“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.
We have arrived at the prime of fantasy football draft season, a heady time when we are thinking about how the draft will unfold, who we are going to target, and how we are going to make our championship team come together in real time pitted against a group of live minds. Preparation is important, but never to the point of rigidity. There will be unexpected picks ahead of you that cause a player you never considered to fall to your pick. You will see key players in your draft plan sniped a pick or two before you are on the clock. You need to be prepared, but you also have to be flexible. The best way to do that is to understand the alternatives for filling each starting slot on your team. When you make a pick, you are affecting the decision matrix for your later picks. Sometimes the answer isn’t who you like better among your early targets when you are on the clock in the early rounds, but who you like better later at the positions you are neglecting when you make a pick. If you feel comfortable about later options, it’s easy to kick a position down the road a few rounds. If you are staring at your last viable option to fill a starting spot, it’s probably better to avoid the pain of figuring out what to do later.
First, as always, know your scoring and lineups. If you only start two wide receivers and running backs with no flex positions, then tight end and quarterback become more important. If you can start seven WR/RB, then quarterback and tight end are less important. Know which players/positions are helped and hurt by whether your league is nonPPR, .5 PPR, PPR, or tight end premium (1.5 PPR for tight ends). Know which quarterbacks are helped and hurt by bonuses for long scores or 300-yard games and whether your league gives more than 4 points for a passing score or 1 point for every 25 passing yards. Look at the average points per game at each position sorted in descending order and note which positions have the smallest and largest spans between #1 and the last starter based on league size times starting requirements to know where getting an elite option is most important (VBD drafting!) You get the point. Know the landscape before you get dropped in to conquer it.
Next, create a list of players that are your guys. Evan Silva gave a great recommendation on my show recently to make a clear top 25 and draft from that in the first two rounds, then let the positions of who you end up determine the strategy for the rest of your draft. Using ADP, you can have a reasonable expectation of who will be there in which rounds, and you can start to piece together a plan that will give your lineup balance and upside and create possibilities for improvement on your bench. You should also have clarity on which players you value so much less than the hive mind that you can just cross them off of your list. Understand the if/then logic of your choices and how they ripple through the later rounds. Then clear your mind, get in the moment, and draft!
As always, fantasy football is a diversion, an escape where we get to call the shots. Do it your way and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with getting lost in a puzzle and forgetting the pressures of everyday life.
QB: There are lots of potential right answers at quarterback this year. Everything from taking one of the top three quarterbacks to not taking any of the top 10 can result in gains over draft capital invested that help propel your team to the playoffs. Make sure to take your favorite quarterback outside of the top 10-12, even if you took an early quarterback.
RB: You might be able to find a startable RB2 in the fifth round or later, but make sure to take your RB1 in the first four rounds. As always, your bench should be full of passing down backs in PPR leagues and backups with big upside if the starter goes down.
WR: This position is deep enough to break ties against it in early rounds, but unlike last year, the trend of getting deeper every year has ended. There’s a concentration of higher ceilings in the top 10 wide receivers that makes taking one in the first or second round more viable this year. There are fewer attractive second half of your draft options than there have been in recent years, and the hive mind is onto the 8th-10th round options enough that you will likely only get one of them. Make sure to take at least two wide receivers in the 4th-7th rounds.
TE: The answer is Kyle Pitts. Well, actually, the answer is taking a top 6 tight end other than George Kittle. Kelce in the late first, Waller in the late second, Pitts in the fourth, or Hockenson/Andrews in the fifth. Know your favorite upside tight ends later if you miss out on a top-six option (Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett for me). Take your favorite tight end outside of the top 12, even if you took Kelce. The late-round options at running back and wide receiver are not compelling enough to forego the potential tactical advantage of having one of the few late hits at tight end *and* an elite option.
K: Take one with your last pick that’s established in a good offense.
DEF: Take one with your next-to-last pick that has a good Week 1 matchup.
