Understanding how your fantasy draft unfolds helps you to prepare to win – or at least know what to expect. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted last season, but not nearly as badly as feared. This summer is more back to normal, but there are still unique aspects and notable trends to this year.
For 2021, each NFL team plays in three preseason games that stretch from Thursday, August 12, through Sunday, August 29, so there are fewer chances to see players in games. The NFL cut down process also changes the final 53-man cutdown to Tuesday, August 31. Usually, final cuts were only four days before the first game. This year, it is a full nine days before Week 1 kicks off, so teams have more time to address their final rosters. Or pull off final week trades. That directly impacts fantasy drafts like last year when Leonard Fournette changed teams just a week before the 2020 season started.
17 Game Season
While it may not directly impact your fantasy draft, the reality is that adding a game to the schedule means another week a player could be injured. It makes owning the handcuffs for a running back or carrying a solid No. 2 quarterback a bit more reasonable. As it is, only half of the starting quarterbacks played all 16 games last year. Only four of the Top-20 running backs didn’t miss a game, and half of the Top-30 wideouts were out for at least one week. Owning backups makes even more sense.
The run on the different fantasy positions is close to what is typically seen, so here is what you can expect.
Quarterbacks – In leagues using two quarterbacks, the run starts in the first round and goes heavily through the third. In traditional leagues, the same players make up the Top-5: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Lamar Jackson. Mahomes typically goes in the late third round. Everyone else realizes that’s too early, and the run usually begins in the fifth round and consumes the other four difference makers. There are still great values out in the eighth to tenth round, so waiting is always a sound strategy.
Running Backs – As always, the first three rounds are a love-fest for the position. Some leagues may see eight in a row to start their draft. Waiting on running backs is a new, yet terrifying, draft strategy. It is not for the timid because while the start of the third round can easily access a Top-8 wideout, likely 14 to 16 running backs are gone. That means a disadvantage at the most consistent fantasy scorer in your starting lineup. You can win a league and not take two running backs over the first three rounds. You just have to get lucky.
The Top-8 running backs always contain Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Nick Chubb, and Jonathan Taylor. Their order differs dramatically other than McCaffrey goes first.
By the fifth round, expect the pickings to be slim, at least considering risk. There are guys like Myles Gaskin, Travis Etienne, Mike Davis, James Robinson, Chase Edmonds, and Kareem Hunt, who all have upside, but just as much risk. After round four, they are the back half of a committee, an untested rookie or a player that’s been downgraded from last year.
The rookies are popular as always, and many are rising in drafts as the season draws near. Najee Harris is the only certain workhorse. Travis Etienne remains a fourth or fifth-rounder as the apparent third-down back in Jacksonville. Javonte Williams, Trey Sermon, and Michael Carter are all gaining popularity as speculation grows that they can become the No. 1 back in their respective offenses. They offer that zesty fun by swinging for the fence, and realistically everyone loves a rookie back more than they should.
Wide Receivers – If you are willing to wait on running backs, there is great value in the first five rounds for wideouts. In most leagues, there will only be six to eight taken by the start of the third round. That means it is possible to start your fantasy team with two Top-10 wideouts which is always an advantage as elite receivers are safer year-to-year than any other position.
By the end of the fourth round, most fantasy teams contain two running backs and two wide receivers. Rounds three and four are heavy with wide receivers. By the fifth round, there are still high-upside players like Kenny Golladay, Cooper Kupp, Brandon Aiyuk, Chase Claypool and the like. And remember, wide receivers are the deepest position and easiest to make up ground later in the draft and even as free agent acquisitions during the season.
This is a banner year for rookie wideouts. Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Kadarius Toney, and Rashad Bateman were all first-round picks that carry expectations even in their first year. Chase, Waddle and Smith offer high upside for a sixth to eighth pick.
Tight Ends – The reality with fantasy tight ends is that there are always three elite difference-makers and minimal differences in the rest. Last year, George Kittle was injured, so there were only two – Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. Particularly in fantasy leagues with reception points, expect Kelce to go in the back half of the first round. If he doesn’t, grab him. He’s been the No. 1 fantasy tight end in four of the last five years. Waller usually falls towards the end of the second round. Kittle drops to the third after missing eight games last year. After that – wait.
T.J. Hockenson, Mark Andrews, and the rookie Kyle Pitts are next in round five or six. They offer upside in a position with precious little. After that – most leagues won’t bother with the position until round eight through ten. Taking Kelce or Waller is an advantage, but with a cost in getting a difference-maker at running back since the position quickly drains in the initial two rounds.