It’s almost time to put the mock drafts aside and start selecting your roster for real. And while no amount of preparation can cover every contingency, having a blueprint for success at each draft spot in a 12-team, point-per-reception, or PPR, league, can make a huge difference.
According to ESPN, about a third of your team’s yearly point total will be generated by your top three picks, so yeah, they are important. We can go a step further and use our Draft Score metric — a formula that rates a player from 0 to 100 based on 2017 point projections, strength of schedule and injury risk, with higher scores indicating better fantasy football players — along with Fantasy Football Calculator’s draft strategy tool to optimize those early picks to make sure you’re getting the most production each week, with a goal of 119.5 total fantasy points per game from these players, enough to win most head-to-head PPR matchups.
For example, if you have the No. 1 overall pick, taking a quarterback with the second or third-round pick would result in a higher-than-average projected weekly score (100.5) — so we want to consider those kinds of decisions on draft day, no matter how much it bucks conventional wisdom. However, there are only two quarterbacks selected that high, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (2.09 ADP) and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (3.04 ADP), leaving other fantasy owners to find value elsewhere during the draft.
That’s where this round-by-round guide comes in, giving you a road map for the three most important picks of your draft.
RB/WR/WR in PPR leagues
The top pick in this year’s draft is an easy one: Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson or Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. I’d lean toward Johnson, who led the league in touches (373), yards from scrimmage (2,118) and total touchdowns (20) last season. And that includes 4.2 yards per carry with 15 rushing touchdowns against seven or more defenders in the box.
He also 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.
Then it is a long wait for your next two picks, but when it does come time for you to make a selection, look for two of the following wide receivers: Doug Baldwin, Amari Cooper or T.Y. Hilton.
Baldwin would be a great pick. He is highly targeted (125 targets in 2016) with enough red-zone looks (15 in 2016) to make him a reliable scoring threat.
The strategy here is the same as the top overall pick, taking whichever of Johnson and Bell was left over by the No. 1 team. Maybe take a look at the New England Patriots’ new wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the third round if only one of Baldwin, Hilton and Cooper are available.
Cooks is a risky pick with the specter of a lighter workload in 2017 — because of the players around him and the Patriots’ easy schedule, which should have them playing with the lead more often, thus throwing less — but he is a deep-ball threat that led the league last season in yards after the catch (185) on targets traveling 15 or more yards in the air.
Despite the popular tactic of waiting until later rounds to select your quarterback, don’t be afraid to take Rodgers in the third round. Rodgers was the fourth-most valuable passer in 2016 according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating and Pro Football Focus. He also is unflappable in the pocket — Rodgers’s 93.8 passer rating under pressure was the highest among qualified quarterbacks last season with a 12-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio when under duress.
This is where you want to start thinking about the Zero RB strategy, which advocates steering clear of running backs until the fifth or sixth round of a draft.
Start your team with Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 29-year-old receiver caught 106 of his 154 targets for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, giving him three straight seasons with at least 150 targets, 100 catches, 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns. His 26 percent overall target share ranked seventh in 2016, per TruMedia, with one of every four of Pittsburgh’s red-zone targets thrown in his direction.
Next, Hilton is an attractive option. The 27-year-old set a career high and led the league in receiving yards (1,448) in 2016 plus was the second-most targeted wideout on deep passes (20 or more yards) after Mike Evans last season.
Then grab either Demaryius Thomas or DeAndre Hopkins. Each expect to get a majority of their team’s targets and Thomas showed good chemistry with quarterback Trevor Siemian, who won the starting quarterback job from second-year pro Paxton Lynch on Sunday.
Fantasy Football Calculator’s draft strategy tool gives you a slight edge (2.2 more points per game per week) if you select a running back with your first pick followed by two wideouts rather than three straight receivers.
If you go with the former, consider Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman or Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears rather than Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, the third RB taken off the board in mock drafts.
