide receivers early is a winning strategy. More wide receivers are being taken in the first round and in the top 40 picks compared to a decade ago. Here are the stats for a 12-team non-PPR league from MyFantasyLeague's ADP:
|Year||WR in Top 12||WR in top 40|
As a result, you're less likely to get two elite receivers with your first- and second-round selections. The good news is that wide receiver inflation in receding somewhat. Last year 18 receivers went in the top 40 picks in non-PPR leagues. In the NFFC, 20 wide receivers were taken in the first 36 picks last year. This year it has decreased to 18 picks. Neither are huge movements, but you will likely be able to get better receivers if you take two or three in your first three rounds than last year.
If you begin your draft by starting with a RB in the first round or two, you are going to be chasing WR the rest of the way. And my historical studies have shown that mid-tier RBs (according to average draft position or ADP) outperform mid-tier WRs. I don't think you have to be dogmatic about avoiding running backs early as I'll often take one in the third round. (Thus I'm not a full "Zero RB" convert.)
In my NFFC league, I decided to bypass viable running back options and take receivers with my first three picks. I took Brandin Cooks over Jordan Howard, even though Howard goes in the first round of most drafts. Howard has an ADP of 16.65 and Cooks is 18.55 in 12-team NFFC leagues. I also took a wide receiver over Lamar Miller and Ty Montgomery in the third round. But I like how my team fared as my top three receivers are strong and I have a decent shot to find an impact running back between Joe Mixon, Mark Ingram, Duke Johnson, Rob Kelly, Alvin Kamara, Marlon Mack and both Oakland backup running backs (I'm very dubious of Marshawn Lynch staying healthy or productive after a year away from football).
— Peter Schoenke (@PeterSchoenke) August 15, 2017
Middle Round Strategy
If you start your draft by selecting wide receivers early, I'd focus on gathering quantity over quality in the middle rounds. Guys I like this year include all the rookie running backs Davlin Cook (though his ADP is rising), Christian McCaffery (more so in PPR), Joe Mixon (tons of upside). Carlos Hyde, Ty Montgomery (only in PPR), Bilal Powell and Kareem Hunt. Not all of these running backs are going to pan out, but you need players with upside who could be impact starters. If one or two of these pan out, your team will be strong with two or three top receivers taken early in the draft.
I'll also grab running backs that have jobs in Week 1 if they go for very cheap (Frank Gore, Rob Kelley, Jacquizz Rodgers). I think most fantasy players undervalue a player with a starting job. A strong first game or two from these players could quickly change their narrative. Plus, these players buy your team time if you've loaded up on running backs who initially are sharing a role or are a backup.
What to do about Ezekiel Elliott?
Elliott is a rare case where a player has a long suspension and is highly likely to return and become an impact player. We've seen cases like last year with Le'Veon Bell where a suspension was short and easy to price in. Or we've seen cases with holdouts with indefinite timetables. Elliott has a rare long and known absence. There's a chance that he could get his suspension reduced on appeal or delay the suspension or reduce it in a lawsuit, but both seem unlikely given how the new CBA and recent court cases have given the NFL more power in these matters.
My take is that it's not worth it to take Elliott before the fourth round. Sure, his per-game production may justify a higher pick. If you get 10 games of Elliott and six games of an average replacement, you'll get a top-10 running back. However, six games is a lifetime in the NFL. Maybe the Cowboys will be 1-5 by the time he comes back. Maybe their QB will be hurt or their offensive line will have a few injuries. Maybe your fantasy team will struggle with injuries and holding Elliott in that bench spot will severly limit your options.
The early part of the fantasy season is the most important in my book. Most leagues have just a 13-week season before the playoffs begin. Teams that start fast gain leverage. Start 6-0 and your team can make more trades as your players look better. And you get the windfall of the losing teams in your league paying less attention to their rosters (free agents, possible trades, setting lineups). You gain an advantage by starting fast. Spending a a big part of your resources on something that doesn't help you in the first half of your regular season hurts that advantage.
