“Have a plan. Follow the plan, and you’ll be surprised how successful you can be. Most people don’t have a plan. That’s why it’s easy to beat most folks.” – Paul “Bear” Bryant, football coach, University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide.
Striking a balance between having a plan built by good research to navigate your draft and seeing how your draft is unfolding through the lens of necessary alterations on the fly to that plan is difficult task. If you improvise or go “best player available” every round, you could leave weaknesses that are hard to overcome if you don’t draft and manage in a style to mitigate your unforeseen shortcoming. If you stick with your plan through hell or high water, you can miss great values or other ways to exploit the tendencies of your leaguemates.
I want to emphasize this: EVERY PLAN WORKS IF YOU PICK THE RIGHT PLAYERS.
You can gain some edges over your opponents by timing your picks by position to coincide with the areas of the draft most likely to yield the best ROI at the position, but this will gain you maybe a 5-10% edge on your competition at the very most. You win your league by building in upside capable of giving you massive advantages at a few positions while not conceding much to the competition at other positions. You must take a handful of players who can greatly exceed their draft value, which includes taking on the risk that make those players available later than their ceiling suggests they should be.
You can’t win your league by swinging for singles and doubles in your entire draft.
Often I hear “You can’t win your league in the first round, but you can lose it”. Bullpucky. I and many others have won leagues after shanking first rounders and other early picks. Matt Waldman lays out the case for the importance of the rest of fantasy football that doesn’t involve the draft in his typical immersive way, and every one of your should read it right now. What this means is that your draft should build in some confidence in your abilities to address weaknesses in-season. You can’t have everything in your draft. Isolate a few spots you are comfortable with operating at from a weakness and understand what your strategy will be during the season to deal with that. Streaming TEs. RB2BC. QBBC. And play it safe in the 1st/2nd if you want, but know that taking risky players there does not doom your season if they fail.
So, be thinking ceiling for most, if not all, of your draft. Know that you are going to “punt” a position or two and devise a strategy to optimize your chances of getting away with it. But most of all, take players you can believe in. Don’t talk yourself out of players you like because you already filled the position’s starting requirements or need to fill another starting position that just saw a run take place. Don’t take players that don’t give you the warm fuzzies. The heart of this endeavor is still player/team evaluation, even if it is also the most difficult part.
So I just made a big speech to tell you that draft plans only give you incremental edges, but they won’t win your league for you. Now here’s my draft plan. Enjoy.
I wrote this last year and it still applies: Quarterback is getting boring in fantasy drafts. We need 2QB/Superflex to become the norm to inject more strategy back into quarterback drafting. In the meantime, our expert mock drafts and overall rankings are going to be misleading. We tend to play the “take the gas tank to E” game in our drafts, and de-emphasize quarterback greatly in overall rankings. In your league, everyone might draft their starter by round 5 and many top backups could be gone by round 8. So don’t get too hung up on my round recommendations here, just know the quarterbacks that tend to offer value compared to quarterbacks going around the same point in your draft.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: quarterback is deeper than ever. Quarterbacks that were more than viable QBBC/streamer options last year like Tyrod Taylor, Matthew Stafford, Marcus Mariota, and Ryan Fitzpatrick are all available outside of the top 15 quarterbacks drafted in most leagues. You can pass on the position round after round with impunity. I’ll still never talk you out of spending the capital to get Drew Brees or Russell Wilson outside of the top three quarterbacks. Tom Brady and Philip Rivers are terrific options you can usually get outside of the top 6 or 7. Early, mid, and late quarterback drafting can all yield dividends this year.
Andrew Luck and/or Aaron Rodgers drafted (usually 3rd/4th round): Russell Wilson or Drew Brees
Ben Roethlisberger and/or Carson Palmer drafted (usually 7th/8th round): Tom Brady
Blake Bortles and/or Eli Manning drafted (usually 8th/9th round): Philip Rivers
Teams start taking QB2s: Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr
It’s almost the end of the draft and you don’t have a QB: Robert Griffin III, Joe Flacco
What About Streaming?
Streaming is easier than ever. Unless some teams carry a third quarterback, names like Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III, and Jay Cutler will be on the waiver wire to begin the season. Still, you shouldn’t go into your draft with streaming as your aim. You still want to take a quarterback that you think has a legitimate chance to be a set it and forget starter. The good news is that class quarterback is still available outside of the top 15. If you want to go minimal QB, kick off the season with Stafford, Cousins, or Carr, who all had stretches of QB1 games in 2015 and start with good schedules. If you really want to embrace streaming, Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III have solid opening week matchups and fantasy-rich situations and they are basically free. The list of quarterbacks who are viable streamers in good matchup weeks is at least 25-26 deep and could add a name or two. Catch a wave and ride it to the playoffs.
