“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 a 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 makes 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 you 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.
As the “wait on quarterback” advice continues to leech into the fantasy football hive mind, quarterbacks are indeed falling farther in typical drafts. This presents a buying opportunity, especially for higher end quarterbacks. As usual, you should be patient, knowing that even 15 quarterbacks going off of the board before you take yours won’t ruin your draft. Carson Palmer is there for you. Tyrod Taylor is there for you. The waiver wire is there for you. We still shouldn’t commit to waiting on quarterback with some of the earlier selections that will help you win your week and league and at a more reasonable cost than ever.
The best approach to drafting quarterback is using a “trigger”. Basically, have round/player combinations that amount to “if X is available in Round Y, draft him”. Adjust this for your league’s habits and your scoring, and of course feel free to pass on a quarterback even when they are a value pick if an even bigger value pick is still available.
If Aaron Rodgers is available in the mid-third or later, draft him.
If Tom Brady is available in the fourth or later, draft him.
If Russell Wilson is available in the seventh or later, draft him.
If Marcus Mariota is available in the ninth or later, draft him. **Best Value/Cost Combination**
If Andrew Luck/Kirk Cousins/Cam Newton is available in the tenth or later, draft him.
If Philip Rivers/Andy Dalton is available in the 11th or later, draft him.
If Eli Manning is available in the 12th or later, draft him.
If you want to take the gas tank to E and let your leaguemates draft 15+ quarterbacks before you take yours, Carson Palmer is the call. He has an easy opening schedule (DET/IND/DAL/SF) and continues to go outside of the Top 15-18. Sam Bradford is a backup plan, as he opens with New Orleans. It would be a good idea to stash an upside play like DeShone Kizer or Deshaun Watson if you end up in this situation, assuming bench size allows for it.
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 Andrew Luck represents makes him worth that cost because his production once healthy will come at a deep discount. Palmer fits well with him. Tie up two roster spots on quarterbacks to open the season if your league lets Luck fall too far.
A note on going cheap at quarterback: I’m not against going cheap at quarterback, but the pendulum is starting to swing back to investing in a quality option. I don’t believe that going cheap at quarterback AND going cheap at tight end is a good strategy. The one exception is if your league is very trade-friendly and amassing value at running back and wide receiver will give you lots of chances to trade for an elite quarterback/tight end and lock up strong options at every position. While I believe in planning around a weakness, I wouldn’t want that weakness to be quarterback AND tight end. Running back turnover and wide receiver depth makes those easier positions to mitigate while leaving a weakness in your draft than quarterback (because more and more owners go late at quarterback) and tight end (because of scarcity). Pick one of quarterback and tight end to go cheap at, but don’t leave yourself among the bottom of your league at both spots. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a pick in the first 5-6 rounds at either position. You can draft your quarterback and tight end in Rounds 7-9 in many leagues and feel good about your starters at both positions.
Running back is very top heavy this year, with shoo-in picks in the top 18-20 overall, then a range of risk/reward picks from the 3rd-7th, followed by depth and players with injury or “wait and see” upside. It is much more important to get your running back picks right than to time them perfectly for value. All of the running backs are going to be less attractive risk/reward propositions than the wide receivers in the same round. You’ll have to hold your nose a few times to stock your backfield, but the depth at wide receiver will make you feel better about passing on wideouts when you get to the later reaches of your drafts.
1st Running Back
If you draw one of the first two draft slots: Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson.
Choosing between Johnson and Bell is splitting hairs. I prefer Johnson because of Bell’s holdout and injury history. Bell has a higher weekly ceiling and a better surrounding situation if his starting quarterback goes down, and I won’t talk you out of taking him over Johnson.
If you draw a draft slot in the 3-6 range: Take Melvin Gordon III/LeSean McCoy in the first, hope for Todd Gurley/Jay Ajayi to fall to the late second, take Marshawn Lynch in the third, or go upside down and take your RB1 in the 4th/5th, following up with more upside running back picks in the mid rounds.
