By Pranav Rajaram, 4for4
Special to Yahoo Sports
The first round of fantasy football drafts is, understandably, the single most important one. It is absolutely critical to get this pick right, as whoever you select will expect to be the best player on your team. However, this is easier said than done — the first round in the last few seasons has been a bit of a minefield, with many injuries and players not living up to expectations.
In fact, just last year, only seven of the first 12 picks finished within the top 10 at their position.
This graph reinforces how crucial it is to get your first pick right, as first-rounders have far and away averaged the most fantasy points per game. With that being said, depending on where you are selecting in the first, the “right pick” could mean many different things. In this article, I’ll break the round down into phases to help navigate the minefield and determine which players would be best to start your draft with.
One note before we get started: Do not select a quarterback in the first round of regular-format snake drafts. While it might seem appealing to take Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen early, the gap between the top quarterback and the 10th-best quarterback is simply not large enough to make it worth the selection. The absolute earliest I’d consider taking a QB in regular formats is in the third round.
Phase One: The Cream of the Crop
If you are picking first or second this year, you are in luck. These players have been obviously excellent for fantasy in the past and should be elite once again this season.
Jonathan Taylor — ADP / Projected Points: 1.01 / 297pts
Christian McCaffrey — ADP / Projected Points: 1.02 / 275pts
Both Taylor and McCaffrey are worthy of being taken with the first overall pick in drafts. Beyond the ever-existing “What if he gets injured?” question, these two have the least doubt surrounding their situations. Taylor is coming off of an incredible season where he was the overall RB1, and when healthy, McCaffrey is arguably the most valuable fantasy football player in the NFL. They’re locked into a huge number of touches and will rarely bust for your team.
As for whom you should pick between these two, I think that it depends on the format of your league. In standard leagues where running backs don’t get points per reception, I’d take Taylor, as he is likely to see more carries than CMC and will probably run in more touchdowns as a result of being in a better offense. However, in half-PPR and especially PPR, I’d give McCaffrey the edge. While he hasn’t played a full season since 2019, the tantalizing upside of his healthy self is so high that he’s worth the risk this early in drafts.
Both of these players offer an incredible floor-ceiling combination that is lethal in fantasy football. Don’t overthink it if you have a top-two pick this year — secure your RB1.
Other Player(s) to Consider: None
Phase Two: Pick Your Poison
This next tier of players features all fantastic options that will most likely be elite for your team as well but have a few more question marks that prevent them from joining the top-most tier. This tier consists of two wide receivers and two running backs:
Cooper Kupp — ADP / Projected Points: 1.03 / 293pts
Austin Ekeler — ADP / Projected Points: 1.04 / 243pts
Justin Jefferson — ADP / Projected Points: 1.05 / 241pts
Derrick Henry — ADP / Projected Points: 1.06 / 258pts
Kupp and Jefferson are both top-notch receivers who could very realistically finish 1st and 2nd at the position. However, running backs are inherently more valuable in the earlier rounds than receivers due to positional scarcity, which explains why Kupp and Jefferson are in a tier below Taylor and McCaffrey:
As for the RBs, Ekeler has the question of touchdown regression looming over his head, as it is unlikely he scores 20 times again. His dominance as both a runner and receiver still makes him a great pick, but his ceiling is capped a little. Henry, on the other hand, is a more confusing selection. Before his leg injury last year, he was well on pace to be the overall RB1, but it remains to be seen if he is fully recovered and can handle a huge workload like he usually does.
I like the receivers more than the running backs in this phase, and think Kupp and Jefferson should go third and fourth in half-PPR and PPR formats. Between the two, I find myself actually preferring Jefferson. He is six years younger than Kupp and we can safely say he hasn’t had his best season yet. In a more pass-heavy system, Jefferson’s stats this season might resemble Kupp’s from last year. I’m also a little wary of Matthew Stafford’s reported elbow injury — if Stafford misses any part of the season, Kupp’s value would take a bit of a hit, but his guaranteed volume and red-zone prowess still makes him a great pick in the top of the first.
Ekeler is next up for me, and he should go around fifth overall in most leagues this year. He might not have as high of a chance to be the overall RB1 as some of his fellow running backs, but he will certainly be a dependable and consistent player for your team week in and week out. Take him with confidence in the middle of the first.
Henry closes out this bunch for me as he has the most question marks. While it is certainly possible that he is the same Derrick Henry of years past and dominates once again, there’s also a reality where his absurd career volume catches up to him and he can’t produce well. Henry also doesn’t offer the pass-catching floor that some others do, so his lows might be very low.
Other Player(s) to Consider: Najee Harris
Phase Three: Pick Your Slightly Less Venomous Poison
This group of three — two running backs and a receiver — are essentially just ninety cents on the dollar version of the tier above. All of them could realistically finish within the top three at the position but have a couple more points of hesitancy.
