Few things seem to cause us fantasy football managers more anxiety than worrying about our drafts. We want them to proceed perfectly and without any mistakes on our part. But perhaps one of the silliest things we often stress about is where we’re assigned to pick. (This is especially true in two-quarterback and superflex leagues, if slotted late in the order after the top quarterbacks will surely be gone.)
I’ve got a one-word piece of advice for those whom this describes: Relax.
You’ve come to the right place for easing your stress and paving the smoothest path to the start of your draft. Here, each year, I design for you a handy roadmap to the first two rounds, identifying the logical options from each slot and the implications of the positional combinations chosen, and suggesting ideal selections for every pick. This simulates the experience of a 10- or 12-team standard PPR fantasy draft, improving your odds of making the best picks.
But first, I must unfortunately share with you a harsh reality for 2023: Draft boards, at least in the first two rounds, are more fluid than in any year of my writing this column that I can remember. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor should it induce anxiety! One way to look at it is there are fewer “wrong answer” picks in most spots this season, and that’s another path to a Zen-like mindset on draft day.
Because of this I have adjusted this year’s column accordingly. For each draft slot, beyond talking you through things, I’ve also provided “players unlocked,” which means the slot at which you should most logically begin thinking about drafting those mentioned. If your gut instinct is to take the player who neither tops the current draft board nor is the top remaining name in terms of average draft position (ADP), by all means do! It’s your team and, again, there’s more fluidity in the opening rounds, affording you more creativity with your team building.
All references to fantasy points are for PPR scoring unless otherwise noted.
Draft Slot 1
Round 1 (Pick 1 overall): It’s Justin Jefferson for me, period. He was the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy points last season and is sixth in scoring among all players covering his three-year span in the league thus far. While we could expand this discussion to include Ja’Marr Chase or either of the top two running backs (Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler), this is an important spot from which to discuss the philosophy of how you should begin building your team.
This season, the top running backs are generally an older bunch than in years past and they were less productive on a per-game basis than their predecessors.
Averages of top five RBs in terms of ADP:
2023: 26.7 years old, 19.9 fantasy PPG previous year
2022: 26.1 years, 20.6 PPG
2021: 26.1 years, 23.1 PPG
2020: 24.6 years, 21.5 PPG
2019: 25.2 years, 21.8 PPG
Averages of top five WRs in terms of ADP:
2023: 27.5 years, 20.8 PPG previous year
2022: 26.7 years, 20.3 PPG
2021: 27.8 years, 20.5 PPG
2020: 28.3 years, 18.8 PPG
2019: 28.3 years, 20.7 PPG
This year’s top five running backs are the oldest, on average, in any year since 2015, a season in which those five missed a combined 31 games and averaged 102.2 fewer fantasy points apiece than in the season before it. (That’s the average including the fact that No. 1 overall pick Adrian Peterson went from playing one game in 2014 to scoring the second-most PPR fantasy points at the position in 2015.)
By comparison, this year’s top five wide receivers averaged the second-most PPG in the preceding season, behind only 2015’s prime-age group of Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones. Three members of that group (Brown, Beckham and Jones) exceeded 300 points, and the quintet averaged 20 points per game, reflecting the fact that wide receivers should have been the focal point in that year’s draft instead.
Let’s not make the same mistake this year.
Players unlocked: Jefferson, Chase, McCaffrey, Ekeler
Round 2 (Pick 20 in 10-team, Pick 24 in 12-team): A fantasy team can land a dream WR/WR pairing with the No. 1 slot this year, with Garrett Wilson, Jaylen Waddle, Tee Higgins and DeVonta Smith all generally going in this range in 10-team leagues, and Higgins, Smith, DK Metcalf and Chris Olave in 12-teamers. A fantasy manager drafting from the top slot merely needs to decide whether a zero-RB strategy suits them, or if a running back either in this pick or the next — No. 21 in a 10-teamer, 25th in a 12-teamer — addresses your RB1 spot. Otherwise, you’re waiting until picks 40 and 48, respectively, to get your top running back, at which point we’re probably talking about a Breece Hall, Dameon Pierce or Miles Sanders type.
Tristan’s picks: Justin Jefferson and Jaylen Waddle (10-team) or Travis Etienne Jr. (12-team)
Draft Slot 2
Round 1 (Pick 2): Here’s the spot at which the RB-versus-WR debate begins to get more logical. Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler have a handy, PPR-driven advantage over the rest of the position, though both come with those advancing ages and wear-and-tear questions (the latter especially for McCaffrey). You can go running back here, but I’m still not.
