One thing we know about all fantasy football drafts is that there will be an element of unpredictability. All it takes is one or two rogue picks to send your draft hurtling in a direction that you did not expect. That’s why you have to head into any draft with a few strategies upon which you can rely. This week, we’ll take a look at certain strategies that can help you hoist the fantasy hardware in December. Some will pertain to specific draft slots, while others will apply regardless of where you fall in your draft. The first installment falls into the former category, looking at the best course of action for those selecting at or near the end of the first round.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Unless you’re new in these parts, you’re well aware of the writer’s affinity for wide receivers this season. After the top six running backs, there are a lot of question marks at fantasy's most coveted position. By contrast, the first two tiers of receivers go 10-deep, and the seven guys in the first tier all feel like locks to meet or exceed their draft-day prices. It was just one year ago that Doug Martin (second), Arian Foster (fourth), C.J. Spiller (fifth), Trent Richardson (eighth) and Ray Rice (ninth) were selected in the top 10 in a typical draft. We know what happened to all of them last year. In that same typical draft, the person with the ninth pick took Rice and Steven Jackson with his first two picks. That might have worked out great five years ago, but the NFL of last decade is no longer. Meanwhile, A.J. Green had an average draft position of 17.8 in 2013. Brandon Marshall’s ADP was 23.7. Demaryius Thomas’ was at 26.1. Each of those receivers finished among the top-12 non-quarterback scorers a year ago.
Owners picking at the end of the first round in a 10- or 12-team draft would be wise to learn a lesson from last season. Calvin Johnson will likely be off the board by the sixth or seventh pick, but most, if not all, of the next six receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant, in some order – are likely to be available. Let’s break down why grabbing two of these guys makes more sense than taking, say, backs like DeMarco Murray and Giovani Bernard.
]All six of those receivers have safer, higher floors than running backs being selected in the same range. Thomas, Marshall, Green, Jones and Bryant all scored at least 12.6 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues. If you only count the eight games started and finished by Aaron Rodgers, Nelson had an average of 15.4 points per game, which trailed only Josh Gordon and Megatron. A grand total of 11 running backs scored a minimum of 12.6 points per game last year. Six of them are our top-six guys -- Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy and Marshawn Lynch -- all of whom are likely to be gone by the latter stages of the first round. The other five were all selected well after the late-first or early-second round, getting at the very nature of the running back position in 2014. That was not an anomaly.
When we do a postmortem of the season, the top-10 backs are likely to be a combination of the ones we consider elite right now and middle- or late-round picks that make a leap or come from out of nowhere. Last year’s top 10 in points per game included Murray, (27.4 ADP), Lacy (29.4) and Knowshon Moreno (99.8). In 2012, Martin (25.4), Alfred Morris (144.8), Spiller (98.6) and Stevan Ridley (56) all finished in the top 10, while preseason darlings being taken in the late-first or early-second round like Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and Murray busted for their owners. It’s a spot that has proven to be fraught with peril for running backs. Why even mess with that when the receivers are so rock-solid?
The best part about taking two elite receivers early is you’ve now etched in stone high floors from your first two picks. Let’s say you’re picking in the No. 10 spot in a 12-team league and end up with A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall. You’re next two picks are set to come at Nos. 34 and 39 overall. Some backs available in an average draft at these spots include Reggie Bush, Spiller, Toby Gerhart, Rashad Jennings, Ryan Mathews and Frank Gore. In other words, you won’t exactly be scraping from the bottom of the barrel by time you turn your attention to backs. Even when your fifth (No. 58 overall) and sixth (No. 63) picks roll around, you could be looking at guys like Chris Johnson, Joique Bell, Ben Tate, Lamar Miller and Stevan Ridley. Again, you will have options.
We have stressed time and again the importance of locking in high floors early in fantasy football drafts. You probably aren’t going to win your league in the first two rounds, but you can lose it with whiff on the order of 2013 Trent Richardson. The best way to insulate yourself against such a bust is to focus on the crop of receivers that look to be as close to bust-proof as possible. When they’re all going for 1,200-plus yards and somewhere between eight and 14 touchdowns this season, you’ll thank us.