Weighing McCoy/Gordon vs. a wide receiver in the mid-first is tough. You’ll get reliable weekly production from the receiver, but there’s a good chance your RB1 ship will sail by the time your second round pick rolls around.
If you draw a draft slot in the 7-10/12 range: Take Gordon/McCoy in the first, or Murray/Freeman/Howard in the second. There’s room for starting WR/Gronkowski here and hoping for Marshawn Lynch around the 3-4 turn. I see Lynch as the last RB1 and believe aggressive drafters can start with him as their RB1 and be fine.
What about Ezekiel Elliott?
Elliott is an ideal RB2 after starting with Bell/Johnson. He is less than ideal as an RB1 but workable. You’re basically going upside down and then planning on crushing your competition once Elliott returns. I like “bet on yourself” draft strategies and won’t talk you out of Elliott in the mid-late second, which is where his ADP is settling.
2nd Running Back
Plan A here is Marshawn Lynch, that is unless he is your RB1 after you start with two or three non-running back picks. I understand if you are swearing off Lynch because of his layoff and from last time we saw him, but between the quality of the situation (Latavius Murray was a low RB1 last year) and the power of the Lynch returns home narrative, I am tying my fantasy fate to Lynch in a lot of drafts.
If you prefer to go away from Lynch and don’t start RB-RB (a very viable start near the turn or if you can pull off Bell/Johnson-Elliott), there is a long list of good RB2 candidates in PPR leagues that are available in the early-mid rounds:
Post-Suspension Upside: Doug Martin (7th)
All of these names provide at worst Strong RB2 upside. You might have other favorites, but these are my recommended picks in the 3rd-7th range. Woodhead and Martin are my top two players from this group given their demonstrated ceiling and fantasy-friendly situations and reasonable costs. Abdullah and Montgomery have very high PPR ceilings for their prices. Taking two of this group as your RB1 and RB2 isn’t insane.
RB2 Emergency Plan
There are still options that can be your Week 1 RB2 if you get through seven picks with only one back:
Kelley will be the starter as long as he holds off Perine, which could be all season. Gore has an unexciting ceiling and may deal with a rusty or absent Luck, but he’ll get volume. Rodgers should get the most work in the Bucs backfield the first three weeks. Likewise for McFadden for the first six games (pending Elliott’s appeal). Stewart opens with the porous San Francisco run defense and he should get the most work of any part of the season early on. Bernard is healthy and his biggest role should come early while the team is still gaining trust in Joe Mixon.
Running Back Bench
Plan on having your RB1 and RB2 taken care of by the seventh round. Having a third back in the first seven picks isn’t crazy considering wide receiver depth this year, but chances are you will start to build your running back bench in the seventh and later. My favorite targets:
Martin has a chance to give you RB1 production from Week 4. Henry can make your season if Demarco Murray goes down and might still be flexworthy even if Murray stays healthy. Perkins will get every shot to own the Giants backfield. Peterson will be motivated and could easily be a high ceiling RB2 weekly if he hasn’t lost as much as the pessimistic view on him posits.
I’m not huge fans of any of these picks, but Kelley can provide upside matchup flex plays, Rawls might give you the best share of the Seattle backfield at a discount, and Johnson could be an offbrand Woodhead.
11th-15th or later Rounds: James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Giovani Bernard, Jamaal Williams, James Conner, Jonathan Williams, Alvin Kamara, DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard, Chris Thompson, Darren Sproles, Shane Vereen, Devontae Booker
You can basically break up your running back bench into three groups. First is New England backs other than Gillislee. All are talented, the situation is great and any could go off in any given week, not to mention injury upside increasing their roles. Second is high floor/low ceiling depth plays like Bernard, Kamara, Thompson, Sproles, and Vereen. Third is high upside backups/handcuffs like Jamaal and Jonathan Williams, Conner, Washington/Richard, and Booker.