Players unlocked: None
Round 2 (Pick 19 in 10-team, Pick 23 in 12-team): Le’Veon Bell’s holdout-turned-sit-out in 2018 remains somewhat fresh in many of our minds, but that unusual circumstance shouldn’t be instantly applied to those of Jonathan Taylor and Josh Jacobs, rendering them must-avoid players. Both come with corresponding risk, but both have time to get things settled well in advance of Week 1. They’re compelling, high-upside picks as we approach the end of the second round, so long as you’re comfortable taking the chance.
Tristan’s picks: Ja’Marr Chase and Jonathan Taylor (10-team) or DeVonta Smith (12-team)
Draft Slot 3
Round 1 (Pick 3): Assuming your league followed suit with Jefferson-Chase opening selections, this pick unlocks another pair of wide receivers as well as by far the top tight end. That considered, it’s probably wisest to break the seal on running backs, being that the wide receiver position is rich enough in talent that there should still be a good one awaiting you in Round 2.
Round 2 (Pick 18 in 10-team, Pick 22 in 12-team): Top-tier quarterbacks are generally scoring at a greater rate relative to replacement these days. Last season, three QBs had fantasy point totals in excess of 90 more than the position’s No. 11 scorer for the first time in 11 years. This is the VBD (value based drafting) concept, which measures the player’s impact relative to fantasy “replacement level,” or the first player outside a starting lineup.
In a 10-team league, this is the absolutely earliest you should be even thinking QB. But in 12-team leagues, this is the point at which taking one of the elite three of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts makes sense. For the record, I would pair a second-round quarterback only with a first-round Jefferson, Chase or Hill, and not the running backs.
Players unlocked: Mahomes, Josh Allen, Hurts (10-team); Mark Andrews (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Christian McCaffrey and Garrett Wilson (10-team) or Tee Higgins (12-team)
Draft Slot 4
Round 1 (Pick 4): The case for Kelce rings louder as each pick passes, but this is the spot at which the second tier of running backs (Saquon Barkley and Bijan Robinson) needs to enter the discussion. Despite the absurdity that was Robinson’s RB3 listing on the Falcons’ depth chart for the preseason finale, the rookie is absolutely worthy of a first-round selection, and he’s absolutely going to start for them and absorb a reasonably hefty workload.
As I wrote in the spring, seven running backs in the past 10 seasons were first-round NFL draft selections and taken in the top 35 of fantasy drafts (in terms of ADP). Five of those seven outperformed their ADP, and they averaged nearly as good a positional finish (9.7) as their positional ADP (9.4). Barkley, perhaps the best recent statistical/skills comparison for Robinson, was the No. 5 running back selected in 2018, ultimately topping all RBs in fantasy points. Both are high-ceiling, hefty-usage backs who warrant fantasy-building-block consideration.
Therefore, you shouldn’t fear selecting Robinson — or the more proven Barkley — in the first round, even this soon, if you’re firm on building around a running back. I’m not in that camp, though, not while some of the names mentioned earlier remain on the board.
Players unlocked: Barkley, Robinson
Round 2 (Pick 17 in 10-team, Pick 21 in 12-team): The 3-4-5 slots seem like “best available” scenarios for both rounds this season.
Players unlocked: Chris Olave (10-team); none (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Tyreek Hill and Nick Chubb (10-team) or Josh Jacobs (12-team)
Is Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill the best WR duo in fantasy football?
Field Yates says Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill could top Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase in fantasy production this season.
Draft Slot 5
Round 1 (Pick 5): We’re in that range of the draft where fantasy managers are faced with the age-old question: upside or best return on investment? At this point, you’ll still have two of Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce available — as well as potentially all of Saquon Barkley, Bijan Robinson and Cooper Kupp — providing a good array of upside (McCaffrey/Barkley/Kupp) versus ROI (Kelce/Hill/Robinson). Ekeler, meanwhile, falls a little in between these categories, and he’s the one I wouldn’t let sneak past this point.
