A solid draft isn’t essential to winning your fantasy league, but it’s easier to win a trophy if you 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.
So here’s a round-by-round road map for 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. For the methodology, see below.
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. 26.
There are a few choices for the top overall pick, but it’s hard to find fault with New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, the No. 1 choice on FantasyPros’ expert consensus rankings. (Here’s a longer explanation of why Barkley should be the top overall pick, along with a discussion of the other choices.)
Barkley touched the ball 352 times as a rookie last year for a league-high 2,208 yards from scrimmage, scoring 15 total touchdowns (11 rushing, four receiving). Of those touches, 21 gained 20 yards or more, making Barkley the only running back with at least 20 explosive plays in 2018.
Mock drafts suggest 11 pass catchers will be taken before the end of the second round, so it makes sense to instead double down on the running back position with Melvin Gordon. Gordon is holding out for a new contract from the Los Angeles Chargers, but if the situation is resolved the 26-year-old out of Wisconsin provides good value. Gordon touched the ball a team-high 33 times in the red zone and scored 11 of his 14 touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line. Plus, he caught 50 of 66 targets, with 10.7 yards per reception coming after the catch.
There is a 73 percent chance Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen will be available to start the third round. The two-time Pro Bowler is one of five wideouts coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 140 targets and 1,000 yards. The other four — Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones and Michael Thomas — all figure to be gone by the end of the second round.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is getting a lot of consideration as the top overall pick after totaling 1,965 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in his second NFL season. Plus, he is an every-down back, lining up for 966 snaps in 2018, 101 more than Ezekiel Elliott, who was second, per Football Outsiders.
In the second round, look for wideout Keenan Allen. Allen caught 97 of 136 targets for the Los Angeles Chargers last season for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns, giving quarterback Phillip Rivers a 138.7 passer rating on those targets. If Allen isn’t available, Thielen could be a decent replacement.
With the third pick, second-year pro Kerryon Johnson of the Detroit Lions is an interesting choice. He produced 854 yards from scrimmage last season as a rookie and joined Billy Sims as the only rookies in Lions history to surpass 600 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards through their first 10 games. (Johnson missed the final six games of the season due to a knee injury.) Now healthy, he will ply his trade behind the 15th best offensive line in the NFL.
It’s possible Alvin Kamara, who burst on the scene with 1,554 total yards and 13 total touchdowns as a rookie in 2017 and surpassed that with 1,592 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, is gone by the third pick (51 percent chance). If not, don’t hesitate to call out his name. In the past two years, Kamara has led all running backs in fantasy points in a given week seven times. Todd Gurley is second in that span with five weeks as the top back. No other running back has more than two weeks as the No. 1 player at the position.
For your next pick, target Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams. Williams took over as the starter for Kareem Hunt in mid-December and averaged 19.4 touches for 114 yards and 1.6 touchdowns in five games (including playoff games), with 199 total yards and two touchdowns during the fantasy football playoffs (Weeks 15 and 16). According to Football Outsiders, Williams was the second most valuable running back among those with between 20 and 99 rushing attempts last season.
Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton should still be on the board in the third round and the four-time Pro Bowl wideout makes a fine complement to the two running backs already on your roster. Hilton caught 76 of 120 passes in 2018 and had seven of those go for 20 or more yards after the catch. Only Tyreek Hill had more last season.
The downgrade at quarterback from Andrew Luck, who retired on Saturday night, to Jacoby Brissett is a concern for Hilton’s fantasy outlook (and for the Colts). But it’s worth noting that Brissett targeted Hilton further down the field in 2017, when he took over for an injured Luck (12.6 air yards per target), than Luck did in 2018 (11.2 air yards per target). (Still, Hilton became one of our riskiest potential picks after Luck retired.)
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott finally agreed to a contract extension making him the NFL’s highest-paid running back. His fitness might be in question, as spent training camp working out in Mexico and not with his team. Still, the two-time NFL rushing leader (2016 and 2018) represents a dynamic fantasy force when he is on the field. His 381 touches last season led the league, as did his 95.6 rushing yards per game. The addition of wideout Amari Cooper also boosted his production: Elliott scored 13.6 fantasy points per game before Cooper’s arrival and 34.8 points per game after. In the 10 games after Cooper was acquired from the Oakland Raiders, only McCaffery and Barkley outscored Elliott in total PPR fantasy points at the position during the last 11 weeks of the 2018 season.
In the second round, Mike Evans will give you a big-game receiver. Evans topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the fifth straight year in 2018, with a career high 62-percent catch rate. He is one of three wideouts to be targeted 100 or more times in each of his first five years in the NFL. (Keyshawn Johnson and Randy Moss are the others.) If Evans isn’t available (he is in 56 percent of mock drafts), look for Allen, Thielen or Hilton.
