When it comes to approaching your fantasy football draft strategy, everyone loves to discuss first-round picks. Who should be taken at 1.01? I draft ninth, who should I choose? The reality is, you’re not going to win your league in the first round. These players are first-round picks for a reason. Most of them at least.
You shouldn’t be looking for the home run in the first round. Instead, you should be looking for safety. Look for someone who will not lose your league for you. It is tough to whiff on a first-round pick. Doing so, however, will have you drawing dead far sooner than you realize.
First-round picks are also crucial for, what I find, is an under-discussed reason: it dictates the rest of your draft strategy. The first few rounds should be spent targetting “safe,” low-risk players who will not lose your league for you. The players you pick are important, but so is your roster construction.
In the first four rounds, I like to walk away with at least two running backs and two wide receivers. The bell-cow running back is a dying breed in today’s NFL. While they don’t matter all that much in the real game, their volume is unmatched in fantasy football. Volume reigns over all else, which is why you want your running backs early.
Every draft is different, and you need to be able to react to every draft individually. Optimally, though, I’m looking at two running backs in the first four rounds. With that general draft strategy rant out of the way, let’s get specific. Here is the draft strategy I like to employ when drafting between picks one and four.
**ADP is based on fantasydata.com
With all of the news we received on Saturday, changes had to be made for the players impacted.
The biggest news involved the Kansas City Chiefs acquiring LeSean McCoy. Our own Jason Sarney wrote a quick reaction piece this morning. McCoy will make $3 million guaranteed, while Damien Williams is making $1.7 million. It is not suitable for Williams, who now can not be considered in the late second or early third. McCoy will command some workload in the Chiefs backfield. I see this as a running back by committee scenario. Williams should theoretically get most of the passing down work, while McCoy figures to be used on early downs and could still garner some targets as well.
I wouldn’t take Williams as anything higher than middle to low-end RB2, and that may not be low enough. It puts a little more emphasis on taking an RB in the 1st round, in my opinion. I know McCoy had a bad 2018, but that was with a Buffalo Bills team that isn’t nearly as offensively inclined as the Chiefs will be.
As for McCoy, he is worthy of a high-end RB3 share, in my opinion, with a possibility for more. You will probably be able to get him at a value as people will be slow to react to the news. If he gets the early-down work in Kansas City, he should definitely be on your radar.
Regarding Darwin Thompson, you can remove him from the tier I had him in before. He is nothing more than a late-round stash now, who will need an injury to either Williams or McCoy to have fantasy relevance.
The McCoy departure gives a little bit of clarity, but it most likely will still be an RBBC. Frank Gore never seems to die, while T.J. Yeldon figures to handle passing-down work and potentially goal line carries as well. I wouldn’t overreact and draft Devin Singletary as the Bills RB1. That isn’t likely to be the case. It’s a situation I’m staying away from myself.
I don’t think the acquisition of Carlos Hyde will affect Duke Johnson all that much. My guess is the Texans just wanted a veteran body in the backfield to back up Duke. He might see some early-down work, but Johnson is still the back to own in Houston. I stand by my assessment of him that you’ll see below.
Kenny Stills was also on the move yesterday. He joins what is now a loaded receiving corps in Houston. I think the impact on Will Fuller and Deandre Hopkins is minimal, if at all. Who it hurts is KeKe Coutee. Still played 32% of his snaps from the slot lat season, while Coutee played in the slot 73% of the time. It seems like Houston wanted insurance for Coutee, who is already dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out in week 1.
Coutee was more productive in the slots according to PFF’s yards per route run metric. Coutee averaged 1.88 YPRR from the slot, while Still averaged 0.88 YPRR.
I think both have WR4/5 appeal, though I could see a scenario where they cut into each other’s workload. To start, I would favor Stills seeing as he is healthy. Either player will make for an interesting Daily Fantasy tournament dart if the other does not play that week. Still has been added to the list of late-round targets at the bottom.
Draft Strategy Round 1
The case for Johnson
Landing a top-four pick means you get to start off with one of the premier bell-cow running backs in the league. Many don’t consider David Johnson to be part of that group, but I think he has no reason not to be included. Early in July, I wrote an article detailing why Saquon Barkley should not be the 1.01. In that article is the table below.
He was fourth in the NFL in snap percentage last season. Despite a decrypt offense, he finished as the RB10 according to Pro Football Reference. People are way too scared of the new Kliff Kingsbury offense. Johnson is a premier bell-cow and is worthy of being mentioned as such.
My order for the top four RB’s has since changed, however. It goes as follows.
