Heading into the last days of July, there was a clear choice between two players deserving of the No. 1 overall pick in standard-scoring fantasy football drafts, both members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For those who relish the passing game, there was wide receiver Antonio Brown, who caught a league-high 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns. For the more traditional owners, running back Le’Veon Bell (92.7 yards per game in 2015) offered solid production at a position that in recent years has fallen out of fantasy favor.
But a pending four-game suspension for Bell has made the top of the draft less predictable, with six different players now going No. 1 overall in 12-team mock drafts. Here are the top choices, ranked in terms of risk.
Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley had a strong debut, rushing for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games, earning him the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Almost half of that yardage (508) came on runs of 15 yards or more. Per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, Gurley led the league in breakaway percentage (45.9 percent), a metric that looks at the percentage of yardage accumulated on long runs, illustrating just how much game-breaking potential he has on any given Sunday.
Consensus projections have Gurley as the top player at the position and third-best player overall in standard-scoring leagues. But when you incorporate some other elements we’ll break down early next week (Hint: Come back for more… ), he’s the safest option with the No. 1 overall pick.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
As a rookie, Johnson rushed for 581 yards and eight touchdowns over 16 games, averaging 2.7 yards per carry after contact with six runs of 15 yards or more. He added 457 yards and four touchdowns in the passing game, producing 2.1 yards per route run, fifth most in the league at the position.
“He kind of reminds me of Marshall Faulk,” All-Pro cornerback and teammate Tyrann Mathieu said of Johnson to NFL.com. “But he’s just bigger.”
The Cardinals have Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington on the roster, two backs that vultured yards and touchdowns from David Johnson last season, but Coach Bruce Arians conceded in April that Johnson “earned the right now to be the bell cow.”
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown’s 2015 campaign was a stellar one. After posting 246.2 fantasy points, he now owns two of the best fantasy seasons by any wide receiver, with two of the top-10 performances at the position dating back to 1992, the first year for which target data is available. He also produced 251.9 fantasy points in 2014, the sixth-highest total by a wide receiver over the past 24 years.
An elite talent, Brown broke 23 tackles on 136 catches and hauled in 14 of his 32 targets at least 20 yards downfield, contributing to the second-highest yards per route run in the NFL (2.9) in 2015.
There is concern that the loss of Martavis Bryant, who has been suspended for a minimum of one year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, will result in Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having a down year. Per Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, Roethlisberger averages 331.2 yards per game with Bryant and just 269 passing yards per game when he isn’t available.
Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, New York Giants
Beckham had 96 catches (eighth most in the NFL) for 1,450 yards (fifth) and 13 touchdowns (tied for fourth) last season, and no player in NFL history has produced more receiving yards than Beckham did in his first two seasons (2,755), so you know you are getting a solid fantasy performer if you decide Beckham is your top overall choice. Plus, he is the key guy for quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants in the red zone, with a team-high 22 targets and six touchdowns in 2015.
The benefit of drafting Beckham is his high floor relative to some of the other options — the worst-case scenarios have him producing 209 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, third-most at the position — but his temper could also derail a championship season, as it did last year where when he earned a one-game suspension for an altercation with Josh Norman in Week 15, ruling him out for the championship game in many fantasy leagues.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Jones, whose 203 targets in 2015 rank fifth all-time since 1993, tied with Brown for most receptions (136) and led the league by himself with 1,871 receiving yards last season. In terms of efficiency, no wideout had more yards per route run.
Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons offensive coordinator, also expressed an interest in throwing more deep balls this season, which could pad Jones’s fantasy totals. He was targeted 26 times at least 20 yards downfield in 2015 and made 14 catches for 489 yards and three touchdowns on those throws.
If the Falcons don’t employ more deep passes, you’d like to see Jones get more opportunities in the red zone. Last season there were six weeks where he didn’t see any. Five other weeks saw him with just one red-zone target all game.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson led the league in carries (327), rushing yards (1,485) and rushing touchdowns (11), giving you everything you want in a top pick overall. However, he turned 31 years old in March, putting fantasy football owners on notice that his decline may be only a snap or two away.
Since the merger, nine rushers have carried the ball at least 320 times and scored 10 or more touchdowns at age 30 or older. Only one, John Riggins, has done it twice — and that was over 30 years ago.
Maybe Peterson can defy the odds, but for a No. 1 overall pick you should crave more certainty.