Remember in 2019 when Lamar Jackson was a league winner that you could draft in the 10th round or later? That made everyone look for 2020’s Lamar Jackson last year. The hive mind settled on Kyler Murray, and his ADP was pushed up to the fifth/sixth round. Did that mean that you should fade Murray since everyone else already got the memo this time around? Nope. Murray was the #1 fantasy quarterback until he hurt his shoulder in Week 11, and he was a good option again by Week 15. Yes, Justin Herbert was a savior off of the waiver wire early, but we can’t expect a Herbert every year. In fact, that will probably help Trey Lance and Justin Fields get drafted in every league, even if they aren’t Week 1 starters.
Again, knowing your scoring system is key here. In leagues with distance touchdown and 300+ yard game bonuses, or more than four points per pass touchdown, or efficiency scoring that takes points away for incompletions and awards points for completions, players like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford are closer to the top five, if not making it a top nine, allowing you to wait longer. In more typical leagues with four-point pass touchdowns and a point per 25 passing yards, the quarterback with a running dimension remains king.
Target: Kyler Murray
I get it. A late-round quarterback is attractive because you can get 15-20 points off of the waiver wire. That was a more compelling argument when the top quarterbacks were in the 24-25 point per game range. Enter quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Patrick Mahomes II, who can score 30 points a game on average in typical scoring systems, and the game has changed. A 10 point per game advantage is the largest that any player at any position will give you over replacement value except Christian McCaffrey, who is the runaway #1 overall pick. The object of fantasy football is to score more points than your opponent, and it sure seems like getting an elite fantasy quarterback is the shortest line between A and B to achieve that result. Who is the best target if you want the best? Kyler Murray. If he avoids injury this year and improves with his first real offseason in the NFL and the additions of A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, and Rodney Hudson, he should be the #1 fantasy quarterback.
What if I don’t want to spend that much on my quarterback? You can find viable options throughout the top 10 with a good chance to return surplus value and help your team be a contender.
Target: Lamar Jackson
Jackson was a disappointment along with the rest of the offense until a softer part of the schedule late in the season. He complained the offense was predictable and that should be rectified this year, especially with the addition of Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman. QB1 overall is still in his range of outcomes, and he opens with the Raiders, Chiefs, and Lions.
Target: Russell Wilson
Wilson was considered part of the top tier of fantasy quarterbacks last year, and through the first half of the season only Murray was hanging with him. Then, the Seahawks offense got bogged down and Wilson and the rest of the crew suffered through an inconsistent second half of the season. Enter Shane Waldron, who has upped the tempo and added deception that makes run and pass plays look the same? How much was the Seahawks lack of innovation on offense holding Wilson and company back? It could be profitable to learn the answer to that question with Wilson on your roster.
Brady and Rodgers could barnstorm through the league like they have at the peak of their careers. Brady has an unbelievable assemblage of offensive talent around him and much like in New England, a coach that has no qualms about running up the score. Rodgers is probably on his last round with the Packers, he has mastered the LaFleur offense, and he has the best set of receivers around him that he has had in a long time.
Here are your late-round quarterback options, although the round isn’t so late. Thanks to the work of JJ Zachariason, the hive mind has been tipped off to using the depth at quarterback to your advantage, so everyone is trying to get the drop on the next league winning quarterback drafted outside of the top 10. Jalen Hurts showed us that no matter how round a quarterback is as a passer, being a runner makes them a fantasy QB1. Lawrence isn’t quite the runner that Lance and Fields are, but Urban Meyer has never been shy about using his quarterback as a runner. Just make sure you also draft a quarterback to start early in the season while the 49ers and Bears see just how long their inferior veteran starters will last if you don’t get Lawrence. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins, or Sam Darnold will do thanks to a combination of upside and a soft early schedule.
What if I wait and miss out on Lance, Fields, and Lawrence?
Take one of the group mentioned above to kick off the season - Fitzpatrick, Cousins, or Darnold. Then take an upside option that you don’t need right away - Carson Wentz, and Tua Tagovailoa. And be ready to make a trade with a team that has two good options and vigilantly play the waiver wire if neither hit.
