NFL Fantasy Football: What Position Should You Draft First?

Training camps have been open for a little while. If you haven’t done so already, you’re probably thinking about drafting your team. So, let’s start by tackling a perennial question that dogs us every year: “Who should I take in the first round?” Like every year the answers is: “It depends.”

What does it depend on? It depends on your league and the way it assigns scoring points. The bottom line is that any strategy for determining draft position requires you to assign a player some value based on how much they score within your league’s system. If you’re a long time fantasy football vet, there’s probably not much advice that any on-line talking head can give you. Somebody at that level is usually in a private league with custom scoring and rules and roster compositions, like PPR (points per reception), salary caps, keeping players from year to year, 4 points per passing TDs instead of 6, varying points for scoring plays (TDs and FGs) based on distance (longer yardage scores, more points), points for IDPs (individual defensive players), two starting QBs, etc. Customized scoring requires customized analysis and an in-depth knowledge of the rules of your league. If that’s your situation, reading any further is a waste of your time. That is, if you’re even still reading. If I were you, I’d Google search for some other advice column or maybe for some porn … Uh, sorry, … I meant pone. Internet corn pone recipes. Making good corn bread is a rapidly vanishing culinary skill and it deserves all our attention.

But if you’re not involved in an advanced league, I might be able to help. Let’s start the process of answering that question by setting some boundaries so we can have a basis to establish and compare values. Let’s say we’re in a basic 10 team ESPN league with a snake draft and standard rosters and scoring. Each team has 9 starters: a QB, 2 RBs, 2WRs, a Flex , a TE, a K and a D/ST, so on any given game day there are 90 active starters producing points.

Well, 90 is such a weird number so, instead let’s look at last year’s top 100 ESPN standard fantasy football scorers. Out of the top 100 here’s what you’d find: 26 QBs, 26 RBs, 21 WRs, 3TEs, and 10 D/STs. That’s where the points come from, kids. But glancing at that, you’d be hard pressed to see which position has the most impact on points production. Is it the QBs? Is it the RBs? Is it the WRs? Things get a little clearer if you look at the top half, the top 50: 19 QBs, 15 RBs, 10 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 K and 2 D/STs. Here, you can see that QBs really rack up the points compared to other spots. It is, after all, a passing league.

But who should you pick in the first round? It’s a 10 team league, so let’s look at the top 10 points producers. We see: 8 QBs and 2 RBs. Yep, it really, really is a passing league, but at the very top of the scale, the top RBs still seem to produce more points than the top WRs. However, if you look within the top 10 there’s still another interesting pattern. Within the top 5 the scores from top to bottom are 385 to 333 points, a range of 52 points. There’s a big drop off of a cliff from the 5 slot total of 333 points down to the 6 slot total of 283, a range of 50 points. But the range from the 6 slot to the 10 slot is 283 points to 260, a range of just 23 points. What’s the pattern here? All of the players scoring 385 to 333 were QBs; in order: Rodgers (385), Brees (380), Brady (352), Newton (353) and Stafford (333). The big cliff drop off of 50 points? That was between Stafford to a RB, Ray Rice. The distribution of scores over the bottom of the top 10 was Ray Rice (283), Eli Manning (273), LeSean McCoy (270), Tony Romo (265) and Matt Ryan (260).

So, what would I do if I were drafting in the first round? If my slot was anywhere between 1 to 5, I’d pick an elite QB, somebody that is likely to put up 300+ points. Really, anybody capable of getting over 300 points would do, but the days of workhorse running backs like Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, are a thing of history. Between the popularity of “running back by committee” and league mandated concerns over injuries and concussions and short yardage goal-line specialists, a RB hitting 300+ fantasy points, year in and year out like clockwork, are gone. Those guys were getting almost 400 carries in a year and catching the ball out of the backfield. Nobody’s going to doing that regularly anymore. If a RB hits that level nowadays it’s going to be a fluke, a once in a while achievement in a RB’s career, probably while they’re young and still haven’t taken a huge beating. The benchmark for an elite fantasy RB is now around 250+ points, as we saw with Rice and McCoy. And say goodbye to the days of there being enough RBs that had a shot at reaching that milestone to fill out the entire first round. The best chances to break the 300 point barrier are now and in the future are QBs, and even then, they need to be in a heavy pass-first offense.

Now, if I’m drafting in the back half of the first round and both Rice and McCoy are gone, I’m going with the most productive QB available and then probably going for the top RB available in the second round. Why? Because in the second top 10 scorers last year, numbers 11-20, there were 5 QBs (Philip Rivers, Mark Sanchez, Michael Vick Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ben Roethlisberger), 2 RBs (Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster), 2 WRs (Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson) and 1 TE (Rob Gronkowski). So, if there’s an equal number of RBs and WRs in the second 10, why prefer a RB over a WR? Because there was a bigger drop off between the lowest rated RB in this slot, Arian Foster (238) and the next RB, Michael Turner (203) than there was between the lowest rated WR in this group, Jordy Nelson (210) and the next closest WR, Wes Welker (206). In this day of platooning RBs, if you don’t get a top producer quick, you’re just not gonna get one, period. There’s a bit of a quick drop off in RB productivity. You can still find a pretty productive top WR even in the third round or possibly one of the few TEs like Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham that genuinely produce points like a top WR. The drop off for receivers isn’t quite as drastic as it is for RBs.

…One criticism of this approach is that it’s silly to place so much value on say a top 5 QB over a RB like Ray Rice over 50 or so points. Over the course of a season that’s only a little over 3 points per week. Yes, that’s true, but if you’ve done a good job of assigning values and you stay consistent with drafting for scoring value in each round as you fill out your roster, having a higher scoring average of a few points more per week across all your starters, it could add up to 20-30 points per week for your entire team. Sure, you will have ups and downs, but you should be competitive every week and have a shot at the playoffs in your league.

So, when all is said and done, who do I draft in the first round? If I’m drafting in slots 1 through 5, I’m getting a super stud QB. Then, since I’ll be drafting in the back half of the second round and the few top producing RBs should be gone, I’m going for a stud WR and then looking to fill out my starting roster for the most productive WRs and RBs through the sixth round. The only way I’m taking a TE in rounds 2-6 is if Gronkowski or Graham is there at my pick. Otherwise, TEs (as well as every other position) can wait until the seventh round or later.

The strategy changes if I’m drafting in the back half of the first round. If I’m in, say, the 8 slot and one of the super stud QBs is there, of course I’d take him and grab the best available RB with the third pick of the second round. The only exception would be if Calvin Johnson is there at the third pick. Right now, he’s the only WR that is far enough ahead of the other WRs that would make it worth passing on the best RB available.

If the super stud QBs are all gone but somehow magically Rice or McCoy is there at the 8 slot (yeah, as if I should be so lucky), I’ll take them at RB and then hopefully take the best available QB (Eli, Romo, Ryan, heck maybe even Peyton if it really looks like his neck is absolutely 100%) in the 3 slot of the second round and get busy filling my WR slots in the third and fourth rounds.

Next time, I’ll go over who might be overrated and who might be underrated in this year’s drafts. No matter who you draft early, at least one of those draft picks will slump or get injured. The key to overcoming those unanticipated disappointments is to take calculated risks in finding unappreciated gems that the other guys pass over or avoiding overappreciated players the masses chase after.

Juan Salinas is a lecturer in the Psychology Department of a large research university in Texas. He entered Texas A&M University in 1978 with a major in electrical engineering, graduating in 1990 ...read more

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