Might as well grab a big-time quarterback in the third round. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes threw for a league-high 50 touchdowns in his first year as a starter for the Chiefs last season and will quarterback a top 10 roster in 2019, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Only three quarterbacks had a higher passer rating in the red zone than Mahomes in 2018, and none had more touchdown passes inside the 20-yard line.
|Quarterback (2018)||Red-zone TD||Red-zone passer rating|
|Drew Brees (Saints)||22||118.5|
|Baker Mayfield (Browns)||20||115.7|
|Kirk Cousins (Vikings)||20||113.9|
|Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)||35||112.0|
|Andrew Luck (Colts)||32||111.9|
David Johnson believes he can regain his form from 2016 (373 touches, 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, all league highs) under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury. And expectations for the Cardinals offense have been set at “90 or 95 plays a game,” a number that would shatter the previous record of 75 per game, set by the 1994 New England Patriots. Considering Arizona ran 56 plays per game last season, second lowest in the NFL after the Dolphins, even an average number of plays per game would be an improvement for Johnson.
Antonio Brown as a second-round choice isn’t without risk — Brown averaged 19.2 PPR fantasy points per game with Ben Roethlisberger under center and 11.8 per game without him, plus he’s been dealing with extreme frostbite on his feet and other preseason issues — but his upside makes this a gamble worth taking. Brown had a career-high 15 touchdown catches in 2018, which led the NFL, and he is expected to be a focal point for the Oakland Raiders air attack.
In Round 3, look for third-year Green Bay running back Aaron Jones. In his 12 career starts, Jones has eight touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. He also saw his role as a receiver increase at the end of last season, perhaps a harbinger of an increased workload in 2019.
DeAndre Hopkins gets a lot of balls thrown his way. Since 2013, he has been on the receiving end of 27 percent of his team’s targets, second only to Brown (28 percent). That jumps to a league-high 31 percent over the past three years. He’s made the most of them, too, catching 289 of 488 targets for 3,904 yards and 28 touchdowns in that span.
The real gem of your draft is Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals, if available in the second round. Mixon averaged 20 touches for 105 yards in 14 games last season, scoring nine touchdowns (eight rushing, one receiving). When active, he accounted for two-thirds of his team’s carries, fourth-most in the league behind Barkley (74 percent), David Johnson (73 percent) and Elliott (69 percent), making him one of the lesser-known bell cow backs of 2018.
Pair your star wideout and stud running back with Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, a 2017 first-round NFL pick who was hampered by a hamstring injury last season. In the games he did play, he recorded an impressive catch rate of 85 percent, and Fournette now appears poised for a larger role in Jacksonville’s offense, especially on passing downs.
“Every single day he’s catching balls in practice — every single day,” quarterback Nick Foles told The Athletic. “You’re always reading concepts and everything, but sometimes the matchup is on the running back versus a linebacker, or if you go through your progression and they cover it really well, you can check it down to a back like him and he can make a play. He’s a special back when you give him the ball.”
Le’Veon Bell skipped the 2018 season and inked a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the New York Jets. Some are concerned his workload will decline in 2019 — Coach Adam Gase has expressed a desire to keep him fresh — but don’t expect Gase to completely ignore his high-priced acquisition. In fact, during Gase’s time as coach of the Dolphins, he ran the ball 58 percent of the time when the game’s scoring margin was within a touchdown, significantly higher than the Pittsburgh Steelers did over that same span (48 percent).
Just in case that relationship gets off to a rocky start, pair Bell with another running back like Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings. Cook averaged 15 PPR points per game over the past two seasons and showed his elusiveness with six broken tackles per contest in 2018.
In Round 3, target tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz caught 116 of 156 targets for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns last year, setting or equaling career highs in each category. Ertz was also targeted 35 percent of the time in the red zone by his quarterbacks in 2018, the most among tight ends and tied for the second most overall.
In 2018, no wideout had more games producing 15 or more PPR fantasy points than Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams. He averaged 7.4 catches, 92.4 yards and almost a touchdown per game last season. His worst game of the season was in Week 9 against the New England Patriots: a six-catch, 40-yard performance that included a touchdown, resulting in 16 PPR fantasy points for the day.
Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley could be available in Round 2 (42 percent chance), depending on how your fellow owners perceive his knee condition. If he is, and you believe him to be healthy, Gurley will be hard to pass up. He ran for a career-high 17 touchdowns, leading the league in rushing touchdowns for a second straight season, and added four more scores in the passing games. If you have reservations, Cook, Mixon and Nick Chubb are all viable alternatives.
In Round 3, Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper should be available (74 percent chance). Cooper revitalized the entire Dallas offense last year, averaging six catches for 81.5 yards in 11 games (including the playoffs) with his new team.