Do I need a QB2?
Take one of your favorites outside of the Top 10 no matter what. It accomplishes three things. First, it gives you injury insurance, bye week coverage, and coronavirus insurance. Second, it denies one of your competitors who did not take a QB1 an option that could hit and allow them to get away with it. Third, if your late-round quarterback hits, you can trade your established commodity quarterback to help your team elsewhere.
Superflex Shallow End Advice
If you’re new to superflex leagues, just take at least one quarterback out of the top 10, even if you have to do it in the first or second round. Maybe even start QB/QB. As you go through your draft, only take RB/WR/TE when they are going a round or more later than the typical ADP, and don’t be afraid to take a third or even fourth quarterback when value dictates. They will always generate trade interest.
Running back was set to be deeper than ever this year, but Cam Akers injury, Travis Etienne landing in Jacksonville, and Jamaal Williams and Kenyan Drake signing on teams with young RB1s on the rise put some holes in our draft boards. Running back will dry up by the fourth round with the exception of some upside rookies and touches by default starters. Rookies have been disappointing for the most part as of late, and touches by default starters always seem to let us down. Ignore running back in the early rounds at your risk. Yes, running back picks are less attractive than wide receiver picks in terms of confidence and reliability once you get to the end of the first round, but the gap in confidence/reliability gets larger the deeper you go in your draft. So find your favorites and be willing to gamble on them.
Your RB1 and You
RB1 in the first round
Really. Just do it. The top 5 is going to be very predictable - Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, and Ezekiel Elliott will go in the top five if not top four in almost every draft. It might be enticing to take Davante Adams or Travis Kelce over a running back at this point but then you need to ask yourself how much you like Austin Ekeler, Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor, Aaron Jones, and Saquon Barkley. Ask yourself how confident you are about your running back targets in the 3rd and 4th rounds, where wide receiver value is very compelling. Ask yourself how confident you are that you can find a running back in the fifth round or later that can become an every-week contributor.
The next group of running backs is (in no particular order) Joe Mixon, Najee Harris, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Antonio Gibson. If you are picking near the end of the first round, you won’t have your pick of this tier, but you might be able to land two of them, or combine them with one from the tier above. The good news is after you take your running back in the first round, you can feel free to neglect the position for a while (even until the 7th/8th round) because you only need one hit from the rest of your running back group to put together a strong lineup. I would prioritize Mixon and Edwards-Helaire in PPR leagues, and Chubb in non-PPR. There are good arguments for every back in this group.
What if I don’t take a running back in the first?
Option 1 is to talk yourself into one of Mixon, Harris, Edwards-Helaire, or Gibson in the second round. Maybe you’ll get lucky and Taylor, Barkley, Jones, Ekeler, or Chubb will fall to you.
Option 2 is to target running back in the third, which could deliver a back as good as the options outside of the top five. Chris Carson. James Robinson. Maybe Montgomery.
UPDATE: Dobbins is feared to be lost for the season. He was my #1 target in the third tier of backs.
Option 3 is to gamble with multiple picks on rookies like Javonte Williams and Trey Sermon, or a boom/bust pick, Mike Davis in the mid-rounds. While you will have locked in advantages at other positions over your opponents by waiting at running back, you’ll be behind the eight ball at the position if none of your aspirational mid-round picks hit and last year was the most difficult ever to find running back value on the waiver wire. If you do go this route, I’d recommend targeting at least one elite option at tight end or quarterback, if not both positions.
Your second running back and you - Conservative
Taking Dobbins/Carson as your RB2 in the third to lock up an RB2 with RB1 upside is the safe path at running back, which won’t require you to hit on any later running back picks to roll out two strong options every week.
Targets: Dobbins/Carson/Robinson in the third
Your second running back and you - Moderate Risk/Reward
The third round is so rich with wide receiver value that you might choose to kick your RB2 decision down the road a round or more. My favorite options in this range are David Montgomery and the same rookies and boom/bust backs as the RB1 options if you decide to be the last one to take your RB2.
