2017 Fantasy Football Draft Guide: The Ultimate Blueprint
Summer is winding down, and kids will soon be heading back to school.
For fantasy football enthusiasts, though, class is already in session. Draft season is upon us.
There are as many draft strategies as there are colors of the rainbow. Some prefer the statistics-based approach of Value-Based Drafting. Others are all-in on today's changing game with the Zero RB strategy. Others still rock it old-school and take running backs in the first two rounds.
We won't debate the validity of those approaches here. Instead, let's take a position-by-position look at both draft strategy for 2017 and some players at each position to bear in mind on draft day.
Quarterback is unquestionably the NFL's most important position. There are two types of teams—ones sitting pretty with a franchise quarterback and ones desperately trying to acquire such a player.
As such, some fantasy drafters mistakenly believe that because quarterbacks are the highest-scoring players in many leagues, QB is likewise the most important position in fantasy.
Positional scarcity strongly suggests otherwise.
In fantasy, a player's value is determined in part by the difference in scoring between the best weekly starter at his position and the worst. In 12-team leagues with three wide receiver slots, it's how the No. 12 quarterback, No. 24 running back, No. 36 wide receiver and No. 12 tight end relate to the top option.
In PPR scoring systems, tight end was the only position where there was a smaller gap in 2016 in that regard than at quarterback.
Spending an early pick on a quarterback means opening a glaring hole at running back or wide receiver. Unless you hit paydirt on a late-round value, the advantage you gain under center isn't worth that disadvantage elsewhere.
Does this mean you should let an opposing league member reach on the likes of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady no matter what? Not necessarily. If a top-tier QB slips to Round 4, they're far more enticing.
But at their current ADP of the second and third round, respectively, the smart play is to pass. Quarterbacks who could become solid weekly starters are being drafted outside the top 12 at the position.
When it comes to quarterbacks, patience is a virtue.
Quarterbacks to Target
If you don't reach on the likes of Rodgers, Brady or Drew Brees, keep an eye on these QBs later in drafts.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (ADP: 103.0, QB13)
Mariota dramatically improved in his second NFL season. From Week 4 to Week 12 last year, the former Heisman Trophy winner was the highest-scoring quarterback in fantasy football. Mariota appears fully recovered from his season-ending fractured leg, and he has a boatload of new passing-game options at his disposal in 2017, including Eric Decker and rookies Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (ADP: 115.5, QB14)
Yes, Stafford only threw 24 touchdowns last season, and his 7.3 yards per pass attempt ranked 13th among 30 qualified signal-callers. But Stafford has averaged over 600 pass attempts across the past four years, topped 4,300 passing yards last season and has back-to-back top-10 fantasy seasons under his belt under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, including a QB7 finish last year. Even with red-zone target Anquan Boldin gone, there's no reason to think he can't match or exceed that production in 2017.
Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: 118.3, QB15)
Rivers didn't have a great 2016 season, as he threw a career-high 21 interceptions and posted his lowest completion percentage since 2007. However, he still passed for almost 4,400 yards, tossed 33 touchdown passes and finished the year eighth in fantasy points among quarterbacks on a per-game basis. You can wait until every other owner in your league has a starting QB (and then some) and still land a proven veteran under center.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: 54.8, QB4)
Barring an elite option unexpectedly dropping, owners shouldn't consider drafting a quarterback until roughly the beginning of the fifth round. And if you're pulling the trigger on a quarterback that early, it shouldn't be one whose recovery from shoulder surgery keeps dragging on without tangible progress. As B/R's Mike Tanier put it, "It's time to read between the lines: Andrew Luck isn't playing anytime soon."
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: 99.3, QB12)
With perhaps the NFL's best wide receiver and tailback at his disposal, Roethlisberger is capable of posting huge numbers...provided he's on the field. And that field is Heinz Field. In addition to six missed games over the past two seasons, Big Ben has perfected a Jekyll-and-Hyde act—he threw only nine touchdown passes and had a passer rating almost 40 points lower on the road than at home last year.
Running Back Strategy
Thanks to a combination of high-profile fantasy busts among top running backs in recent years, an ever-growing number of high-scoring wideouts and the continuing evolution of today's pass-wacky NFL, we entered 2016 in uncharted territory.
Running backs were no longer the unquestioned kings of fantasy football. In fact, a trendy draft strategy emerged that called for fantasy owners to eschew the position altogether for the first handful of rounds: the "Zero RB" Theory.
