Who to Draft at 1.01 - Footballguys

A deep-dive into the players at the top of the draft board with pros and cons for each.

Drafting first overall in 2018 affords you an opportunity to take the best player on the board and build a roster around him. But who is the best player? What sets the top-tier running backs apart and should you consider a wide receiver?

With those questions in mind, the top players by consensus ADP, both in standard and PPR, are listed in order below, with a case for and against each, along with their respective career stats. This article will be updated with any significant news items from now until late August. For additional analysis on who to draft at the two/three turn, check out this article by Will Grant.

Todd Gurley

Year
Team
Games
Rush
RuYards
Y/R
TDs
Targets
Rec
RecYards
TDs
PPR Rank
ADP
2015 LA 13 229 1106 4.8 10 26 21 188 0 7 23
2016 LA 16 278 885 3.2 6 58 43 327 0 18 1
2017 LAR 15 279 1305 4.7 13 87 64 788 6 1 9
Total 44 786 3296 4.2 29 171 128 1303 6

The Case For:

In 2017, Gurley became only the fifth running back in the last 11 years to manage at least 19 total touchdowns in a single season, and only the 27th all time. His 387.3 PPR points outscored not just all others at his position, but every player in the NFL—the second straight season in which a running back ranked first overall in total points (Weeks 1-16). While some positive regression was in order after a terrible sophomore effort saw him cross the goal line only six times in 2016, no one could have predicted this level of sheer dominance.

Particularly surprising was his role in the passing attack. If he played wide receiver, Gurley’s 788 receiving yards would have been good enough tie Rishard Matthews for 25th-most in the league—effectively placing Gurley in the WR3 area of roster construction.

The 2018 season may not return those gaudy numbers in receiving production, but his presence in the red zone won’t change much. His 74 redzone opportunities (targets + rushes) ranked second among all non-quarterbacks, and his 18 rushes inside the five ranked first. Gurley offers drafters one of the safest options on the board with 2017-upside and 2016-downside, where he still managed to finish as a top-18 running back despite a lackluster season.

The Case Against:

Full disclosure: pulling negatives out of a situation that features an elite talent who has no competition behind him and plays on a solid, if not elite, offense is nearly impossible. It basically comes down to a simple, unfortunate truth that you can copy and paste for every guy on this list: workhorse running backs are at risk of season-long injuries.

With that disclaimer aside, we can shift focus to less subjective concerns, such as the Rams turnaround in 2017, which wasn’t just unbelievable, it was improbable. Despite the sharps in Vegas pegging the Rams as 25-1 underdogs to win their division, they lost only five games while going from last to first in points scored from 2016 to 2017, becoming only the second team in NFL history to accomplish that feat (San Francisco, 1965). Jared Goff, who logged only one game in 2016 with more touchdown passes than interceptions and completed only 54.6% of his passes, ranked fourth in touchdown percentage last year and fifth in quarterback rating.

They were also one of the healthiest teams in the league. And while discrediting their accomplishments takes an unfair viewpoint, it would be dangerous to ignore that regression, both from a level of play and health standpoint, likely looms in 2018.

Then there’s the matter of balance. The Rams passed on only 55.8% of their plays last year, which should change in 2018 given the difficulty of opponents in the NFC, and especially if the team analyzes their disappointing playoff appearance where lack of experience clearly showed. Goff attempted 45 passes in that game, second most of his career, and completed only 53.3% of them. Perhaps that’s what led to the team to handing Brandin Cooks a six-year $88 million contract extension, and perhaps Cooks’ addition (via Sammy Watkins subtraction) signals a more balanced approach heading into 2018 with hopes of seasoning the quarterback for high-volume situations.

Gurley could survive whatever regression brings. But assuming he’ll finish as the top running back two years in a row—a feat that hasn’t occurred since Priest Holmes accomplished it in 2002 and 2003—sets lofty expectations.