I moved Ezekiel Elliott out of the top five due to the holdout and emergence of Tony Pollard. I am low on Kamara because his snap share limits his projected volume. Sean Payton does not want Kamara to be an every-down player if he can help it.
Is Elliott worth the risk?
If Zeke were to fall to you, I would advise against drafting him. I have had a gut feeling since his holdout started that he would not miss a game this season. It is just a gut feeling, but it is backed up by Jay Glazer’s most recent article at the Athletic. Glazer was all over the Beckham trade before it happened, and was wary of the Andrew Luck situation as well. It is good news to see he thinks Elliott won’t miss a significant amount of time.
That being said, there is a chance he does miss significant time due to the holdout. Late Thursday night, Jerry Jones mentioned he is accepting that the Cowboys will play some games without Elliott. I guess my gut was wrong.
I talked about avoiding risk in the early rounds, and not drafting Elliott is a prime example of that. There are plenty of worthy first-round picks in this range that we know will be on the field week one.
If you’re fine taking that risk, go right ahead. I advise against it myself.
Draft Strategy Rounds 2 and 3
Early in the summer, this was the preferred draft spot due to the plethora of receiving options available at the 2/3 turn. Now, however, those options have somewhat dried up. According to Fantasy Data’s ADP, you’d be looking at Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Adam Thielen, Keenan Allen, George Kittle, and Stefon Diggs. Travis Kelce would be a snap pick if he were to fall.
I listed Evans, but he has been going near the back end of the first/middle of the second recently. If he were to fall to you, I would snap pick him here. Allen would be fine, but he is dealing with an ankle injury. While it is not expected to keep him out of week one, it is still an issue worthy of noting when considering spending a late second or early third-round pick on him.
Antonio Brown is laughably untouchable for me. I don’t want that headache on my fantasy squad. He scored fifteen touchdowns last season from Ben Roethlisberger, a figure he will not repeat. The target volume will be there, but the scoring won’t and the quality of targets will also dip due to the shift in QB. One last factor to consider for the Oakland Raiders is their brutal schedule. This team has a legitimate chance to start 0-7. Do you want an 0-7 Brown, catching passes from Derek Carr on your fantasy squad? Neither do I.
I’m low on both Thielen and Diggs this year. Mike Zimmer fired John DeFilippo because he passed too much. The offense will belong to Dalvin Cook this year, for better or for worse. I would not be surprised if both receivers fail to meet ADP. If I HAD to choose one for my squad, it would be Diggs, however.
Thielen was less efficient when playing on the boundary compared to when he played in the slot last season. The Minnesota Vikings personnel dictates they run more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE’s) this year, which would mean fewer slot snaps for Thielen.
From the above names, that leaves us with Kittle. I avoided the top-three tight ends in drafts this summer, but given the current landscape of this range, Kittle is probably the safest option. He is due for regression in the yards after catch department, but should also see positive regression in touchdowns. Kittle is the San Francisco 49ers’ clear cut top target and is worthy of this draft position.
Amari Cooper is slightly outside of this ADP range, but I am fine reaching for him here. He does have plantar fasciitis, but from what I have read, it is more of an annoyance and just a matter of playing through a little pain.
I did actually take Chris Godwin at 3.6 in a draft this summer. I knew he wouldn’t make it back to me and did not like any of the other receiving options. It was a reach, I know, but I believe he finishes as a top ten WR this year. I paid for his ceiling, but am confident I get that in return.
While the receivers are filled with question marks and guys I’m low on, the RB’s in this range are very lucrative. Damien Williams, Leonard Fournette, Devonta Freeman, Aaron Jones, and Kerryon Johnson are all acceptable as your RB2. I have Johnson as the lowest of that group because of Matt Patricia but am not totally opposed to having him as your RB2. I would rank them as follows:
After assessing all of the players in this range, I would prefer to walk away with one RB and Kittle. However, if you aren’t sold on the WR’s and miss out on Kittle, starting with three RB’s isn’t the worst. You will need to pound WR in the next several rounds, but I think it is not the worst draft strategy to employ, given the lack of attractive receivers in this range.
Targets: Pass-catchers Evans, Brown, Thielen, Allen, Kelce (if he falls), Kittle, Diggs, Cooper, Godwin
RB Williams, Fournette, Freeman, Jones, Johnson
Rounds 4 and 5
Up to this point, my optimal draft strategy would be to have two RB’s and either Kittle or a WR. If you followed that path, I would ignore RB for the next few rounds and stock up on some WR’s and draft a TE if you haven’t already.
If Kelce did not fall to you, and you did not opt to draft Kittle, I am snapping up O.J. Howard, in this range, even if Zach Ertz is there. Howard will be the third option on one of the pass heaviest offenses in the league. What’s more, they face the easiest schedule of passing defenses, according to Warren Sharp.