The Sports Injury Predictor estimates McCoy will miss more than five games during the 2017 season, with a league-high 17 percent chance of injury in any given game, making him a big risk on draft day. Freeman has injury concerns, too, after going through the league’s concussion protocol.
Howard, despite being the seventh running back taken in most mock drafts, might be the safest play. He carried the ball 252 times as a rookie last season, producing 1,313 yards and six touchdowns. Plus, his 2.98 yards per carry after contact was the sixth in the league in 2016, giving him an above-average success rate on runs up the middle and around the left side of his offensive line.
Go with two of the following three receivers with your next two picks: Hilton, Thomas or Hopkins
Now is the time to consider Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones.
Over the first three seasons of his career, Beckham ranks fifth all-time in receiving touchdowns (35) and second to only Randy Moss for receiving yards (4,122). No one has more catches (288) to start a career.
Jones led the league in yards per route run (3.12) and saw nearly half of his plays result in a first down or touchdown, per TruMedia. Only Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints was more efficient (51.2 percent) in 2016.
Cooper, Demaryius Thomas, Hopkins and Keenan Allen would all help round out a top-notch receiving corps in a PPR league.
Allen played just a few snaps in 2016 before an anterior cruciate ligament tear forced him to miss the rest of the season, but in 2015 he averaged 2.17 yards per route run — tied for 13th in the NFL that year — with more than eight targets per game since 2013, his first season in the league — making him the most-targeted wide receiver of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
You want two more receivers in the first three rounds, so add Cooper, Demaryius Thomas, Hilton, Hopkins and Allen to your watch list.
Go with Beckham (48 percent chance he is still available) or Jones (61 percent) with your first pick, Cooper, Hilton or Baldwin with your second pick and then consider taking a running back in the third round.
Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings could provide good value with your third pick. He carried the ball seven times for 40 yards in Minnesota’s second preseason game against the Seahawks, with the game charters at Pro Football Focus crediting him with three missed tackles and over three yards per carry after contact. Cook also caught one of three targets for 10 yards from quarterback Sam Bradford.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans probably will survive this long (74 percent chance), making him tough to pass up. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound former first-round pick had his third consecutive 1,000-yard season and his second 12-score campaign in 2016, including a league-high 3.8 targets per game on passes traveling 15 or more yards in the air, per TruMedia, with an above-average success rate (plus-5 percent) coming on deep passes down the right sideline.
Follow up with Dez Bryant from the Dallas Cowboys in Round 2.
The Cowboys likely will be adjusting to life without running back Ezekiel Elliott after he was suspended by the NFL for the first six games of the 2017 NFL season, pending appeal, putting the passing game in charge of the offensive attack.
Davante Adams quickly has become a favorite of Rodgers, who targeted him 121 times in 2016. A third of those targets (42) were on passes that traveled 15 or more yards through the air, allowing Adams to compile the third-most yards after the catch (139) on deep passes last season. He’s a solid third-round target.
If you want a piece of the Washington Redskins’ receiving corps, you could opt for Terrelle Pryor Sr. with your third-round pick.
Pryor, a former quarterback, caught 77 of 140 targets last season, producing 1,007 yards and four touchdowns as a member of the Cleveland Browns. His height (6 feet 4) makes him an excellent red-zone target, a part of the field where quarterback Kirk Cousins struggled last season. The Pro Bowl quarterback completed just 48 percent of his passes inside the 20, far below the 55.6 percent NFL starting quarterbacks average, and converted just one of 21 passes inside the 10-yard line.
However, Cousins completed 24 of 33 passes to 6-foot-3 tight end Jordan Reed inside the 20-yard line in 2015 and 2016 combined, with 15 targets ending with a touchdown, giving Washington hope that a taller receiver will help Cousins be more efficient in 2017.
The Falcons’ Freeman produced 1,541 yards from scrimmage in 2016, seventh among running backs, with better than four targets per game. He was terrific at catching passes underneath (plus-11.5 percent success rate above average) with an ability to break tackles on passing plays (10) and while rushing the ball (34).