Don't Take a QB Until Very Late
Quarterback is the deepest I can remember. While Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the leading quarterbacks and certainly shouldn't be skipped if they fall to the fourth round in a 12- to 14-team league that starts one QB, there's plenty of viable options if you wait. And there are even livable options if you are the last to take a quarterback in your league.
In my National Fantasy Football Championship (NFFC) league I was the last player to take a starting quarterback and ended up with Marcus Mariota. In the 12-team, non-PPR RotoWire staff league we draft in Las Vegas, I was the second to last team to take a QB and took Ben Roethlisberger in the 10th round. The last team to take a quarterback ended up with Dak Prescott in the 13th round. Those are all more than livable results.
Quarterbacks I like late include Any Dalton (all those new weapons) and Big Ben. Sure, many are down on Big Ben since he's getting old (35), injury-prone (missed six games last two years) and terrible on the road the past three years. However, when he's on, he's great (seven games of three-plus TDs last season). You can mix-and-match with QBs from the waiver wire for his injuries or bad road matchups. I don't mind even ending up with Tyrod Taylor (top-10 QB last year due mostly to rushing stats) or Carson Wentz (could improve in year 2). Don't be afraid to be the last team to take a QB while you grab needed RBs and WRs.
Wait on TE
Tight end is historically an injury-prone position, so I avoid taking any in the first three rounds. Gronkowski is always the most high-risk, high-reward player as evident from him playing just eight games last year. Kelce can make sense in the third or fourth round but I usually find a wide receiver I like better. I'm happy to wait a long time to take a tight end as there are plenty of options available late in drafts. Tyler Eifert can fall to the eighth round. While injury-prone, he's had 18 TDs in his last 21 games. Hunter Henry had eight TDs as a rookie, and rookie tight ends are rarely good. Jack Doyle may be the No. 2 option the Indy passing game. Austin Hooper can be had late and could be the No. 3 option in the Atlanta passing game.
Heavy on Reserve RBs
I typically take as many reserve running backs as possible, especially if you draft early in the preseason. Frequently my reserve spots will feature only running backs. My strategy has been to take younger running backs behind a veteran, especially in a above-average offense. Marlon Mack, Jamaal Williams, D'Onta Foreman, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, Samaje Perine, Alvin Kamara (more PPR), De'Angelo Henderson and C.J. Prosise (if he's healthy) are my usual targets.
As long as your league has liberal free-agent rules, allowing you to freely make weekly pickups, there are almost always wide receivers available for bye weeks or when injuries strike. Backup quarterbacks can be had as well. These options may not be great, but you won't take a zero. Meanwhile if any of these running backs find a starting or significant role, you've gained a huge asset. In what league have you ever been where running backs during the season are not in short supply?
Kicker and D Last
Make your last two picks your kicker and your defense. I'm very dogmatic about this. Even in IDP leagues. Those positions are widely available on the waiver wire. Assuming your league has liberal free agency, you're never going to be without a starting kicker or defense. History has also shown that experts and the wisdom of the crowds (as measured by ADP) are terrible at picking the top options at kicker or defense.
Although I've been a proponent of a wide-receiver dominant strategy, last year I decided to take running backs in most of my auctions. The top running backs were devalued so much last year that even the top returning running back was a rare bargain. I think that worked out well as I was able to snag Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman in the high-stakes Team Heuvos expert league (organized by Brad Evans of Yahoo! Sports).
The same opportunity doesn't exist this year as Bell and David Johnson are typically the most expensive players and there's a significant dropoff, in my opinion, to the second tier of running backs.
So to recap, my strategy has been to take Le'Veon Bell or David Johnson if possible. If those two are gone, then I'll take two to four WRs in the first four rounds, a lot of RBs in the middle rounds, wait on TE and QB, a bench with even more RBs and K and Team D as my last selections. In auctions, I'm similarly loading up on wide receivers with the bulk of my money. The wide receivers you get may not be the values they were earlier this decade, but it's still the strategy that has led to the teams I feel are the most competitive.