One player that figures to be available here is Tyler Lockett. The Seattle Seahawks defense is going to be terrible, and Lockett has the best rapport with Russell Wilson. I was down on the Seahawks offense to start the draft season, but have since come around. Lockett is a tremendous grab as your WR2.
A few names slightly outside this range that I would target include Calvin Ridley and Tyler Boyd. I am not interested in Kenny Golladay as anything more than my WR3 due to the Matt Patricia effect, while Cooper Kupp‘s ACL still worries me some. That said, I could be wrong about his injury, and he could be just fine. I have shied away myself in drafts thus far.
Starting triple RB
If you opted to start with three RB’s, you’re taking two pass catchers here. Lockett is my top target assuming Godwin and the Los Angeles Rams’ receivers are not available. The absolute ideal situation would be to land a Rams receiver and Lockett. Not very likely, but it would be a tremendous start.
If none of those players are available, you have to reach for some receivers. If Lockett and the trio above are gone, I’m taking Ridley or Boyd in the fourth and fifth. If your site has D.J. Moore in this ADP range, I would be fine taking him here as well.
Hilton, Golladay, Kupp
According to Fantasy Data, Golladay, Kupp and T.Y. Hilton are all in this range. I would rank those three as Hilton, Kupp, and Golladay.
Hilton projects to get the most volume of the group with the highest upside week to week. He was very “boom or bust” when Jacoby Brissett started in 2017. I think there has been an overcorrection with Hilton in the wake of the Andrew Luck retirement.
I came into the offseason not trusting Kupp’s ACL. He is on the best offense of this group but seems overly reliant on touchdowns to meet value. Additionally, I heard on Colin Cowherd’s radio show the other day that the Rams want to experience with less 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WR’s) this year. While Kupp is Jared Goff‘s favorite target, he could be the one to lose snaps in that scenario. I don’t feel comfortable taking him as my WR1 or WR2, but your hand is forced here if you started with three RB’s.
I see Golladay as the best receiver of the three, but his situation with Matt Patricia is beyond terrible. This is the ugly aspect of drafting three RB’s to start: your WR’s will not look pretty. You can work through it with matchups, but I like to keep things as simple as possible. Having any one of this group as your WR1 is not simple.
I’ll start off with the elephant in the room: Melvin Gordon.
I have no idea when Gordon will return from his holdout. He is dead set on getting paid, while the Los Angeles Chargers have historically been a cheap franchise. I don’t see an end to his holdout coming any time soon.
Having preached safety in the opener, I can’t recommend drafting him. He will most likely miss the first half of the season, and I am willing to bet you need that roster spot sooner rather than later. It is a high upside stash, but one which is uncomfortable for me.
Draft him at your own risk. I am advising against it.
Rest of the bunch
If you’re a maniac and did not take a second RB at the 2/3 turn, your choices in this range are bleak. I am not a fan of Derrick Henry this year. It is a low volume offense, he does not catch passes, and his QB situation leaves a lot to be desired. I am not buying in on a late-season flash when he did absolutely nothing the first twelve or so weeks of the season. I think he is barely okay as an RB2, but I am not excited to pull the trigger.
Marlon Mack‘s stock has taken a hit with the Luck retirement, primarily due to a lower touchdown expectation. I expect him to get the same snap share, but his overall snaps played will be lower. You could do worse for your RB2, however.
James White is the other name in this range. At this point, I would wait until the next round of picks to select a running back. A majority of White’s production last year came when Sony Michel was unavailable. As long as Michel is healthy, White will be a match up based flex option week to week.
One last option in this range is Phillip Lindsay. I share the same sentiment with Lindsay as I do White: at this point, I would wait until the next round of picks to select an RB. Lindsay is not built to carry the workload he had last season. I think the Denver Broncos want to scale his workload back to preserve his body and use him in a role which better suits him. It’s a pass for me on Lindsay.
Targets: TE Howard
WR Woods, Cooks, Godwin, Lockett, Ridley, Boyd, Golladay, Kupp, Hilton
RB Mack, Henry
Rounds 6 and 7
My optimal draft strategy up to this point would be to have two RB’s, two WR’s and a TE. If that is the case, you can go almost anywhere you want with these two picks.
My top RB target in this range is Latavius Murray. He has value regardless of Kamara’s status. Should Kamara suffer an injury, however, he will receive a significant uptick in his opportunity share. He will probably fall just short of a bell-cow, but it would be more than enough to smash his ADP.