A note about schedules and streaming
Once we get outside of the everyweek starters at the position, schedule should be a high level sorter. Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Matt Ryan all have early season schedules pockmarked with very tough matchups. That would effectively mean you would have to either tie up two spots on quarterback or start a waiver wire quarterback very early in the season if you draft them. If you plan on streaming, there’s no reason to choose them as your leadoff hitter.
Don’t bother with a backup quarterback unless teams start taking third quarterbacks and generally carry three all season. The same depth that fuels streaming makes treating the waiver wire as your backup/bye/injury depth viable. Freeing up early season roster spots for waiver wire darts is crucial, although the QB1 overall upside Tom Brady represents makes him worth that cost because his production from Week 5 on will come at a deep discount. Rivers, Stafford, Cousins, and Carr fit well with him. Tie up two roster spots on quarterback to open the season if your league lets Brady fall too far.
Running back has excellent depth this year in PPR leagues, which should make you bold about punting RB2 in the first 4-5 rounds, and maybe even going Upside Down/Do the Opposite/Zero RB. I’m not going in that direction, simply because there are plenty of attractive running back propositions in the first two rounds, and I only want to count on myself to improvise one running back spot with most teams trying to rub two sticks together at the position at various points in the season.
First Round RB1 Targets
Mid First: Todd Gurley, LA
Rookie year points to Peterson-esque talent that will transcend situation.
I can get excited about any of this group. Johnson’s talent and situation are magnificent, Elliott’s situation and potential volume are ideal, and Miller’s talent/situation intersection also points up, up, up.
Second Round RB1 Targets
Early 2nd: Le'Veon Bell, PIT
In addition to any of Miller/Elliott/Johnson that slip through, the second round is where you can take Le'Veon Bell. Bell gives you #1 overall player upside from Week 5 on at a fraction of the usual price. I won’t talk you out of taking him in the late first now that his suspension has been reduced to three games.
Charles is a hall of fame level player, I’ll never dissuade you from spending a premium pick on him. Freeman is picking up where he left off, Tevin Coleman worries are minimal. Ingram was a strong RB1 last year and he should be one as long as he’s on the field this year.
Third/Fourth Round RB1 Targets
LeSean McCoy, CJ Anderson
I like the third and fourth for Jordan Reed and wide receivers more than running back, but McCoy and Anderson are falling to the 3-4 turn and both have RB1 ceilings and workloads lined up for them.
Fifth-Seventh Round RB1 Targets
Jeremy Hill, CIN
These are your targets if you are starting with running backs in the first four rounds. Bernard’s not going to be the goal line option, but he’s going to be a core option everywhere else on the field, including in the passing game, and he’s an ascendant young talent who just got an extension in the offseason. Gore is still his team’s clear RB1 and a three-down back. Stewart was surprisingly good last year and appears to be healthy, although his Week 1 matchup at Denver sucks. Williams should be an RB1 for the first three weeks, and Jennings should start the season as an RB1 for his team and remain one as long as he holds up a la Stewart.
Second Round RB2 Targets
Early 2nd: Le'Veon Bell
I’m not afraid of an RB-RB start in typical redraft leagues. The wide receiver depth is there to support it, and if you can go into the playoffs with an elite RB1 and a Bell as your RB2, look out.
Third/Fourth Round RB2 Targets
Mark Ingram II, NO
If I already have my RB1 in the first or second round, I’m highly unlikely to take my RB2 in this WR/TE-rich third round of the draft, but I’ll make an exception if Ingram falls.
Fifth-Seventh Round RB2 Targets
Jeremy Hill, CIN
I remain very intrigued by Williams as an RB2 to give you a three-week headstart on the competition. He’s like an extra first-round pick for that span, and then he’ll have injury upside and trade value to the Bell owner.
Eighth/Ninth Round RB2 Targets
If you go quarterback and tight end early, it’s possible that you don’t take your RB2 until well after 30 backs are off the board. Don’t despair. Charles Sims is involved in the passing game and gets some red zone looks. You’re not scraping the bottom of the barrel if you play him during the Bucs’ challenging stretch to open the season, and he has a high injury ceiling. Powell should get a good share of the Jets backfield, and he was a PPR RB1 from weeks 11-16 last year in a timeshare with Chris Ivory.
