The dog days on the sports calendar have come and gone, and it could not have come any sooner. Aaron Judge carried the load into July but even he could not reach the end of August thus making baseball baseball once again. The rest of the summer consisted of NBA social media shenanigans, Donald Trump saying stupid shit and people losing their shit over a solar eclipse (spoiler: the eclipse was as electric as watching Christian Hackenberg attempt to complete a 10-yard pass).
But the past is the past. Let’s move forward. The fall is on the horizon which means football is back. Football season is great for a plethora of reasons, chief among them being that football is one of the best sports created by man. What separates football season from the pack is that it is also an opportunity to make some cash.
No sport is as closely tied to gambling as football mainly because games are once a week. There are a few different ways to make some money off the NFL, but the most fun has to be fantasy football. It may give you the smallest bang for your buck compared to daily fantasy and game picks, but it makes up for that with the other things.
The other things start and finish with trash talk. There are few greater pleasures than waking up Tuesday morning and popping shit at the poor sap you just beat. That’s right when Odell Beckham sprints 84 yards for a touchdown, you scored not the Giants or Odell–I imagine fantasy football is what vicariously living through my kids will feel like.
Fantasy was initially thought to be a fun game between friends, but has evolved into a juiced up version of Risk. We have zero control over a player’s performance yet we have to put ourselves in position to win by piecing together the best possible team.
A lion’s share of fantasy coverage on the internet focuses on sleepers, late round finds, which is all good info. Read that, digest it and apply it to your team management. But please do not forget about the first round. All great teams have a cog, a player that is sure to produce week in and week out. A majority of those cogs can be found in the top 15.
We’ve been taught that the best way to succeed is by getting off to a good start. Drafting for fantasy is no different. This year there is a gluttony of talent in the top six followed by a drop off. You’re at the mercy of the random draft order, but once that is done you must make the best of whatever position you get.
To better help navigate the terrain of the first round we will go through each pick in the first round, playing the role of the subconscious. In order to make this as easy as possible we will use the 12-team PPR format. Without further rambling let’s jump in.
Okay take a deep breath. You are in the best spot and the worst spot in the draft. Make the right pick and you’re doing what is expected. A bad pick here and you’re the dunce of the draft.
The anxiety you feel is what happens when you can have any player you want. It must be the same anxiety Leo feels when he steps into 1OAK and sees a pack of dimes. With so many options it’s important to keep your head.
First and foremost, target the top receiver or running back. Those are the money positions. Second, out of those two find out which group has the sharpest talent drop off. For the sake of saving time I’ll give you the answer, it’s the running backs. Teams have shifted towards committee backfields so if you can find solo act grab him.
That will lead you to Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. Think you know who you’re picking? Not so fast. Remember this is fantasy football not football. Bell is no doubt the best running back in football but he also shares an offense with the best receiver in football, Antonio Brown. Johnson may not be the dual menace that Bell is (although he comes the closest) but he will certainly get the workload.
Last season Johnson was a workhorse for the Cardinals. He averaged 23.3 touches per game for an average of 132 total yards per Pro-Football-Reference. Even more impressive was his 1.25 touchdown per game clip. Remember that year Andre Ellington was being talked up as the new Jamaal Charles? Bruce Arians wasn’t joking, Ellington just wasn’t his guy. Johnson is his guy. With Larry Fitzgerald as the second best option in the offense expect a heavy workload for DJ. Heavy workload equals a lot of opportunities for points.
Selection: David Johnson
Okay, with Johnson off the board life just got a lot easier. Sure, the fact Le’Veon hasn’t played a full 16 games in the last two years should mildly worry you. But you know what can ease that apprehension? How about 1,268 rushing yards, 75 receptions and 616 receiving yards with nine total touchdowns. Oh, I forgot to mention–that was in just 12 games. This year will be the first time in the last three years that Le’Veon will not spend the first few weeks suspended.
He is however playing for a lucrative contract. If he indeed wants to get paid (and he really wants to get paid) expect a contract year from hell. In Week 1 his first victim will be the Browns. After that the toughest non-division opponent the Steelers face are the Vikings which comes the very next week. After that you can count on Le’Veon to tear up the Bears, Jaguars in addition to familiar foes the Ravens and Bengals. Antonio Brown will certainly take away some shine but at the end of the day when he’s in the Steeler offense flows through Le’Veon. Don’t overthink this.
Selection: Le’Veon Bell
Here is where the draft starts. You can go a couple ways here. Smart money is on Antonio Brown but you can also afford to live a little and take Odell Beckham or Julio Jones. This is usually a debate you have if you are lucky enough to get the first pick so you’re already sitting pretty. The three receivers mentioned are all great selections so let’s split some hairs.
From a pure schedule standpoint the advantage goes to Julio. The NFC South may be talented but those secondaries are lunch food for Julio, especially compared to what Odell and AB have to deal with in their rivalries. Julio also has the better quarterback out of the bunch. The only slight against him is that he is too good. Most defenses key on him and live with the other guys beating them. Last year the other Falcons were able to beat teams, but each season is its own. Are you willing to commit to that?