Le'Veon Bell

Year
Team
Games
Rush
RuYards
Y/R
TDs
Targets
Rec
RecYards
TDs
PPR Rank
ADP
2013 PIT 13 244 860 3.5 8 66 45 399 0 16 35
2014 PIT 16 290 1361 4.7 8 105 83 854 3 1 11
2015 PIT 6 113 556 4.9 3 26 24 136 0 47 2
2016 PIT 15 261 1268 4.9 7 94 75 616 2 3 5
2017 PIT 15 321 1291 4 9 106 85 655 2 2 2
Total 65 1229 5336 4.3 35 397 312 2660 7

The Case For:

Outside of his rookie season and a shortened 2015-effort that started with a two-game suspension and ended with a torn MCL, Bell has never finished worse than RB3 in the standings. He cracked the top-16 his rookie year and never looked back, consistently ranking as one of the most reliable players in fantasy football.

Bell’s game features an elite mix of patience behind the line and excellence as a route-runner. He casually suggested he would entertain the idea of converting to wide receiver later in his career when asked about it:

Bell’s 78 redzone opportunities from 2017 weren’t just the most for his team, they were the 10th-most of all players, including quarterbacks. For reference, Tom Brady enjoyed 96 redzone opportunities and Kirk Cousins came in ninth with 79. Bell ranked 22nd in targets and 10th in receptions, while also leading the league in carries and ranking third in rushing yards.

There’s no reason to belabor the point here; Bell represents the epitome of a high-floor, high-ceiling running back.

The Case Against:

The deadline came and went, yet no long-term contract was signed. Bell, once again, enters an NFL season on the franchise tag and may log his final touches as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When this happened last year, he refused to join the team until early September. In the end, everything worked out for fantasy players, but his slow start (RB15 after three weeks) certainly fostered an uncomfortable situation.

Could the situation be even worse this year?

That doesn’t sound like a guy ready to hold out into the regular season, especially since he’d lose approximately $900,000 a week. But the threat exists. Bell has to know that if the Steelers have no intentions of giving him the contract he wants, either now or after 2018, that they also have every intention of riding him this season until the wheels fall off. That’s pure speculation, but a reality that could hurt his prospects for 2019 to some degree, especially if the wheels do, in fact, fall off.

The flip side to that scenario justifies concerns that maybe the Steelers will investigate their depth chart knowing Bell’s departure after 2018 is likely. Jaylen Samuels, despite costing little in terms of draft capital, may pique their interest, especially on passing downs. Samuels was consistently touted as one of the most versatile players in the draft and gives the Steelers an interesting gadget to throw into an offense that doesn’t have many options for those short-to-intermediate routes. Of course, suggesting Samuels somehow cuts into Bell’s playing time is a stretch and unlikely to matter in the end. But separating the top players of the draft requires a bit of stretching.

Beyond missing time or starting slowly due to skipping camp, the only other true concern comes down to his history of suspensions. Bell served time in back-to-back seasons during 2015 and 2016 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Hopefully, his desire for a mega-contract will keep him on his best behavior. But time away from the team is never a good thing, especially as we enter the part of the year where players tend to celebrate their last free summer days before a grueling season starts.

Ezekiel Elliott

Year
Team
Games
Rush
RuYards
Y/R
TDs
Targets
Rec
RecYards
TDs
PPR Rank
ADP
2016 DAL 15 322 1631 5.1 15 40 32 363 1 2 4
2017 DAL 10 242 983 4.1 7 38 26 269 2 14 10
Total 25 564 2614 4.6 22 78 58 632 3

The Case For:

Elliott has at least 87 total yards in every game he has played during the regular season (25) except three, and at least 100 yards in 18 of them (72%). No running back has more yards per game or touchdowns per game since the Cowboys drafted him in 2016, and only Bell has more 100+ yard games over the last two years (20 for Bell, 18 for Elliott).