RB Bench (11-14th round)
Your running back bench is where your season can be won and lost. The churn at the position means you should be targeting upside plays who have a path to everyweek starter value. Talented backups in good running games are the ticket here. If you are really worried about depth because the waiver wire in your league is thin, there are a few options.
McKinnon and Michael’s combinations of demonstrated ability and situation if the starter goes down are very enticing. Booker, Coleman, and Washington haven’t been as dazzling, but they are on track to be clear #2 backs in high volume situations.
On what is looking like a ragtag offense and losing team, Sproles only needs a couple of good hurry up drives a game to be a viable PPR RB2/Flex. Starks played well last year, and he has flex value most weeks with a high Eddie Lacy injury upside.
End of Bench Picks - Early Bloomer
Thanks to @GrilledEggs on Twitter for the early bloomer/late bloomer terminology idea. White gives you a cheap PPR flex with upside to be more as long as Dion Lewis is out. Spiller has demonstrated talent in a good offense, but might be a dud. West has buzz but if he doesn’t pop Week 1, you can move on. Zenner has a terrific Week 1 matchup vs Indianapolis, assuming he wins the “big back” job.
End of Bench Picks - Late Bloomer
These players have all had fantasy flashes in recent years and if injuries press them into the starting lineup, they can help us win
End of Bench Picks - Depth
Thompson showed some explosiveness last year and he’s the receiving back on a pass-first team. Draughn is the receiving back on a team that run a lot of plays and be behind a lot. In leagues with longer benches where bye/injury/emergency depth can be scarce on the wire, they are worth targeting late.
What about Handcuffs?
Beyond the obvious Bell/Williams and Elliott/Morris (If you spend a first on Elliott, you have to spend the late round pick on Morris to corner the Dallas running game), there are a handful of handcuff situations that are worth pursuing, especially in leagues that have deep benches or large leagues where the running back waiver wire is thin. I prefer to just take the backups that I think have the best chance of hitting based on their talent, situation, fragility of the starter, and clarity, whether or not I have the startet, but your league’s track record can force you to pair up:
Adrian Peterson/Jerick McKinnon, MIN
Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman, ATL
Jamaal Charles/Spencer Ware, KC
CJ Anderson/Devontae Booker, DEN
Eddie Lacy/James Starks, GB
Thomas Rawls/Christine Michael, SEA
Latavius Murray/DeAndre Washington, OAK
This is an excellent year for wide receiver depth due to some promising rookies and some low hanging fruit in good pass offenses. You can break early ties against wide receiver to get a stud running back or two and Jordan Reed, and you can feel ok about taking a Russell Wilson or Drew Brees in the mid rounds and kicking your last wide receiver spot or top bench spot down the road another round
Legit WR1 candidates are available into the third round. You can afford to start RB/RB if you want.
First Round WR1 Targets
Mid First: AJ Green
Hopkins is often going before Green, but you never know. Bryant and Robinson lack the volume of the top four, but otherwise profile as strong WR1s.
Second Round WR1 Targets
Allen was a strong WR1 until he got hurt last year. Marshall was an elite WR1. A step back because of a better receiving back in Matt Forte is already priced into his second-round cost. Cooks was a WR1 after Drew Brees got right last year. Hilton has been a WR1 with Andrew Luck since 2014.
Third Round WR1 Targets
Cooks and Hilton are often there in the third and a good alternative to Jordan Reed if you think he’ll be there in the fourth. Thomas was a WR1 last year, but the Denver passing volume should come down a bit this year, so his upside is capped.
A WR/WR start can work out just fine in PPR with the running back depth, but I see strong WR2 candidates in fourth and fifth round, so again you should feel free to break ties against a WR2 when weighing against an RB in the first or second, or Jordan Reed in the third.
Second Round WR2 Targets
Allen would be a wicked WR2 to pair with an elite WR1 and he’s there in the late second in some drafts, but otherwise I’m fine with passing on this group if you go wide receiver in the first.
Third Round WR2 Targets
Any of this trio would be a very strong WR2, but again wide receiver depth allows you the flexibility to take a Jordan Reed or Mark Ingram II in the third and still feel good about the WR2 options left on the board.