Targets: Montgomery in the 4th, Williams in the 4th/5th, Sermon in the 6th
Your second running back and you - Extreme Risk/Reward
If you take a running back in the first and focus on building a strong wide receiver group with a tight end and quarterback that have a good chance of being top five options, then landing a running back that is an adequate RB2 in the eighth round or later could be the coup de grace to the rest of your league. Damien Harris. Gus Edwards. PPR scoring makes it easy to hit this draw on the river via James White or Giovani Bernard. There are any number of upside backups in good offenses. The options abound and you can take two or three swings at the pinata and see what happens, with a midseason trade as a possibility.
Top Targets: Harris in the 8th, Edwards in the 9th, Bernard/White in the 12th.
UPDATE: Edwards is trending up with the loss of Dobbins for the season. He is probably going to end up in the 5th round or perhaps even fourth round.
Running back bench
Consider the list above a good starting point for running back depth and upside targets. A.J. Dillon and Tony Pollard are the most worthy handcuffs with clarity on role and both having displayed talent on an NFL field already. They’re good bench picks whether or not you have the starter on your roster. Giovani Bernard, James White. Jerick McKinnon. Sony Michel in his new digs. Ty Johnson as a Tevin Coleman injury play for the Jets. Other injury upside plays like Damien Williams, Jamaal Williams, Chuba Hubbard, Qadree Ollison. Upside upside upside.
One year after most of the top drafted wide receivers underperformed, 2020 saw Davante Adams pull away from the pack, Tyreek Hill make a consistent WR1 impact, and Stefon Diggs deliver league titles with a ridiculous Week 16 outburst. There are any number of receivers on the upslope of their career arc with unknown upside, so after everyone was fading wide receiver in the early rounds last year, taking your WR1 in the first or second round is viable, and if you like a few running backs going outside of the first two rounds, it’s reasonable to start WR-WR this year. There aren’t as many obvious WR3/Flex types going in the 7th-10th round range this year, and everyone is going to be targeting the same late-round sleepers. Make your wide receiver picks in the first seven rounds count, and make sure to use at least three of them on wide receivers, with at least two in the 4th-7th round range.
Taking your WR1 in the first round
I won’t tell you that under no circumstances should you take a wide receiver in the first two rounds, but I wouldn’t recommend taking Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill over a top-four running back, and make sure to know your RB1 targets in second or later. Stefon Diggs is a viable pick near the turn if/when he’s over the knee issue that is keeping him out of practice.
Taking your WR1 in the second round
There’s an exciting group of young receivers with growing opportunity who could easily crash the top three or even contend to be the #1 fantasy receiver this year. Cases can be made for Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown, Calvin Ridley, or DK Metcalf, and taking two of them at the 1-2 turn isn’t a bad strategy if you think you can get Chris Carson and/or David Montgomery at the 3-4 turn, or have some later running back picks in your back pocket that you think you can rely on.
Taking your WR1 in the third or fourth round
Even though wide receiver is strong at the top of the board again, there are names in the third and fourth rounds who have a top 10 finish within their range of outcomes. In the third, Keenan Allen and Allen Robinson are both in their primes and could contend to lead the league in catches. Terry McLaurin will get the best quarterback play of his career by far. In the fourth, Tyler Lockett, Mike Evans/Chris Godwin, Cooper Kupp/Robert Woods, and Julio Jones will all be in good environments for efficiency and production that should allow them to flirt with WR1 numbers even if they don’t get as many targets as the receivers going ahead of them. Obviously they are great WR2s to pair with a WR1 you take in the first three rounds.
Taking your WR1 in the fifth round/Taking WR2 in the fifth round who could score like a WR1
If you want to really push it, wide receiver is almost deep enough to wait until the fifth round to get your WR1 when players with a chance of hitting that rank are available. Tee Higgins is the best candidate for this year’s DK Metcalf - a rookie breakout player who has astronomical growth in year two. Diontae Johnson will be among the league leaders in catches if he stays healthy. Odell Beckham Jr could lead the league in long touchdown catches in a surging Browns offense.
