With Best-Ball drafts starting to ramp up around the industry, it’s time to take a look at which guys are being drafted as the cornerstones of fantasy squads. These are players expected to be the engines that help keep buoy your team scoring each week, so it’s imperative to land a hit no matter which position you draw in the draft.
For the sake of argument, we are going to assume Fantasy Sharks’ default point-per-reception (PPR) as the scoring system.
1.01 Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Upside: When picking first overall, there’s no wrong answer among the Big-4 of Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara, though Barkley is the only correct choice. Recipient of the NFL’ s 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year award, Barkley managed to lead all players with 2,028 yards from scrimmage (1,307 rushing. 721 receiving) last season, which also ranks third all-time among first year players (behind Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson). Star receiver Odell Beckham is gone, which means the Giants’ offense is only going to become more Barkley-centric that it already had become. Barkley finished 2018 second on the Giants behind Beckham with a whopping 121 targets, and with no true No. 1 wideout on the roster, it’s conceivable that Barkley sees at least that many balls thrown his way again this coming season. You know Eli Manning is a frequent check-down artist (as evidenced by the fact only three other quarterbacks had a lower AYTS* than Manning’s -2 last season), and in the event he gets benched, rookie Daniel Jones will need a reliable safety net as a bail out option.
*AYTS – Air Yards to the Sticks shows the amount of Air Yards ahead or behind the first down marker on all attempts for a passer. The metric indicates if the passer is attempting his passes past the 1st down marker, or if he is relying on his skill position players to make yards after catch. Source: NFL Next Gen Stats
Downside: It’s tough to find a flaw in Barkley’s game as an athletic freak that will be fed a steady diet of at least 20-25 touches every week, and is capable of housing every single one of them. There’s concern that the Giants’ offense may take another step backwards with either a borderline decrepit Manning or rookie Jones (who was considered a major reach as a 6th overall draft pick) under center, and Barkley will be front and center in the minds of opponents’ defensive coordinators. Only minor quibbles if you ask me, as Barkley’s superior talent is more than enough to overcome any productivity barriers.
1.02 Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Upside: In his first season as a clear-cut starter at the NFL level, Christian McCaffrey led all running backs with 107 receptions (an NFL all-time high for the position), and ended up finishing just shy of 2,000 total yards from scrimmage with 1,965. Brushing aside any size concerns (listed at 5’11” and 205 lbs., McCaffrey is a bit on the small side for a featured runner), the former Stanford Cardinal was also 2018’s snap share leader (94.5 percent) among non-quarterback skill players (even despite barely playing in Carolina’s meaningless season finale). While Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera hinted earlier in the offseason that the team may scale back the diminutive McCaffrey’s workload, those are likely just empty words considering career backup Cameron Artis-Payne and fifth-round rookie Jordan Scarlett are just not suited for the all-purpose role McCaffrey handles so well. With quarterback Cam Newton‘s throwing shoulder still a bit of a question mark heading into the upcoming season, Carolina has every reason to keep their stud running back on the field as often as possible.
Downside: Like Barkley above, McCaffrey is one of the few ironclad choices in fantasy football for this upcoming season. However, assuming Cam Newton (shoulder) is healthy to start the season, McCaffrey will likely see some of his carries (including coveted goal-line rushes) poached by the Carolina quarterback.
1.03 Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Upside: If you look up the term “workhorse” in a dictionary, there’s likely a photo of Ezekiel Elliott next to it, who has epitomized the term since entering the NFL three years ago. Since being drafted fourth overall in 2016, Elliott leads the NFL in offensive touches (1,003) and yards from scrimmage (5,247), which is even more impressive considering he’s missed 8 games over that span (two for rest, six for a suspension). Further bolstering Elliott’s fantasy appeal is that Dallas finally unlocked his ability as a pass catcher. Over Elliott’s first two NFL seasons, he averaged roughly 2.3 catches per contest. In 2018, Elliott saw his receptions per game boosted to 5.1, and finished with a career high 77, which was good for fifth among all running backs. With much maligned offensive coordinator Scott Linehan having been ousted this past offseason in favor of young up-and-comer Kellen Moore, the expectation is for Cowboys’ offense to evolve into something more up to par with the modern NFL, and Elliott will be one of the main beneficiaries.
