A solid draft isn’t essential to winning your fantasy league, but it’s easier to win a trophy if your roster starts off strong. 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. We also explain the methodology below. (Don’t forget to look at our Perfect Draft, which extends through the later rounds, and our comprehensive fantasy cheat sheet.)

Note: 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 availability percentages change with new mock drafts. The percentages listed are as of Aug. 26.

Pick 1 (1st, 24th and 25th picks)

Positions to target: RB/RB/WR

You’re going to want to draft the best running back available and that means selecting Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey is coming off an injury (he played three games last season) but all signs point to him being healthy, and Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said McCaffrey’s injuries from last season shouldn’t affect his 2021 workload. McCaffery has averaged 16 carries and eight targets per game over the past three seasons.

A running back will be the target in the second round, too. Look for Chris Carson of the Seahawks or Detroit’s D’Andre Swift.

Swift dealt with injuries last season but he still managed 114 carries for 521 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns on rushing plays and caught 46 of 57 targets for 357 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns out of the backfield as a rookie over 13 games. Plus, Detroit’s new offensive coordinator, Anthony Lynn, loves to incorporate running backs into his offense.

In the third round, focus on the wide receivers, specifically Terry McLaurin or Allen Robinson. McLaurin topped the 1,000-yard mark in his second season as a pro and ranked in the 90th percentile or better for his success against man and press coverage, per data from Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception project.

Pick 2 (2nd, 23rd and 26th)


McCaffrey is likely gone so Dalvin Cook is the next best option. Cook set career highs in carries (312), yards from scrimmage (1,918) and total touchdowns (17) last season, plus he and the Minnesota Vikings will face one of the easiest schedules for running backs, starting with Game 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Carson and Swift are on deck for Round 2. Carson has injury concerns but the 26-year-old has finished as one of the top 12 running backs 15 times out of 41 total games. He also averaged 1.3 fantasy points per attempt last season, the fourth-best rate among running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts in 2020. Plus, Chad Morton, Seattle’s running backs coach, told The Athletic the team plans on using Carson for a majority of the rushing work.

McLaurin and Robinson remain the best bets for Round 3. Robinson added a fourth season in which he saw at least 150 targets and had his first with at least 100 receptions.

Pick 3 (3rd, 22nd and 27th)


The third best running back after McCaffrey and Cook is Alvin Kamara. Kamara saw 294 opportunities with the football (carries and targets) last season and led the league in total touchdowns (21). That could increase with teammate Michael Thomas out indefinitely with a torn deltoid and other injured ligaments in his ankle.

Next you want tight end (yes, really) Darren Waller. Why? The positional advantage you’ll get from Waller (or Travis Kelce if he’s somehow available) makes the early pick on a position normally drafted much later worthwhile. According to our wins above replacement metric, Waller is expected to be worth 5.6 WAR in 2021, on par with Aaron Jones (5.6) and Nick Chubb (5.5). Waller also spent 35 percent of his snaps as either a slot receiver or wide out last season and caught 107 of 145 passes target to him for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also targeted on a third of his team’s red-zone pass attempts, the largest share among tight ends in 2020.

If Waller is not available, then reach up for McLaurin but absolutely follow that pick up with a running back, preferably James Robinson. Robinson moved up draft boards after the injury to Travis Etienne and is now at the top of the depth chart for the Jaguars. He might not get 261 snaps like he did last season with Carolos Hyde in the mix but when he was given the ball he managed 3.2 yards per carry after contact, the sixth-most yards at the position.

Pick 4 (4th, 21st and 28th)


McCaffrey, Cook and Kamara probably went in the first three picks, leaving Ezekiel Elliott as the best available running back. The consensus pick in this spot leans towards Derick Henry but it is hard to look past Elliott’s volume and productivity. He’s averaged 23 touches per game since his rookie year in 2016 and has the most fantasy points scored in point-per-reception leagues since that time.