Players unlocked: None
Round 2 (Pick 16 in 10-team, Pick 20 in 12-team): Your answer to the question of upside vs. ROI in the first round should influence your direction here, as a risk/reward first-rounder like McCaffrey or Kupp should preclude a safer second-rounder. This is as far as I’d allow Garrett Wilson, A.J. Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown or Jaylen Waddle to last in a 12-team draft.
Players unlocked: Joe Mixon (10-team); Aaron Jones, Calvin Ridley (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Austin Ekeler and Amon-Ra St. Brown (10-team) or Jaylen Waddle (12-team)
Draft Slot 6
Round 1 (Pick 6): A Travis Kelce first-round case is not difficult to make. Last season, he had the second-largest fantasy point differential compared to the No. 2 tight end (100.9) and the No. 11 tight end (187.8) in history, while scoring the second-most fantasy points ever by a tight end. Kelce has had a top-15 overall VBD in each of the past three seasons, which is unheard of from a tight end. This is as far as I’m willing to let him slide, and I can make the case he’s every bit as legitimate a No. 1 pick as anyone on draft boards besides Jefferson.
Round 2 (Pick 15 in 10-team, Pick 19 in 12-team): Based on the “best” picks I’ve listed at each slot, I’d go with a running back, Tony Pollard, here. But from a general standpoint, I’d prefer to nab an upper-tier wide receiver as my second-round partner to a first-round Kelce, so keep an eye out for one of them, if they last until this pick.
Players unlocked: Travis Etienne Jr., DK Metcalf (10-team); None (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Travis Kelce and Tony Pollard (10-team) or Jonathan Taylor (12-team).
Draft slot 7
Round 1 (Pick 7): If Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler or Travis Kelce still remain on the board, this is about as far as they should fall in any draft. So let’s assume they’re all gone, in which case it’s a choice between a second-tier running back, like Saquon Barkley, Bijan Robinson and possibly Derrick Henry, or a second-tier wide receiver, like Tyreek Hill, Cooper Kupp, Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams and possibly CeeDee Lamb or A.J. Brown. At Pick 7 — and 8, really — strategizing this combination with your second-round pick comes into play, as there’s a greater likelihood of one of those wide receivers making it back to you than one of the RBs. Are you OK with going WR/WR to start? I am, at least for this season, because the third- and fourth-round running backs typically available in ESPN leagues include Travis Etienne Jr., Najee Harris, Aaron Jones and Jahmyr Gibbs, all of which are perfectly fine fantasy RB1s. It’s why I’d go for Kupp’s per-game upside with this pick.
Players unlocked: Adams, Lamb, Brown
Round 2 (Pick 14 in 10-team, Pick 18 in 12-team): To the point about WR/WR, remember this season’s positional pool is about as deep as it has ever been. I’ve graded 11 wide receivers as worthy of the first two rounds in 10-team leagues, and 13 in 12-teamers, which amounts to more than one per team on average. If there was ever a year to load up at receiver there and take some chances on third- to sixth-round running backs, this is it. Note that this is also the earliest I’d even think about selecting a quarterback in a 12-team league.
Players unlocked: None (10-team), Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Cooper Kupp and A.J. Brown (10-team) or Amon-Ra St. Brown (12-team)
Draft slot 8
Round 1 (Pick 8): Picks 7, 8 and (to a degree) 9 tend to be in similar circumstances this season, facing the remainders of the player pools discussed with the previous draft slot. I’m going running back here, as Saquon Barkley and Bijan Robinson grant enough of an advantage over the position’s next tier — especially with the uncertain contract statuses of Jonathan Taylor and Josh Jacobs — to warrant picks before the end of a 10-team first round.
Players unlocked: Tony Pollard, Amon-Ra St. Brown
Round 2 (Pick 13 in 10-team, Pick 17 in 12-team): Bear in mind that selecting Barkley comes with a degree of injury risk, which is why a stable, higher-floor wide receiver in a solid, all-around offense (like CeeDee Lamb, A.J. Brown or St. Brown) makes a wise second-round partner pick.
Players unlocked: Tee Higgins, DeVonta Smith (10-team), Chris Olave (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Saquon Barkley and CeeDee Lamb (10-team) or A.J. Brown (12-team)
Why fantasy managers should feel secure drafting Saquon Barkley
Field Yates and Mike Clay detail the fantasy value of Saquon Barkley since agreeing to a new deal with the Giants.
