Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman is a scary third-round pick. (John Bazemore/AP)

Fantasy football is all about managing expectations, and so every player you consider drafting has to be valued with their risk/reward proposition in mind. In the early rounds, especially Rounds 1 through 3, you want to limit your potential downside and make the most of each pick. Later in the draft, you can start to speculate with some calculated risks, but you don’t want to stray too far down the path of uncertainty. After all, today’s late-round reserve could become a much-needed replacement player later in the season.

To avoid taking unnecessary liability, I have listed the riskiest players in each round of this year’s fantasy drafts, based on average draft position in mock drafts occurring between Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 on Fantasy Football Calculator’s website. Since Rounds 15 and 16 are normally limited to kickers and defenses, I limited the scope of this article to the first 14 rounds.

Buyer beware with any of these selections.

Round 1: Ezekiel Elliott (DAL-RB)

The holdout was a problem, as might be Elliott’s conditioning, but you also should be concerned about the play of rookie Tony Pollard, the fourth-round pick out of Memphis in the 2019 NFL draft.

Pollard has 18 touches in the preseason for 103 total yards and a touchdown. Each of his 38 snaps have been with first-string quarterback Dak Prescott on the field, and Pollard is the 14th best rusher this preseason according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus. At the very least, Elliott could see some of his opportunities, including those in high-leverage situations, go to Pollard.

Round 2: Patrick Mahomes (KC-QB)

Mahomes was a fantasy stud in 2018, throwing for 5,097 yards and a league-high 50 touchdown passes. It’s the latter number that is a cause for concern. Mahomes led the league with an 8.6 percent touchdown rate last year. Since 2002, the first year the league expanded to 32 teams, there have been 14 seasons in which a quarterback produced a touchdown rate above 7 percent. Excluding the two that occurred in 2018 (Mahomes and Russell Wilson), every other passer in this group saw a decrease in his touchdown rate the following season, with the declines ranging from one to four percentage points.

Round 3: Devonta Freeman (ATL-RB)

Ito Smith, Freeman’s backup, has 22 touches for 109 total yards and three touchdowns this preseason. (He’s also among our sleepers to watch.) Freeman has four touches for 11 total yards and zero touchdowns. You might dismiss this as nothing, but Freeman’s role in the Atlanta offense has been waning since 2015.

Round 4: T.Y. Hilton (IND-WR)

With Andrew Luck under center, Hilton scored an average of 15.4 PPR fantasy points per game. With backup Jacoby Brissett throwing the passes, that drops to 8.4 PPR fantasy points per game. Luck retired from football on Saturday night, hurting both the Colts’ chances and Hilton’s.

QB throwing to T.Y. Hilton Targets per game Receptions per game Yards per game TD per game PPR fantasy points per game
Andrew Luck 8.5 5.0 79.3 0.4 15.4
Jacoby Brissett 5.1 2.7 45.5 0.2 8.4

Round 5: James White (NE-RB)

Running backs by committee are difficult on fantasy football owners, especially when there is no clear-cut option at the top of the depth chart. Still, for the Patriots, it seems likely that Sony Michel, a fourth-round fantasy pick, is going to get numerous chances with the football, just like he did in 2018, when he had a team-high 209 carries, more than double White’s workload. Reports are Michel will also get increased opportunities in the passing game, making White too risky a play just one round later.

Round 6: Robby Anderson (NYJ-WR)

Anderson turned in another solid campaign in 2018, catching 50 of 94 targets for 752 yards and six touchdowns. His challenge in 2019 will be overcoming a potential slow start. The Jets have the second-toughest start to the season in terms of pass defenses faced, per Sharp Football Stats. They will have to navigate past the Buffalo Bills (second best pass defense of 2018, per Football Outsiders), Cleveland Browns (seventh), New England Patriots twice (13th), Philadelphia Eagles (15th), Dallas Cowboys (16th) and Jacksonville Jaguars (sixth) in the first half of the season.

