As the fantasy football world heads into the draft season, you’re sure to see meticulous nitpicking over players at the top of the draft. Should Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell go first overall? Should Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook be selected in the first round? How many receivers have earned a first-round status?
These can be fun and interesting debates, but in the end, how much does your first round pick really matter? It’s a worthwhile exercise to look back at the first round of 2017 fantasy drafts and see where the players drafted in the first round finished in terms of production. Below is a table showing the players with a first-round ADP in 12 team PPR leagues according to Fantasy Football Calculator, and where they finished the season, both overall and at their respective positions.
This table shows how unpredictable fantasy football is. Anyone who drafted one of these players felt great about it heading into the season. In the end, only three first-round picks in 2017 finished as top 12 overall players. On a slightly more positive note, seven of the first round picks finished in the top tier (top 12) of their position group. It’s impossible to predict injuries, but only David Johnson and OBJ suffered serious season-ending injuries. Ezekiel Elliott was eventually suspended for six games but still finished as a top tier player at the running back position. Jordy Nelson was hurt by the injury suffered by Aaron Rodgers. Not a single player outperformed their ADP, and only Melvin Gordon at 11 fully met his draft expectation.
Another way to look at it is to compare the players who did finish in the top 12 with their preseason ADP. The table below shows where the top 12 overall players from 2017 were drafted.
Seven of these players were drafted outside of the top 24, which puts them outside of the first two rounds. The list is made up of five running backs, four quarterbacks, and three wide receivers. While this may persuade you to reach for a quarterback, it’s important to note the point differential between position tiers. Below is the point difference between the top player at each position group and the 13th, which would represent the break between first and second tier at the position in a 12 team league.
There’s a lot you can take away from these numbers. First and foremost, running back easily has the biggest drop off from tier one to tier two. This goes to show how important it is to grab the top end running backs before they’re all gone. Current ADP has nine running backs going in the first round, which makes sense based on last year’s results. They are also probably the most unpredictable as eight of last season’s top twelve backs were drafted outside of the first round.
Wide receivers have the smallest drop-off. This shows that receivers taken in later rounds were still capable of producing top-tier receiver numbers. There are also more fantasy relevant receivers in the NFL, given that most teams have at least two if not three receivers on the field for most snaps. In 2017 there were 18 wide receivers that scored over 200 fantasy points, while only 13 running backs reached that milestone. If we lower the bar to 160 points, there were 33 receivers to reach that benchmark and only 24 running backs. There is simply more available depth at the receiver position.
Quarterbacks have a relatively small drop off considering how many points they score. There were 22 quarterbacks who scored over 200 fantasy points in 2017. In a 12 team league that means there should always be plenty of streamable quarterbacks, which is why you aren’t likely to see any quarterbacks drafted in the first round.
Tight ends have second highest point difference, but point totals aren’t high. The TE1 barely outscored the WR10 or RB9. Not awful, but then there is the steep drop off. The TE4 would have been WR29 or RB19. If you don’t get a top three tight end, you might as well wait as long as possible to grab one. You’re better off playing the matchups and streaming the position from week to week.
The main point here is that the first round of your fantasy football draft is loaded with unpredictability. Your best bet is to take a highly ranked running back or Antonio Brown. If you feel the need to go against the grain then go ahead and take Gronkowski or Kelce, it probably won’t kill your team. Don’t spend too much time deliberating over who to pick in round one. Your mental effort and research are better spent focusing on the middle and late rounds, which are where you can make or break your fantasy team. Find this year’s DeAndre Hopkins, Alvin Kamara, or Alex Smith, the guys who will grossly outperform their ADP, better know as breakout players. Finding those breakouts is easier said than done, but you’re better off investing your time into digging deep to try and find them than stressing over your first round pick.
For more draft discussion hit me up on Twitter @aalarson.