Other than Murray, RB is pretty barren here. If Miles Sanders is still here, snatch him up, but his ADP has risen to the fifth round recently.
Austin Ekeler is a realistic target in this range. The Gordon situation looks bleak, and I think Ekeler receives the largest opportunity share in Los Angeles in games Gordon does not play. He is a fine RB2 and solid RB3.
Derrius Guice is intriguing as a potential bell-cow in the seventh round. I would shy away, but understand the appeal in taking him here.
Unlike the RB’s, WR is pretty deep in this range. D.J. Moore, Dede Westbrook, Robby Anderson, and Alshon Jeffery all figure to be available according to Fantasy Data’s ADP. Allen Robinson and Will Fuller are just outside of this ADP range, but I like taking either player in this range. If any of these wideouts end up as your WR3, you’re in great shape.
Robinson is my favorite player in this group, for a multitude of reasons.
- He is entering his prime at age 26.
- The Chicago Bears face the seventh easiest schedule of passing defenses according to Warren Sharp
- He has a full year with Mitchell Trubisky and in Matt Nagy’s system
- He is a full year removed from his ACL injury
I would prioritize Robinson over all of the WR’s I listed above. It is a close call between him and Moore, but I would lean Robinson in that case as well.
Anderson faces a rough schedule of opposing cornerbacks to start the year. That may be diving a bit too deep, but is helpful as a tie-breaker at the least.
Westbrook has a lot of appeal as someone who could smash his ADP. Nick Foles is back with his quarterback’s coach from Philadelphia, John DeFilippo. The offensive line is improved, which will help Foles and the passing game as well. I think a 25% target share for Westbrook is a reasonable projection, which is high for a player in this range.
You want some pieces of the Houston Texans offense, and Fuller provides that at a relatively cheap cost. He has been hyper-efficient with Deshaun Watson thus far in his career. While those number typically regress, some players are just outliers. Fuller, as your WR3, is a great spot to be.
A.J. Green is a name you will encounter somewhere in this range. I am not of a fan of drafting players who are already injured, as they are likely not to get healthier as the year goes on. Green is over 30 and had a severe ankle injury. They “hope” to get him in time for the first half of the season. That is a wide range to project.
Sorry if it is annoying, but I advise against drafting him. If you do, know the risk you’re taking.
Optimally, your fantasy football draft strategy led you to take either Kittle in round two or Howard in rounds 4/5. If you find yourself without a TE up to this point, Jared Cook figures to be available. Michael Thomas and Kamara are the clear top two targets in New Orleans, but a third target has not been established. I see no reason why Cook can’t be that guy. I don’t expect him to replicate last year’s season in Oakland where he was a target hog. I am okay with him being my TE1, however.
Vance McDonald is fine to reach for in this range, but I would rather see if he falls to the next round of picks. David Njoku is my last target for a TE1. However, same as McDonald, I would rather wait and see if he is there with my next pair of selections.
Targets: RB Ekeler, Sanders, Murray, Guice
WR Robinson, Fuller, Moore, Westbrook, Anderson, Jeffrey
TE Cook, McDonald, Njoku
Rounds 8, 9 and 10
This range is the earliest I would consider drafting a quarterback. Late round QB is a proven winning draft strategy. The QB position is so deep this year that there is absolutely no reason to take a QB early. I happily pass on Patrick Mahomes in the third because it is the most replaceable position when it comes to fantasy scoring. The founder of late-round QB, J.J. Zachariason, defines the strategy as extracting value out of the QB position, not necessarily waiting until a particular round or being the last person to draft a QB.
Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan would be my preferred targets if they are still here, but again, I would rather wait. Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are the other two QB’s who project to be available at the 8/9 turn. Jameis Winston and Lamar Jackson would be a reach in this range but should be available in the 10th. They are my preferred QB’s this season.
If you did not pull the trigger on Cook last round and still need a tight end, McDonald and Njoku are suitable targets as your TE1 in this range. Austin Hooper would be your final target for a suitable TE1, but he would be a reach in rounds 8/9.
My preferred draft strategy is stockpiling RB’s and WR’s. If Christian Kirk is available here, snatch him up. Sammy Watkins, Sterling Shepard, Geronimo Allison, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are other targets to consider to bolster your WR depth.
Shephard is intriguing here. He will be the top wideout for the New York Giants, though he has to prove he can play outside. As your potential WR4, it is a risk worth taking, in my opinion.
Watkins is an excellent value as the WR2 in Kansas City. He should probably be going a round or two sooner, so feel confident in taking him in this range.
I am not as high on the Green Bay Packers duo of second-tier receivers. My preferred option is Scantling, but I am lower on the Packers’ passing attack than most. That said, as your WR4, they are acceptable.