It’s possible Joe Mixon is here in Round 2. If so, don’t hesitate to snag him. Mixon has averaged 1,091 total yards and 6.3 touchdowns per season since entering the league and Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said “I don’t want Mixon to leave the field, and I think he’s up for that” in May. If Mixon isn’t available go with Najee Harris.

Comparables for Harris, according to Pro Football Focus, include Trent Richardson, Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette and Eddie Lacy, four players who topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage with at least 10 total touchdowns as rookies.

In Round 3 look for running backs David Montgomery, Carson or Swift. If neither of those three are available, take wideout McLaurin or Robinson.

Pick 5 (5th, 20th and 29th)


Running backs are still the pick in the first round and Elliott might be lingering (23 percent chance he’ll be available). If so, that’s good news for you. If he isn’t, the consolation prize is Henry or Austin Ekeler.

Either one is a solid choice but they each have their own risks. Henry led the league in carries (378), rushing yards (2,027) and rushing touchdowns (17) but those carries are a concern. Since 2002, there have been nine running backs aside from Henry to rush the ball 370 or more times in a season. Just two, LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, managed to score 10 or more rushing touchdowns the following season. Tomlinson and Jamal Lewis were the only two out of the nine that topped 1,000 rushing yards. Seven of the nine played 13 games or fewer the following season.

Running backs from 2002 to 2020
Year of 370 carries
Following season
Average games played
Average carries
Average rushing yards
Average rushing touchdowns

Ekeler, meanwhile, missed six games during the 2020 campaign due to lower-body injuries yet has averaged 1,137 total yards and seven total touchdowns per 16 games played from 2017 to 2020 and the team is playing it safe with him during the preseason.

Mixon would be perfect complements to whichever running back you choose in Round 1 and if tight end George Kittle is still available in Round 3 (57 percent chance), go ahead and take him. If not, add a top wide out in McLaurin or Robinson.

Pick 6 (6th, 19th and 30th)


This is one of the toughest spots of the draft. The top running backs are likely gone, leaving you with a choice to go with a second-tier player at the position like Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb or one of the top player at their position like wide receiver Davante Adams or tight end Travis Kelce.

My advice is to go with one of the top players, with a slight lean toward Kelce over Adams. Kelce is a pass-catching machine who averaged over 20 fantasy points per game last season. Adams is perhaps the most dependable wide out in fantasy football, having finished as a Top 12 option at the position in 22 of his last 41 games.

There will be plenty of value receivers later in the draft, so it is imperative you take a running back with your next two picks. Mixon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Swift are all viable candidates and you can pair one of them with the Jaguars’ Robinson in the third round. Swift may also be available in Round 3, so keep an eye out for him, too.

Pick 7 (7th, 18th and 31st)


Get the best Tier 2 running back in Jones or Chubb and then follow up with a tight end, either Darren Waller or Kittle in the second round. Waller, a wide receiver at Georgia Tech, had five games of 100 receiving yards or more last season and 22 red-zone targets, the second-most among all players in 2020.

Kittle is an injury risk but when he is on the field he dominates at his position. He could also get luckier in the red zone with a quarterback change. According to Pro Football Focus, Kittle was targeted in the end zone nine times last season but only two of those passes were catchable. He has seen six targets within four yards of the goal line and none of them were deemed catchable by PFF’s game charters. If that reverses in any meaningful way, Kittle could be primed for a huge year of touchdowns in 2021.

In Round 3, make sure you get another running back. Target either Carson or Swift.

Pick 8 (8th, 17th and 32nd)


This is another tough spot in the draft, but on the bright side it opens up possibilities in Round 3. The top-flight running backs are gone and it’s possible Adams (35 percent chance) and Kelce (70 percent chance) are gone, too. If Ekeler is still available (94 percent chance) then he makes the most sense, as I advocated for him to go as high as fifth.

For the second round, look again at your lists of running backs. Edwards-Helaire and Mixon make the most sense with Allen Robinson (79 percent chance he is still available) a great starter at wide receiver for your roster. If Robinson is not available, pivot to Montgomery, a running back, or rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.

