Fantasy football drafts are all about collecting the best possible values throughout the process, but let’s not pretend there aren’t certain players we badly want on our squads. Whether it’s the tight end on our favorite team, a sleeper running back no one has caught on to yet or this year’s big breakout at wide receiver, these players add an extra level of excitement to the roster construction process.
The below round-by-round analysis will give you an idea of what’s going through my head on draft day. I have my rankings. I have my projections. I have set up tiers. And I certainly have a few of my favorite targets circled and in the queue.
Here it is — my recipe for a 2017 fantasy football championship:
Round 1 target: Best player available
In past editions of this piece, I’ve picked a player from the first round who I’m extremely fond of. The problem is that nearly all of us don’t have the luxury of choosing where we pick from. With that in mind, here instead are a few general thoughts on how to attack the first round.
If I’m selecting first or second, the decision is simple: David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell (in that order, if you ask me, but either makes for a terrific addition). Generally — and especially in PPR — I’d like to get an elite wide receiver in the first round, but these two backs sport rare 400-touch, 2,000-yard upside. Ezekiel Elliott was third on my overall board, but his six-game suspension knocks him out of first or second round consideration. Instead, it’s here that I’ll pivot to a lengthy list of star wide receivers.
Before I segue into said wideouts, there’s something else I consider when making my first-round selection: my targets during the next few rounds. Now, this isn’t always simple. But as we’re about to learn (they call this foreshadowing), drafts are rich with running back value and upside in the second and early third round. If I plan on attacking running back at that point, it makes sense to try and acquire a star wide receiver with my first pick. So, who are the best bets? Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson and Mike Evans (again, preferably in that order).
Though I’d be ecstatic to land Bell or Johnson with my first pick, I’d still feel very comfortable kicking things off with one of the top wideouts. Take the best guy on the board and build from there.
Round 2 target: Jay Ajayi
Just under one year ago today, I told you to drop Ajayi from your team. Not only was he unproven, he was reportedly mad about playing behind Arian Foster to the point that he was a healthy scratch for the team’s season opener in Seattle.
Excuses, I know. I was wrong.
Ajayi eventually got his shot and ran with it — literally and figuratively. The big man went on to rack up 1,423 yards and 8 touchdowns on 287 touches. Now clearly cemented as run-heavy Miami’s feature back, Ajayi’s big volume, elusiveness and dominance after contact are enough for me to specifically target his services in the second round. Considering that he’s often available late in the round, there’s a very good chance I’ll be able to make this happen.
Round 3 target: Leonard Fournette
When selected fourth overall during April’s draft, Fournette became the fifth running back picked in the top-eight since 2007. Three of the first four backs selected (Adrian Peterson, Trent Richardson and Ezekiel Elliott) went on to finish their rookie campaign as a top-seven fantasy back. Fournette is positioned similarly to that trio in that he’s in line for a workhorse role that should allow him to push for 350 touches this year.
Fournette generally gets scooped up around the second/third-round turn, so don’t expect to get a shot at him if you picked late in the first. If I miss out on Ajayi and/or Fournette, I’m happy to settle on Marshawn Lynch or head to the wide receiver well and snatch up DeAndre Hopkins or Doug Baldwin.
Round 4 target: Terrelle Pryor Sr.
Entering the 2016 season, Pryor had two career receptions on his resume. How quickly things change. The former quarterback caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns in Cleveland’s substandard offense. Pryor’s prospects improved during the offseason, as he signed a one-year deal with the high-scoring Redskins. Pryor’s breakout season obviously came late (a product of unique circumstance), but he recently turned 28 years old and is a super-athletic 6-foot-4, 223 pounds. He’s positioned for a large target share and plenty of work near the goal line. Target him as your No. 2 wideout, though he certainly has WR1 upside.
As one of Carlos Hyde‘s biggest apologists, you know I’ll have him under consideration here in the fourth round if I’m looking to address my running back situation.
The fifth round is very interesting and a potential turning point for drafts this year. What we’ve done with our first four picks will obviously have us leaning toward certain positions, but the good news is that we have options. If you’re following a similar strategy to the one I’ve laid out, you’ll be looking for a third wide receiver or a flex option at this point. Though wide receivers are the safer pick, landing a stud tailback for the flex spot can pay major dividends (not to mention that it provides some insurance for our running back slots).
That all being said, potential workhorse rookie running backs Cook and Mixon offer the most upside here. Cook is much more talented than journeyman Latavius Murray and is good enough in pass protection to hold off Jerick McKinnon on third down. Mixon is likely to defer passing-down work and some change-of-pace carries to Giovani Bernard, but he shouldn’t have trouble fending off pedestrian Jeremy Hill. There’s risk both will start out in committees, but both rookies have the size and all-around ability to produce in all capacities, including early downs, the goal line and in the passing game.
