How to Not Lose Your Fantasy League in the First Round
As the old fantasy football adage goes, you can’t win your league in the first round, but you certainly can lose it. Taking a bust or reaching on players in the first round of drafts is a recipe for disaster for fantasy teams, and it often signals a disastrous fantasy season to come. Take, for example, when I gleefully selected Le’Veon Bell with the third overall pick of a draft in August 2018, thinking “there’s no way Bell holds out into the season”. I finished 4-9 that year, in large part because I struggled to replace Bell with any consistent running back production. The point being, it’s incredibly important to nail your first-round selection, and we want to minimize as much risk as we can.
As you can see, the first round has far and away the most average fantasy points scored, showing how important it is to get your pick right. With this being said, based on where in the first round you are selecting, making the right pick could mean many different things. In this article, I’ll take a deep dive into each range of picks (early, middle, late) in the first round of drafts this year, looking at which selections would be the most optimal to begin your team with.
Note: Half-PPR scoring was used for all projections and data. ADP is from Underdog.
Phase One: The Top of the Top (Picks 1 and 2)
If you have either the first or the second pick in your fantasy draft this year, you’re in luck. Historically, these most elite players have been excellent for fantasy teams, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t change this season.
The clear-cut top two options in 2021–running backs Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook–both have very few question marks surrounding their situation. They offer abilities as both pass-catchers and rushers, something that is extremely valuable in fantasy. Additionally, both of these players are the bell-cow running backs for their teams and are locked into a large number of touches. Because of this, we don't need to worry about them having bust weeks.
As for who to take between the two players, I would lean towards McCaffrey. In his last healthy season in 2019, McCaffrey quite literally did not leave the field, playing below 85% of the offensive snaps in a game just twice. He’s also likely to see more passing work–4for4 has him projected for a whopping 83 receptions, compared to 58 for Dalvin.
The incredibly high floor and ceiling for both of these players make them fantasy gold. Don’t overthink it if you have a top-2 pick.
Other players to consider: None
Phase Two: Almost There (Picks 2 through 5)
After the “big two” players, there’s a tier of three running backs who are all excellent fantasy options but aren’t in the tier above due to some nagging issue. This tier consists of Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, and Ezekiel Elliott. All three have been elite fantasy running backs in the past, but there’s just a little bit of hesitancy with them that makes them less appealing than McCaffrey and Cook.
Henry’s main concern is his lack of passing game work–he has just 76 receptions in his entire career. For Kamara, it’s the quarterback issue. Fantasy managers are still in the dark as to who will be the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. If it’s Taysom Hill, then Kamara could lose valuable passing game work, and if it’s Jameis Winston, the Saints’ offensive efficiency could take a hit. Zeke showed signs of decline last year, and there are some questions as to whether or not he can bounce back.
In the past, there have been some wide receivers that have gone in this range. Last season, it was Michael Thomas, and in the years before that, players like Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. However, this year, I’d much rather lock in an RB1 before taking a receiver. The wide receiver position is incredibly deep, and given how valuable elite running backs are to fantasy, it makes more sense to address that position first. It’s also a bit too early for me to consider tight end Travis Kelce.
Henry is my favorite of this bunch. While his lack of pass-catching upside might not allow him to reach as high heights as some of his fellow running backs, Henry is, to put it frankly, a beast. In the past three seasons, he has had five games with at least 200 rushing yards. For comparison, no other running back has more than one in that stretch. Henry also frequently does stuff like this:
— NFL (@NFL) October 14, 2020
Kamara is next up in this tier. The recent news of Michael Thomas’ injury means that Kamara will be the focal point of the Saints’ offense, so, even if his record-breaking touchdown efficiency takes a hit, Kamara should see the volume needed to remain relevant for fantasy.
Zeke is a very intriguing option. He is coming off of the worst season of his career where he fumbled six times and ran for under a 1,000 yards. However, Zeke could be in line for a bounce-back season. With quarterback Dak Prescott back as the Cowboys starter, the entire Dallas offense should be elevated, leading to Elliott’s return to fantasy dominance. Here’s a look at Zeke’s stats last year with and without Prescott:
|Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs||Receptions||Fantasy Points|
The difference is stark. Elliott was significantly better with Prescott under center, which is a good sign for his 2021 outlook.
Other Player(s) to Consider: None
Phase Three: Choose Your Own Adventure (Picks 6 through 9)
This is where things start to get a bit dicey. Based on the platform or site you are looking at, the rankings and ADP of the players from Picks 6-9 can vary greatly. This is also the first area where we see some positional diversity, as you could take a running back, receiver, or even tight end at this point in drafts.
You might be a bit surprised to see Kelce in this list–the last time a tight end was drafted this high in fantasy was Rob Gronkowski back in 2015. But Kelce has proven that he deserves to be considered this high in drafts.
Yes, you’re reading that right. Travis Kelce has finished as the overall TE1 in each of the past five seasons. The positional advantage he offers over the rest of the tight ends makes him worth a first-round pick.