However, the tailback position made a comeback last year. David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals topped 2,000 total yards and had over 100 total yards in each of the first 15 games of the year. Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys led the NFL with over 1,600 rushing yards as a rookie. And Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers averaged more fantasy points per game than any non-quarterback in the NFL—and all but one quarterback, too.
This year, those three have been the top three picks in the majority of fantasy drafts, although a potential suspension for Elliott could cause his ADP to plunge.
This isn't to say you must draft a running back with your first pick. After Johnson, Bell and Elliott, the next three players off the overwhelming majority of draft boards are wide receivers. Six of the first 12 picks are running backs, according to ADP, while six are wide receivers.
Owners would be wise to grab a ball-carrier with one of their first two picks, though. By the end of the third round, the remaining running backs look like the three-dollar towels at a Black Friday sale.
While you can win with any draft strategy, you need to identify value at the position in later rounds to succeed with Zero RB.
Running Backs to Target
If you decide to wait at running back, these options should be available later in drafts.
Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 76.8, RB28)
Woodhead's fantasy value is substantially higher in leagues that award a point per reception. His ADP will also certainly rise now that fellow Ravens tailback Kenneth Dixon is out for the year with a torn meniscus, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. There's risk involved in trusting a 32-year-old tailback who has missed most of two of the last three seasons with major injuries, but in Woodhead's last full season (2015), he caught 80 passes and was a top-three PPR running back.
Paul Perkins, New York Giants (ADP: 79.3, RB29)
In May, Giants head coach declared Perkins would be the team's starting running back in 2017, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post. While his 4.1 yards per carry in 2016 wasn't eye-popping, it was nearly a half-yard better than fellow tailbacks Orleans Darkwa and Bobby Rainey. Per Dan Schneier of 247 Sports, Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson believes Perkins could be "a possible back on all three downs." He isn't likely to win leagues single-handedly this season, but he has a good shot at quietly sneaking his way into the top 20.
Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: 80.3, RB30)
Gore is well past the age where running backs generally begin to decline. However, it appears as though someone forgot to tell him. Last year, Gore became the first 1,000-yard back for the Colts in a decade, and the 34-year-old has topped 1,000 total yards every year since his rookie season in 2005. He's also been a top-25 fantasy back every year over that stretch. If you go after wide receivers, quarterbacks or tight ends early, Gore should be on your mid-round radar.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: 3.8, RB3)
Elliott was locked into the top three for most of the summer, but news of his possible suspension has caused a slight slip. That isn't the only issue with Elliott, however. Including the playoff loss last year, Elliott topped 370 total touches (as did David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell, for that matter). As John Georgopolous wrote at Fantasy Sharks, the vast majority of runners who hit that number experience a significant drop in production the following season.
Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears (ADP: 16.0, RB7)
Yes, owners should tread lightly with the NFL's two leading rushers in 2016. Workload isn't the problem with Howard—it's the mess around him. We've seen this movie before: A talented young back explodes as a rookie only to struggle the following season as he constantly faces eight-man fronts thanks to his team's lack of a reliable passing game. Ask Todd Gurley's fantasy owners last year how that worked out...if you can get them to stop swearing and crying.
Wide Receiver Strategy
Last year, 25 pass-catchers surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. A dozen caught 90 passes. Fifteen found the end zone eight or more times.
Due to that increase in passing, the wide receiver position has become both deeper and steadier in fantasy football. This is a good thing, especially if you know how to take advantage.
For the Zero RB crowd, it means loading up on high-end receivers early in drafts, as receivers are theoretically less likely to bust than their counterparts in the backfield. If you load up on running backs early, there are still WR values to be had later.
You should never enter a fantasy draft hell-bent on sticking to a particular plan, whether it's Zero RB or drafting a running back with each of your first three picks. One of the most important aspects of a fantasy draft is flexibility. You have to let the draft come to you and be willing to switch things up on the fly.
Still, try to procure two wide receivers you're confident starting on a weekly basis—whether it's a high-end wideout like Antonio Brown and a second-tier player like Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks or a pair like Baldwin and Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins if running back is an early priority.
In the middle and late rounds, bang away on undervalued veterans and upside plays. You'll likely hit on one as your third weekly starter, while the others afford depth and potential "flex" starters.
Wide Receivers to Target
If you go after running backs early, value receivers like this can help round out your roster in later rounds.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 55.3, WR27)
Undervaluing Fitzgerald has become some kind of bizarre annual ritual in fantasy football. Last year, Fitz caught 107 passes, topped 1,000 receiving yards and finished ninth in PPR fantasy points among wide receivers. The year before, it was 109 catches for over 1,200 yards and a seventh-place finish. And yet, owners are selecting the 33-year-old as a high-end third receiver on average. Those who go after RBs early should spend a fifth-round pick on Fitz to make him their WR2.