Last season, Julio Jones led the league in targets (170) and receiving yards (1,677) and finished fourth in receptions (113). His eight touchdowns were his most since 2015, but all of those came after Week 8, including five in his final four games. In the second half of the season, only Travis Kelce, a tight end, saw more red-zone targets than Jones, perhaps giving us a glimpse into how the Falcons will use Jones in 2019.
Pair Jones with newly minted WR1 JuJu Smith-Schuster of Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster caught 111 of 166 targets for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns last year for the Steelers, and was a more efficient target than Antonio Brown for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in both 2017 and 2018.
Marlon Mack is your target in the third round. Mack carried the ball 195 times for 908 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018. His absence from the Colts’ passing game is a slight concern (he was targeted just 26 times last year), but with two bona fide star receivers in Jones and Smith-Schuster, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue at this point of the draft.
Michael Thomas has caught 77 percent of his targets since 2016, his first year in the league, and established a new career-high in 2018 at 85 percent. Plus, Thomas could catch fire toward the second half of the 2019 season, since the Saints don’t play any stout pass defenses after their Week 9 bye.
There is a decent chance (66 percent) Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb is available in the second round. If so, get Chubb — the highest-graded running back in 2018 per the game charters at Pro Football Focus — on your team. Chubb led the league in elusive rating (PFF’s measure of a running back’s ability to break tackles both on rushing and receiving plays) while also averaging 4.5 yards per attempt after contact, the best mark by any running back over the past 10 years.
You could then further bolster your running back ranks with Devonta Freeman. The two-time Pro Bowler was limited to two games in 2018, but early reports out of Falcons camp indicate Freeman is healthy and the No. 1 option for Coach Dan Quinn. At his peak in 2015 and 2016, Freeman produced 3,175 yards from scrimmage and 27 total touchdowns in 31 games.
James Conner’s performance in 2018 (1,470 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns in 13 games) helped give the Steelers hope during Le’Veon Bell’s season-long holdout, and if Pittsburgh runs the ball more in 2019, it could mean more opportunities for Conner to pad his fantasy point totals. (The Steelers rushed the ball a league low 35 percent of the time with the score within a touchdown last season; the league average was 42 percent.)
Tyreek Hill, the No. 1 wideout of 2018, won’t be facing a suspension and could be available in the early goings of Round 2 (63 percent chance). Hill led all wideouts in catches made that ended 20 or more yards from the line of scrimmage, and seven of his career-high 12 touchdown catches came on plays of 20 yards or more.
A revelation in 2018, tight end George Kittle caught 88 of 136 targets for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl nod in his second season. He was the highest graded tight end by Pro Football Focus and also led the position in yards per route run (2.8), yards after the catch per reception (9.9) and missed tackles induced (17). Plus, he did that despite his three quarterbacks collectively turning in a below-average passer rating for the season (87.8). If Jimmy Garoppolo is under center for the entire season (he played just three games in 2018), it’s possible Kittle looks even better in 2019. That’s why he’s actually our tool’s top-rated tight end.
This is perhaps the best spot to use the Zero RB strategy, which advocates steering clear of running backs until the fifth or sixth round of a draft. Instead of a running back, your first two picks could be tight end Travis Kelce and wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Kelce was targeted 24 times in the red zone last year (only Ertz had more) and he hauled in nine touchdowns on these passes, one fewer than Eric Ebron for most red-zone touchdowns at the position.
Beckham gets new life with the Cleveland Browns, where quarterback Baker Mayfield figures to outperform Beckham’s former quarterback in New York, 38-year-old Eli Manning.
In Round 3, Minnesota Vikings mainstay Stefon Diggs is another viable receiver. Diggs scored 17 times in 29 games over the past two seasons, and he developed chemistry with quarterback Kirk Cousins almost from the start. Cousins’s passer rating on targets to Diggs was 102.2 last season, while it was 98.9 on passes to everyone else.
To determine value, we looked at each player’s consensus draft ranking from the experts surveyed at Fantasy Pros and converted those to an end-of-season point total projection. Those estimates were then divided into weekly segments and adjusted for opponent. After all, a player facing a poor defense would be expected to score more points than he would against a stout defense.
Then we compared those adjusted projections against a baseline of performance, based on how many games it takes to fill a given position across a 12-team league. For example, 12 teams starting one quarterback each for 16 weeks need to account for 192 games played in a season. Last year that meant 14 quarterbacks were needed to meet that mark, so each quarterback’s fantasy point estimate for 2019 is decreased by that level of performance (266 fantasy points), giving us a way to rank all players across different positions.
And finally, we took into account average draft position, according to 1,834 fantasy football mock drafts conducted on Fantasy Football Calculator’s website between Aug. 10 and Aug. 12. After all, it doesn’t make sense to reach too far for a player who might be available in later rounds.
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