And he’ll help get your team off to a fast start. During the first four weeks of the season, only the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks face a softer schedule than the Falcons in 2017, with a great matchup in Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints, a week many fantasy football leagues have their championship game.
For receivers, you should have your pick of Baldwin, Hilton, Cooper and Bryant in the second round, prioritizing them in that order. In the third round, look for Hopkins or Demaryius Thomas.
A.J. Green offers good value this late in the draft. He was second to Julio Jones in yards per route run last season (2.86) before a hamstring injury forced him to miss the last six weeks of the season. Green also was one of the best at making catches with a defender wearing him like a hat — according to NFL.com’s Matt Harmon. Green caught more than half (52 percent) his targets despite not having more than a yard of separation from his defender, the 10th best in the NFL. Harmon notes that Green’s 22.8 yards per reception on those catches was also the highest among any receiver in the top 10.
There is a 57 percent chance Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi is available in the second round. If he is, pencil him in as your No. 2 pick.
Ajayi had 1,272 rushing yards last season including three 200-yard games, averaging a robust 5.5 yards per carry against eight defenders in the box, solidifying his place among No. 1 fantasy rushers.
Selecting Allen or Alshon Jeffery would get you another solid wideout in the third round.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver coach Mike Groh told reporters he thinks Jeffery is “behind” after missing practice time with a shoulder injury (with which Jeffery disagrees). But when healthy, Jeffery is capable of making plays either to the first down marker or in the end zone.
|Yards per reception||Percent of targets making a 1st down or a TD|
|Alshon Jeffery (2016)||15.8||46%|
Jordy Nelson had a league-high 14 touchdown catches in 2016, one more than he did in 2015, making his chemistry with Rodgers undeniable.
Used primarily on short or intermediate passes (no more than 14 yards in the air), Nelson had an above-average catch rate in these situations (76.2 percent vs. 69.6 percent league average) with his receptions ending in a first down or touchdown 43.8 percent of the time, also an above-average rate. In addition, no receiver had more red-zone targets than Nelson (29) last season.
|Passes traveling less than 15 yards in the air||Catch Rate||Percent of targets making a 1st down or a TD|
|Jordy Nelson (2016)||76.2%||43.8%|
Baldwin in the second round would be a reach but an understandable one, or you could go with one of the other star wideouts such as Hilton, Cooper and Bryant. In the third round, Allen or Jeffery might be the best receivers available.
The New Orleans Saints saw wide receiver Michael Thomas burst on to the scene with a strong rookie campaign, catching 92 of 121 targets for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. His ability to create separation from his defender was noteworthy, landing him seventh among No. 1 wideouts (2.38 yards at target), as was his acumen at winning the ball in tight coverage, making him a complete receiver in his debut season.
In the second round, add New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. When healthy, Gronkowski is the pacesetter at the position, capable of topping both the 1,000-yard mark and double-digit touchdowns.
|Per game stats from 2014 to 2016||Targets||Touches||ScrYds||TD|
Lamar Miller is a solid choice in the third round. The 26-year-old had 299 touches for the Houston Texans last season with five touchdowns on eight carries inside the 5-yard line. That last stat is notable considering his offensive line only helped 61 percent of runs on third or fourth down, with two yards or fewer to go, to achieve a first down or touchdown, a below-average rate (63 percent) in 2016 per Football Outsiders.
With half of fantasy owners going with wide receivers in the first round, it makes sense to get value at running back, starting with DeMarco Murray of the Tennessee Titans.
Murray carried the ball 293 times in 2016 for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry after contact with enough zip to produce nine runs of 15 yards or more, producing above-average success running toward the right side of his offensive line.
Howard in the second round fortifies your roster with top rushers, allowing you to focus on the rest of your starters in the upcoming rounds.
In the third round, Demaryius Thomas and Allen might be available (20 percent chance). If not, take a flier on Jeffery.
Read more fantasy football news and analysis: