If your fantasy football league uses a draft, some of the hard work is taken out of your hands. Much of what you do on draft day will be driven by draft slot. If you have a top-three pick, someone like Odell Beckham won’t be in your first-round plans, and will be long gone by your second pick. Likewise, if you’re picking toward the end of the first round, you can forget about Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley.
With a large portion of your path pre-determined by your slot, you need to find a way to use these predictable outcomes to your advantage. You can, to a large degree, figure out well in advance the players you will select in the first three or four rounds. You may not be able to identify all three or four exactly, but you can certainly make a pool of, say, 15 players, and know for sure that four of them will be on your team heading into round five. Doing that reconnaissance before draft day will give you an advantage when the all-important middle rounds arrive.
We’re going to take a look at how to build a championship team from every draft slot in a 12-team league. To do this, we’ve divided the slots into early (one-through-four), middle (five-through-eight) and late (nine-through-12) selections. We’ll run through the first five rounds, giving you the foundation you’ll need for a winner. (Check out our sleeper and breakout columns for help beyond there.) We’ll assume standard rosters, with one quarterback, two running backs, three receivers, one flex, one tight end, one kicker and one defense in the starting lineup, plus six bench players. We’ll also call it a half-point PPR league, which is becoming the go-to setup for most fantasy leagues.
For the purposes of this column, we’ll lean heavily on average draft position data from FantasyFootballCalculator.com. ADP is not gospel, but it is a great tool for estimating which players will be available for each of your picks. Your draft won’t follow the exact specifics laid out in this column, but studying this general framework and fitting it to your league will have you well-positioned to craft a potentially dominant team on draft day.
Congratulations, you’re getting one of the top-four backs to start your team. I’d take Le’Veon Bell first, followed by Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott, but there are arguments for them to be ranked in any order. I’d also advocate for Antonio Brown over Elliott as the No. 4 overall pick, but Elliott is the favored pick by most within the industry.
Second and third rounds
ADP in-group (picks 21 through 28): Jordan Howard, A.J. Green, Joe Mixon, Rob Gronkowski, Jerick McKinnon, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Stefon Diggs, LeSean McCoy, Adam Thielen, Doug Baldwin
Just beyond ADP: Travis Kelce, Alex Collins, Tyreek Hill, Larry Fitzgerald, Amari Cooper
You’ve already got an elite back as the foundation of your team, which should give you a ton of confidence with where you’re heading in rounds two and three. We’re still at the point of the draft where positions don’t matter, but talent does. In these two rounds, you should still be trying to get the best available players, regardless of position.
A word to the wise, however. We’re getting to the point where running backs, as a class, become very risky. Bust rates among backs ranked 10th through 20th in ADP spike relative to other positions. If you’re taking a back in this range, you need to be absolutely sure of him based on your pre-draft research.
For my money, this group includes six players I’d have no qualms over taking at ADP: Howard, Green, Gronkowski, Diggs, Thielen and Baldwin. There are two, McKinnon and McCoy, in whom I have zero interest. McKinnon is all potential, and yet you have to pay full freight to secure his services. McCoy, meanwhile, could possibly be part of the worst offense in football, and that’s not a great spot for a running back.
That leaves Mixon, Evans and Hilton. Mixon is one of this season’s most popular breakout picks, but to pretend he doesn’t come with risk is folly. He was just as popular last year and had plenty of opportunity in Cincinnati’s offense, but finished outside the top 30 at his position in both standard and PPR leagues. There’s no discount on him this season, which means the fantasy community is essentially giving him a pass for his rookie year.
Evans has been productive in his four seasons, but there have been the peaks and valleys associated with a player who has an above-average reliance on touchdowns. He has been largely the same player every year of his career, in terms of receptions, targets, yards per target and catch rate. But he has two WR1 seasons, and two low-end WR2 seasons. The difference? In the WR1 years, he scored 12 touchdowns apiece. In his WR2 years, he had three and five scores.
As for Hilton, it’s really a question about Andrew Luck. In 68 career games with Luck under center, Hilton has averaged 4.9 catches for 76.9 yards and 0.4 touchdowns. Give him those numbers for a full season, and you get 78 receptions, 1,230 yards and 6.4 touchdowns. In his 26 games without Luck, he has averaged 3.5 catches, 57 yards and 0.2 touchdowns. With Luck, he’s a WR1. Without him, he’s a boom-or-bust WR3.
I can get on board with any of the three in the middle, but Hilton would be my first choice.
Fourth and fifth rounds
ADP in-group (picks 45 through 52): Deshaun Watson, Allen Robinson, Golden Tate, Mark Ingram, Royce Freeman, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Alshon Jeffery, Rashaad Penny
Just beyond ADP: Chris Hogan, Jimmy Graham, Marvin Jones, Dion Lewis, Ronald Jones, Greg Olsen
Position may start being a concern at this stage of the draft, but you can still lean on best available in most circumstances. Right away, you need to write off Watson. That has nothing to do with the player, who I have ranked second among quarterbacks and absolutely love. Rather, it has to do with quarterbacks in general. There is zero reason to take Watson in the fourth or fifth round in a one-quarterback league when you can get Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan or Philip Rivers in the 10th, when the backs and receivers going off the board are the likes of Allen Hurns and Corey Clement.
Robinson, Tate and Landry are all easy picks at ADP. Freeman and Cooks are in that group, too, and could prove to be possible steals. I detailed my love for Cooks, on whom the fantasy community is placing far too many assumptions based on the 2017 Rams, in our wide receiver primer. As for Freeman, I don’t see anyone standing in the way of him getting 300-plus touches in Denver.
Ingram is a high-risk, high-reward selection. If he didn’t have to serve a four-game suspension to start the year, he likely wouldn’t make it out of the second round in most drafts. Add in the Saints Week 6 bye, and you may not use Ingram much, if at all, in the first half of the fantasy season. I’d be more inclined to take him if I started my draft with three or four straight high-floor, low-risk players.
There’s too much risk with Jeffery and Penny for me to be on them at ADP. Jeffery’s shoulder clearly isn’t right after offseason rotator-cuff surgery, and Penny is dealing with a broken finger that could cost him the rest of the preseason. As though that weren’t enough, he was already running behind Chris Carson on the depth chart. As is the case with McKinnon, drafters are assuming a best-case scenario for Penny with an ADP this high. Assuming the high end of a realistic range of outcomes rarely works out well for the fantasy owner.
The one player I’d make a case for beyond ADP is Hogan. With Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season, Hogan will be the No. 1 receiver, and a top-two pass-catcher, for the Patriots over the season’s first month. Remember, before getting injured last season, he had 33 receptions for 438 yards and five touchdowns in his first eight games. He could pay off a huge profit, and also turn into a nice trade chip if he takes full advantage of Edelman’s absence the first four weeks.