The sample size is fairly small thanks to his six-game suspension last year, but Elliott’s dominance as both a runner and a receiver already has him trending as one of the greatest in the NFL. His 4.63 yards per rush rank second over the last two seasons while his total carries also rank second, highlighting his effectiveness behind that elite Cowboys’ offensive line. The Dallas offense features a shaky group of receivers and sets up for more dink, dunk, and run in 2018, which ultimately plays into a high-volume, Elliott-dependent weekly outlook. He’s the youngest player on this list and plays behind one of the best offensive lines in football--an almost unfair luxury considering his skill set.

The Case Against:

The Cowboys’ offense looks completely different this year. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are no longer with the team. Terrance Williams may follow that path after recent legal troubles threaten his roster spot. In their place stand Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup (rookie), Deonte Thompson, Tavon Austin, and a short list of unproven tight ends.

In charge of navigating this new group of unproven and otherwise exiled talent is Dak Prescott, whose sophomore season was a disaster. Thanks to Elliott’s suspension, ineffective receivers, and injuries to the offensive line, Prescott disintegrated from a hyper-efficient game-controller in 2016 to a sackable turnover machine last year. If 2017 laid the blueprint for how to attack the Cowboys’ offense, especially given their lack of star-power, it could mean loaded boxes and tough sledding for Elliott. An offense that fails to get receivers open and counterpunch blitz-heavy schemes will suffocate even the most talented player, regardless of how good the offensive line looks on paper.

If the Cowboys offense manages a successful season, Elliott’s potential regression still deserves consideration. His nearly 130 yards per game average is as unsustainable as it is impressive. Even more unsustainable is his touchdown rate. Going into 2018, Elliott has scored 25 touchdowns—an average of one per game. Logical drafters should expect these numbers to decline to some degree.

David Johnson

Year
Team
Games
Rush
RuYards
Y/R
TDs
Targets
Rec
RecYards
TDs
PPR Rank
ADP
2015 ARI 16 125 581 4.6 8 57 36 457 4 9 49
2016 ARI 16 293 1239 4.2 16 120 80 879 4 1 2
2017 ARI 1 11 23 2.1 0 9 6 68 0 107 1
Total 33 429 1843 4.3 24 186 122 1404 8

The Case For:

If you thought Gurley’s 2017 was incredible, then Johnson’s 2016 was straight unbelievable. After aligning himself with rare company during his rookie season, Johnson officially silenced all critics with a sophomore campaign that was the first since 2011 to feature a running back with at least 20 combined touchdowns—a feat previously accomplished by only 19 running backs in the history of the NFL. Discarding Week 17, his 404.4 PPR fantasy points were the most by a running back since LaDainian Tomlinson’s insane 2006 season and outscored the next closest non-quarterback of 2016 by 77 points.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s 2017 was destroyed by a wrist injury in the first game of the season. Despite that, he still ranks eighth in points scored since 2015, demonstrating just how dominant his first two seasons were. And that includes his rookie year during which he didn’t become the starter until Week 13. Even without adjusting for that, Johnson ranks fourth in PPR points per game since 2015. When you do adjust for it, he takes the top spot by a full three points per game (24.5/game vs. Bell’s 21.5/game). From a raw athleticism standpoint, Johnson is the best of the group and seems to be the forgotten option at 1.01.

The Case Against:

Johnson is also the easiest to make a case against. Not because of him specifically, but because to the team around him. The Cardinals’ offensive roster looks like one of the worst in the league. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald, who has blossomed as a slot receiver in his final years, the list of quality players basically dries up. The good news is that that offensive line should be much better in 2018, but that won’t matter unless either Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen suddenly turns into Brady.

This exact argument fits the Cowboys situation as well. The biggest difference is we’ve seen how effective Prescott and Elliott are together on the field, and the coaching staff, for the most part, remains intact. The Cardinals brought in a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new running backs coach, a new wide receivers coach, and a new offensive line coach. They basically turned it off and back on again in an attempt to reboot a busted system. Expecting a slow start is more than reasonable. And if you believe in strength of schedule, the Cardinals’ outlook for running backs projects as one of the worst on the board.

