You won’t win your fantasy league at the draft, but you can make it much more difficult to win a trophy if you don’t get your roster off to a strong start. One way to do that is to make sure you get maximum value out of your first three draft picks. And with a little strategic help, you can do exactly that.
According to ESPN, about a quarter of a fantasy team’s yearly point total (46 out of 182 points, on average) will be generated by the top three picks for your 16-man roster, illustrating their importance. We can go a step further and use our Draft Score metric — a formula that rates a player from 0 to 100 based on 2018 point projections, strength of schedule and injury risk, with higher scores indicating better fantasy football players — along with the Perfect Draft to optimize those early picks to make sure you’re getting the most production each week.
Don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do the mathematical gymnastics yourself. Here’s a round-by-round road map the three most important picks for every slot in a 12-team, point-per-reception (PPR) league, including contingency plans if a specific player isn’t available.
Note: Occasionally throughout this article we refer to how likely a player is to be available at a specific draft position. Those percentages come from the Fantasy Football Calculator‘s scenario calculator, a dynamic look based on where players are being selected in mock drafts. The percentages change with new mock drafts. The percentages listed are as of Aug. 14.
Start things off right with the best fantasy football player on the board, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell led the league in carries (321) and touches (406), producing 1,946 yards from scrimmage with 11 total touchdowns. He’s difficult to bring down, averaging 2.6 yards per carry after contact with 52 broken tackles (sixth-most) in 2017, and no player is projected to score more points than Bell in 2018.
At the turn, there won’t be many superstar wideout options available. However, per Fantasy Football Calculator there is a 70 percent chance Mike Evans is available. If he is, grab him. He caught 71 of 136 targets for 1,001 yards and five touchdowns in 2017, and that included a sparkling 7 for 8 with two touchdowns on catchable targets traveling at least 20 yards in the air. If Evans isn’t there, Adam Thielen and Larry Fitzgerald are viable replacements.
Fitzgerald, who turns 35 at the end of August, is coming off three straight seasons with at least 100 catches, 1,000 yards and six touchdowns, joining Antonio Brown, an early first-round pick in PPR leagues, as the only wideouts to meet or exceed those marks in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
With the third pick, look for tight end Travis Kelce or Rob Gronkowski, in that order. Only tight ends Jimmy Graham (36 percent of team targets) and Kyle Rudolph (28 percent) were targeted more often in the red zone than Kelce (26 percent) was last season. Gronkowski ranked fifth (24 percent). There is a risk in drafting Gronkowski — the injury experts at Sports Injury Predictor see Gronkowski missing almost five games this season — but with 22 players set to come off the board before your Round 4 pick, it makes sense here.
You might get lucky and still have a chance at Bell with the second overall pick. If not, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley is a great consolation prize. He features prominently in the rushing (279 carries in 2017) and passing (87 targets) games for the Rams and is a true three-down back, carrying the ball 54 percent of the time on third down, the third-highest workload at the position last season.
It’s possible A.J. Green is available (21 percent chance) in the second round, but don’t be afraid to call out for Thielen or Fitzgerald, either. Thielen averaged 2.3 yards per route run in 2017, the seventh-most at the position, and was successful on all 10 catchable deep throws last season.
Evans could be lingering in the third round (a surprisingly high 43 percent chance), but Doug Baldwin (pending his health) and Stefon Diggs are also solid additions to the roster. I would, however, advocate diversification and avoid adding both Vikings (Thielen and Diggs) to the same team.
Take whoever is left out of Bell, Gurley and David Johnson. Some are discounting Johnson due to last year’s injury, but he is looking like the same back who pummeled the league in 2016 to the tune of 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns, both league-leading metrics for those categories.
Evans is your top pick in the second round unless Green got passed over by the owners in front of you. In Round 3 it’s best to double down on the receiver position and Diggs is the prize you seek.
Diggs had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2017 while averaging 1.9 yards per route run for the Vikings. Four of those touchdowns were on deep throws and two were from the slot, making him one of the most versatile receivers in the game.
This strategy may be controversial, but it makes sense, particularly in leagues with a flex position that would allow you to start that third running back. You will probably have a choice between Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott, who followed up his stellar rookie campaign in 2016 with 1,252 yards and nine total touchdowns in an abbreviated season (due to suspension). Plus, he gets to line up behind the second-best offensive line per Pro Football Focus.
