2021 Fantasy Football Blueprint to Win Your Draft and the League
The NFL preseason is about to ramp up in earnest. Another season comes with it—one feverishly anticipated by thousands upon thousands across the globe.
Fantasy draft season.
Draft day is like Christmas for fantasy managers. The failures and injuries from last season are a distant memory. Every team is undefeated. There's hope for every single team in every single league.
Of course, pressure comes with draft day as well. Screw things up, and that's that—any chances of winning a championship are gone.
It's OK, though. No need to freak out.
We're busy at work here at Bleacher Report helping fantasy managers get ready for the big day. In the past week or so, we have published a big board of player rankings. A list of sleepers at every position. And even a mock draft to give managers an idea of where players are being drafted.
Here's yet another resource—a position-by-position, priority-by-priority blueprint for how to have a successful draft that will (hopefully) propel you toward a championship in 2021.
Step 1: Attack the Running Back Position
In this blueprint for fantasy victory, we'll address the different positions in their order of importance. While the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, it's a different story in fantasy football.
In fantasy, the running backs are king.
What makes running backs so valuable isn't that they score the most fantasy points, although in the default scoring I use for articles here at B/R, Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints was the No. 1 overall player in 2020.
It's a matter of scarcity—there just aren't many reliable fantasy running backs, which makes the ones who are that much more valuable.
To say fantasy managers are whaling away at running back early in drafts in 2021 is an understatement. Per the ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator, nine of the 12 picks in the first round on average are running backs. Over half the picks in the first three rounds play that position. By the first pick of the fourth round, the top 20 running backs are gones-ville.
Frankly, that 20th running back (Miles Sanders of the Philadelphia Eagles) doesn't inspire overwhelming confidence given reports that he could split time with Boston Scott.
That's the thing with the running back position in 2021. It doesn't take long for the question marks to start piling up. If you want two relatively dependable starters, it's going to cost you.
Generally speaking, two of your first three picks should be backs. I have to pick 10th or later in Round 1 to consider drafting a non-RB, and even then I will 100 percent circle back for a RB in Round 2. If a league has a "flex" spot, it's not unheard of for me to go RB/RB/RB in the first three rounds.
It is possible to fade running backs early and still field a competitive team. The "Zero RB" draft strategy is a thing.
But this analyst likes his chances of finding value at other positions later in drafts a lot better than in the backfield.
Running Backs to Target (and Avoid)
GO GET HIM!
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: 17.5, RB13)
Last year, Edwards-Helaire was overvalued, and his top-10 price tag led the young back to be labeled a fantasy disappointment despite tallying 1,100 total yards. Now, Edwards-Helaire is being undervalued as a high-end RB2. Whether it's as a second starter in the backfield or as a first back for teams that go with another position in Round 1, Edwards-Helaire is possibly my favorite Round 2 target in 2021.
David Montgomery, Chicago Bears (ADP: 27.5, RB16)
If you draft a non-running back in either of the first two rounds, Montgomery should be on your radar in Round 3. The third-year pro piled up a career-high 1,070 rushing yards last season and finished the season sixth in PPR points among running backs. Even if you believe the potential return of Tarik Cohen and the arrival of Damien Williams will cause a backslide, top-15 fantasy production this season is well within his probable range of outcomes.
Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: 74.8, RB33)
Once you get outside the top 25, the running backs deteriorate into a morass of question marks and carry-shares. The smart play is to look for upside—players who could become league-winners if they can break through the fog and assume a lead role. Sermon's hard-charging running style is a great fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense, and the only thing standing between the former Ohio State standout and a big workload is the oft-injured Raheem Mostert.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (ADP: 9.8, RB8)
There's an old saying in fantasy football that while you can't win your fantasy draft in Round 1, you can lose it. When Barkley is 100 percent, he's capable of being the No. 1 running back overall. The problem is there's no telling when (or even if) Barkley might be 100 percent again. He's just returning to practice after tearing his ACL two games into the 2020 season. Barkley carries too much risk to take him inside the top 10.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 36.3, RB20)
As mentioned, we've seen at least one massive red flag with Sanders in the form of Boston Scott getting passing-down work on the practice field. But that's not the only warning sign with the third-year pro. Sanders has durability concerns after he missed four games last year, and his 53.8 percent catch rate last season was the worst in the league among running backs. His odds of finishing 2021 as a top-20 fantasy RB aren't good.
Step 2: Let's Make a Deal—Tight End Edition
The tight end position isn't necessarily more valuable than wide receiver. You're likely starting one tight end as opposed to at least two (or three) wideouts.
But tight end is trickier, so we'll tackle that spot next.
