Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: David Johnson
- Draft position is a significant and underappreciated factor in 2018 season-long fantasy football leagues.
- If you're too high in the order, you'll miss the strong Round 2 lead backs. If you're too low, you'll miss the top tier of Round 1 running backs.
- The best draft position enables you to acquire two high-caliber running backs (such as David Johnson and Joe Mixon) in Rounds 1-2.
Some weeks ago, I told my excellent and loyal Twitter followers that if they asked me some fantasy football draft strategy questions, I would answer them.
Here are some of the answers so far.
- The Round I’m Drafting a Fantasy Quarterback
- The 25 Best Fantasy Football Twitter Accounts to Follow
Now I’m going to break down the best fantasy football draft position for this year.
What Slot Do You Like Drafting From?
Fantastic question. In some leagues, there’s a preliminary process through which team managers get to select their draft spots. In other leagues, teams are free to swap draft spots outright. And sometimes teams swap picks in a few of the early rounds, which is a low-maintenance way of exchanging draft position for the highest-leverage selections.
If I had the ability to select my draft spot in a 12-team league — and this is regardless of whether the scoring is standard, point per reception (PPR) or 0.5 PPR — I easily know the pick I would choose.
The Best 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Position Is…
Pick No. 4.
If you consult our fantasy football rankings …
… you’ll see that Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon and I all have a clear top tier of four players, all of whom are running backs. (We talk about them on our top-12 running backs episode of “The Daily Fantasy Flex” on The Action Network NFL Podcast.)
While we differ after this cohort, each of us has these four backs collectively ranked at the top of the board. They are most commonly drafted in this order (per Fantasy Football Calculator).
- Todd Gurley (Rams)
- Le’Veon Bell (Steelers)
- Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys)
- David Johnson (Cardinals)
Based on how we have ranked players and how fantasy managers have drafted them, there’s a large gap after Tier 1.
In standard leagues, the difference in average draft position (ADP) between Johnson at No. 4 and the next player at No. 5 is the largest gap we see in the first round (3.8 vs. 5.9).
In 0.5 PPR and full PPR, the difference is similarly chasmic (3.6 vs. 5.4 and 3.8 vs. 5.3).
Note that in all instances Johnson at No. 4 provides value (relative to ADP), while the player selected at No. 5 is drafted at a deficit. On average, Johnson is drafted earlier than No. 4, but the next player is selected later than No. 5.
In other words, at No. 4, you get your player at a discount to market. At No. 5, you always pay a premium.
And this makes sense. It’s almost always a more cost-efficient move to draft at the bottom of a tier than at the top of one. (By the way, that’s why you should check out Koerner’s tiers.)
Whoever you draft at No. 4 will be the last player of Tier 1. That’s a big plus.
- Fantasy Football Cheat Sheets: PPR & Standard
- Koerner’s Fantasy Football Projections
- Top 200 Player Profiles
Tier 2 Sucks
And the problem isn’t just that there’s a large gap after Tier 1. The real problem is that Tier 2 sucks.
The players in it are good, but the tier itself is a well-defined yet homogeneous analytical grab bag.
In all scoring formats, Koerner, Raybon and I have each separately ranked the following players Nos. 5-13 (in one order or another).
- Antonio Brown (Steelers, wide receiver)
- Saquon Barkley (Giants, running back)
- Alvin Kamara (Saints, running back)
- DeAndre Hopkins (Texans, wide receiver)
- Melvin Gordon III (Chargers, running back)
- Julio Jones (Falcons, wide receiver)
- Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants, wide receiver)
- Leonard Fournette (Jaguars, running back)
- Kareem Hunt (Chiefs, running back)
This is a very clear tier — all three Action Network rankers agree that these are the players who should be drafted before Pick No. 14 — but within Tier 2 there is relative chaos and uncertainty.
Tier 2 Wide Receivers
Brown is a great receiver, but can we say definitively that he’s better than Hopkins, who trails only Randy Moss, A.J. Green and Larry Fitzgerald with his career-opening five-year stretch of 413 receptions, 5,865 yards and 36 touchdowns?
Or can we say that Hopkins is clearly better than Jones, who is the all-time NFL leader with 95.3 receiving yards per game?
Or that Jones is superior to OBJ, who is one of just three players in history to start his career with three straight seasons of 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns receiving?
Tier 2 Running Backs
And what about the backs?
Barkley entered the NFL draft as the best running back prospect of the past decade, but is he better than Kamara, who last year as a rookie led the league with 6.1 yards per carry and had 100 targets?
And is Kamara preferable to Gordon, who has more fantasy points per game over the past two years than all non-Tier 1 backs?
Is MG3 a better pick than Fournette, who last year had 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage in 13 games on a Jaguars team that led the league in rush rate (49.5%)?
And is Fournette superior to Hunt, who just led the NFL with 1,327 yards rushing as a rookie while chipping in a 53-455-3 receiving line?
It’s hard to go wrong with any of these players, but none of them is obviously better than anyone else in Tier 2, and none of them is close to the guys in Tier 1.
All of this is why I’m avoiding any pick after No. 4, if possible.
What About the Picks Before No. 4?
If you don’t mind my saying so, that was a great rhetorical question I just asked.
Here’s why I want pick No. 4 vs. a top-three selection.