Pitts currently has an average draft value of 4.06, making him a fourth-round pick, however, Pitts was consistently a mismatch for the defense during his time at Florida and is worthy of a reach, especially without any strong running backs left to ponder over. The Philadelphia native lined up at the line of scrimmage, in the slot and out toward the boundary, averaging 4.9 yards per route run versus man coverage in his final year in college per Pro Football Focus.

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith is also good at creating opportunities for his tight ends. In his two years as offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans, tight end Jonnu Smith saw 3.5 targets per game (average is 2.8 for the position over that span) and 21 percent of the red-zone targets. Only fellow tight ends Kelce, Waller, Andrews and Higbee saw a higher share of work inside the 20-yard line.

Pick 9 (9th, 16th and 33rd)


There is a good chance (86 percent) Ekeler is still available this late in the draft which would make this pick easy. If another reader of this article snatched him up, go with Aaron Jones or Saquon Barkley, with the understanding Barkley comes with some injury risk. He missed three games with a high ankle sprain in 2019 and then suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in Week 2 the following year, which ruled him out for the season. Luckily there have been no significant setbacks reported and the recent release of Albert Morris could be interpreted as the Giants not feeling the need for a veteran presence as a backup.

In the second round it’s running back time again. Pick either Antonio Gibson, Edwards-Helaire or Mixon. In the third round go with a running back again if Mike Davis or Miles Sanders is available. If stocking up on three running backs at the start makes you uncomfortable you could also look for a wide receiver. Amari Cooper, Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans and Julio Jones should all be available at this point. And remember Jones, who finished finished fourth in yards per route run (2.60), is with Tennessee now, catching balls from quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Pick 10 (10th, 15th and 34th)


The running back ranks will be thin so it is time to switch the focus to a wide receiver, taking Tyreek Hill or Stefon Diggs.

Hill caught 87 of 135 passes for 1,276 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, averaging 21.1 points per game in PPR leagues last year, making him the second-best performer at the position. Eight of those 15 touchdowns were on deep passes of 20 yards or more, an enticing reward if your league awards bonus points for touchdown yardage. Diggs isn’t as flashy but he is a very dependable and consistent fantasy producer. The former Maryland Terrapin has topped 1,000 yards receiving for three straight years and set a career high in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535) in 2020.

In the next two rounds you have to find a running back. Gibson, Edwards-Helaire and Mixon are your second-round targets and the Falcons’ Mike Davis and the Browns’ Kareem Hunt are viable options in Round 3. Davis is intriguing considering he played 60 percent of the offense’s snaps in all but three of his 12 starts last season, resulting in 1,015 total yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns.

Pick 11 (11th, 14th and 35th)


I’d start filling the roster with either Hill or Diggs. In the second round, go with a running back, either Najee Harris, Gibson or Edwards-Helaire, in that order. Harris, a rookie for the Pittsburgh Steelers, doubled his rushing touchdown total at Alabama from 13 in 2019 to 26 in 2020 and has the catch radius plus pass-blocking ability that will help him stay on the field for three downs.

In Round 3 you will be looking for another running back. You could go with Myles Gaskin, who lost some ground in the preseason to Malcolm Brown, or Mike Davis.

Pick 12 (12th, 13th and 36th)


Drafting at the turn has both benefits and drawbacks. You won’t get a game-changer like McCaffrey drafting this far down but you will end up with a solid running back like Gibson and a top-tier wide receiver like DeAndre Hopkins. The three-time all-pro was targeted 160 times last season and caught 115 of them for 1,407 yards and six touchdowns. It was his sixth straight season with at least 150 targets despite playing for two different teams; no other receiver has more than four such seasons over that span.

Your third pick is a tough one. Hopefully there is a viable running back to add to your roster. Someone like Miles Sanders (76 percent chance) would make sense here. Sanders got a team-high 40 percent of Philadelphia’s red-zone carries last season including more than half (59 percent) of the rushes inside the five-yard line.