Hill and Adams fall in similar boats as one another. They are both attached to hall-of-fame quarterbacks and have dominated in the past. The only questions with them are regression to the mean in the touchdown department for Adams, and whether or not Hill can be as consistent as he was last year (he had only two games with below 10 fantasy points last year). They’re both the closest thing possible to a sure shot at the receiver position.
Saquon is one of the most polarizing players in fantasy drafts this year. If he was fully healthy, he would likely be going in the top three. However, concerns surrounding his knee injury have led to him falling in drafts. Saquon himself doesn’t seem to know whether he’s ready to go or not, recently saying “I don’t know, we’ll see” when asked about his Week 1 status.
Picking at 6 or 7, I’d be going after one of the two receivers in this tier. Adams and Hill each will offer a safe floor week in and week out and are the best possible WR1s for your team. If you do take a receiver here, I’d definitely be targeting a running back in the second round.
If Hill and Adams are both off the board, it’s a good time to grab Kelce. It might feel odd starting off your draft with a tight end, but Kelce’s the strongest option available. He’s essentially a guarantee to win the tight end matchup for your team each week. I’d also be going after a running back in the second if I take Kelce in the first.
Saquon rounds out this tier for me. I mentioned at the top that the first round is all about minimizing risk, and Saquon doesn’t address that too well. However, it’s late enough in the first round where Saquon’s upside makes him worth the pick.
Other Player(s) to Consider: Stefon Diggs, Aaron Jones – Not comfortable with taking Kelce this early or put off by Saquon’s injury? No worries. Both Diggs and Jones are excellent players and should be elite for fantasy this year. Diggs isn’t quite at Adams and Hill’s level due to lack of red-zone production, but should still see the volume needed to dominate. 4for4 actually has Jones projected for more points than Barkley.
Phase Four: The Turn (Picks 10 through 12)
We close out the first round with a couple of running backs and a receiver. There’s a group of about five or six players that all have cases to be selected in the first round, but we’ll limit it to the three most usual suspects:
Like I mentioned earlier, Diggs is a very safe wide receiver. He led the NFL in both targets and receptions last season, and could very well do it again–the Bills had the second-highest early-down passing rate in the NFL last year behind just the Chiefs and didn’t do much to address their running game in the off-season. The only knock on Diggs is that he doesn’t have as high a ceiling as some of the players above him, primarily because of his lack of production in the end-zone.
Ekeler is a versatile running back. He has the fourth most receptions among all running backs since 2018, giving him lots of fantasy value. He’s not as prolific of a runner as some of the running backs above him, but his pass-catching prowess gives him a very high floor. In an explosive Chargers offense, Ekeler is a safe RB1. He’s similar to Diggs in that he likely won’t put up gaudy touchdown numbers, limiting his upside.
Taylor might be the single most polarizing player in the fantasy football community. Some believe that he has overall RB1 potential, while others don’t even believe he’s deserving of a first-round pick. The recent injuries to both Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson do not bode too well for Taylor. He’ll not be on a very good offense to start the season, and due to competition from Nyhiem Hines and Marlon Mack, likely won’t see the volume to produce on a bad team.
Picking at the turn, a lot of fantasy managers are keeping in mind their second-round pick. To help with this, I’ll list a potential target in the second round for each of these players.
The 10th overall pick is a good spot for Diggs to go. He’s the type of player you don’t have to worry about after putting him in at the WR1 spot. After taking Diggs, I’d be looking at a running back like Nick Chubb to take in the second. This would give your team a very strong RB/WR combo to start.
Pairing Ekeler with a receiver like Calvin Ridley or DeAndre Hopkins would be a fantastic start to your draft picking 11th. If you’re nervous about the running back talent drop-off, you could also target Antonio Gibson or the aforementioned Chubb in the second, and load up on receivers in the middle rounds.
Taylor continues to be an enigma. In drafts, I’d be hoping to draft another running back in the second in case Taylor busts. Securing Taylor and Packers RB Aaron Jones would be a solid start. Once again, it’d be wise to then load up on wide receivers if you start RB/RB.
Other Player(s) to Consider: Aaron Jones – One of my top players to consider in the above tier, I think Jones is being severely undervalued in drafts. With Aaron Rodgers back in Green Bay, Jones should continue to be the stellar running back that he has been. He could also see an uptick in the passing game with Jamaal Williams’ departure to the Lions. Jones is a perfectly acceptable pick if you have qualms with any of the players in the above tier.
The Bottom Line
- The first round is incredibly important to get right, as it is consistently where the best players are drafted.
- The top five players are all running backs, signaling how important it is to lock in that position. I wouldn’t consider any other position before McCaffrey, Cook, Kamara, Henry, and Elliott are off the board.
- Travis Kelce is a surprise being drafted in the first round as a tight end but is worth the pick later on in the first.
- Closer to the end of the first round, it could be worth looking at players in pairs to get a better sense of your strategy for the rest of the draft.
- One general note: do not select a quarterback in the first round. While it might seem appealing to take Patrick Mahomes early, the gap between the top quarterback and the tenth best quarterback is simply not large enough to make it worth the selection. The absolute earliest I’d consider taking a QB is in the third round.