Downside: Elliott’s bill of health has remained impeccable thus far, but he’s the one running back among the “big four” at greatest risk for injury. The Curse of 370 doesn’t really apply in today’s NFL, since the 370 refers to carries, and only two running backs have eclipsed that number since 2006 (Michael Turner in 2011, and DeMarco Murray in 2014). However, Elliott’s 381 touches last year led the NFL by a significant margin (plus an additional 54 across two playoff games), and history has not been kind to single-season touch leaders’ follow-up campaigns over the last four seasons (see DeMarco Murray – 2015, Adrian Peterson – 2016, David Johnson – 2017, and Le’Veon Bell – 2018).
1.04 Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
This is a great spot to be picking, because you are guaranteed one of the top four uber-elite running backs, and likely won’t endure the agony having to choose which.
Upside: Despite logging more than a 70 percent snap share in six total contests across his short NFL career, Kamara’s 31 combined rushing/receiving touchdowns are second only to Todd Gurley (40) since the start of the 2017 season. Among players who appeared in at least 31 games between 2017 and 2018, Kamara’s receiving stats alone are good enough to be WR11 in terms of PPR Points Per Game (11.91), and ahead of guys like Demaryius Thomas (11.70), Mohamed Sanu (11.51), and Tyler Lockett (10.83). Meanwhile, Kamara also sits 12th in total NFL rushing yards over that same span (1,611), sandwiched between LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson. Kamara’s hyper-efficiency on limited touches also makes him less of an injury risk than the other running backs mentioned in this article. Among running backs who have accumulated at least 300 touches since the start of the 2017 season, Kamara ranks just 19th in touches per game (15.4), though sits in first with 6.6 yards-per-touch.
Downside: Kamara won’t have the same usage as Elliott, Barkley, and McCaffrey, as it’s just not how the Saints’ backfield has operated since Sean Payton took over in 2006. Even though Mark Ingram is no longer on the team, New Orleans signed Latavius Murray during free agency to replace him as their 1B option.
1.05 DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Here is where draft strategies start to generally deviate among leagues, as there are several different ways you can go.
Upside: Some may consider it brash to start looking at receivers with some other high-usage running backs still on the board, but DeAndre Hopkins is one the steadiest fantasy producers in the game at his position, having finished a regular season contest with fewer than 10 PPR points just once since Week 14 of the 2016 season. Over 22 full games played with rising superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson, Hopkins has averaged seven catches for 96.5 yards and 0.77 touchdowns per contest, as their chemistry has become a nearly telepathic despite in a short amount of time spent on the field together. In 2018, Hopkins finished with a league-leading target share percentage of 32.9, three higher than the next highest guy in Keenan Allen. Over the last four seasons Hopkins’ 39 receiving touchdowns trail only Antonio Brown‘s 46. Lastly, DeAndre Hopkins does not come off the field, as he was in on every single Houston offensive snap last season.
Downside: As I alluded to above, you’re foregoing one of the few studs at running back still available at this point. Hopkins also figures to have more competition for targets than we’re used to (he led the NFL with a 32.9 percent team target share last season), assuming Will Fuller (knee) is fully recovered from 2018’s ACL tear, while second year fourth round draft pick Keke Coutee will likely see his role grow after a couple 11 catch performances as a rookie (though did deal with recurrent hamstring issues that limited him to 7 regular season contests). Also, quarterback Deshaun Watson‘s propensity for getting sacked puts him in danger of missing time, which could potentially have an adverse trickle-down effect on Hopkins if A.J. McCarron is forced to start games.
1.06 Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
Upside: In his first full season as quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘ top target, Davante Adams did not disappoint, finishing the year as fantasy’s WR1 in terms of PPR points per game. Adams scored at least one touchdown in 11 of 15 games played, and averaged a 7.75 catches and 124.75 receiving yards per game in the four he didn’t. Adams is also Rodgers’ go-to red zone option, having led the NFL with 32 targets in that area of the field last season, and converting 12 of them into touchdowns. In fact, no NFL wide receiver has been targeted more inside the 20s than Adams (81). With Rodgers still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Adams a safe pick who should have no trouble padding your weekly stats with consistent production.
Downside: Adams’ meteoric rise to super-stardom last season came about due to Aaron Rodgers lacking any other trustworthy targets. Second-year fourth round draft pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling (MVS) has been working as the Packers’ no. 2 wideout during mini-camp, and reportedly looks comfortable in that role. Veteran Geronimo Allison, who was en-route to a breakout last season by averaging 73.3 receiving yards per game across the four contests in which he was completely healthy, also returns after injuries essentially ended his season by Week 5. Adams will still get his, but the target share may not be as concentrated as in 2018.