A note on running back depth: The reality that there is a shortage of viable running back plays in the late round this year compared to previous years. I believe the prevalence of upside down drafting is creating an emphasis on running back picks in the 6th-10th rounds and drying up speculative running back picks. The 6th-10th rounds look like a better section to get one or both of your starting quarterback or tight end and take advantage of some glaring wide receiver values. I recommend getting your top two backs in the first five rounds if possible. This year it will be very important to churn your running back depth to maximize upside as the season evolves.
What about Handcuffs?
Because running back depth is thinner this year due to a speculative running back mid-round bubble, handcuffing might be more important, assuming bench size allows for it. Here are the handcuffs to target:
It is difficult to have clarity on the backup situation in many backfields, and some combinations may just leave you no clarity on who to start week-to-week. Pairing Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram II is intriguing because of the weekly ceiling of the Saints running game, but it is not a true handcuff.
Wide receiver is the most straightforward position in your draft. You could just stick to ADP and be fine, but break ties against wide receiver early because of the depth at the position. The pass-happy nature of the NFL means that WR3/Flex types and wideouts with a high end range of possibilities are available much later in your draft.
1st wide receiver
Jones vs Beckham is not an easy debate. I have Beckham first because we don’t know what his numbers will look like with a strong WR2 and WR3 in his offense. These are safe shelter picks to start your draft.
Nelson is the best pick as a WR1 in the late first, but Thomas and Bryant also work.
If you draw 1-2 draft slot: Demaryius Thomas
Thomas is part of many of my draft plans, a late first/early second value available in the late second/third round.
2nd Wide Receiver
I’m cool with a WR-WR start to your draft. Dez Bryant can be a luxury as a WR2 when you start with a top four wideout in the first. You can double up and get Nelson and Bryant/Michael Thomas around the turn, just be sure to have some running backs you love (Lynch?) at the 3-4 turn. You can also wait until the third and get Demaryius Thomas as your WR2, while still pocketing Gronkowski or your RB1.
The good news about your WR2 slot is that there are a lot of receivers with WR1 upside available at WR2 prices not including the obvious Demaryius Thomas:
- Brandin Cooks
- DeAndre Hopkins
- Allen Robinson
- Alshon Jeffery
- Terrelle Pryor
- Sammy Watkins
- Keenan Allen
- Tyreek Hill
- Martavis Bryant
Many of these wideouts will cost you a third round pick, but some fall to the fourth, and Hill/Bryant are often available in the fifth. Having Hill/Bryant as your WR2 isn’t ideal, but it would mean that you likely have either an elite TE1/QB1 and your top two backs in tow. I actually like this strategy (two wide receivers in the first five rounds with an upside play at WR2) as it gives you a chance to have a big advantage at multiple positions and makes your weakness (wide receiver) correspond with the deepest position.
3rd Wide Receiver
Hill or Bryant would be lethal WR3 options and you can absorb their peaks and valleys with the consistency of your WR1 and WR2, although you also give up a shot at a strong RB2, TE1, or QB1 to do it. Wide receiver is deep enough that you can find plenty of good WR3 options after the fifth round.
All of these options are usually available in the 6th-8th round range and all are acceptable WR3/flex options. Unless you are going for the jugular at WR3 with a Hill/Bryant pick, use the majority of your first 5-6 picks to get a strong 1-2 punch at running back and at least one elite option at QB/TE (and maybe one strong option at other position). Depth at wide receiver continues to trend up, so take advantage of the ability to wait at the position for your later starters and top bench picks and build balance into your team.
Wide Receiver Bench
It’s a veritable shopping spree at wide receiver from the ninth round on, with lots of potential starters and even WR2 upside. Another reason to break ties against wide receiver early in your draft is the bounty of wide receiver options later that can make up for neglecting the position and only taking three wideouts in your first eight picks. Here are my favorite targets:
9th-10th Round: Tyrell Williams, John Brown, Corey Davis, Marvin Jones Jr, Chris Hogan
11-12th Round: Ted Ginn Jr, Rishard Matthews, Josh Doctson, Tyler Lockett
13th Round or Later: Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Kenny Stills, Robby Anderson
A note about wide receiver strategy: The wide receiver depth this year is so strong at you might flirt with the idea of not taking your first wideout until the fifth or sixth round. A strategy that incorporates one of Rodgers/Brady, Gronkowski, a solid RB1, and Lynch or a strategy from the 1-2 hole that begins with Bell/Johnson and Elliott and one of Brady/Rodgers can work this year. If you take the right receivers from the 6th/7th on, you can get away with stacking the other positions. Let’s also remember that the focus on the waiver wire will be running back with all of the upside down drafting, so finding viable wide receivers on the waiver wire will be easier than finding viable running backs.