If you’re looking to go safer — or you want to address wide receiver — I often find myself scooping up Bilal Powell, Emmanuel Sanders and/or Larry Fitzgerald in this area of the draft. Powell has finished top-10 among running backs in receptions each of the past two years and was fantasy’s No. 16 scoring RB despite working behind Matt Forte most of last year. He’s lined up for a bigger role in 2017. Both veteran wide receivers are again primed for voluminous roles in 2017. Fitzgerald has finished top-11 in fantasy points among WRs each of the past two years, and Sanders has been no worse than 21st since joining Denver in 2014.
The middle rounds
Round 6 target: Kelvin Benjamin
OK, so the core of my team is in place. It’s time to start filling gaps and adding depth. I obviously want players with upside, but I also want guys I feel comfortable placing in my Week 1 lineup. This isn’t the time to select high ceiling handcuffs like Tevin Coleman and Derrick Henry — save those fliers for later.
Instead I’ll be looking to a player like Benjamin. Likely to be one of my most-owned players in 2017, Benjamin will benefit from a schedule that is both obscenely easy for him and the rest of the Panthers offense. In fact, Benjamin will face what I’ve determined is the easiest cornerback schedule for a No. 1 wide receiver. Benjamin disappointed after a strong start last year, but he still ended up as a top-30 fantasy receiver and is now two full years removed from his torn ACL. As a rookie in 2014, Benjamin paced the NFL with 24 end zone targets and was fantasy’s No. 17 scorer at the position. He’s 6-foot-5 and has big scoring potential and an easy schedule. I’ll be scooping him up as my No. 3 wide receiver as often as possible.
Round 7 target: Kyle Rudolph
Similar to Benjamin, I’m going to have a lot of shares of Rudolph this year. Fantasy’s reigning No. 2 scoring tight end paced the position in targets (128) and OTD (8.2) last year, which helped him to a massive 83-840-7 line. Granted it was the first top-10 fantasy campaign of his career, but a look at the historical usage of tight ends by Pat Shurmur and Mike Zimmer, as well as Sam Bradford‘s conservative game, suggests an extremely high floor for Rudolph. The six-year vet has two seasons with more than five touchdowns on resume, which is a plateau Travis Kelce has yet to reach even once (savage, I know).
Round 8 target: Kirk Cousins
Time for some quarterback talk. The ADP here on our site shows that stud passers like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are being drafted in the second round of most drafts. Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will cost a pick near the Round 3/4 turn. That’s a bit too pricey. In this scenario, it makes sense to target a player like Cousins in the middle rounds. Is he conservative? Yes. Did he lose two of his top weapons during the offseason? Yes. Does he struggle with commitment? The Redskins organization seems to think so.
But this last question is the one that matters most: Does he rack up them ‘ole fantasy points? The answer here is a resounding yes. Cousins has finished as a top-eight fantasy quarterback each of the past two years. DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are gone, but Pryor and Josh Doctson are in. The Redskins ranked 13th in the NFL in offensive touchdowns, but first in field goal attempts last year as a product of the league’s third-worst rate red zone scoring rate. A hint of regression-to-the-mean coupled with the much larger frames of Pryor and Doctson should allow Cousins even more touchdowns in 2017.
Though Cousins is a strong target regardless of format, if you happen to find yourself in a league with savvy owners, they’re unlikely to pounce on quarterbacks as early as many do here at ESPN. In that scenario, a player like Brees could end up as a valuable target in the fifth round. Ryan and Andrew Luck (if healthy and cleared for Week 1) fit a similar bill. In a nutshell, plan to wait at quarterback, but don’t be afraid to pounce on a value.
If not Cousins here, I’ll be hoping Ameer Abdullah is still on the board. He’s shown big-time upside and is back to full health. As long as he’s atop the Giants’ running back depth chart, Paul Perkins is another fine dart throw in this spot.
The NFL set a new record for three-plus wide receiver sets on pass plays last year (up to 76 percent from 71 percent in 2015). This means more snaps for wide receivers and thus more players to evaluate and consider on draft day. The sheer volume at the position often means we’re able to find a discount on a strong veteran or high-upside wideout in the middle (or possibly even late) rounds.
I’m intrigued by Cobb at this point in the draft if only as a way to invest in the Packers offense. Cobb disappointed last year (52nd at the position in fantasy points), but health (he missed the better part of four games) was a big factor. In terms of efficiency, he was actually better than in 2015, catching 74 percent of his passes (eighth-best) and producing 6.0 yards after the catch (ninth). He’s finished as a top-30 fantasy receiver three of the past five years and sat 29th during the 12 games he played most of the snaps last year.
Davis fits the bill of a high-upside target. The fifth-overall pick in April’s draft is the next on a list of wide receivers picked in the top-five since 2007 that also includes A.J. Green (17), Amari Cooper (21), Sammy Watkins (27), Justin Blackmon (29) and Calvin Johnson (37). The number in parentheses, you ask? That’s where each wideout finished in fantasy points among wide receivers as a rookie. Seriously. Assuming he’s healthy, Davis should be positioned for a significant target share as Tennessee’s primary split end.
Kenny Britt isn’t overly exciting in Cleveland’s deficient offense, but he’s positioned for a hefty target share and makes for another solid target in this range.
Round 10 target: DeVante Parker
Parker hasn’t quite lived up to lofty expectations since being selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, but offseason reports suggest the third-year wideout is on the verge of a breakout. Still only 24 years old and standing 6-foot-3, Parker is primed for a significant workload in the deep and intermediate area, and his size should allow him plenty of work near the goal line. In fact (and bear with me here), 6-foot-3 Alshon Jeffery and 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall both ranked top-five in the league in end zone targets in both 2013 and 2014. Marshall led the league in 2012 and Jeffery ranked eighth in only nine games in 2015. Why are these random Bears’ stats relevant? Jay Cutler was the quarterback in each of those scenarios. Parker is easily his biggest target on the perimeter and recent history suggests Cutler will look his way often near the goal line.
Giovani Bernard is another interesting PPR target in this area. Granted he’ll be sharing with Joe Mixon and possibly Jeremy Hill, but Bernard was a top-17 fantasy running back each of his first three years in the league and sat 20th prior to last year’s season-ending torn ACL. Bernard’s injury has knocked his ADP down quite a bit, but he’s already been cleared to play and will resume a significant passing-down role.
The late-round fliers
Three running backs have finished top-five at the position in receptions each of the past two years: Theo Riddick, Devonta Freeman and — you guessed it — Johnson. Johnson was fantasy’s No. 23 scoring running back as a rookie, and although he fell to 31st last year, his yards-per-carry jumped from 3.6 to an impressive 4.9. Isaiah Crowell is blocking his path to big carry volume, but Browns coach Hue Jackson has said Johnson will be heavily involved this season, including as a wide receiver. Already a sleeper to produce RB2 numbers in PPR this year, Johnson has additional value as a strong and clear handcuff to Crowell.
Hunt is more of a dart throw, but he’s an extremely intriguing rookie out of Toledo who has found himself in one of the league’s running-back-friendliest offenses. Spencer Ware is Kansas City’s lead back (for now), but Hunt is an elusive and explosive back who can contribute as both a rusher and receiver. He’s a good bet to be the next in a long list of star fantasy running backs guided by Andy Reid that includes Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles.
Terrance West is another name to consider here. At least for now, he has little competition on early downs in Baltimore and very well could push for 250 carries. Even with Danny Woodhead stealing most passing-down work, that hefty two-down volume will propel West to fantasy relevance.
Round 12 target: Andy Dalton
If I decide to wait super long at quarterback, Dalton is my guy. The 2016 season was a disappointment for the Bengals, but injuries were a legitimate excuse for the step back. And, despite the team’s struggles, Dalton still managed his fourth top-12 fantasy season over the past five years (I’m including a 2015 season in which he was fifth prior to a Week 14 season-ending injury). Green, Bernard and Eifert are now back healthy, the team added Mixon and John Ross in April’s draft and Tyler Boyd is entering his second season. The offensive line is a big concern, but Dalton has been a viable QB1 for a half decade and has one of the league’s best group of skill players at his disposal.
Derrick Henry is currently being drafted in this area of ESPN drafts, but will cost you a sixth or seventh round pick in more competitive leagues. That’s too expensive for a backup. However, if I can get Henry, who is arguably the most valuable handcuff in the league, in the 12th round, that’s a no-brainer.
I don’t generally subscribe to selecting a second tight end, so Ebron and Doyle are potential late-round targets if you decide to wait a while to select your starter at the position. Additionally, if your starter isn’t particularly inspiring — or his health is in question (Jordan Reed, for example) — scooping up a second option is far from the worst idea.
Durability (eight missed games), efficiency (16 drops) and a lack of scoring (seven touchdowns) have been problem areas for Ebron during his first three seasons, but he’s only 24 years and primed for a bigger role in 2017. Doyle will benefit from the departure of Dwayne Allen and Rob Chudzinski’s tight end-friendly offense, though Erik Swoope will certainly factor into passing situations.
Rounds 14-16: High-ceiling handcuffs and breakout candidates
We’re assuming a 16-round draft here, so this is the point where league rules come into play. If you’re drafting here at ESPN, you’ll be forced to select both a defense and a kicker (I’ll cover my favorite targets at those spots later).
However, if you have flexibility here, this is a spot where you can gain a leg up on your competition. Most of your league mates are going to select at least one kicker and defense and let them rot on their roster until Week 1. Why? I have no idea. Don’t do that. In lieu of those positions, gather up handcuffs at other positions (especially running back) and wait for injuries to strike during the preseason. If you have the Steelers defense rostered and Ty Montgomery tears his ACL, you have the Steelers defense. If you have Jamaal Williams rostered and Ty Montgomery tears his ACL, you have a quality RB2 with upside. Oh, and you can always drop two players and pick up a defense with a good matchup and a decent kicker just prior to Week 1. By the way, if your league is hosted here at ESPN (why wouldn’t it be?), one way around the draft room restrictions is to cut your kicker and defense after the draft in favor of adding high-upside stashes.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, here are the players you should be considering, as well as the round each player is currently being selected in 12-team ESPN leagues:
Atlanta’s tight ends combined for 10 touchdown receptions last year and Jacob Tamme is no longer with the team. Enter 2016 third-round pick Hooper, who is positioned for an every-down role. He’s a cheap, high-celing target. Perine spent a lot of the offseason being selected prior to Rob Kelley in early drafts. The rookie’s preseason struggles should end that nonsense, but he still remains an intriguing handcuff in one of the league’s shakier backfields. I like what Kelley did as a rookie, but he still has plenty to prove.
Doctson missed a majority of his rookie season with an Achilles injury, but he’s back and healthy for 2017. He figures to begin the year fourth in line for targets behind Terrelle Pryor Sr, Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder, but it shouldn’t shock anyone if the former first-round pick quickly makes an impact and eventually works his way to the top of the pecking order. Rawls has to share with Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise in Seattle, but he’s shown flashes of big-time ability and very well could earn a large role this year. Rodgers will start at least three games to begin the season and will then need to fend off Doug Martin for snaps.
Following the trade of Sammy Watkins to the Rams, Jones’ primary competition for targets will be newcomers Jordan Matthews and Anquan Boldin. It’s possible that the rookie will pace the team in targets and that potential volume is worthwhile late in your draft. Stills is a near-lock for touchdown regression, but his big-play ability is enough to make him a viable asset for your bench.
Williams (Montgomery), Foreman (Lamar Miller), Conner (Le’Veon Bell) and Gallman (Paul Perkins) are currently free on draft day and are one injury away from a potential feature back job. That’s the kind of player you want on your bench.
Lockett is recovered from a broken tibia and fibula and primed to resume duties as Seattle’s No. 2 wideout. Funchess is entering his third season at age-23 and has been promoted to second on Carolina’s depth chart. Golladay — a third-round rookie — is the favorite to replace Anquan Boldin as Detroit’s No. 3 receiver and likely as one of Matt Stafford’s preferred targets near the goal line. Would anyone be shocked if Burkhead led New England in carries this season? Mike Gillislee is the favorite in that department, but Burkhead’s high ceiling makes him well worth a late flier. New Orleans threw on 97 percent of Travaris Cadet‘s snaps last year — which helped him to 40 receptions — and the rookie Kamara is the favorite to take on a similar role. Kamara is also one Mark Ingram or Adrian Peterson injury away from a big role in one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses.
Defense / Special Teams
If I’m able to scoop up one of the league’s elite defenses with one of my final two picks, I’m happy to do so. Otherwise, I’ll be looking to the Jaguars, Chargers and Titans as sleeper/potential breakout units. Jacksonville’s defense already performed pretty well last year (6.59 YPA allowed was third-best and 3.82 YPC allowed was sixth-best) and the team filled its remaining voids with Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church. The Jaguars defense is currently ninth off the board, which is good value, and a Week 1 meeting with Tom Savage and the Texans only adds to their appeal. Since I like to stream defenses, I’ll also be looking at the Falcons (at Bears), Bengals (vs. Ravens), Panthers (at 49ers) and Steelers (at Browns), since each have a relatively light Week 1 opponent.
There’s not much to say about the kicker position other than: pick the best guy when you’re on the clock in the last round. No, I wouldn’t reach for Justin Tucker following what is a near lock to be the best season of his career. Adam Vinatieri and Dan Bailey are both perfectly viable targets and are being selected as mid-pack starting kickers. Two names I’ll be avoiding are Dustin Hopkins and Caleb Sturgis. Both were top-six fantasy kickers last year, but were very volume dependent in offenses positioned for more success in the red zone. New Seahawks kicker Blair Walsh and Panthers rookie Harrison Butker are interesting sleepers in good offenses, though Butker is risky until he officially knocks off veteran Graham Gano.
So there you have it: my game plan for a 2017 fantasy football championship. Remember, this piece should not serve as your only draft board. It’s simply the players I’ve found myself targeting and, with ADP in mind, that I would love to have on my squad this year.