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Fantasy football 2018: This is what the perfect draft looks like

Don’t overthink the No. 1 pick. In the perfect draft, it needs to be Le’Veon Bell. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

The road to a championship season in fantasy football starts at the draft and I have used every resource and statistical lens imaginable to once again produce the perfect fantasy football draft.

What does perfect mean? Perfect means getting the optimal value at each draft spot. In other words, if you were to objectively grade all the rosters in the draft below, every team would deserve an “A.”

The picture or perfection you’re about to behold was crafted for a 12-team point-per-reception (PPR) league using the following starting lineup: one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex player (RB/WR/TE), one defense, a kicker and seven bench players.

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The methodology is simple and the same as it was in 2017. All skill player projections start at the team level, with each team’s targets and rushing plays estimated using a three-year weighted average, with performances from 2017 weighted three times as heavily as those from 2015. Those opportunities would then be split among the position players (QB, RB, WR and TE) before finally being converted to whole-season PPR point totals based on individual efficiencies. These are then adjusted for strength of schedule using Sharp Football Stats’ projections — teams facing easier defenses can be counted on to score more points than those who are facing stiffer competition — and injury risk using Jake Davidow’s Sports Injury Predictor. I also incorporate consensus rankings from Fantasy Pros, recognizing that rookies and other lesser-known players might outperform historical averages. The end result allows draft picks to be compared to other players at the position on a 0 to 100 scale, a metric we’ve dubbed a player’s Draft Score, with higher scores indicating better players at that position.

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A few caveats: This updated version is based off player health news and their projected roles as of Aug. 14. So if you’re reading this a few days after publication, injuries or other developments may have shifted the board. Plus, this is more than just a best-player-available approach to the draft. Through Draft Score we can see where positional scarcity affords us the opportunity to go after a player that is among the top tier at their position rather than settle for a selection that occupies a lower grouping.

However, I will caution you that some players come off the board in the perfect draft at significantly different slots than their ADP suggests — this is a feature, not a bug. Remember, this is the perfect draft based on 2018 projections, so some players will have more or less value than the public perceives. Use this to your advantage — if you see a player such as quarterback Cam Newton with a 7.10 ADP selected in the fourth round of the perfect draft, that indicates he has been identified as an undervalued player who could pay big dividends in 2018.

The Perfect Draft Overview (click to enlarge grid)

The first five picks of the first round should not be a surprise: Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and Antonio Brown should be the first five players selected in PPR leagues. There is, however, some debate about who should be No. 6. Running backs Alvin Kamara and Saquon Barkley along with wideout Odell Beckham Jr. are all in the conversation, but recent trends put Kamara at the head of the pack. It would be hard to argue against selecting Barkley in this spot, or higher, considering his potential workload in 2018.

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Drafting defenses is usually reserved for the last or second-to-last round of the draft, but if there is one squad that’s worth an earlier pick it is the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings allowed 1.36 points per drive in 2017, the second-lowest mark after the Jacksonville Jaguars, with an above-average defense in the red zone (40 percent, third-best). Five members of the 2018 Pro Bowl team return to the defense — nose tackle Linval Joseph, defensive end Everson Griffen, linebacker Anthony Barr, free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes — giving them a good chance to repeat as one of the toughest defenses in the NFL this season.

Early picks offer a chance at tremendous value for starting rosters

Through the first seven rounds of the draft — enough time to get your starting roster filled out sans the kicker and defense — teams selecting in the top three spots of the draft have the chance at creating a lot of surplus value early on. And this makes sense: You get one of the three best available running backs — players whose value towers above the rest — in addition to the flexibility needed to pivot when you see a run on a position.

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If the draft does hold true to form, with Bell, Gurley, Johnson, Elliott and Brown selected among the first five picks, going with a best-player-available strategy will provide a big payoff during the season. In the Perfect Draft, the Nos. 1 and 3 positions created more points than any other roster drafted over the first seven rounds using this strategy, and they ranked first and third, respectively, in value over baseline, a draft strategy that advocates selecting the player who provides the most points over the lowest starting player drafted at the position. The middle of the draft (No. 7 or No. 8 pick), on the other hand, might be the best spot to utilize the Zero RB strategy or, if the draft dictates, Mike Hume’s RB-pa-looza strategy.

Drafting near the end, particularly at No. 10, also produces significant value.

2018 Fantasy draft Projected PPR points in 2018 VBD Average Draft Score
Team 1 1,555 561 68
Team 2 1,526 532 63
Team 3 1,549 527 65
Team 4 1,516 485 65
Team 5 1,482 489 70
Team 6 1,508 505 66
Team 7 1,537 525 67
Team 8 1,459 456 60
Team 9 1,466 463 62
Team 10 1,531 510 72
Team 11 1,440 438 60
Team 12 1,449 447 63

Positional value

PPR scoring inflates the value of wideouts, but remember: it has been easier to find a serviceable receiver later in the draft than to find a viable running back. The difference in point production from the No. 1 to No. 24 receiver is expected to be 105 PPR points in 2018, smaller than the drop from Bell (332 PPR points), the top running back, to Leonard Fournette (224), projected to be the 10th-most productive rusher in fantasy football this year.

Hurns caught 64 of 105 targets for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015, his second year as a pro, but was let go by the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason as a cost-cutting move after never getting close to that performance in each of the next two years. Yet with the release of Bryant and retirement of tight end Jason Witten, more than 45 percent of the team’s targets in 2017 are now up for grabs, giving Hurns a chance at targets he would not have seen as a member of the Jaguars.

Emphasize and anticipate future upside

Sleepers, in the traditional sense, are harder than ever to find — there is simply too much information available in print, on audio and video or on social media. The waiver wire, on the other hand, remains flush with potential stars that emerge over the course of the season. But to get one of them you need to compete with the other owners in your league. A better strategy is to anticipate their upcoming production and snag them in the draft’s later rounds at the expense of selecting a backup quarterback, tight end or defense.

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For example, LeSean McCoy is the No. 1 back in Buffalo, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of opportunities for his primary backup, Chris Ivory, to get carries. Last season McCoy’s backups accounted for 25 percent of all carries but also 49 percent of the team’s carries in goal-to-go situations, per data from TruMedia. And McCoy’s injury risk is pegged at three games missed in 2018, three games that could feature Ivory as the team’s primary back. This also does not factor any potential disciplinary fallout over claims made by an ex-girlfriend.

Among receivers, Ryan Grant could become a fixture in the Indianapolis Colts’ offense with Andrew Luck under center. Grant is the No. 2 wideout on the team’s depth chart opposite speedster T.Y. Hilton, a spot that Luck has thrown to six times per game since 2012. For Grant, that could mean close to 100 targets in a season, a threshold reserved for the game’s top wideouts. If that volume is there for Grant, he could be a late-round steal.

Read more fantasy football news and analysis:

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