Fourth-Fifth Round WR2 Targets
Surveying this group, I see players with solid top 15-20 wide receiver means and WR1 upside with a high floor, both weekly and over the course of the season. Any of them are suitable WR2s. Landry should remain a focal point in a short passing game. Maclin could take a step forward if the Chiefs pass more while weathering Justin Houston’s absence. Floyd was a WR1 when healthy in the second half of the year, he’s been on a ton of my early teams. Decker was a low WR1 last year and should be a solid WR2 or high WR3 at worst. Moncrief’s ceiling is very high as long as Andrew Luck is right, and Baldwin’s likely drop back to earth in touchdowns is more than priced in after he was a league-winner last year.
Sixth-Eighth Round WR2 Targets
If you decide to use four of your first five picks on non-wide receivers, you can still find options that have a shot to level off in WR2 territory. This strategy embraces the idea of locking in advantages at at least two of QB/RB/TE and counting on later picks to make up the gap you concede at wide receiver.
Lockett could take a big step forward, especially if the Seahawks pass more this year. Crabtree will be a steady high floor option with occasional outbursts. Brown’s concussion needs to clear up, but as long as it does, he’ll mix in WR1 weeks with a big play profile. Shepard’s ceiling is unknown after even Rueben Randle turned the Odell Beckham Jr running mate into fantasy relevance. Jackson is a high ceiling weekly play with his speed and passing offense, and Jones will be a core target in a high volume passing game.
As you might guess, the same depth that allows you to wait on your WR2 makes waiting on your WR3/Flex not as risky as it might feel when wide receivers are flying off of the board.
Fourth-Fifth Round WR3/Flex Targets
While having a WR3 with top 15-20 upside and WR1 weekly upside is a great position in PPR leagues, you’ll necessarily be yielding a lot of points at some combination of QB, RB, and TE. Quarterback and tight end give you a lot of alternatives to spending early picks, so the WR heavy strategy can work.
Sixth-Eighth Round WR3/Flex Targets
This group is full of acceptable WR3/Flex options and illustrates the depth at wide receiver. This should allow you to build a roster with more balance and still not give away points at wide receiver. If you have three non-wide receivers in the first five rounds, you should be able to double up on this group to bolster your bye/injury depth.
Ninth-11th Round WR3/Flex Targets
If you only take two wide receivers in your first eight picks, your team should be a juggernaut just about everywhere else. The finishing blow to your opponents can be brilliant WR3/Flex picks from universally overlooked players in good pass offenses. Thomas over Snead could be the right call because of Thomas’s touchdown upside. Benjamin is more than capable in a good pass offense and should build from Malcom Floyd’s deep threat numbers.
Ninth-11th Round WR Depth Targets
This group is like stealing when they are on your wide receiver bench. The quarterback/wide receiver combination should be very productive in all three cases
12th-13th Round WR Depth Targets
Thomas should be on your roster before the 12th round, but if you have other targets over him before then, he’s often there for you. Jackson, Dorsett, and Funchess also often go off the board before the 12th, but if some ADP sources are accurate, they will be there in the 12th/13th in drafts.
End of Bench Picks - Early Bloomer
Pryor is the clear favorite here with four weeks to make his mark as Robert Griffin III’s deep threat. Boldin could be a target hog in the slot of a high volume pass offense. Williams has a ton of physical ability and has been making strides in an offense that already lost their #3 receiver. Wallace could be Joe Flacco’s deep threat as long Breshad Perriman is still on the sidelines. Crowder should get 70-80 catches, which he was on pace to do last year before hitting the rookie wall. Smith could defy age and medical science to be relevant after a double rupture of his achilles. None of this group will take more than a week or two to see what you have so you can move on quickly if there’s something better on the wire.
End of Bench Picks - Late Bloomer
The Patriots might have room for one wide receiver option to hit, especially if injuries strike the offense like they did last year. Fuller could be the deep threat that gives us a high ceiling on limited targets. Doctson is a supreme talent in a good offense, but hasn't seen the field yet. Green-Beckham oozes ability with his size, speed, and ball skills, but he needs to get his head on straight and win an opportunity in Philly.
End of Bench Picks - Depth
It’s hard to see anyone from this list becoming a difference maker, but they all have the potential to bail us out of a bad bye/injury/emergency situation. Williams has the long touchdown upside every week, Woods could be better now that he’s not playing with a groin issue, Garcon is part of a productive pass offense, Sanu is the second best downfield target in Atlanta, Matthews is maybe the best of a middling (at best) Tennessee WR group, and Agholor will get every chance to fail as a starter in Philadelphia.