If you have ever seen the game show Let's Make a Deal, then you know that once "The Big Deal" segment rolls around, contestants have three doors to choose from in the hopes of winning the big prize.
It's the same at tight end in fantasy.
Behind Door No. 1 is the "Big Three" of Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders and George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers. Provided they stay healthy, all three are locks for a big season. But all three are also expensive—Kelce is a legit first-round pick, and Waller and Kittle are both being drafted inside the top 30 overall.
If that price tag is a tad rich for your blood, a second tier sits behind Door No. 2 consisting of T.J. Hockenson of the Detroit Lions, Kyle Pitts of the Atlanta Falcons and Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens. Those tight ends aren't the locks that the guys in the tier above them are. But the trio offers considerable upside available a round-plus after Kittle comes off the board.
Then there's Door No. 3, which includes, well, everyone else. You can address the position in the seventh round with Dallas Goedert of the Philadelphia Eagles or wait five more rounds and draft Irv Smith Jr. of the Minnesota Vikings.
Arguments can be made for all three doors, and I've used all three approaches with some success in drafts this year.
But the first two come with a tradeoff. Investing a pick in the first five rounds on a tight end means hoping for an upside back later or hunting for late-round value at wide receiver.
Tight Ends to Target (and Avoid)
GO GET HIM!
Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders (ADP: 22.4, TE2)
If you have your sights set on a Tier 1 tight end, then Waller sits in the sweet spot among the group. Like Travis Kelce and George Kittle, Waller is the No. 1 option in the Vegas passing game—he was actually targeted one more time than Kelce in 2020. However, he doesn't have Kittle's durability concerns or Kelce's Round 1 price tag. Adding Waller to a top-five running back isn't a bad way to start a draft.
T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions (ADP: 53.9, TE6)
Last year, Hockenson parlayed 67 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns into a third-place finish among tight ends in PPR points. He was one of five tight ends to receive more than 100 targets in 2020. Given the lack of wide receiver talent in Motown this year, Hockenson's target share should be even bigger. And given the sorry overall state of the Lions, this team will be playing catch-up approximately every week.
Jared Cook, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: 155.5, TE19)
If you elect to punt on the first two tiers of tight ends, then an argument can be made for waiting until late to target Cook—especially if you elect to draft a quarterback early. Yes, Cook isn't getting any younger. Yes, his 2020 numbers (37/504/7) weren't great. But he also received only 60 targets. If he's targeted the same number of times per game as Hunter Henry was a year ago, he'll top 100. The last time that happened (2018), Cook was a top-five fantasy option.
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 39.7, TE4)
There's no denying Pitts' talent and potential—the former Florida star was drafted earlier than any tight end in NFL history for a reason. But with an ADP of the fourth round, Pitts is being drafted with the assumption that he will take the pros by storm. Maybe that will happen. Or maybe Pitts (like most other rookie tight ends) will take time to acclimate to the NFL. Drafting players at or near their fantasy ceiling is not the way to win leagues.
Hunter Henry, New England Patriots (ADP: 99.9, TE11)
Sometimes I think Bill Belichick intentionally makes personnel decisions in a manner that will cause fantasy managers the most pain. Had just Henry (or Jonnu Smith) signed with the Patriots in the offseason, it would be easier to get behind them as a weekly starter in fantasy leagues. But with both tight ends now in Beantown, the TE spot could become like a backfield—a muddied mess where it's next to impossible to figure out who will get targets in a given game.
Step 3: Patience Is a Virtue at Wide Receiver
Elite wide receivers like Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers and Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs are fantastic players who should have fantastic 2021 seasons. And I can't tell you there is no way fading running backs and loading up on receivers early won't work.
But the odds aren't in your favor.
The fact is, as the NFL has become more pass-heavy and fewer teams have used one running back as a workhorse, the wide receiver position has become exponentially deeper than running back. Last year, 10 running backs carried the ball 200 times. Seventeen receivers notched 125 targets—and twice as many had at least 100.
Also, as Matt Dunleavy wrote at Player Profiles in 2020, while the fantasy bust rate percentages for running backs and wide receivers are similar in the first few rounds and almost identical in the late rounds (when every pick is a dart throw), from Rounds 5-8 the bust rate at running back is almost 12 points higher.
"Avoid the 60 percent bust rate of backs in those middle rounds," he said, "and instead draft the highly targeted, less hyped receivers."
It's not unusual for me to skip wide receiver until Round 4 or Round 5. You could wait until the fifth round to draft a wideout and still wind up with a starting trio of Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, rookie sensation Ja'Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals and Kenny Golladay of the New York Giants—while also building a loaded backfield and/or acquiring a higher-end tight end.