Jamison Crowder, Washington Redskins (ADP: 63.8, WR30)
After a breakout second season, Crowder heads into 2017 as the No. 2 receiver for a Redskins team that cranked out productive fantasy assets over the last two seasons with Kirk Cousins at quarterback—including two 1,000-yard receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon last year. Newcomer Terrelle Pryor is coming off draft boards first, but Crowder already has a rapport with Cousins. The 24-year-old should lead Washington in receptions this season and finish considerably higher than this draft slot in PPR formats.
Kenny Britt, Cleveland Browns (ADP: 112.8, WR46)
No one will compare the Cleveland offense to the "Run and Shoot" Houston Oilers or the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams. But Britt was a 1,000-yard receiver and finished among the top 30 at his position in 2016 while playing on an abysmal Rams team. This Browns team—which will be playing from behind a lot—likely won't be considerably worse, and someone has to catch passes for them.
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans (ADP: 24.5, WR11)
Hopkins showed two years ago what he's capable of, catching 111 passes for over 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. But his numbers fell off a cliff last year thanks to rotten quarterback play. Will that be better with Tom Savage and/or Deshaun Watson under center in 2017? Maybe. But this ADP bakes in belief that it will, which jacks up the possibility of Hopkins being a bust for a second straight season.
Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: 51.0, WR25)
When he's on the field, Bryant is one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats. However, he's coming off a year-long suspension and has never played in more than 11 games in a season or topped 765 receiving yards. In addition, Bryant still can't practice or play in preseason games because the NFL has yet to fully reinstate him, as Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert announced on July 27. With safer investments such as Fitzgerald, Crowder and Emmanuel Sanders frequently coming off the board after him, Bryant is too risky at his current ADP of 51.0.
Tight End Strategy
The tight end position has become the most frustrating in fantasy football.
The highest scorer at the position on a points-per-game basis in 2016—Jordan Reed of the Washington Redskins—missed four games last year and just started training camp on the PUP list. The consensus top fantasy option at the position—Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots—is great when he's on the field, but he's often sidelined with some assorted injury.
Gronkowski is fantasy football's ultimate risk/reward pick. If he can stay healthy, Gronk's ceiling is miles higher than any other tight end. He's capable of affording fantasy owners a massive edge at the position. However, he hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2011 and he missed eight games last year.
Just below Gronkowski in the "elite" tier are Reed and Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. Coming off a 1,000-yard season, Kelce may be the safest bet of the bunch, but it will likely take a third or fourth-round pick to lock him down. That could leave you scrambling at tailback or wide receiver.
After that comes a group of weekly starters with a bit less upside like Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers, Jimmy Graham of the Seattle Seahawks, Tyler Eifert of the Cincinnati Bengals and Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans. Olsen and Walker are steady vets but could see fewer targets in 2017. Eifert and Graham could post elite numbers if the chips fall their way, but they have injury concerns of their own.
The best plan of attack this year is to draft one of those seven tight ends. From there, the water only gets murkier.
Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings had a great 2016 season, but it was so far beyond anything he had done previously that it's fair to wonder whether can repeat it. Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles was white-hot late last season but ice-cold at the begging of it. Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers had eight touchdowns as a rookie, but they came on fewer than 40 catches, and he still must contend with Antonio Gates for targets.
It isn't the fantasy apocalypse if you get frozen out of the top six or seven options at tight end, and it's never advisable to reach for a player out of fear. But if you do miss out on one of the more reliable tight ends, strongly consider picking up a pair of them relatively close together—a Henry/Eric Ebron (Detroit Lions) double-dip or something to that effect.
There's no guarantee that one of those players hits, but the platoon route at least hedges your bet a little.
Tight Ends to Target
Tight end might be a crapshoot, but these players are decent bets to come up seven or 11.
Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers (ADP: 48.8, TE4)
If you want a weekly fantasy starter at tight end who you can set and forget at the lowest possible cost, Olsen is the guy to target. In each of the last three seasons, the 32-year-old has been targeted at least 120 times, caught at least 75 passes, topped 1,000 receiving yards and finished as a top-five fantasy option in PPR formats. There are new faces in the Panthers' passing game in 2017—most notably rookie dual-threats Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel—but when the rubber hits the road, Cam Newton will look for his security blanket.
Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: 131.8, TE14)
After setting career highs in receptions (59), yardage (584) and touchdowns (five) in 2016, the Colts extended Doyle and traded Dwayne Allen to the New England Patriots. Doyle isn't going to finish inside the top five at the position. But Andrew Luck has made good use of his tight ends in the past, and if the star signal-caller is unavailable, backup Scott Tolzien will certainly be looking to the tight ends often after struggling early this offseason with first-team reps, per Kent Sterling of FanRag Sports. Doyle is now the unquestioned No. 1 in that regard, and he offers fantasy owners who whiff on the position early a chance at late value.
Seth DeValve, Cleveland Browns (ADP: Not Listed)
Any fantasy tight end taken outside the top 20 is a dart throw. And DeValve is such a dart throw that he isn't even listed in Fantasy Pros' ADP info. But the second-year pro has drawn early raves in camp as a potential "breakout player" in 2017. Yes, that's probably just campspeak, but he is a converted wideout and rookie David Njoku has struggled to adjust to the NFL so far. Consider this the fantasy equivalent of a "Hail Mary" in deep leagues.
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots (ADP: 20.8, TE1)
When at his best, Gronkowski is a force of nature—a player who is head and shoulders better than anyone else at his position from a fantasy standpoint. He's been the No. 1 tight end in two of the last three seasons despite missing time, and his 2011 campaign is the stuff of fantasy legend. His late second-round ADP is tempting, but it's still a significant investment for a player who has missed at least half the year two of the last four seasons (including 2016).
Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers (ADP: 88.0, TE9)
From an NFL perspective, Bennett's addition was a great pickup for the Packers—another weapon for an already loaded Green Bay offense. But fantasy owners looking for a return to Bennett's 90-catch heyday are setting themselves up to be disappointed. There are a lot of mouths to feed in Titletown, and Aaron Rodgers has never consistently targeted his tight ends. Green Bay hasn't produced a top-10 fantasy finisher at the position since Jermichael Finley in 2011—and he ranked ninth.
Kicker and Defense Strategy
Here's the only acceptable fantasy draft strategy for kickers: Draft one with your last pick and not before.
It might seem worthwhile to spend a slightly earlier pick on a higher-end option like Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens, but kickers are an unpredictable lot. The top five before and after each season are typically far different lists. And even if you are select the right option, the difference between the No. 1 fantasy kicker and No. 12 was only two fantasy points per game a year ago.
Similarly, some owners may be tempted to burn a slightly earlier pick on a premier fantasy defense. The Arizona Cardinals have posted top-three production each of the last two seasons and get four games this year against the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers.
However, the better option is to wait and look for a team with a favorable matchup or two to start the season. When those favorable matchups dry up, jettison that defense for another from the waiver wire.
Matchup plays are going to be there all season long. At least five teams—the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Rams and 49ers—look to be highly favorable opponents for defenses.
A quick glance at the schedule each week and an active presence on the waiver wire are all it takes to procure elite fantasy production on defense at a deep discount.
So, stream your defense. Draft your kicker last. And use the late picks that you otherwise would have wasted on upside plays and lottery tickets at the other positions.
Kickers and Defenses to Target
Carolina Panthers (ADP: 189.0, DST13)
Looking for favorable matchups to begin the season? Well, not only have the Panthers finished inside the top five in fantasy points for defense/special teams each of the last two years, but they open the season in San Francisco against the 49ers before coming home to face the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo Bills (ADP: 221.5, DST20)
The Bills' DST isn't being drafted in the majority of leagues. But in addition to having a fair amount of defensive talent, the Bills begin the season with perhaps the NFL's most favorable matchup. On Sept. 10, they kick off 2017 by playing the smoldering ruins of what used to be the New York Jets.
Will Lutz, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 202.0, K14)
Lutz is another player who isn't being drafted in most 12-team leagues. It's understandable if you aren't familiar with the second-year kicker for the Saints, but you should be. Over the second half of the 2016 season, the 23-year-old ranked fourth in fantasy points among kickers.
Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: 133.0, DST4)
The Chiefs were fantasy football's second-highest-scoring DST in 2016, as they combine the sacks of Justin Houston with Marcus Peters interceptions and Tyreek Hill's prowess in the return game. But in addition to costing you a 12th-round pick that could be spent on the likes of Kenny Britt or Tyrell Williams, the Chiefs open the season at New England against the Super Bowl champions.
Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 138.7, K2)
Tucker is the best in the NFL at what he does. But drafting a kicker who wasn't the No. 1 option at his own position last year ahead of most defenses and countless offensive players who could be significant contributors this year is ill-advised, especially when you factor in the injuries that have already ravaged the Ravens offense.