Then there’s that small matter of Johnson not participating in minicamp. That could mean nothing more than the team protecting their best player from unnecessary risk of injury. It is, however, a situation worth monitoring as the preseason matures.

UPDATE: The Cardinals lost center A.Q. Shipley for the season, which means they'll likely lean on rookie Mason Cole to fill that spot. This is an unfortunate situation that will effecively drop the Cardinals' offensive line ranking to dead last. Johnson should still be fine but this news bears consideration when choosing between the top-four options at running back.

What About Wide Receivers?

For two straight seasons, from 2014 to 2015, Antonio Brown was the highest-scoring player when not counting quarterbacks. In fact, that two-year stretch might be the best by any wide receiver of all time. He converted 374 targets into 265 receptions (70.8%), 3,532 yards, and 23 touchdowns while not missing a single game. And that’s just the regular season. He logged another 26 targets, 16 receptions, and 236 yards during the Steelers two playoff appearances in that given timeframe.

His dominance, along with an outlier 2015 season in which 11 of the top-12 fantasy players (not including quarterbacks) were wide receivers, led to the anti-running back movement. That movement created a reckless supply-and-demand marketplace that caused the ADP of wide receivers to skyrocket, while also smothering the value of running backs.

The movement was short-lived. For a while, it seemed the pass-happy narrative rang louder in fantasy tunnels than it did in the NFL. Real teams were investing major draft capital in running backs, while fake teams continue to devalue the position. Maybe that’s still the case. Regardless, you’re welcome to select Brown, who has finished as a top-three wide receiver for five straight years, or even DeAndre Hopkins with the first overall pick. But logic urges you to take advantage of positional scarcity, elite talent, and backfield monopolies even in the face of certain risks.

Who Should You Draft?

Safest Pick: Bell

Only one player on this list boasts a history of dominance and consistency, while also playing in a predictable situation. Bell has safety and upside on his side thanks to a competent offense and a skill set that inflates his ceiling. Concerns of him holding out into the season bare consideration, but that was true last year as well, and he played 15 games (rested in Week 17). Feel free to ignore concerns about his mileage. Only eight running backs since 1960 averaged more touches per game in their first five seasons than Bell: Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson, Curtis, Martin, Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith, and Earl Campbell. Nearly every single one of those players went on to have great years despite heavy usage early on. Minus the MCL tear in 2015, Bell has a clean injury history with only three missed games in his career.

Upside Pick: Elliott

Most would place Gurley here, but he’s the only player in this article that we’ve seen struggle for an entire year (2016). And though Johnson ranks as one of the league’s best athletes, his overall situation (quarterback, team competitiveness, injury history, age) comes with the most concerns.

That leaves Elliott. Regression threatens his efficiency and touchdown rate but predicting how much he regresses is a fool’s errand. The only thing that held his ceiling down during his rookie season was the lack of usage as a receiver. That changed last year when he averaged 28 opportunities (rushes + targets) per game second only to Bell’s (ridiculous) 28.5 per game. A reformatted offense favors even more passing-down work for Elliott, who unlike Bell or Gurley, figures to be the centerpiece of the team.

And don’t be so quick to write off the Cowboys. Indeed, they have a lot of work in front of them as a young group with almost no playing time together. But necessity is the mother of invention. Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan rebuilt the roster with speed, versatility, and youth. Keep in mind that the Cowboys were a couple of wins away from a playoff berth last year and managed a 9-7 record despite a troubled group of receivers, injuries to the offensive line, a mediocre defense, an inconsistent quarterback, and a six-game suspension of their best player. With an offense opposing defenses have never seen, and an offensive line with even more depth, Elliott’s outlook flirts with the possibility that he becomes the third running back in last three seasons to finish as the highest-scoring player in fantasy football.