It’s tempting to grab a wideout with one of the next two picks, yet the players available aren’t more valuable than the options at running back. Green might be there, but if you have the chance to solidify one position with Devonta Freeman then make it happen.
Freeman carried the ball 196 times and caught 36 passes in 14 games for the Atlanta Falcons last year, totaling 1,182 yards from scrimmage with eight total touchdowns. And like Elliott, he has the benefit of running behind one of the most-talented offensive lines in football.
There will be second- and third-tier wideouts available later in the draft, so don’t be bashful about selecting a running back — Joe Mixon, LeSean McCoy or Derrick Henry — in the third round.
McCoy is getting older but he had 16 rushes of 15 or more yards last season, tying with Alex Collins for the second-most in the NFL. A murky and unsavory situation involving an assault on his former girlfriend does carry some risk, however.
Unless someone went off script, superstar wideout Antonio Brown should be available here. If he is, rejoice in having the best wide receiver in the game. If he isn’t, congrats, you just landed a top-four running back.
Brown will still be a great pickup: he caught 101 of 163 targets for a league-leading 1,533 yards last season, reaching the end zone nine times for the Steelers. Only Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons produced more yards per route run.
Continue taking pass-catchers with the second pick, especially if Kelce is available. He carries less risk than Gronkowski and has been targeted 103 or more times in each of the last three seasons. Kelce is also a favorite target for the Chiefs in the red zone (team-high 28 percent of targets).
In the third round, focus on a high-workload back such as Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears. Howard went over 1,100 yards for the second time in as many years while increasing his touchdown total from seven to nine. And if you dig breakaway speed, focus on Howard’s 15 runs of 15 yards or more in 2017, the fourth-most in the NFL that year.
Dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints provides a ton of value in PPR leagues. The third-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after totaling 1,554 yards from scrimmage with 13 total touchdowns. No running back produced more yards per route run than Kamara did last season (2.8). And he should get off to a fast start with teammate Mark Ingram serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy.
In Round 2, A.J. Green should be available. The 30-year-old caught 75 of 143 targets in 2017 for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns, gaining a robust 2.1 yards per route run per the game charters at Pro Football Focus.
Add another receiver in Round 3, looking for T.Y Hilton, Diggs or Thielen to round out your first three picks. Hilton would be a coup, especially if quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy. From 2015 to 2016, Hilton was targeted a team-high 26 percent of the time with Luck under center, the same as the next two most-targeted receivers, wideout Andre Johnson (14 percent) and tight end Coby Fleener (12 percent), combined.
This is the perfect spot to use the Zero RB strategy, which advocates steering clear of running backs until the fifth or sixth round of a draft. The top five running backs will be gone compared to just one wideout, Brown, leaving a bevy of top receivers in the pool.
Odell Beckham Jr. is the top choice here. Limited to just four games in 2017 due to an ankle injury, the Giants receiver looked like his “old self” in minicamp, per quarterback Eli Manning, and puts up big numbers when he is on the field. Since the NFL/AFL merger of 1970, only nine players have more receiving yards in their first four seasons than Beckham, and remember, he tallied just 302 yards in four games last season, his fourth year as a pro. Only six players have more receiving touchdowns to start a career.
Davante Adams is a great complement to Beckham in the second round. The 2017 Pro Bowler was targeted 117 times last year, but just 46 of those came from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was sidelined for nine games after suffering a broken collarbone in Week 6. Now that Rodgers is back under center and former top target Jordy Nelson is in Oakland, it could be a big year for Adams in 2018.
Round out your receiving corps with Thielen, Baldwin, Fitzgerald or Demaryius Thomas.
There is an argument to be made — I should know, I made it — that warrants selecting rookie Saquon Barkley in the top five of the first round. It’s a bold strategy, although considering his ability to run the ball (per Sports Info Solutions, 1,658 of his 2,767 rushing yards over the past two seasons occurred after contact) and catch passes out of the backfield either as a wideout or slot receiver, it makes sense. Since 2000, a running back who gets 301 or more opportunities with the ball ends the fantasy football season somewhere between the third and 15th most productive back of the year.
Barkley’s stock has gone up over the past few weeks, and there is a chance he isn’t available at this point of the draft. If that’s the case, look for Kamara or Melvin Gordon to be your first choice of the draft.
Keep the momentum going at the position with either Christian McCaffrey or Freeman in the second round followed by Jerick McKinnon (keep your eye on a preseason calf strain), McCoy or Jay Ajayi in the third.