What about Michael Thomas?
Thomas could certainly be your WR1 for the second half of the season, or he might not be useful at all. He fits best in builds where you go heavy on wide receiver early and then don’t take a receiver until you take him, potentially giving you an unfair advantage when he is healthy, or where you don’t take a wide receiver until the fifth round. Thomas coming on midseason helps you get away with it.
WR2/WR3/Flex in the sixth/seventh/eighth round
In addition to the fifth round targets that have WR1 upside mentioned above that can fall to the sixth round (especially in Beckham’s case), there are some viable high floor PPR wide receivers that are usually still available in the 7th/8th round. Tyler Boyd, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Robby Anderson are all receivers who get a lot of short targets, creating a high weekly floor in PPR leagues. Anderson could also revive his deep passing game in a reunion with Sam Darnold, who was never afraid to chuck it up where only Anderson could get it when they played together with the Jets.
WR3/Flex in the ninth round
Wide receiver reliability drops off a bit after the eighth. If you have to take your WR3 or WR4 there, the best candidates are the productive but injury-prone Deebo Samuel, the volatile but highly skilled WR3 in Tampa Antonio Brown, and the clear WR1 in the worst offense in the league, Brandin Cooks. In other words, you don’t really want to be forced to count on receivers you take after the eighth round, at least not right away.
Upside Bench Picks
Stocking your wide receiver bench is a very important and often overlooked part of drafts. You want players who have a chance to become consistent producers that are available in the ninth round or later because of uncertainty about their role. Always think of these players as a combination of the quarterback and receiver, and not the receiver in a nutshell. Have a deep list of candidates for each section of the portion of your draft when you are filling up your bench. These are my favorites, but follow your instinct when putting this kind of list together. It’s conceivable that a wide receiver group built from these lists could be competitive in fantasy leagues this year. There are plenty of names I didn’t list here that might be on your target list.
Williams has new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s endorsement in the Michael Thomas “X” role, which could be a very good thing. Gallup is the #3 in Dallas, but he could outproduce some #1s if Dak Prescott’s shoulder is good. Waddle is reunited with Tua Tagovailoa, and Will Fuller V and Devante Parker are already having injury issues. Samuel is over his injury issues, and he’ll get to benefit from Ryan Fitzpatrick’s boldness. Mooney could explode when Justin Fields and his eerie deep accuracy come into play. Hardman is making strides going into his third year with Patrick Mahomes II. An injury slowed the Moore hype, but rest assured that something special is brewing there. Jones has been the most consistent Jaguars receiver in camp and acting like the alpha in the passing game. Pittman has also taken on the air of an alpha in his second year, and it’s looking like we should be optimistic about Carson Wentz’s return.
Callaway has stepped up into the #1 role among wide receivers with Michael Thomas sidelined. Moore looked explosive in his preseason debut, and the Cardinals appear willing to use him in numerous ways. Sanders, Davis and Beasley are all appealing for different reasons: Sanders has the highest ceiling, Davis could break out if Sanders foot issues flare up in season, and Beasley will be the most consistent, but also carry injury upside if Sanders breaks down. Marshall has been a camp and preseason sensation and will force his way onto the field in three-wide sets. Hilton could flash some of his late-season resurgence when Wentz returns to revive the deep passing game in Indianapolis. Valdes-Scantling has had a scalding summer and should be rostered in every league.
Shepard could be a high floor weekly PPR option as the Giant with the best chemistry with Daniel Jones and Kadarius Toney looking like he’ll be no threat to make an early impact. Williams will be the Lions' #1, whatever that is worth. Valdes-Scantling is having a great summer and doesn’t need a lot of targets to hit. Edwards could become the #1 red zone option and he’s having his second great summer in a row. Slayton could become a viable deep target again if Kenny Golladay draws safety attention. Palmer is having a great rookie camp and will be Justin Herbert’s #3 receiver, a role that produced a lot of big plays last year. Hamler has good chemistry with leader in the clubhouse Drew Lock and flashed his speed on an 80-yard touchdown where Lock’s arm strength meshed perfectly with his acceleration. Watkins has been the most outstanding receiver at Eagles camp.
