Five years ago a fantasy football team owner could go into the draft with a simple strategy: grab running backs with the first two picks and figure out the rest from there. Eleven of the first 12 picks were running backs, with Calvin Johnson the lone wide receiver taken. The passing game has evolved since then, and in 2017, there is an even split between the running back and wideout positions in average draft position.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator’s scenario calculator, using data from 2,122 fantasy football mock drafts over the past 30 days, seven players are sure to be selected before the second round starts in a 12-team, point-per-reception, or PPR, league: David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ezekiel Elliott, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and LeSean McCoy. Five others — Melvin Gordon, Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Devonta Freeman and Jordy Nelson — have less than a 50 percent chance of surviving past the first round.
There are a lot of good players from which to choose from, but here are the three smartest picks you can make from among the best of the best.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson is everything you want in a top running back and No. 1 overall pick. He led the league in touches (373), yards from scrimmage (2,118) and total touchdowns (20) last season plus is projected to have the third-most touches (295) and be the fourth most-efficient player at the position in 2017.
Quarterback Carson Palmer routinely targeted Johnson out of the backfield last season, including a team-high 34 times on third down, per TruMedia. Playing three downs is essential for a running back in PPR leagues, and no running back got more touches (48) in these situations last season than Johnson.
Defenses tried to stop him, but he averaged 4.2 yards per carry with 15 rushing touchdowns against seven or more defenders in the box. And this season he should get off to a strong, early start against the Detroit Lions (23rd against the run in 2016), Indianapolis Colts (32nd), San Francisco 49ers (31st) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24th) over the first seven weeks of the season.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The top receiver in the draft, Brown caught 106 of his 154 targets last season, producing 1,284 yards, 12 touchdowns and 306.4 PPR points in 15 games — and that could be considered a down year.
It’s also important to note that the Steelers will see Martavis Bryant return to the lineup after serving a yearlong suspension for multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and that could create better opportunities for Brown in 2017.
With Bryant on the field, opposing defenses won’t be able to bracket Brown with a corner and a safety in a 2-Man (Man Under), or Cover 5 formation, taking away Pittsburgh’s short and deep passing game. Brown was already the best among No. 1 wideouts at creating daylight between him and his defenders last season, averaging 2.92 yards of separation per NFL.com’s fantasy expert, Matt Harmon, so having Bryant back will only get him better looks.
According to Anthony Amico of Rotoviz, Brown averaged 25 PPR points per game with Bryant in the lineup, a 400-point pace over a full season, compared with 21 PPR points per game with Bryant out of uniform. In games in which those two receivers were joined by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell, Brown averaged almost 24 PPR points per game, a 378-point pace.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
If you are making your pick toward the second-half of the first round, don’t be shy about calling out Freeman’s name. The 25-year-old running back produced 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns on 227 carries plus added 54 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns in the Falcon’s highflying passing game. And that was despite sharing touches with Tevin Coleman.
Even with the timeshare, Freeman ranked second in the NFL in red-zone touches (62), including a team-high 17 red-zone targets, illustrating just how important he is to Atlanta’s scoring efforts.
Freeman was the better rusher at penetrating opposing defenses, averaging a robust 5.9 yards per carry against eight or more defenders in the box, compared with four yards per carry for Coleman and 3.9 yards per carry for an average NFL rusher, per Sharp Football Stats. Freeman also earned a higher elusive rating than Coleman from the game charters at Pro Football Focus.