Tight end drafting this year will be a lot like quarterback drafting. There are options through the first 7-8 rounds of your draft that are worth taking at or near ADP. Because they are spread out through the first 7-8 rounds, you don’t have to take a tight end unless the name or value really appeals to you.
If Rob Gronkowski is available in mid-second or later, take him.
He outproduced all but two or three wide receivers when he was healthy last year. If he can just play 12-13 games and not miss the fantasy playoffs, he’ll give you a second first-round pick, just like Elliott will if you can survive his suspension and still make the playoffs.
If Travis Kelce is available in fourth or later, take him.
Kelce was a monster when Jeremy Maclin was out last year and he could approach Gronkowski numbers without the touchdowns this year. He has been more durable than any of the other elite tight ends except Greg Olsen
If Greg Olsen is available in the fifth or later, take him.
He was producing at an elite pace before Cam Newton got concussed last year.
Reed is the boom/bust pick and I understand avoiding him completely because of the foot issue. Eifert is actually healthy, and underrated, but his range of injuries the last few years is scary. Graham’s arrow is pointing up and he might present the best combination of value and cost at the position.
This is the cutoff of my TE1 comfort zone. None have Top 3 upside at the position, but all are in good situations and have shown the ability to unlock the value that is there with the quarterback they have.
If you miss out or just don’t want a top ten tight end, you are basically going to stream tight end. I wouldn’t dabble in the TE11-15 tier that might cost you a chance at an excellent bench receiver. Instead, pick your tight end based on Week 1 matchup. Here’s who I like:
Cameron Brate (at Miami) - He might have lasting value anyway, but you have to love facing a defense that lost two middle linebackers already.
Austin Hooper (at Chicago) - Chicago gave up some big games to nondescript tight ends last year and Hooper is taking over the position in a good offense.
Jason Witten (vs New York Giants) - Witten has had big games three of the last four times he has faced the Giants and linebacker is the clear weakness of the defense.
Charles Clay (vs New York Jets) - Clay is the only significant downfield receiver on the Bills that has played a meaningful number of snaps with Tyrod Taylor and the Jets have rookies at both safety spots.
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 Steelers is worth it due to their early season schedule and strong performance after they went blitz-heavy post-bye last year. 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 that should be there in the last round of every draft include Brandon McManus (poor quarterback, good defense, thin air), Phil Dawson (good offense, indoors) Dustin Hopkins (good offense), and Chris Boswell (good offense).
Week 1 D/ST Targets
Pittsburgh (at Cleveland)
Buffalo (vs New York Jets)
Los Angeles Rams (vs Indianapolis)
Carolina (at San Francisco)
QB: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers might be lasting too long, and if they don’t Russell Wilson and Marcus Mariota could represent big profits at ADP. If you wait until everyone has a starter and many teams have backups, Carson Palmer is your man.
RB: Get your RB1 early. Don’t be afraid to take Ezekiel Elliott or Marshawn Lynch as your RB2, but if you don’t get them, there are lots of RB2 candidates in the 4th-6th round range. Focus on handcuffs and/or high floor low ceiling depth later with a spot or two reserved for a New England back.
WR: Wide receiver is deep enough this year to break ties against the position early. WR2 level plays are available in the 4th-6th, and there is a plethora of WR3/Flex level plays available into the second half of your draft.
TE: Ideally you should get a top ten tight end at worst, and don’t be afraid to take the first-round quality Gronkowski at a one-round discount in the second. If you don’t land Gronk, his old partner atop the rankings, Jimmy Graham is probably your best play in the sixth.
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