Draft slot 9
Round 1 (Pick 9): If Jonathan Taylor and/or Josh Jacobs were certain to be ready for their usual Week 1 roles, they would both be in the mix for this pick (if not the couple before it). If you’re the gambling type with your first-rounder, this is where you can begin considering them. My perspective, however, is that the uncertainty surrounding them strengthens the value of would-be same-tier RBs Saquon Barkley and Bijan Robinson, and that “reckless” is a better adjective than “gambling” when describing a Taylor or Jacobs pick at this juncture. Robinson shouldn’t make it past this pick.
Players unlocked: Taylor, Jacobs (but mind the risk of their current contract status)
Round 2 (Pick 12 in 10-team, Pick 16 in 12-team): It’s unlikely to happen, but Robinson/Garrett Wilson is a dream starting combination in a 12-team league (and perhaps even in 10-team, where you have a better chance of it). That’s a pair of young players with sky-high statistical ceilings ahead of them.
Players unlocked: None (10-team), Joe Mixon (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Bijan Robinson and Davante Adams (10-team) or Garrett Wilson (12-team)
Draft slot 10
Round 1 (Pick 10): The toughest part of drawing the 10-slot is what will remain for it in Rounds 3 and 4, not what’s there in Rounds 1 and 2. That’s especially true if any of the four slots preceding this one goes WR/WR to start. This year, 10-team managers slotted here are generally looking at maybe one of the top three quarterbacks, maybe Jonathan Taylor or Josh Jacobs … but otherwise generally Najee Harris, Aaron Jones or Jahmyr Gibbs among running backs, Tee Higgins or Deebo Samuel among wide receivers, and Mark Andrews at tight end, in the third and fourth rounds.
Running back is the key consideration at 10th and 11th overall. Are you comfortable banking a pair of exceptional wide receivers in Rounds 1 and 2, while risking that a run could precariously dry up the RB pool and force a reach pick of Breece Hall, Kenneth Walker III or someone similarly ranked?
If you’re fortunate to have one of my top four RBs (Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Saquon Barkley, Bijan Robinson) to choose from here, scoop him up. Otherwise if you’re fine with the WR/WR combo, take Stefon Diggs and CeeDee Lamb (or Davante Adams, if you prefer).
Players unlocked: Nick Chubb
Round 2 (Pick 11 in 10-team, Pick 15 in 12-team): In a 12-teamer, this isn’t a bad slot to go with the best available option. If one of my aforementioned top-four RBs was your first-round selection, take the best wide receiver. Otherwise, don’t reach. Just take the best available player.
Players unlocked: Garrett Wilson, Jaylen Waddle (10-team); Travis Etienne Jr., DK Metcalf (12-team)
Tristan’s picks: Stefon Diggs and Derrick Henry (10-team) or Tony Pollard (12-team)
Draft slot 11 (12-team leagues)
Round 1 (Pick 11): It’s a similar conundrum for anyone in the 10-, 11- or 12-slot this season, as far as what might remain for the team at running back come Rounds 3 and 4. The difference is that the prospects of the RB talent pool drying up increase here, so mind your answer to the question raised in the 10-slot before scoffing at taking the chance on Derrick Henry’s age/workload concerns, Jonathan Taylor’s or Josh Jacobs’ contract concerns or Tony Pollard’s presence on a team that often likes divvying up carries.
Players unlocked: Garrett Wilson, Jaylen Waddle
Round 2 (Pick 14): I’m a Wilson guy this year, as is the vast majority of the ESPN Fantasy staff. But my brain still says to take CeeDee Lamb ahead of Wilson.
Players unlocked: None
Tristan’s picks: Derrick Henry and CeeDee Lamb
Draft slot 12 (12-team leagues)
Round 1 (Pick 12): Would you believe that, in National Fantasy Football Championship (NFFC) leagues during the past week, the No. 12 player selected on average is Patrick Mahomes? I’m still not ready to swing the pendulum back this dramatically. It remains far more essential to build your team around running backs and wide receivers.
Players unlocked: None
Round 2 (Pick 13): One thing to mind here is that Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams (Week 13), as well as CeeDee Lamb and Garrett Wilson (Week 7), both of which could be viable WR/WR combinations from the 12-slot, have the same bye week, a rough arrangement for a team opening its draft with a zero-RB strategy.
Players unlocked: Tee Higgins, DeVonta Smith
Tristan’s picks: Davante Adams and Tony Pollard
POST AUTHOR: Tristan H. Cockcroft