What does perfect mean? Perfect means getting the optimal value at each draft spot. In other words, all the rosters in the draft below should outperform an average team in any given week, with most performing at a playoff-caliber level.
The methodology is a bit different this year but it still starts with each player’s consensus draft ranking from the experts surveyed at the website Fantasy Pros. However, this year it ends with a fantasy wins above replacement total, a projected, season-long player value metric adjusted for injury potential, strength of schedule and positional scarcity. (See our Top 200 list here.)
Using wins above replacement for your draft board rather than projected point totals or consensus rankings allows for a clearer picture of how your roster stacks up against the competition, showcases potential draft bargains relative to average draft position and clearly illustrates how owners should evaluate players at one position against another. A more in-depth explanation of our methodology can be found here.
I will caution you that in this “perfect draft” some players come off the board at significantly different slots than their average draft position would suggest. This is a feature, not a bug.
Remember: This is the perfect draft based on our 2021 projections, so some players will have more or less projected value than the public perceives. Use this to your advantage.
The picture of perfection in the draft grids below 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.
Before we get into specifics about the perfect draft it is worth noting how balanced the teams are through the first seven rounds, which are typically earmarked to selecting your starting roster spots. The team drafting first has the ability to stockpile a sizable WAR advantage by virtue of selecting the top running back. But as you can see, the No. 6 pick, which is a top wideout, also carries significant value and encapsulates the benefit of using this type of drafting system. Same for the No. 8 spot in which the top tight end, rather than a second-tier running back, is the right play.
There are some challenges toward the later part of the draft (picks 10, 11 and 12) because of the drop-off at key positions. Still, that can be offset by prioritizing upside later in the draft rather than going with players with low ceilings, such as those who are beyond their prime or have little chance of seizing a starting role.
The first round will be heavy on running backs, starting with Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers. McCaffrey was the top running back in 2019 and produced the second-best PPR season by a running back in NFL history. Last year, he was limited to three games because of injury but, when he was on the field, added 374 yards and six touchdowns, a stunning contribution to any fantasy campaign. After him it should be Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott to be selected over the next three picks. Other running backs sure to go in the first round are Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley and Austin Ekeler.
Ekeler isn’t a household name like the other players mentioned but he averaged almost 20 opportunities per game (rushes plus targets) with Justin Herbert under center over 10 games played. His last full season, 2019, saw him compile 1,550 yards from scrimmage with 11 touchdowns.
A preseason injury has already removed one viable running back from the ranks. Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Travis Etienne suffered a Lisfranc injury during a preseason game and was placed on the injured reserve, ending his season. The team will turn to to James Robinson and veteran Carlos Hyde for most of the work in the backfield.
Players at other positions warranting a selection in the first round are tight end Travis Kelce and wide receivers Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins. Grabbing a tight end so early might seem scary, but Kelce broke the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season last year (1,416 yards) and is a favorite target of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, both in and out of the red zone (team high 25 and 24 percent of targets, respectively).
Diggs is coming off a season in which he led the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535). Plus, according to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception research, which dates back to 2014, Diggs established the highest success rate against man coverage last season (83 percent) and joined Antonio Brown (2016 and 2017) as the only two receivers to post multiple seasons with an above-average success rate on every route type over the past seven years.
Here are the other key takeaways from the year’s perfect draft:
There is a steep drop-off among running backs. Grab them early and often.
A few years ago the Zero RB strategy, which advocated waiting on the position until Round 5 or later in an effort to stock up on more lucrative positions like wide receiver and tight end, caught the eyes of many fantasy football participants. Unfortunately, the time for employing this strategy has passed. Instead, you are going to want to grab at least two running backs in the first three rounds and perhaps as many as three before you start to focus on the other positions in earnest. The reason is simple: There aren’t enough quality running backs to go around.
The ranks are even thinner after the injuries to Etienne, the Jaguars rookie, and Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins. According to the latest data from thousands of fantasy football mock drafts audited by Fantasy Football Calculator, the 24 starting running back roster spots in a 12-team league are expected to be filled by Round 4. And that doesn’t include any flex roster slots. If you opt instead for pass catchers like Hill, Adams or Kelce in the first round, then you must follow those up with two running backs. If not, you will be relying on an injury or benching to elevate a later-round running back to starter status. Alternatively, you could be fighting with the rest of the league for a key waiver wire pickup.
In terms of wins above replacement, those RBs worth one win or more will be dwindling by Round 8, when fantasy players should target Damien Harris, James Robinson, Melvin Gordon, Raheem Mostert or Ronald Jones. By Round 10, there probably won’t be any running backs projected to produce above a replacement level player at the position. That doesn’t mean you can’t target running backs with upside, just know there will need to be some element of luck and good fortune involved to make them pan out.
The Zero RB strategy might be right if you are drafting at No. 6 or No. 7
After the first five running backs are taken, it becomes a decision between Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, Adams, Hill and perhaps Kelce. It makes sense to go with one of the best players at the position (Hill, Adams or Kelce) rather than a second-tier running back. In the second round, the running back position is going to be even thinner, leaving you with the choice between a rusher in a committee or a second-tier wideout such as A.J. Brown or CeeDee Lamb. Again, go with the higher-tier player.
And in the third round, since you have already punted on the running back position, go ahead and get the best possible flex player, which will probably be another receiver. If this is your path, you obviously have to grab running backs with upside throughout the rest of the draft.
There’s plenty of value among quarterbacks in the middle rounds
Mahomes will be, at worst, a second-round pick. Josh Allen will go a round later and then Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson shortly after them. All four have their merits and, depending on how the draft flows, all are decent values in those spots. However, don’t be shy about waiting until Rounds 6 and 7 to nab your first quarterback. Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Tom Brady and Herbert should all be available around that time and each is perfectly capable of slotting in as your quarterback for the entire fantasy season.
Tannehill might go overlooked in many drafts despite flourishing for the Tennessee Titans since assuming the starter role in 2019. Over the past two seasons, Tannehill has produced the most yards per pass attempt (8.6) and the second-highest passer rating (110.6) in the NFL. This year, he has seven-time Pro Bowl wideout Julio Jones to throw to in addition to A.J. Brown, giving Tennessee two of the best receivers in the NFL. Brown averaged 2.7 yards per route run in 2020, the third-highest mark in the NFL, and Jones was right behind him at 2.6 yards per route run.
If you miss out on one of the top two tight ends, punt on the position until later in the draft
Kelce is a late first-round or early second-round pick and Darren Waller is right behind him (yes, really), so that takes two of the best tight ends off the board early. Then, there isn’t much separation between George Kittle (3.04 average draft position), rookie Kyle Pitts (4.05 ADP), Mark Andrews (5.05 ADP) or T.J. Hockenson (5.06 ADP), who are projected to be chosen one per round over Rounds 3 to 5. Dallas Goedert, Noah Fant, Logan Thomas and Robert Tonyan are expected to provide similar production and should be available in Rounds 6 through 11.