Round 7: Kenyan Drake (MIA-RB)

Drake is back at practice after missing the last two preseason games, and is battling Kalen Ballage for the starting role. Also, the Dolphins are not expected to be very good in 2019, limiting the number of rushing opportunities for either back. New head coach Brian Flores spent 15 years as an assistant coach to Bill Belichick, and over that span the Patriots, like most teams, ran the ball significantly more with a lead than they did when trailing. For example, New England ran the ball more than half the time when up by 11 or more points. It ran the ball less than 30 percent of the time when trailing by 11 or more.

Round 8: David Njoku (CLE-TE)

Njoku caught 56 of 88 targets for 639 yards and four touchdowns last season, his second in the NFL, but this year he will have to contend with higher-caliber teammates warranting more opportunities in the passing game. There’s three-time Pro Bowl wideout Odell Beckham Jr., acquired via trade from the New York Giants this offseason, as well as second-year running back Nick Chubb, who appears set for an increased role. Add in the emergence of Rashard Higgins (he was targeted seven times in Friday’s preseason game) and mainstay Jarvis Landry, and it’s possible Njoku is relegated to the fourth or fifth option on passing plays.

Plus, head coach Freddie Kitchens has been critical of Njoku’s blocking and consistency, perhaps limiting his snaps once the regular season begins.

“I think he is trying. I think David is trying,” Kitchens said. “He understands what the problem is. We like to identify problems and then attack that problem, and I think he is doing that. We have progress to go. We have to get better every day. He falls into that bill.”

Round 9: James Washington (PIT-WR)

The good news is Washington leads the team in preseason targets (12). The bad news is all of those passes were from backup quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs or Mason Rudolph. Only two of Washington’s snaps in the team’s third preseason game, considered by many to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season, was with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the first-team offense.

Round 10: Tom Brady (NE-QB)

Since 2010, Brady averaged 20.3 fantasy points per game with five-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field. That drops to 17 fantasy points per game without Gronkowski. The dangerous tight end retired from football this offseason, leaving Brady without one of his most trusted and productive receivers.

Round 11: Adrian Peterson (WSH-RB)

Peterson last year joined Frank Gore, John Riggins and Franco Harris as the only running backs 33 or older to carry the ball 250 times or more for 1,000 yards or more in a season. Only Riggins duplicated the feat at 34 or older, suggesting this could be the year Father Time finally catches up with the former MVP.

Also look for Derrius Guice, who sat out the entire 2018 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, to receive meaningful carries for Washington in 2019. Guice has carried the ball 11 times this preseason to Peterson’s four, and with Peterson in street clothes, the younger back got 18 of 28 snaps with the Redskins’ first-team offense in Thursday’s third preseason game.

Round 12: Browns (CLE-DST)

The Browns are, on average, the sixth defense taken off the board, yet they face a very difficult set of opposing running backs in 2019, the fifth toughest during fantasy football’s regular season (Weeks 1 to 13) per Sharp Football Stats.

Round 13: Jordan Reed (WSH-TE)

Reed was enjoying one of his healthiest preseasons in a Redskins uniform until a shot to the head from Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal placed him in the NFL’s concussion protocol. This is the seventh documented concussion for Reed since he entered the NFL in 2013.

According to the Sports Injury Predictor, no tight end has a higher chance of being injured in 2019 than Reed (73 percent chance), and his estimated time missed is expected to be between three and four games.

Round 14: Derek Carr (OAK-QB)

Oakland’s offensive line allowed 52 sacks in 2018 (fifth most in the NFL), which improved just barely to the eighth-highest rate after adjusting each sack for down, distance and opponent, per Football Outsiders. The game charters at Pro Football Focus expect Oakland’s pass-blocking unit to again be among the league’s worst in 2019 (a projected 26th). That’s very bad news for Carr, who had a 48.6 passer rating under pressure last season, per Sports Info Solutions, the fourth worst among qualified quarterbacks.

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