Rankings are not the be-all and end-all in fantasy football drafting. If you took the highest-ranked player each time your pick came around, you might end up with five receivers in your first five rounds. Context on draft day matters. Rankings are a guideline and certainly influence drafting (especially the rankings on the site you're drafting on), but your strategy should be independent of ranking and, most important, be adaptable.
You can plan to go zero-RB or robust-RB, but there could be a reason to change your strategy based on the players available. It would help if you baked that flexibility into your predraft prep. That's why I'm breaking down draft strategies for the three groups of first-round picks: 1–4, 5–8 and 9–12. I'm starting with picks 1–4.
Picks 1 to 4 draft strategy breakdown
The most valuable player in fantasy football is an elite running back. If you hold one of the first four draft positions, congratulations: You have the best shot at landing a top-tier running back.
There are only five backs to consider in a PPR league in these first four picks, and there's a sizable decline after they are off the board. Lucky for you, the list at the top is short and full of name-brand options. The first two picks are chalk: Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook, in that order.
Picks No. 3 and 4 are the first fork in the road. You can go with Alvin Kamara, Sports Illustrated's No. 3–ranked running back and the overall RB1 from a season ago. There's Ezekiel Elliott, a proven workhorse in a projected top-five offense. Finally, you can take Derrick Henry, a relative zero in the receiving game but a threat to rush for 2,000 yards again.
The point is, in these first four picks, make sure that you get your running back. In a 12-team league, if you find yourself with a pick this high, you won't pick again until the early 20s. The top-12 running backs will be off the board, Travis Kelce will be gone, and the run on receivers will be in full swing.
Drafting in rounds 2 and 3
Picking early in the draft grants you the luxury of knowing who you're picking weeks before the draft. There's little room for change. However, at picks 21–24 and 25–28 soon afterward, there's much more room for conflicting player opinions and draft strategies. That could mean a player that you were banking on in round 2 is no longer there. It's also possible that a player whom you thought had no chance of falling to you is still available.
What's important for you in this round 2–3 turn is to try to come away with a second running back and absolutely find your WR1.
RB2s to target in this range include Antonio Gibson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chris Carson, D’Andre Swift and David Montgomery. Pairing a top-four pick with one of these legitimate RB2s will allow you to spend the next three or four rounds filling out your starting lineup with high upside receivers. It's critical to understand the positional scoring disparities for your league. Mid-tier receivers score more points in PPR leagues than mid-tier RBs. Receivers are also much more productive later in drafts than the running backs available late.
The receivers in the pick 25 range are strong WR1 options, too: Keenan Allen, A.J. Brown, Allen Robinson, Terry McLaurin, Robert Woods and CeeDee Lamb. Each player listed can outscore some of the pass catchers being drafted earlier in round 2.
Unless you have back-to-back picks at 24 and 25, be aware that if you select a receiver with your second-round pick, your RB2 target might not be there just a few picks later. Positional scarcity can drive your opponents' draft decisions. Don't reach, but if Gibson or Edwards-Helaire is there for you at the 24–25 turn, take them first. There's much more receiver depth early in the third round.
If there's a run on running backs early in your draft and for some reason, you can't land one of those RB targets, double up at receiver and wait on a running back. Pivot and take the best of what's available to you. You can even consider one of the elite tight ends not named Kelce in the second or third rounds—Darren Waller or George Kittle. It's better to lock up the best players available in this scenario than reach too far for guys like Darrell Henderson, Josh Jacobs or Myles Gaskin.
Drafting in rounds 4 and 5
In rounds 4 and 5, you can go a couple of different ways. You'll most likely want to round out your WR2, WR3 and flex spots. There are still very good receivers to be had at this point. Julio Jones, Chris Godwin, D.J. Moore, Cooper Kupp and Adam Thielen are all going in this range and make for very capable WR2s. If you haven't taken Kelce, Kittle or Waller, this is the next tight-end tier composed of Mark Andrews, Kyle Pitts and T.J. Hockensen. There's likely going to be at least a full-round wait for this group after Kittle or Waller are selected. If you don't want one of these top six guys, you should feel comfortable waiting a few more rounds or more to take a tight end.
If you're still without an RB2 in round 5, these might not be the rounds to figure out that position. You can consider a running back with pass-catching upside like Chase Edmonds, Travis Etienne or Kareem Hunt, but there are not many backs in this range you'd want to rely on weekly. Consider waiting another round for a Javonte Williams or Damien Harris. You're looking to strike on an upside play in this range. If you have your RB2, the pass catchers in this range are still superior to the running backs.
Due to the wide gap between rounds 4–5 and rounds 5–6, if you want an elite quarterback, pay up now. My general philosophy is to wait on quarterbacks, but if you want a top-tier passer like Josh Allen, Kyler Murray or Dak Prescott (Patrick Mahomes may already be gone by this point), then you can't wait for a value that feels right.
Takeaways from drafting from picks 1 to 4
Through your first five rounds of drafting, you should hope to have your running back slots filled. Running backs are going earlier and more often in the opening rounds than in recent years. Consider yourself lucky to have the position at least halfway figured out with a top-four pick. Unless you take a top tight end or top-five quarterback, you should have your WR1 and WR2 as well as your WR3/flex by the end of round 5. A strong team, even just on paper, is balanced and mitigates risk.
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