Winning your fantasy draft is all about finding value. At wide receiver, the value lies in the middle rounds.
Wide Receivers to Target (and Avoid)
GO GET HIM!
Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 48.2, WR18)
After Godwin missed four games last season, his fantasy value has taken a hit in 2021. But according to FFToday, the fifth-year veteran was a top-15 PPR option in terms of fantasy points per game. DraftKings projects a robust 90/1,250/10 stat line for Godwin in the upcoming season. If that was the case, Godwin would threaten to finish inside the top five—and win a few leagues for fantasy managers.
Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: 63.0, WR25)
Like the aforementioned Chris Godwin, Aiyuk played in 12 games in 2020. Like Godwin, Aiyuk was also productive on a per-game basis, finishing inside the top 20 in PPR points per game. With a year of NFL experience under his belt and a more typical offseason with which to prepare for his second season, Aiyuk could be set for bigger and better things in 2021. No wide receiver being drafted outside the top 25 has a better chance of cracking the top 12.
Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 100.4, WR39)
After Boyd eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards and finished as a top-20 PPR option in both 2018 and 2019, his numbers fell off last year. Add in the arrival of Ja'Marr Chase, and Boyd has been relegated to WR4 territory in drafts this season. Still, Boyd has averaged 122 targets over the past three seasons. Even if all he does is match last year's "down" 79/841/4 stat line in 2021, he'll finish 10-plus spots over where he's being drafted.
Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans (ADP: 38.3, WR13)
Jones' draft status as a high-end fantasy WR2 is a prime example of drafters who become enamored with a big name. Yes, Jones was a top-five PPR option as recently as 2019. But he's also a 32-year-old who's coming off a down season and joining a team that ranked 30th in the league in pass attempts in 2020. When Jones cracked the top five two years ago, it was on 157 targets. A.J. Brown (Tennessee's No. 1 receiver) led the Titans last year with 106. The volume won't be there.
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (ADP: 52.5, WR20)
There is no earthly reason to draft Thomas among the top 20 wide receivers in 2021 outside of blind hope. After he waited until June to have surgery on the ankle injury that wrecked his 2020 season, his availability for the early part of the regular season is in jeopardy. We don't know who the Saints' Week 1 quarterback will be, but we know that quarterback won't be Drew Brees. Drafting Thomas this high is a wasted pick. Period.
Step 4: Wait to Draft a Starting Quarterback
I have been beating this drum for a decade.
Success in fantasy drafts depends on two things: scarcity and value. In some respects, the latter is determined by the former.
Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills are phenomenal players who have earned their massive salaries. But they aren't worth the draft pick required to obtain their services in fantasy leagues.
For starters, in leagues where each team starts a single quarterback, only 12 signal-callers are active each week. The pool of viable starters extends much deeper.
As such, quarterback is easily the deepest position in fantasy.
Also, the difference in scoring last year between the No. 1 quarterback (Allen) and the No. 12 quarterback (Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is a smaller gap than between the "first" and "last" weekly starter at any of the other positions.
In other words, the "edge" your team gains by drafting a quarterback early isn't worth the hole in your lineup that it could create at running back, wide receiver or tight end.
Finally, it has been over a decade since the first quarterback drafted on average has finished the season in that slot. Last year, Mahomes finished third, although he came close to the top slot.
In 2018 and 2019, Mahomes and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens helped win a lot of leagues, but it wasn't just because they had gonzo seasons. They did so after being drafted as a low-end starter or even a backup.
It is possible to be the last manager in a 12-team league to draft a starting quarterback and wind up fine at the position. In fact, you can wait until a couple of teams have backups before taking a QB1.
Use that depth to your advantage. Load up on running backs. Draft a dependable tight end. Assemble a wide receiver corps.
Fantasy-relevant quarterbacks will be available after the first 100 players are off the board.
Quarterbacks to Target (and Avoid)
GO GET HIM
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 106.0, QB13)
Burrow's fantasy production as a rookie wasn't especially impressive, and his first pro season ended prematurely because of ACL and MCL tears. But the first overall pick in the 2020 draft is practicing without limitations behind a substantially improved offensive line with a loaded arsenal of passing-game weaponry that includes former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase. Mahomes, Jackson and Kyler Murray of the Cardinals exploded into fantasy stardom in year two. Burrow could follow suit.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 119.8, QB14)
Ryan's best years could be behind him at age 36, and the loss of Julio Jones is a blow to the Atlanta passing attack. But in Calvin Ridley and rookie Kyle Pitts, Ryan is hardly without weapons. He topped 4,500 passing yards last year with 26 touchdown passes, and given Atlanta's problems on defense and questions in the run game, the 2016 NFL MVP is apt to throw the ball early and often in 2021.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins (ADP: 159.7, QB23)
Like Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa's first professional season left something to be desired for fantasy managers—the former Alabama star threw 11 touchdown passes in nine starts. But Tagovailoa was also coming off a dislocated hip in a year when he got no real training camp or preseason to prepare. He is reportedly impressing in camp and got some new weapons to throw to in veteran William Fuller V and rookie Jaylen Waddle.