Another year passed, and we are stuck in the same Groundhog Day tight end board. Record scratch…
One different than we have ever seen before comes this way
You may not be as aggressive as I am, but I reserve a fourth-round pick for Kyle Pitts in every draft. He is a special pass-catcher with a confluence of amazing measurables, honed skills, and a huge role as the first non-quarterback taken by a team that is looking to replace an iconic player in Julio Jones. Don’t let the history of rookie tight ends throw you off of the scent here. We have never seen a prospect like Pitts at tight end before, he won’t spend a lot of time with his hand on the ground, and the team is prepping him like they would the foundational player that he will become right away. Having Pitts on your fantasy team could be a fun ride indeed. I won’t insist on you taking Pitts, but I think getting one of the top six tight ends is important. There are plenty of options.
Travis Kelce in the mid-late first
You’re getting Patrick Mahomes II 1A target. He would be worth drafting here if he was a wide receiver.
Darren Waller in the mid-late second
Waller was producing at a ridiculous pace over the last five games last year, and will be a value if he carries over that momentum to this season.
T.J. Hockenson/Mark Andrews in the fifth
If Pitts goes before you get a chance to take him, don’t despair. TJ Hockenson has 100 catch upside paired with the quarterback that made Tyler Higbee the #1 tight end in fantasy football in December 2019. Andrews was inconsistent while the Ravens offense was struggling, but levelled off in the second half of the season and he should still be the most valuable pass catcher in the Ravens offense.
Speaking of Tyler Higbee
If you don’t get a top-six tight end, or you don’t want to take a top-six tight end, Higbee should be your TE1 target. Take him once you see Noah Fant and Dallas Goedert are gone. He won’t get the target load he would have been in line with if Jared Goff was still in Los Angeles, but Matthew Stafford will pass more and better downfield. Gerald Everett is gone to increase Higbee’s role in the passing game, just as it was when Higbee was on his prodigious tear two holiday seasons ago.
Take a second tight end
Whether you take a top-six tight end, take Tyler Higbee, or don’t even take a top 10 tight end, strongly consider using one of your bench spots on your favorite upside tight end in the back half of your draft. It will give you depth at a position that has a high injury rate, and if you do go early tight end, it may deny one of your competitors who waited at the position one of the outs that could make your season. Trust your gut and target your guy(s). These are mine:
TE12-18 Targets: Jonnu Smit
Smith was the first mission in free agency for the Patriots and that mission was accomplished, He’ll have a central role in the passing game and just needs to stay healthy.
Everett is a free square late in drafts. He’s a receiving tight end who is likely to Russell Wilson’s #3 receiver in an offense he knows better than anyone else on the roster since he came over with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. Ertz has had a good summer and appears to have a core role in the Eagles offense. Conklin will get a huge opportunity with Irv Smith out.
Are leagues still using kickers in fantasy lineups? I’m willing to defend it, not just because I cover the position for our team and training camp reports. Kicker as a reason a matchup is won or lost is cruel, random, and senseless… and something that happens in the NFL most weeks.
Wait until the last round to take your kicker and get one of these underrated options:
Streaming is the best approach here. I write a weekly column at Footballguys detailing which waiver wire defenses to target each week to help you. We’re looking at Week 1 matchups and avoiding defenses that have a top 6 ADP, rendering them unlikely to be there in the next to last round.
Week 1 D/ST Targets
Denver - Vic Fangio’s defense with a healthy Chubb and Miller and revamped secondary vs. Daniel Jones.
Carolina - Facing Zach Wilson in his first NFL start
Happy drafting all! I’ll keep updating this as the preseason unfolds and continue to share everything I am digesting and processing that is changing my approach to drafts for the rest of the preseason and right up until draft season ends when the actual season begins. Always feel free to hit me on Twitter if you have any specific questions!