It is that slither of an advantage is where AB and Odell move ahead. Both are virtually the same guy in terms of fantasy. They’re burners who can take a five-yard slant 75 yards to the house. The difference is AB has Le’Veon to keep defenses from keying on him while Odell depends on Eli Manning. Another advantage for AB is the Steelers use him properly. While you see AB work the short routes all day, you see Odell in the slot a fair amount, but not nearly enough given how lethal he can be.
Odell’s role could change this year with the weapons Giants GM Jerry Reese brought in. But you know what AB is going to get you–100 catches, 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. That’s been his m.o. for the past three seasons (with Landry Jones getting some time at QB no less) and you can trust him to do the same again. Consistency is key in this game even if it’s in the slightest of margins.
Selection: Antonio Brown
Okay your job just got a lot easier. It’s Odell or Julio, no one else should be even entering your mind. You do not have the luxury of having a back-to-back pick at any point in this draft so you have to hit on your picks. Who you choose will have to be trusted to be your top guy week in and week out.
Julio is enticing because he is arguably more android than human. But do not forget about Odell. The Giants’ star is on pace to become the greatest receiver of all time. Through three seasons he has already scored and danced on defenses 35 times. He has been able to accomplish that with Eli Manning being less than stellar in the accuracy department.
This pick comes down to who you trust to come through when you need them. Julio has replaced Calvin Johnson as the receiver every defense physically cannot stop. Unfortunately that means he will get Calvin Johnson attention which tends to make the quarterback look at other guys especially in the red zone. Julio has scored double-digit touchdowns just once in his career and that was his second season when Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White were around.
Odell on the other hand has had double-digit touchdown seasons his whole NFL career. He will certainly have some stinkers–especially against the Eagles who always seem to rattle Eli–but his bigger performances will outweigh those select games. Close call here but go with the touchdown machine over the actual machine.
Selection: Odell Beckham Jr.
Welcome to no man’s land. There is no way around it, you are in an unenviable position of waiting an eternity between picks. Just like with the fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth picks, you must hit on your guy. Lucky for you fate has giftwrapped you this guy:
Say thank you and keep it moving.
Selection: Julio Jones
The middle man. Luck in the draft lottery didn’t go your way–or did it? More likely than not there are a few idiots picking around you. Talent is inevitably going to fall into your lap, it’s just a matter of you capitalizing on it. Had Ezekiel Elliott not been suspended this was the popular place to pick him. Consider that an act from the football gods because Zeke is talented as anyone, but not the best value at six.
Here is where you throw a slight curve. For the most part the draft picks have gone as expected. Let’s shake shit up and go with Mike Evans. Before you call me crazy take this into account–last season Evans finished third among receivers in total points. He is a freak of an athlete and has a rising star at quarterback in Jameis Winston.
A selection in Evans is a vote of confidence in Winston. This season the Buccaneers have the third easiest schedule for receivers per Scout Fantasy, thanks in part to facing the secondaries in the NFC South. If Winston makes the leap many have projected him to do Evans will be the key beneficiary.
Selection: Mike Evans
Beggars can’t be choosers and with the seventh pick you take whatever you can get. By now the stars have been chosen, no one has really fallen, leaving you with one choice. Play it safe. The best spots to swing for the fences are at the edges of the draft board (top three/bottom three). You do not have that luxury, but such is life.
The two safe guys here are LeSean McCoy and A.J. Green. Both are known to be trustworthy selections and both do not have to worry about a teammate stealing their points. Last season McCoy finished fourth among running backs as he carried the Bills offense all season. He ran for 1,256 yards with 13 touchdowns and added 50 receptions for 356 yards and a receiving touchdown.
Green was on pace to be top five at his position as well before going down in Week 11 with a hamstring injury. Still, for as much flak Andy Dalton gets he always makes sure his beast is fed. He has eclipsed 1,000 yards in every season minus last season (but had already racked up 964 yards through eleven weeks) and finds the end zone a good amount.
The one caveat with selecting either of these guys is that they are the heart of their offense. The added attention could lead to lackluster performances. McCoy has an easier schedule for his position but starts the season facing stout run defenses like the Jets, Broncos and Panthers. We’re splitting hairs here but rock with the reliable Green.
Selection: A.J. Green
Not a whole lot to think about here. There is one last safe choice before venturing into the terrain of mediocrity. LeSean McCoy should be the pick here. The fact you can land the third best running back (assuming Zeke is out the first four to six games) at eight is already a win.
The great thing about getting McCoy here is you know he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder for carries. Last season he scored 13 rushing touchdowns which is impressive. But that’s leaving out that Mike Gillislee also poached a good amount. Now that Gillislee will be preoccupied playing for the Super Bowl in New England, McCoy should be free to carry the rock early and often. The sole red flag on McCoy is his age.
McCoy is 29 years old which is the supposed age where running backs fall of a cliff. The good news is that age is actually 26. You saw what McCoy was able to do in his “declining” years and if you land that production at eight you have to take it.