Pettis, Davis, Jackson
Dante Pettis, Corey Davis and Desean Jackson should be available in the 10th. There is one name I would prefer over all three, and that is Michael Gallup. Gallup’s ADP hasn’t made sense all offseason. He is still being under drafted as the number two in the Dallas Cowboys’ offense. Kellen Moore will bring a new innovative look to the team, and with Zeke now expected to miss some games, the offense could become more pass-happy.
Davis is attractive due to his target share from last year. He was one of few players to hit the 30% range.
Pettis’ stock has taken a huge dip in the midst of his preseason struggles and up and down training camp. I still think he is the top WR in San Francisco, which would make him Garoppolo’s second target. I like the discount you get with him now. He still has the tools to be a productive WR1 in this league.
Jackson is a pain to roster every week, but he remains arguably the best deep threat in the league. He will provide spike weeks that single-handedly win you your match up. Singling them out will be difficult, however.
As for running backs, there is one final tier I will touch on.
**Thompson has been removed in light of the McCoy acquisition.
Hill projects to be the primary target out of the backfield for what should be one of the run-heavier offenses in the league. The Baltimore Ravens unique offense will keep Hill on the field, even though he is not the primary ball carrier. It is also feasible to see the rookie earn more carries as the year goes on once they realize how much more explosive he is in comparison to Mark Ingram.
Matt Breida is arguably a better talent than Coleman. While I think Coleman is an okay pick, I would rather have the discount on Breida. I think this will be a 60-40 timeshare between the two, favoring Coleman to start. However, it would not surprise me in the least to see Breida get more touches as the season goes on. Considering the passing options in San Francisco, outside of Kittle, the 49ers could support two fantasy viable running backs.
Pollard is the most intriguing of the bunch. He has been compared to Alvin Kamara by himself, Stephen Jones and several fantasy football analysts. That said, the comparisons are well deserved. Cowboys Hall of Famer Gil Brandt thinks the rookie will play a significant role in the offense, regardless if Elliott is playing or not. I think Pollard has stand-alone value, with league-winning potential should Elliott miss substantial time. It is why I have Elliott ranked fifth of the top tier RB’s, even if he had signed yesterday.
Royce Freeman has not been mentioned with the above running backs, but he too is a value in this range. I think the Denver Broncos want to make Freeman their primary RB and limit Phillip Lindsay‘s snaps.
Try to leave with one
I would try to leave my draft with one of the five running backs mentioned above. I am not as high on Thompson as the other three have stand-alone value without an injury, but he is a potential league winner should Williams suffer an injury. Be sure to check your site’s ADP before taking one of these backs in the eighth or ninth round. For example, Hill’s ADP on Fantasy Data is 130.6. I mentioned these four together because I think they belong in this range. If you can get them at a discount, however, that is the draft strategy you should employ.
Targets: QB Wentz, Ryan, Wilson, Newton, Winston, Jackson
TE McDonald, Njoku, Hooper
WR Kirk, Watkins, Shephard, Gallup, Davis, Pettis, Scantling, Allison, Jackson
RB Pollard, Breida, Hill, Freeman, Thompson
Late-round draft strategy
Your draft strategy should conclude with drafting as many high upside players as you can get. That is why I preached safety in the early rounds so that we can take those homerun swings with our late-round picks.
You will want a QB at some point if you haven’t taken one yet. Dak Prescott is the preferred target if you have waited this long. He has finished as a QB1 each of his first three years, and now has a full year with Cooper, Gallup, his starting center returning and a new, innovative offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore.
One last note regarding tight end draft strategy: If you missed out on all of the above targets, I would employ the “bridge to Herndon” strategy suggested by Evan Silva. You draft a late-round, stop-gap tight end to get you through the first five weeks while Chris Herndon serves his suspension. This involves drafting and stashing Herndon as well. It is a way to have year-long upside at the TE position, even if you miss out on the above targets.
One final note I would like to add: don’t draft a kicker or defense if your league doesn’t require it. Use those roster spots on some high upside handcuffs instead. You would just have to add a kicker and defense before the games lock on Sunday.
Rest of draft targets: Anthony Miller, Jamison Crowder, Keke Coutee, Mecole Hardman, Mark Andrews, Damien Harris, Ito Smith, Chase Edmonds, Miles Boykin, DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson, Kenny Stills, Robert Foster, Rashard Higgins, Dare Ogunbowale, Darren Waller
James Aguirre is a writer for the Pro Football Network covering Gambling and Fantasy Football. James is also featured on the Against the Spread podcast for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @PFN_James.