Ja’Marr Chase — ADP / Projected Points: 1.07 / 235pts
Dalvin Cook — ADP / Projected Points: 1.08 / 218pts
Najee Harris — ADP / Projected Points: 1.09 / 238pts
Chase is in a sort of tier of his own at receiver. His consistency issues and reliance on big plays last season make him a bit less appealing than Kupp and Jefferson, but he still has more upside than the players going below him. It’s certainly possible that Chase builds off his stellar rookie season and finishes at the top of the position, but there is just a smidgen of uncertainty.
Harris and Cook fall into similar boats. Both of them are clear three-down backs for their teams, are proven pass-catchers and should be among the top of the league in touches. For Najee, the main question is his offense. Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett are uninspiring options at QB, and the Steelers offense could take a hit as a result. If this happens, Najee will struggle to reach his full potential and might not score as many touchdowns as we’d like. Cook has had injury issues in the past and has a lot of mileage, and with an elite receiving corps in Minnesota, could see competition for touches.
I honestly believe these three are pretty interchangeable and don’t prefer one too much over another, but if I had to choose, would go with Harris. He led the league in touches his rookie year, and could very well do it again. Even if the Steelers aren’t great as a team, Najee should see enough volume to be a strong RB1.
Chase is one of the most fun players in the NFL and will be dynamite for your team. Even though his worst weeks will be tough to stomach, his highs are so high that he’s worth a first-round pick. If the elite RBs and top WRs are off the board, I’d be more than comfortable grabbing Chase with the 8th or 9th pick.
I’m a little lower on Cook due to his age. He’s entering his age-27 season, which is when running backs typically start to see a decline in production. However, his past production and situation are hard to bet against, so Cook still should be a solid pick in the back of the first.
Other Player(s) to Consider: Joe Mixon
Phase Four: The Turn
To close the first we have a couple of receivers and a running back. There’s a revolving door of players that all have cases to be selected here, but we’ll examine the most popular ones.
Davante Adams — ADP / Projected Points: 1.10 / 221
Stefon Diggs — ADP / Projected Points: 1.11 / 215
Joe Mixon — ADP / Projected Points: 1.12 / 213
If reliability was an NFL player, it would be Stefon Diggs. As the clear No. 1 receiver on an elite offense with an excellent quarterback, the situation can’t really get any better for Diggs. He could very easily lead the league in targets and should comfortably be a WR1. The only knock against him is that his ceiling is not nearly as high as Kupp, Jefferson, or Chase, as he isn’t the same big-play and red-zone threat as they are.
Davante Adams is one of the most interesting players in fantasy this year, as it is unclear how great he can be without Aaron Rodgers. He’s certainly an excellent talent and quite possibly the best route-runner in the NFL, but it was his mind meld with Rodgers that made him such a fantasy cheat code. He’s still the WR1 for what should be a solid offense and will be more than relevant for fantasy, but his touchdown production is likely to decline.
Perhaps overshadowed by teammates Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase, Mixon is coming off a breakout season where he finished as the overall RB3. His situation has remained essentially the same, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t repeat his season from last year or perhaps be even better.
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.
I like Mixon the most of this group and think he has an argument to be in the phase above. He won’t see as much volume as some other RBs due to the Bengals strength in the passing game, but still should be a quality starter. After taking Mixon in the first, you could either double up on RB and take someone like Aaron Jones in the second, or grab a pass catcher à la CeeDee Lamb or Travis Kelce. I’m a big fan of starting RB/RB because the receiver depth in the middle rounds is incredible while the RBs seem to drop off quickly.
Diggs seems to be more of a sure shot than Adams, so I’d lean toward taking him first. He’s a set-and-forget type of player who you’ll be able to count out. Pairing him with a running back like the aforementioned Jones or D’Andre Swift would be a fantastic start to your draft. Similarly, with back-to-back picks to close the round, taking Adams and a running back is a strategy I can get behind.
Other Player(s) to Consider: Aaron Jones, D'Andre Swift — Both these NFC North running backs are elite pass catchers and great alternatives if you prefer starting with an RB over a WR. They will likely see less volume than others due to competition within the depth chart (A.J. Dillon, Jamaal Williams), but have the skillset and opportunity to be RB1s.
The Bottom Line
Getting your first-round pick right will set you up for a successful season, so it is very important to have a clear strategy heading in.
At the very top, there are a pair of running backs who should be the first two picks regardless of format.
This season, we have a greater amount of first-round receivers who would also be viable selections in the middle of 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.
As a general trend, RBs and WRs are once again dominant. I wouldn’t be looking at a tight end like Travis Kelce or Mark Andrews until the second round, and as I mentioned above, please do not take a quarterback so early.
Pranav is a 17-year-old from Massachusetts. When he’s not cheering for the Patriots, he can be found looking at various NFL and NBA-related statistics. He has played fantasy football since he was seven and enjoys working with numbers and data.
More from 4for4.com: 12 Winners and Losers in PPR Formats