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: 60.1, QB6)
After setting an NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie last year, Herbert is a trendy pick to be a fantasy breakout in 2021. But his ADP puts him in a position where he has to break out to justify his asking price. This isn't a knock on Herbert or the weapons around him. But it's hard to justify drafting him ahead of Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans (ADP 126.9, QB16)
Were we talking about using a pick in the last round on Watson, it would be one thing. But Watson's ADP has climbed all the way to the 11th round, ahead of Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At that point in the draft, a number of fantasy-relevant pass-catchers are still available. It's too high a pick to justify spending on a player whose future is so uncertain. Watson requested a trade in January and is facing 22 lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct, as well as NFL and police investigations.
Step 5: Defenses and Kickers Come Last...Always
This last part is easy.
Don't draft a team defense or a kicker until the last two rounds of your fantasy draft.
That's it. That's the strategy.
In the majority of fantasy leagues, defenses and kickers are afterthoughts. Last year, the No. 1 defense (the Pittsburgh Steelers) outscored the No. 12 defense (the New Orleans Saints) by about 3.5 fantasy points per game. The gap at kicker between Younghoe Koo of the Falcons and Ryan Succop of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was even smaller—less than three fantasy points per game.
They just don't matter.
Both positions are also all kinds of unpredictable. Kickers depend on the offense around them. If the offense falters, the opportunities won't be there. If the offense is too good, those opportunities will be limited to extra points.
For example, that No. 1 kicker in 2020 I mentioned (Koo)? He ranks five slots lower on my latest Big Board here at B/R than the No. 12 kicker (Succop), largely because the Falcons and Buccaneers are two franchises barreling in opposite directions.
Innumerable variables affect defenses, whether it's changes in personnel and scheme or variations in the schedule from year to year. The big plays that most team defenses rely on for fantasy points are also fluky stats that vary wildly from one season to the next.
Look for a defense that has a nice matchup or two to start the season and target it late. When the matchups dry up, throw it back to the waiver wire and grab another matchup play.
Then, with your last pick, draft the highest-ranked kicker remaining.
Anything else is wasting draft capital better spent on depth and upside "sleeper" plays.
Defenses and Kickers to Target (and Avoid)
GO GET HIM!
Denver Broncos Defense (ADP: 167.3, DEF12)
The Broncos aren't hurting for defensive talent, whether it's Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the edge or a loaded secondary. But the reason Denver's defense is so appealing is a three-week slate to open the season that features road dates against the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars and a home date against the New York Jets.
Carolina Panthers Defense (ADP: Not Listed)
The Panthers weren't a great defensive team in 2020—Carolina ranked 18th in total defense and scoring defense and 17th in fantasy points. But the Panthers are a solid matchup play to open the 2021 season thanks to a date with rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and a Jets team that ranked dead last in total offense and scoring offense last year.
Robbie Gould, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: 169.0, PK12)
Last season was an injury-marred disaster for the 49ers from top to bottom. But in San Fran's march to the Super Bowl two years ago, Gould was a respectable eighth among fantasy kickers in points per game. The year before that, Gould was eighth in total points. The season before that, the 38-year-old was third.
Cleveland Browns Defense (ADP: 150.1, DEF9)
The Browns overhauled the defense in 2021, adding talent up front (Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson), at linebacker (Anthony Walker, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah) and in the secondary (Troy Hill, Greg Newsome II, John Johnson III). But it's going to take major improvement to get Cleveland into the top 12, and an opener in Kansas City against the Chiefs won't make things any easier.
Rodrigo Blankenship, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: 151.4, PK8)
Where to start with Blankenship? First, while Blankenship was a top-five fantasy option in 2020, he was buoyed by a whopping 37 field-goal attempts—a number that will be hard to sustain given the injuries that are sweeping through the roster. Throw in a training camp competition with Eddy Pineiro after five misses last season, and Blankenship is an unnecessarily risky pick.
ADP data courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.
Fantasy scoring data courtesy of My Fantasy League.
Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPSharks.