The Fantasy Football Draft Guide

09/01/2017
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No day in the fantasy football season is as important as draft day. It’s at the draft that you can set yourself up for either a fun, lucrative season or a season in which by Thanksgiving, you’re pretending fantasy football and the Gronk 69ers never existed. The key to staying competitive is as boring as it is constant: consistent opportunity. Get as many weekly “touches” on your team as possible. Trend toward high-upside players in the late rounds, but focus less on highlights and more on first downs.

More than you want to admit, fantasy football is about luck. You can’t force a team to use your player at the goal line. You can’t target him on every fade. You can only sit there, helplessly watching his circumstance unfold before your eyes – hoping at the end of it that he’s the one dancing in the paint. It’s a lottery, really. You’re hoping your players’ number comes up. What separates great fantasy players from the annual bottom-dwellers is a focus on having the most lottery numbers in play. Find the guys the real teams want to have the ball.

Below, I’ve laid out a solid early draft strategy to keep you competitive throughout the year. Each round includes a small sampling of worthy targets (Sign ‘Em) and players I’d avoid (Decline ‘Em).

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Round 1 | The High-Volume Running Back

The saying is as tired as McGregor in the ninth round: draft a feature, high-volume back in the first round. It’s a thing because it’s true. Look, these guys are not going to get your blood pumping like an OBJ one-hand catch in the endzone – but they’re going to produce consistently at a consistent week-in/week-out clip that won’t lose fantasy games. Great receivers are at the mercy of so many ever-changing variables: the accuracy of their quarterbacks, the coverages, the corners they’re facing, the weather, and their own abilities. Conversely, running backs and their offensive lines’ success is (literally) grounded. If a team is a successful running team, then it’s because they have a solid foundation that consistently moves the ball forward on the ground. It takes fortitude and confidence for teams to favor the run game over the pass game in today’s NFL. The teams that do this do so because it works for them, and they lean on that consistency. You should, too.

Sign ‘Em

David Johnson:       Led the league in opportunities (passing targets + rushing attempts) in 2016 with 413 – 50 more than 2nd place, Ezekiel Elliott. With Palmer and Fitzgerald aging and Chris Johnson the only viable backup, I don’t see Johnson’s role fading in 2017.

LeSean McCoy:      Based on the preseason and training camp reports, the Bills’ offense is either going to be very bad or is playing a game of possum, ready to spring alive on its first opponent: the Jets. Regardless, this team is good at one thing and one thing only: running the football behind an offensive line that’s dominant when going downhill. Shady will cede some touches to Tolbert on the goal line, but Mike Gillislee is gone and new backup Jonathan Williams is a step-down replacement. Expect more receiving targets, as well. Nobody in Buffalo is certain Tyrod can throw the ball accurately beyond 6 yards.

Todd Gurley          Despite a workload that was top 5 in rushing attempts last season, Gurley finished outside the Top 15 in yardage. That’s an anomaly that will likely right itself this season. Plus — and I’m not thrilled to be the one guy outside of Jared Goff’s immediate family that has confidence in his play improving this season — I think the bolstered receiver corps led by Sammy Watkins will force coverage to the edges and open up the run game. Goff is bad enough, and the Rams’ defense is good enough, to keep games low-scoring and close. Expect a heavy rushing attack.

Jay Ajayi:                Nearly five yards per attempt in 2016. Cutler is a capable QB replacement, and the receiving corps is on the verge of breaking out, so don’t expect Ajayi to lose effectiveness.

Devonta Freeman:   Did you know the Falcons led the Super Bowl by 25 points in the 3rd quarter?

Lamar Miller:          If Tom Savage is the quarterback, then let’s hope for their sake that the Texans decide to run a lot. If rookie Deshaun Watson is the quarterback, then the Texans are still going to want to run the ball. But Watson will offer the run-pass-keep options that could widen the running gaps. *Speaking of Houston, what J.J. Watt is doing for Harvey Relief is stunning. The State of Texas is full of independent, proud people, but they need the support of an entire country to climb out of this mess – click here to donate to Watt’s Houston Flood Relief.*

Decline ‘Em

Le’Veon Bell:           Camp holdouts = early-season soft tissue injuries

Jordan Howard:      Similar situation to Gurley with regards to the quarterback play, minus the revamped receiving corps. No thanks.

DeMarco Murray:   Expect Derrick Henry to carve out a role this year.

 

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Round 2 | The Superstar Receiver

Get yourself a face of the franchise. You’re not going to win your league with your first pick. Those guys are all proven commodities whose value will (hopefully) stay at least static. But here in the second, this is where you can pounce on a player that produces like a first rounder most weeks and explodes with a stat line that wins you games on his own 3-4 times a season. A few of the household names will have been taken in the first by the flashy players in your league — the league members who watch HBO on Sunday night for Ballers instead of Thrones. Let them have OBJ, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, and A.J. Green. Those are all great players and fantasy superstars, but your first pick set the table; now, it’s time to cook.

Sign ‘Em

Dez Bryant            All due respect to Rod Marinelli, but I think the Cowboys’ defense is going to give up a million points. Dak Prescott has another year of development, and Ezekiel Elliott will miss more than 50% of the fantasy regular season. Bombs away in Dallas. The Cowboys play approximately one hundred primetime games per season, so you’ll have that to look forward to.

Michael Thomas:     Same as Dez, minus the great defensive coordinator. I’m a little worried about ball distribution, but Brandin Cooks’ 115+ targets are in New England, and Thomas is the most talented guy left on the edge.

Amari Cooper:        Unfounded, but totally true fact:  NFL wide receivers have an “awakening” in their 3rd year. This is Cooper’s 3rd year. And it’s Derek Carr’s 3rd year.

Brandin Cooks:       Gets to catch passes from Tom Brady. Good for him. “Drew Brees just wasn’t doing it for me man, gotta upgrade” is one of the more ridiculous, and in this case true, sentences ever uttered.

DeAndre Hopkins:  Superfreak athletically. Hope Watson takes over at QB to push coverage down into the box for read-option. Expect Jaelen Strong (after his Week 1 suspension) to absorb more coverage this year, too.

Decline ‘Em

Rob Gronkowski:   Seemingly never healthy, and the Patriots have never had more offensive weapons. There’s better TE value later in the draft.

Doug Baldwin:        Good player, but he’s not an explosion guy. He’s overvalued in the 2nd.

T.Y. Hilton:               Scott Tolzien is his (likely) QB in September. No.

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Round 3 | The Upside (Unproven) Feature Back

These are the guys that’ll be going in the first round next year. They’re slated for a similar workload as the round 1 backs, but they’re not valued at fantasy elite prices yet. Most are unproven guys. Good. Young, unproven backs have had a ton of success in the league, and it’s not because everyone wants to make them feel welcome; it’s because they’re like apples in the fall:  fresh and cheap. How do you like them apples? (Back to back lame jokes – welcome to Cover 1 Fantasy!)

Sign ‘Em

Christian McCaffrey:              The hype is real. I think he gets 15 carries per game and 10 targets from Cam Newton. That’s 25 opportunities per game for an explosive athlete.

Dalvin Cook:           He’ll have pass protection issues that’ll drive Zimmer bananas, but he’s a threat every time he touches the ball. Expect Bradford to gel with his receivers this year and open up the field.

Joe Mixon:              By October, he’ll be getting more carries than Jeremy Hill. Write it down. Put it in the mail. It’ll get here in October for me to read with satisfaction as I sit next to the fire, a warm old-fashioned in my hand.

Ty Montgomery:     Having spent a whole offseason working on becoming an actual running back, I expect Montgomery to have a similar statline as McCaffrey in a more explosive offense.

Kareem Hunt:          Are you aware (*wink*) of the current backfield situation in Kansas City? The feature back role for an Alex Smith-led offense is uh…enticing.

Decline ‘Em

Ameer Abdullah:     Cool name, but a complete unknown at this point. Are we still talking about a 2016 preseason carry? Overvalued for the 3rd round.

Mark Ingram:          Mark, meet Adrian. Mark, Adrian is the guy who’s going to make you a maddening fantasy player to have.

Adrian Peterson:     Adrian, meet Mark. Adrian, Mark is the guy who’s going to make you a maddening fantasy player to have.

CJ Anderson:          No.

Doug Martin          You can do better.

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Round 4 | The Locker Room Presence

You’ve been attacking upside for the last two rounds, but now it’s time to focus on getting a player that will produce at an average clip with consistency.  They’re not going to explode very often, but they’ll get you that 10-12 points every week. Proven commodities. They’re not the hip new food joint with the fourteen-ingredient chicken. Rather, they’re the place you go when you just need to grub and chill. They’re not going to elicit any “ooohs & ahhhs” when you bring them on-board. What they’re going to do is keep you afloat when your superstars turn in the inevitable dud games.

Sign ‘Em

Any of the “Decline ‘Ems” from Round 3 not named Ameer Abdullah

Greg Olsen:             Decent value in the 4th round for a premier TE. Cam should be better this year.

Kelvin Benjamin:     See Greg Olsen. Also, not fat anymore. Nice!

Chris Hogan:           Likely gone before the 4th round because of the Edelman injury, but if he’s here, take him. He played lacrosse, ya know.

Alshon Jeffery:       Great reports coming out of training camp about Carson Wentz. Jeffery has missed time in the preseason, but expect him to be productive by October.

Golden Tate:            Despite the name, not a flashy player, but a definite gamer. Matthew Stafford’s going to be slinging it because, well, what else are the Lions going to do?

Davante Adams:      It seems like the annual “This Is The Year” hype for Davante Adams has finally died down. *Whispers* I think this is The Year for Devante Adams.

Terrelle Pryor:         I can’t get this catch out of my head.

Decline ‘Em

Bilal Powell:             Jets lol.

LeGarrette Blount  Not a great (read: awful) preseason.

Darren McFadden:  I think he’ll get quite a few carries behind that vaunted Cowboys offensive line. That being said, Rod Smith has earned some carries in the preseason, Alfred Morris will get carries, and Elliott will be back by Week 7 to take all the carries from everybody.

Tyreek Hill             This is where we have a conversation about how tough it is to balance fandom and personal morals. Even without that, somebody else will overvalue him for the chance to name their team “I Am Reek Hill, Prince of the Pyke, Haver of Ships, Not-Haver Of…”.

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Round 5 | That’s My Quarterback

This is a feel-it-out position. If you’re in a league with inexperienced players or worse,  fake experienced players, there will be a run on quarterbacks in the early rounds. You can use that to your advantage and snap up some better skill position players, within reason. But if you’re in a 12-team league and eight QBs go in the first round, then you should 1) quit that league or 2) pick a QB as soon as possible. Sure you could stack your team in the meantime, but you’re going to end up with Andy Dalton as your QB, and that makes for a boring, lame fantasy season. Maybe you like Andy Dalton because you too are a ginger and you take pride in his middling success. Gingers have an inherent advantage in fantasy football. They deserve it.

Sign ‘Em

Derek Carr:             Third year in the league and he’s already proven to be the real deal. Expect more attempts and more efficiency in those attempts. His receivers dropped a ton of balls they won’t drop this year – expect that to help.

Kirk Cousins:          Following the Revis Blueprint, Kirk Cousins has made a truckload of money being as good or slightly better than he was the year before. Expect more of the same.

Andrew Luck:         He’d be long gone by now if it weren’t for the health issues and horrific supporting cast. I say grab him if it’s late in the 5th and go with an upside guy late in the draft in case he never finds his form.

Cam Newton:          I mentioned that Kelvin Benjamin isn’t fat anymore, so that’s a positive. They’ve added Christian McCaffrey and lost some pieces on defense, which should all be good things for Cam Newton, fantasy player. But if he’s not going to leave the pocket and get scramble yards very often, there are better quarterbacks out there.