Not Pick No. 1
Koerner, Raybon and I unanimously have Gurley as the top overall player, but he faces a few obstacles to repeating as the fantasy RB1.
Additionally, I don’t want to pick at the turn of Rounds 2-3 because I’ll be at serious risk of missing out on the rest of the locked-in lead backs.
Missing on them means that (if I don’t want to go Zero RB) I’ll need to roster a back from the “Frozen Pond Tier” as my RB2.
I don’t want to do that.
Not Pick No. 2
Bell is the clear No. 2 back for most people, and that makes sense after he finished as the fantasy RB2 last year, when he led the league with 321 carries and 406 touches.
Some analysts are bullish on him because he could get even more of the 2014 DeMarco Murray treatment this year, given that he’s expected to leave Pittsburgh after the season.
Here’s the problem: Over the past 10 years, Bell is one of just three players in the pass-happy NFL to have at least 400 touches in a season, and the other two (Murray, Chris Johnson in 2009) both significantly declined in the following year.
It’s also probable that Bell (just as he did last year) will report to the team out of playing shape, which could mean a slower start and maybe even an early season long-lingering campaign-crushing soul-annihilating soft-tissue injury.
In short, Bell’s not my No. 2 back, and even if he were, I’d nevertheless want to avoid Pick No. 2, because the accompanying Pick No. 23 near the end of Round 2 still carries with it a high degree of “Frozen Pond” risk.
Not Pick No. 3
Zeke offers fair value at No. 3: In each of the past two years he’s been a top-three fantasy back in points per game and the top overall runner with a whopping 104.6 rushing yards per outing. For context: Bell is second with 94.8.
I’ll go to my grave saying the Cowboys shouldn’t have drafted Zeke with the No. 4 overall pick, but he’s an exceptional player all the same.
This year, though, Zeke could regress in what might be a middling offense. I like third-round wide receiver Michael Gallup — I have him as a first-rounder in my dynasty rookie rankings — but the Cowboys lack an established pass-catching hierarchy without wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.
While their absence could free up more touches for Zeke, the offense could struggle to sustain drives without go-to receivers.
I still think Zeke will have a fine season, but he’s not without risk. All the same, if I couldn’t pick at No. 4, I’d probably pick at No. 3.
Pick No. 4 Offers the Best 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Position
For multiple reasons, I crave the No. 4 pick.
First of all, I really like Johnson, so much so that he’s my No. 2 back. He missed almost all of last year with a random wrist injury, but he’s looked great through the first two weeks of the preseason (8-50-1 rushing), and he should be entirely fresh after his time off.
Johnson is in a new system without former head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer, so maybe he won’t average one touchdown per game (which he has done across his career), but HC Steve Wilks reportedly intends to utilize a run-heavy offense to complement his defense à la the 2016 Cowboys and 2017 Jaguars. Johnson could still get lots of run.
And what if the offense isn’t very good? That might not matter. As The Action Network’s Ian Hartitz says in his Johnson profile …
It’s tough to find a more complete back in the league than Johnson, which means he should theoretically be more scheme- and coach-agnostic than your typical running back. Johnson remains one of the league’s only backs with No. 1 overall fantasy upside in his potential range of outcomes, and even a poor showing from his new teammates (including PFF’s No. 27-ranked offensive line) might not be enough to hinder his weekly production.
We should keep in mind that Johnson was the highest-rated fantasy player entering last season. We’re getting him at a significant discount now at No. 4.
So I like Johnson a lot.
But what happens if I’m at No. 4 and Johnson is selected before my pick? I kind of don’t care.
If Bell or Zeke falls to No. 4, then I’ll draft a guy who offers substantial value relative to his ADP. I’d rather have Johnson, but with or without him, I’m getting value at No. 4.
Round 2 Lead Backs
Additionally, I have a good chance of getting value in Round 2 at Pick No. 21 with a high-upside lead back, such as …
- Devonta Freeman (Falcons)
- Jordan Howard (Bears)
- Joe Mixon (Bengals)
- Jerick McKinnon (49ers)
I can live with any of these guys as my RB2.
Freeman has a league-high 35 touchdowns over the past three years. Howard trails only Gurley, Bell, Zeke and MG3 with 528 carries and 52 receptions over the past two seasons.
Mixon is the Arbitrage Saquon as a young, big, athletic back with pass-catching ability and a mediocre quarterback.
McKinnon is the receiving-ready lead back in a run-friendly Kyle Shanahan offense that distributed 166 targets to running backs and fullbacks in 2017.
With a top-four back and one of these four Round 2 options, I’d be happy. If my second pick were any later in the draft, I’d feel much less confident in my ability to get a solid RB2.
Value & the Middle-of-the-Order Draft Position
And one final point: I prefer a middle-of-the-order draft position instead of one skewed to the extreme. I tend to be a value investor, and when I pick too high or too low in the order, I find myself reaching because I either want to “get my guy” or address a position before a tier-clearing run starts.
With Pick No. 4, I’m close enough to the middle to ensure that I don’t have to reach for players or worry about positional runs. I can wait and let the value come to me through the natural process of the draft.
So much in fantasy sports is random, and anything can happen over the course of an NFL season. But if you find yourself with Pick No. 4 this year, at least you’ll be heading into your draft with a sizable edge.