Selection: LeSean McCoy
I’ll be honest with you, this spot sucks. Ideally you want to be in the top three or bottom three. If you can’t get that then you want to be as high in the order as possible. You get neither. Now you can dwell on the fact that you got suckered into a bad spot or rise up and make a great pick. Assuming you are more optimistic than a loser pessimist let’s find someone who can get you started on the right path.
Right now there are a couple top running backs left–Devonta Freeman and Melvin Gordon. Both finished top ten in scoring last season as the featured back for their respective team. As the lead back Freeman racked up 1,079 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 54 receptions, 462 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Freeman has the most competition within his backfield with Tevin Coleman, but last year’s Super Bowl run with Freeman as lead back could have put the kibosh on Coleman overtaking him as the starter.
Gordon’s situation is even sunnier. As of this writing Gordon’s back up is Branden Oliver who is solid but will not exactly keep you up at night. Gordon on the other hand fulfilled that first round promise the Chargers saw in him when they took him 15th overall in 2015. Last season he ran for 997 yards with 10 touchdowns. In the receiving game he added 41 receptions for 419 and two touchdowns. The most important stat from his sophomore campaign was his ball security, losing two fumbles last season compared to six his rookie year.
Again, we’re splitting hairs with these two guys but Freeman has at least proven to be consistent as long as he as the ball in his hands. Toss in having Julio Jones on his team to take attention away and this choice becomes a little easier.
Selection: Devonta Freeman
Okay so you just saw the fourth running back come off the board. That naturally means you have to take Gordon here right? Not exactly. Gordon is great mostly because you know he will be getting the ball a lot. But take a look at that best available list one more time. Any names pop off the screen? No right? Take a closer look and highlight Jordy Nelson’s name.
I know Nelson isn’t the exciting pick here, but you must remember a pick in a receiver is a vote of confidence in their quarterback. If you do not have confidence in Aaron Rodgers then buddy you’re in the wrong sport. Last season Nelson quietly finished as a top five receiver as the Packers went on a John Wick-type tear to cap off the season. For the season Nelson finished with 97 receptions, 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns (second highest total for career).
The big thing working for Nelson is that Rodgers seems to trust him more than anyone else. Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and offseason addition Martellus Bennett will have their moments, but Nelson is A-Rod’s guy. Aside from two games where he has to go against Xavier Rhodes and the Vikings, Nelson’s toughest opponent is Richard Sherman and the Seahawks in Week 1. Barring any injuries (easier said than done in Green Bay as any Packer fan can tell you) Nelson figures to land in the top ten receivers list once again.
Selection: Jordy Nelson
Picking at the tail end of the first round is a gift and a curse. The gift is that when making your selection you can afford to reach because you will be picking again in two picks. The curse is reaching for someone that is not worth the risk. You want to be safe but you also want to take a guy who can be relied on to carry your season.
Conventional wisdom says Gordon should be the pick here with DeMarco Murray and Michael Thomas falling into the conversation. The reason you rock with Gordon here is his young legs–Murray has a lot of miles on him–and position security. Thomas may end up being a top 15 receiver in his sophomore season but Brees has had the reputation to spread the ball out.
Do you really want to rely on the football version of roulette with a workhorse like Gordon on the board? Take the number five running back here and target Thomas, Gronk or even Murray in round two.
Selection: Melvin Gordon
To me this is the best pick to have if you cannot get the top pick. Picking back-to-back eases the mind because you don’t have to debate who to take if you’re stuck between two guys. In this case you should be debating DeMarco Murray and Michael Thomas, with Jordan Howard in the back of your mind. Both Murray and Thomas would be great selections if they can replicate what they did last year.
Let’s start with the young bull Thomas. In his rookie season for the Saints Thomas quickly grabbed Brees’ attention and never let it go. He was targeted 121 times as a rookie which he converted to 92 receptions (76-percent catch rate for any nerds reading this), 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. Take into account he was sharing with the recently departed Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and whoever else the Saints find off the scrapheap. This year Snead is still there but after that it’s Ted Ginn. In case you were not aware Ginn’s hands are as solid as water. Thomas will be a trendy pick this year and well worth the hype.
Murray is a nice yin to Thomas’ yang. He resurrected himself in Tennessee after a nightmare in Philadelphia none of us will ever talk about. You might want to ride Murray one more year but be cognizant of second year Mack truck Derrick Henry. As a rookie Henry didn’t factor in as much but you can expect his role to increase towards the tail end of the season. Take Howard if you get an adrenaline rush from taking Thomas, but tread lightly.
Selection: Michael Thomas
Hopefully this helped you a little bit. The main takeaway from this should be that fantasy football and regular football are each their own entities. When thinking about drafting a guy keep in mind his team’s situation (i.e. personnel, schedule, idiot coach) is smart but above all look at how that situation affects the player.
And never forget to have fun. Pop shit, rattle your fellow league mates from time to time to keep the league interesting and (hopefully) win some money. The way the NFL is being run we might not have fantasy football in 20 years so enjoy it while it’s here.