Each year, fantasy drafts closely resemble the final rankings from the previous season. That is reliable. And each year, savvy fantasy drafters navigate their drafts already armed with a good idea of what to expect. 2018 will be a season with much change since half of all NFL teams sport a new offensive coordinator and only ten franchises return the same quarterback, running back and primary receiver from 2017. The optimal fantasy draft starts by preparing well before the first pick is made. Here’s what to expect.
Quarterbacks – Last year, Aaron Rodgers was hurt, Drew Brees faded and Andrew Luck was AWOL. We fell in love with both Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. And then they were gone. Quarterbacks were not a fantasy difference maker and only Russell Wilson stood tall. This year witnesses the continued fantasy devaluation of the position.
The top two drafted are almost always Russell Wilson (was the No. 1) and Aaron Rodgers (usually is the No. 1). Even they will last until the fifth round unless quarterback scoring is significantly higher or two may be started. Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady and Cam Newton may not show up for another two rounds. Bottom line – you can wait on the position and still find an acceptable value. The difference between a top quarterback and the tenth one taken is likely only three or four points per game.
Running Backs – Welcome back! Oh, how we missed you. 2017 was the year of the running back with a very rich crop of rookies. Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell steamrolled in most leagues while the rookies Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Christian McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette all produced top ten fantasy stats. Expect drafters to remember how advantageous the position was last year, and especially those returning second-year backs. A twelve-team league will have eight or nine running backs taken in the first round.
All those productive rookie backs from 2017 remain highly coveted and the new crop starts with Saquon Barkley in the back half of the first round. But then they next wait until the end of the third round when Derrius Guice and Rashaad Penny show up.
All primary running backs are cleared out by the end of the fifth round and then it becomes picking from the pile of third-down backs, short-yardage guys and the riskier parts of committee backfields. If you want a solid backfield – and you really should – then at least two of your first four picks need to be running back if not three. 2018 is not the year to wait on a running back and expect to compensate in later rounds.
Wide Receivers – Wideouts peaked in recent years and are now in decline. Those positional studs no longer provide as significant a benefit. DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown were the top two wideouts of 2017 and are the only two locks for the first round this summer. After those two, the order changes in every draft. Having a top wideout is still an advantage, but it has never been harder to figure out exactly who they are.
Even the stars of 2017 all have question marks – Keenan Allen (one healthy year in last four), Jarvis Landry (changed teams), Larry Fitzgerald (oldest receiver and with a new quarterback and offense), Michael Thomas (Saints rush more), Julio Jones (career-worst touchdowns) and so on.
The top five rookie wideouts were all busts. Later picks of Juju Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp were the only success stories in the class. With the first 2018 wideout not drafted until the 24th overall pick (D.J. Moore), there is no hurry by anyone to grab an NFL freshman. Much less any reason.
Expect the third and fourth rounds to contain the highest number of wideouts. The generic drafter is grabbing two running backs and then two wideouts.
Tight Ends – Not unlike the other positions, the top two from 2017 – Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski – are locks as the top two drafted. They will typically both go around the start of the third round. Zach Ertz, Evan Engram, Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen are taken sporadically over the next three rounds until the rest of the league begrudgingly fills that starting position. By the eighth round, the pickings become very unappealing.
Last year proved a rarity when Evan Engram shined as a rookie, but that was the product of the Giants offense losing their starting wideouts and forcing throws to Engram. For the last five years, no other rookie tight end ranked better than eighteenth.
If you want any advantage at the position, plan on taking a tight end no later than the sixth round and maybe the fifth if you want to play it safe. After the first six are drafted, there’s no advantage and only a growing liability.
Place Kickers – No different than any year. Just wait. The final rounds are best for the position. The top kickers of 2016 were Matt Bryant, Justin Tucker, Dustin Hopkins, Caleb Sturgis and Will Lutz. In 2017, those five ended 8th, 6th, 30th, 40th and 7th respectively. Just grab one from a team likely to have a winning record and then watch the waiver wire for any offense that is exceeding expectations.
The position is notoriously hard to predict since it entails the offense getting close enough for a field goal and yet not score a touchdown. The difference between the best and tenth kicker is usually less than two points a game. There is even a movement in leagues and contests to no longer use the position.
Team Defenses – There is a myriad of ways that defenses are scored, and they can make significant differences in how they rank. They are at least incrementally more consistent than kickers but deserve to be one of the final picks as well. Consider that a defense is a purely “reactive” unit that is entirely dependent on the quality of the opposing offense and the game situation. And they are typically low scoring in fantasy. As their performance is a unique expression of what the opposing offense does, streaming them by just playing matchups with free agent defenses every week is perfectly viable.
The consistency for 2018 is that the Jaguars are the top defense drafted because they finished 2017 as the highest scoring fantasy defense. And like every year, they are drafted far too early. There is a lull for one or two rounds until someone finally takes the Rams. Then the Eagles, Vikings and Chargers trickle in until the final rounds cough up the rest of starting defenses.
Target positions in certain rounds and not particular players. You’ll end up with the best available choice and not be thrown off course when the one guy wanted is taken right before your turn. Plan your draft and plan on winning.