I’m going to make tight end drafting very simple for you. Elite production is available around the 3-4 turn. You can hedge Jordan Reed’s injury risk (the reason he is available for a fraction of the cost of his scoring equal, Rob Gronkowski) with mid-low TE1 production very cheaply in the 9th or 10th round. If you get sniped at every turn, take Dwayne Allen and be ready to stream if he can’t stay healthy again this year.
First-Early Second Round TE targets
None (Rob Gronkowski, NE in late second)
That’s right, I’m off Rob Gronkowski in the first this year. I can see taking him in the mid-late second, but he almost never lasts that long. I see a small step down for his ceiling with another very viable red zone tight end to contend with, and the TE pack is catching up to Gronkowski, even with Tyler Eifert banged up and Ladarius Green’s season (and more) in question. Gronkowski in the top 15-18 picks isn’t a terrible tight end plan, but there are better ones.
Third-Fourth Round TE Targets
Jordan Reed, WAS
Reed was the equal of Gronkowski last year, and it’s possible he could surpass him on a game-by-game basis this year. Yes, he has a long injury history, but Reed was there when we needed him last year, including playing through some nicks and bumps, and his 2+ round discount from Gronkowski really represents something like a 75% discount when you look at auction values or the relative value of the picks.
Ninth-Tenth Round TE1/Reed Injury Hedge Targets
It might seem odd to have no tight end targets in the mid-rounds, but I don’t see players like Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, and Coby Fleener offering more than Gates/Bennett in terms of ceiling and floor. Gates will be a core piece of a high volume pass offense piloted by a great quarterback who has years of chemistry with him. Bennett is basically a starter in an offense that has produced two top five tight ends before and he has massive Gronkowski injury upside. If you miss on Reed, this duo should have you covered, and if you land Reed, take one to hedge against injuries and give you terrific trade flexibility at a scarce position.
11th-12th Round TE1 Target
Dwayne Allen, IND
Allen has produced at basically a touchdown a game clip before. His injury history is scary, but with Coby Fleener gone to New Orleans, he is set up for more targets than ever. If he can stay healthy this year, he’ll be a mid-TE1 that you can get after 12-15 tight ends are off of the board in most leagues.
What If I get sniped at tight end at every turn?
Tight end streaming isn’t the end of the world for fantasy football teams, and there are plenty of late round targets who can get you off to a decent start:
Clive Walford, OAK - Gets downfield and should be in a position to start hot with New Orleans and Atlanta to open the season.
Jesse James, PIT - James is not a dynamic downfield target, but he can be a top red zone target while Ladarius Green is out. High-scoring games with Washington, the Giants, Cleveland, and Baltimore are up in the first five weeks.
The last two rounds as always are the kicker and defense rounds. If you decide to take a defense before the last two rounds, a splurge on the Seahawks or Cardinals (assuming they fall to the 11th or later) isn’t bad due to their playmakers and early season schedule. Otherwise, you are looking at Week 1 matchups and streaming from there. I write a column every week on the best defenses to stream and will have you covered.
My favorite kickers to target are Brandon McManus (Denver) in a kicker haven with the #1 defense in the league and cleaning up after sloppy quarterback play, and Chris Boswell, who was an elite kicker last year, but is still going outside of the top 10 kickers in a lot of drafts.
Week 1 D/ST Targets
Los Angeles (at San Francisco)
New Orleans (vs Oakland)
New York Jets (vs Cincinnati)
Cleveland (at Philadelphia)
Dallas (vs New York Giants)
Indianapolis (vs Detroit)
RB: Don’t be afraid to take your favorite running backs in the first and second round because wide receiver depth is strong through 6-7 rounds, and good sleeper WR candidates abound through the 12th round. The mid-rounds are full of solid RB2 PPR candidates and cheap starters if you want to slough RB2. Taking an RB1 in your first two picks and letting the draft come to you at RB2 seems to be Plan A.
WR: Going wide receiver heavy early can work. Not taking a wide receiver until the fourth round can work. You shouldn’t feel hemmed into any particular wide receiver strategy and instead focus on landing your targets at reasonable prices.
TE: Jordan Reed is going to be a big win at his price unless he misses half of the season. Antonio Gates and Martellus Bennett are screaming values with their track records and surroundings, and Dwayne Allen could save your draft if you miss on those targets and he can finally stay healthy.
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