- Strategy to guide you through the first five rounds of your fantasy draft if you've got one of the middle four picks
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.
Sorry, the top-four backs are off the board. Don’t despair if you have the fifth pick, that means you get Antonio Brown and his five-year average of 116 catches, 1,569 yards and 10.4 touchdowns. If someone in the top four took Brown, grab whichever back is still there out of Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott. If you’re picking sixth, seventh or eighth, you’ll have to make the first real decisions of the draft. The players up for consideration here are, in order of ADP, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, DeAndre Hopkins, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham, Dalvin Cook and Julio Jones. There are good arguments for all those players, but I want to focus on one with a lower ADP I absolutely believe should be taken inside the first eight picks of a draft.
I’m not sure the fantasy community fully appreciates just how good Beckham is. In fact, I’m sure that it doesn’t. Do you realize that Beckham has averaged 6.7 catches, 94.1 yards and 0.8 touchdowns per game in his career? Over a full season, his per-game averages round to 107 receptions for 1,506 yards and 13 touchdowns. Do you know how many times a receiver has hit all of those thresholds in one season in NFL history? Six. The players to do it? Jerry Rice, Herman Moore, Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss and Antonio Brown. They’re all pretty good receivers, right? Get Beckham here if you can.
Second and third rounds
ADP in-group (picks 17 through 20): Devonta Freeman, Keenan Allen, Christian McCaffrey, Davante Adams, Jordan Howard, A.J. Green
ADP in-group (picks 25 through 28): Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Stefon Diggs, LeSean McCoy, Adam Thielen
Between ADP in-groups: Joe Mixon, Rob Gronkowski, Jerick McKinnon
Just beyond ADP: Doug Baldwin, Derrick Henry, Travis Kelce, Alex Collins, Tyreek Hill
Good news, mid-slot drafters. It’s going to be hard for you to screw up your second-round pick. Freeman, Howard and Green have all been bankable players for the entirety of their respective careers. All three have high floors, as well as ceilings that could make them top-15 players. The bust risk is minimal, and the payoff is reliable.
When healthy, Allen has been among the best receivers in the game the last five years. He finally put it all together last season, catching 102 balls for 1,393 yards and six touchdowns. He missed 15 games in 2016 and eight the year before that, but he was on a torrid pace in 2015. Allen hauled in 67 passes for 725 yards and four scores in half a season that year. The 16-game pace is both easy to figure out, and staggering. As the unquestioned No. 1 pass catcher in what could be a lethal Chargers offense, Allen is set for another monster campaign.
My favorite pick in this group, however, is Adams. Did you know he leads the NFL in touchdown receptions over the last two years combined? It’s true. Adams hit paydirt 22 times in the previous two seasons, despite being without Aaron Rodgers for half of last year, and playing second fiddle to Jordy Nelson in 2016. Rodgers is healthy, and Adams is the No. 1 pass-catcher on the team. It’s not silly to dream about a 100-catch, 1,400-yard, 12-touchdown season for the fifth-year player out of Fresno State.
The one player I’d be wary of in this group is McCaffrey, though I feel compelled to say I’m on an island there. The fantasy community is falling over itself to draft him, and it’s hard to ignore both Ron Rivera and Norv Turner talking him up as a 300-touch back, even with C.J. Anderson on the roster. Still, if Anderson is dominating goal-line touches, it could be hard for McCaffrey to score the number of touchdowns he’ll need to justify this ADP.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with reaching for Gronkowski in the second round. I’m not personally a huge fan of taking a tight end this early, but he’s a one-of-a-kind player at the position who can be the best player on a championship fantasy team.
Your third-round selection may not be quite so easy. The safest pick of the bunch is the one with the lowest ADP— Adam Thielen. After a mini-breakout in 2016, he went the full measure last season, catching 91 passes for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns. Kirk Cousins raises the floor for Minnesota’s offense significantly, which should give fantasy owners confidence that Thielen can provide a worthy encore to his 2017 season.
The players ahead of Thielen all have higher ceilings, while carrying much greater bust potential. 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.
The safety of Baldwin and Kelce makes them both fine picks in the middle of the third round, as well.
Fourth and fifth rounds
ADP in-group (picks 41 through 44): Demaryius Thomas, Lamar Miller, Josh Gordon, Juju Smith-Schuster, Deshaun Watson, Allen Robinson
ADP in-group (picks 53 through 56): Alshon Jeffery, Rashaad Penny, Chris Hogan, Jimmy Graham, Marvin Jones, Dion Lewis, Ronald Jones, Greg Olsen
Between ADP in-groups: Golden Tate, Mark Ingram, Royce Freeman, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks
Just beyond ADP: Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Kerryon Johnson
Thomas, Miller and Robinson are all slam dunks at ADP. After the quarterback play in Denver the last two seasons, Case Keenum might as well be 2013 Peyton Manning as far as Thomas is concerned. Miller hasn’t taken off in Houston the way many expected, but he’s going to be a high-volume running back in a possibly elite offense. He should sleepwalk his way to 1,200 total yards, 35 catches and seven or eight touchdowns. Robinson has shown no effects of last year’s ACL tear this summer, and is ticketed for 120-plus targets in an ascending offense.
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.
Gordon is too great a risk, given the opportunity cost. As of this writing, he’s still not with the team. Training camp doesn’t matter for every player, but it does matter for a guy who has played all of 10 games since the end of the 2013 season, and needs to earn targets alongside Jarvis Landry, David Njoku and Duke Johnson. The ceiling is tantalizing, but there are better ways to spend a pick in the mid-40s.
Smith-Schuster caught 58 of 79 targets for 917 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He did this while Antonio Brown racked up 163 targets, and Le’Veon Bell gobbled up 406 touches. Oh, and don’t forget that he was a rookie who didn’t turn 21 until late last November. Smith-Schuster is a great pick here.
Turning our attention to the fifth round, Hogan and Marvin Jones are the safest players in the bunch. Dion Lewis, too, is a strong pick at ADP. Yeah, Derrick Henry is there to muddy the waters, but the Titans made Lewis a priority this offseason after he was one of the five most productive backs in the league over the final eight weeks of last season. No team acquires a player in that fashion, especially one who plays a position that isn’t an obvious need, to make him a small part of the offense.
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. 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.
Graham caught 10 touchdowns on 96 targets last year. He also had just 520 yards. He’s no longer a threat between the 20s, and he needs touchdowns to produce any fantasy value, let alone top-55-player value. Ronald Jones has the most talent in Tampa Bay’s backfield, but is saddled with an uncertain quarterback situation and is unlikely to put Peyton Barber completely in his rear-view mirror. He’s acceptable at ADP, but brings a fair amount of risk to the table. With Christian McCaffrey, Devin Funchess and D.J. Moore all in town, Greg Olsen could be looking at his fewest targets per game since joining the Panthers, yet his draft stock hasn’t taken the appropriate hit. If he were going off the board a round or two later, he’d be a fine pick. At this stage, the volume is just too dodgy to bet on him.