Dak Prescott:           He’ll benefit from no Zeke and a bad defense. Witten’s a year older, and there are question marks on the opposite side of Dez. Tread carefully.

Matthew Stafford:   [Insert justification for contract joke here].

Decline ‘Em

Ben Roethlisberger:  Is it fair to say Big Ben is a bit of a hypochondriac? Skip the drama.

Marcus Mariota:        Overvalued right now.

Russell Wilson         Likely hurt during practice by his own defense, eventually.

Jameis Winston:        I may be reading into it too much, but the inside-look we’re getting on Hard Knocks doesn’t bode well for Jameis Winston the quarterback. Head coach Dirk Koetter is clearly frustrated by his inabilities processing plays in the film room and in the heat of the game, and his pregame rah-rah speeches/poems look like they give Ryan Fitzpatrick (little-known fact: he went to Harvard) constipation. Jameis Winston the person is amusing, though. He used to pee in the backyard!

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Late Rounds | Best Skill Position Player Available

Lean toward upside. You’ve built the foundation in the early rounds, now takes some shots. One of these guys is going to be the guy you brag to your buddies about how “you just knew he was in for a big year”. They won’t care, but you brag away. You earned it.

Sign ‘Em

Latavius Murray:     Goal-line carries. Cook insurance. Good enough in his own right. Also all-around great human – he’ll wear that #25 with pride.

Jordan Matthews/Zay Jones:   Buffalo can’t run on every play. I think both of these guys see 70 targets and put up 800 yards.

Corey Coleman:      Kizer’s preseason is giving us all hope.

Kyle Rudolph, Charles Clay, Jack Doyle:               Good-enough tight ends at a non-premium price. Toyota Camrys, if you will.

Austin Carr:            Hogan/Edelman/Welker-looking guy in New England? What is it George Clooney said in Up In The Air?

Davante Parker:       Expect his targets to jump from the mid-80s to a 100+. If Landry gets shipped out of town, add 20 more.

Jamison Crowder:   If I’m high on Kirk Cousins, I’ve got to be crowding onto the Crowder Wagon, too.

Kenny Golladay:     Did you see my funny joke about Stafford?

Matt Forte:              The Jets literally have to run plays for someone. He could also end up on a contender via trade.

John Brown:           Pay his medical bills so he can single-handedly win you a game or two this season.

Stefon Diggs:          112 targets in 13 games. That’s volume. I think the 3 touchdowns were a fluke (in a bad way) and he’ll touch the paint at least double that this year.

Decline ‘Em

Tyler Eifert:             Unlike John Brown, let someone else pay his medical bills.

Eddie Lacy:             Not very confident in a guy who has to weigh himself to pick up his check.

Thomas Rawls:       Not very confident in a guy whose team brought in a guy who has to weigh himself to pick up his check as competition.

Cooper Kupp:          I’m not confident in Goff getting the ball to Sammy Watkins with consistency, let alone this rookie. Something about him tells me he’d fit right in in New England, though. If the Patriots would stop trotting out white receivers, then I’d stop mentioning that they do.

Cole Beasley         Expect rookie Ryan Switzer to eat into his niche role. Maybe the Pat-.

Corey Davis:           Hurt in the preseason and without a history against top competition to lean on, this isn’t Davis’s year. Let someone else pay for the novelty.

Frank Gore:             Does Frank Gore need money? Why is he still playing?

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2nd-To-Last Round | The Kicker

Don’t look now, but good kickers are gaining value in fantasy. Moving the extra point back has simultaneously shaken the kicker brotherhood and sparked the sports psychology industry. It’s not uncommon for fantasy games to come down to the wire, so don’t close your eyes and pick a guy because he’s the next guy ESPN tells you to draft, only to have him shank an extra point and a field goal and cost you a close game.

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Last Round | The Defense

Play matchups. Go with the hot hand. Don’t get attached. Think Tinder.

Sign ‘Em

Whoever is playing the Jets.

Decline ‘Em

Whoever is playing the Patriots.

All stats via ProFootballReference.com

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