The early rounds of a fantasy football draft absolutely have to set up the foundation of a championship roster. While fantasy squads in other sports can have the necessary roster depth to live with a few early round hiccups, football managers are likely doomed for failure after making some initial missteps.
But don’t worry, this primer can help you figure out who to target and who to avoid during the initial three rounds.
Round 1: Picks 1-10
Safest Bet: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers – 1st overall
I know, I know — I grabbed the lowest-hanging fruit here. But McCaffrey is far and away the safest first-round pick, due to insane receiving prowess (career average of 101 catches per year) that ensures he will be among the most productive backs even without putting up a notable rushing total. One could argue that a change to QB Teddy Bridgewater will negatively impact McCaffrey, but Bridgewater is at least a small upgrade over the Panthers QB play last season.
Underrated: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints – 6th overall
I almost listed Thomas as the safest bet, but I can also put him in this category. The old expression, “You can’t win your league in the first round, but you can lose it there” comes into play here. Smart fantasy managers wait until the middle rounds of drafts to reach for upside. Thomas is in his prime (age 27) and has averaged 117.5 catches and 1,378 yards in his initial four seasons. He and Drew Brees are ridiculously in sync (career 78.1 percent catch rate), and the club even has a big-armed backup in Jameis Winston to get Thomas the ball if Brees were to miss time.
Overrated: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs – 9th overall
This isn’t a shot at Mahomes. The 24-year-old is clearly the best QB in the NFL and should be a fantasy stud. But outside of Superflex leagues, there is no reason to take a QB in the first round (or the second round, for that matter). Drafting Mahomes will feel great until you see the likes of Carson Wentz and Aaron Rodgers sitting on the board 80 picks later. There are plenty of productive QBs, and in standard formats, they can be streamed each week based on matchups.
Round 2: Picks 11-20
Safest Bet: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs – 12th overall
I know what you’re thinking: How can a rookie be the safest bet? Well, as long as Mahomes stays healthy, the Chiefs are going to score a lot of points this year. And with Damien Williams opting out of the 2020 season, the club has no real option but to give their prized rookie RB a massive workload. Edwards-Helaire may provide a high rushing total, he may catch plenty of passes, or he may cross the goal line nearly every week. But one way or another, the former LSU star is entering a can’t-miss scenario for a talented RB.
Underrated: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles – 20th overall
Fantasy managers should be all over Sanders, who has the potential to take a major step forward this year. The former Penn State stud started last season splitting time with Jordan Howard and over his final seven contests, with Howard on the shelf, Sanders produced 482 yards on the ground while compiling 28 catches for 204 yards. Most observers believe that with another year under his belt, Sanders will be an even bigger part of the offense and could become one of the league’s best three-down backs. At his current ADP, Sanders is a no-brainer.
Overrated: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns – 13th overall
Chubb is one of the best backs in the NFL, but 2020 fantasy drafters are overlooking the presence of Kareem Hunt. Hunt played in the Browns final eight games last year, during which he produced 44 catches for 285 receiving yards. Chubb continued to churn out ground yards in the second half (691), but he caught just 11 passes for 117 yards. With Hunt set as the primary pass catcher out of the backfield, Chubb will struggle to keep up with the fantasy RBs who do damage on the ground and through the air. For this reason, the former Georgia Bulldog should be drafted in Rd. 3.
Round 3: Picks 21-30
Safest Bet: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers – 21st overall
Kittle is heading into his fourth NFL season, having produced 173 catches and 2,430 yards across the previous two campaigns. QB Jimmy Garoppolo and offensive guru Kyle Shanahan each do their respective jobs well enough to ensure that their best pass catcher gets plenty of volume, and the 49ers lack dominant players at wide receiver to take targets away from Kittle. The floor for Kittle is more of the same, and he has the potential to take a notable step forward by finding the end zone more often (his career high is 5 TDs).
Underrated: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers – 22nd overall
This is a great example of a good strategy gone too far. Sharp fantasy analysts figured out early in the offseason that Jones should experience significant regression on his TD total (19) from a year ago. But the 25-year-old could see his touchdowns cut in half and would still be an excellent RB1. The Packers added very little this offseason in the way of pass catchers, which should force Aaron Rodgers to send another 68 targets towards Jones. And even with the addition of A.J. Dillon, Jones is Green Bay’s best rusher and a good candidate to tally 1,000 yards on the ground. 1,500 total yards, 50 catches, and 10 TDs — I’ll take that any day at Jones’ ADP.
Overrated: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 27th overall
Although the addition of Tom Brady is good for the Bucs' expected win total, a QB change is not what Evans needed. Departed starter Jameis Winston was a fantasy goldmine for Evans, leading the NFL in 2019 passing yards and helping his deep threat to produce a sixth straight 1000-yard season. The 43-year-old Brady will likely have a more conservative approach, which will include spreading the ball around and using underneath target Chris Godwin more often than the field-stretching Evans.
Stay tuned for analysis from Rounds 4-6 and 7-10!