McCaffrey touched the ball 222 times as a rookie for the Carolina Panthers (117 carries and 80 catches on 113 targets), averaging 2.1 yards per carry after contact. Plus, Jonathan Stewart is now with the New York Giants, giving McCaffrey a chance to pick up a share of the team-high 18 goal-to-go carries Stewart had for the Panthers in 2017.
There will be a lot of high-profile names off the board by the time this first pick is made, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had. The Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Gordon is a building block for any fantasy squad, and you can expect his production in 2018 to be close to what he produced last season: 1,581 yards from scrimmage with 12 total touchdowns. Seven of those came in the red zone, so you don’t have to worry about another player vulturing those scores, either.
In Round 2, there is a small chance Julio Jones is available (25 percent) but you’re more likely to be choosing between Michael Thomas and Keenan Allen. Of those two, Allen is the more likely to fall to you in this spot, and that’s okay, because Allen had the third-most red-zone targets in the NFL last season.
Follow up that pick with a running back in Round 3. Ajayi should certainly be there, along with Collins and Henry. Ajayi split time between Miami and Philadelphia in 2017 and, according to Coach Doug Pederson, he’s “going into camp as the No. 1 guy.” That’s great, and deserving, news for Ajayi, who averaged 3.6 yards per carry after contact in an Eagles uniform during the second-half of the season.
Targets are the lifeblood of fantasy football receivers, and no wideout gets more opportunities with the football than DeAndre Hopkins. In 2017, his 174 targets led the league and accounted for more than a third of the team’s targets during the season. No other receiver had a share over 29 percent.
Next up is either Jones or Thomas in the second round. Both get a lot of looks from their quarterbacks, and both ranked in the top five in yards per route run last season.
|Receiver in 2017||Targets (Percent of team)||Yards per route run (Rank)|
|DeAndre Hopkins||174 (33%)||2.4 (T-4th)|
|Michael Thomas||149 (28%)||2.4 (T-4th)|
|Julio Jones||148 (29%)||3.1 (1st)|
There will be a lot of running backs off the board by the time you get to your third pick, so don’t be shy about getting the best fantasy football quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers was limited to just seven games in 2017, but when healthy he is routinely in the top echelon of passers. In 2016, at 33 years old, he threw for 4,428 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns with rates similar to that pace last year before a broken collarbone derailed his season in Week 6.
Expect seven, maybe eight, running backs to be off the board at this time plus two or three of the top receivers. It’s tempting to go for a wideout here since there are so many running backs taken, but the chances of a starting-caliber rusher falling to you in Round 3 are remote, at best. That’s why you should target Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette with your first- and second-round picks.
Cook’s debut was obscured by injury — 354 yards and two touchdowns on the ground over four games — yet as the lead back in an offense that generated over two points per drive (eighth in the NFL) last season he deserves considerations. And that was before the Vikings added Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Fournette’s rookie campaign produced 1,342 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns behind the eighth-best run-blocking unit per Pro Football Focus.
Since the first two picks from this slot are running backs, it pays to grab a receiver in the third round. Tyreek Hill will be available, but this is perhaps a bit higher than he should go based on the team’s change at quarterback (Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes II, the 10th overall pick in 2017) and how often Hill relies on deep passes to score (though Mahomes does have a big arm, the odds of sustaining that type of touchdown are shaky). If that’s too much risk for you to take, Thomas, Amari Cooper and Jarvis Landry are other options in this spot.
As a rookie, Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing yards (1,327) with 11 total touchdowns in 2017, touching the ball 325 times. He might not get the ball as often in 2018, but his efficiency out of the backfield will keep him as one of the most-productive fantasy players in the draft. Since 2008, the only rookie running back to achieve a higher ratio of PPR fantasy points to touches than Hunt was Elliott in 2016.
As mentioned before, Thomas gets a high target share from quarterback Drew Brees — Brees threw the ball to Thomas 149 times in 2017 (sixth-most) — but he also gets the highest rate of catchable throws from his passer than any other wideout in the NFL, per Sports Info Solutions. Over 81 percent of throws to Thomas have been classified as “catchable,” explaining why Thomas was able to be so productive in his first two seasons.
Tight ends such as Zach Ertz are solid red-zone targets, making them coveted in fantasy football circles. Ertz had the fourth-most red-zone targets in 2017 (19) and converted eight of those for touchdowns.
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