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"Who should I draft?"

That's probably the question you were asking yourself as you plucked this magazine off the shelf and started flipping through it. And trust me, you'll find no shortage of suggestions on who to draft, where to draft them, why to draft them, and what they can do for your team.

But there's a question missing there: "How should I draft?" 

Why is that such an important question? Well, because while our opinions about players are valuable, ultimately, they're our opinions. They're informed opinions, to be sure, but they aren't gospel. I might like David Montgomery more than the rest of the folks here at CBS -- you can head to CBSSports.com/Newsletters to sign up for the Fantasy Football Today Newsletter to see my rankings and unique content everyday during the season -- but that's just one man's opinion. A well-informed opinion, but still. 

What you want to supplement all those opinions are some good, concrete facts about how to draft. So that's what I'm trying to do here. I took a look back at the last five years of National Fantasy Championship Average Draft Position data to see which types of players tend to be drafted early, how they tend to perform, and which positions tend to give you the most bang for your proverbial draft pick bucks. 

Then, I'm going to tell you how to put that information together into a Draft Day plan that can help you win your league. Let's see what we can learn from history. 

Note: This story was originally published in our 2020 Fantasy Football Draft Guide with Beckett Sports, on newsstands everywhere now. 

Running back

The first player drafted in nearly all drafts is going to be a running back. It should be Christian McCaffrey. Don't overthink it.

There might be 10 running backs drafted in the first round in your league -- including the first seven or eight picks. This is going to be a very RB-heavy year at the top of drafts, with an unusually strong crop of players with legitimate three-down skills to pick from until at least the third round in most drafts. 

At this point, we know running backs are riskier than the other positions -- they get hurt more, and, because their production is so dependent on factors outside of their control -- game plan, game script, coaching, blocking, playing time, role, etc. -- it's also just harder to know which running backs are truly great and which ones are just temporarily in good situations. However, that's not true for all running backs. In fact, over the last five years, the top running backs have been pretty good bets:

  • First three RB drafted: 6/15 had 300-plus points -- we'll call that an elite season -- and 11 had 200-plus points -- we'll call that a must-start season. Of the four that didn't reach 200 points, three played three or fewer games. That's a 73.3% hit rate!
  • First six RB drafted: 13/30 had 300-plus points, 23/30 had 200-plus -- four of the seven who didn't reach 200 played four or fewer games. That's a 76.7% hit rate -- even better!
  • First 12 RB drafted: 15/60 had 300-plus points, 38/60 had 200-plus points. That drops to a 63.3% hit rate. 
  • First 24 RB drafted: 16/120 had 300-plus points, 53/120 had 200-plus points. A paltry 44.2% hit rate! Worse odds than a coin flip.

The trend is pretty clear: The first half dozen or so running backs drafted over the last five seasons have generally been pretty great. Among the first six RB drafted each season, only three out of 30 failed to score 200-plus points while staying mostly healthy. That crop of RBs tend to be very, very good investments -- they combine that 300-point upside with the must-start floor. That's what you want from your first-round pick.

After that? It's a pretty mixed bag. Among the 30 RB drafted seventh at the position through 12 over that span just two of 30 reached that 300-point threshold and the hit rate for the 200-point mark drops down to 50%. Taking one of the second tier running backs dropped your chances of getting a must-start player by about half. 

And for the rest of the position, you're looking at even worse odds. 60 backs drafted between 13th and 24 at the position scored 300-plus points just once, and only 15 out of 60 had 200-plus points. You weren't even getting coin-flip odds when drafting from the RB2 range; it was more like trying to flip heads twice in a row. 

Okay, but not all draft classes are made equal, right? This RB class is strong! The No. 12 RB is going inside the top-20 picks; the No. 15 RB is a second-rounder in ADP! Where a player is drafted among his positional peers only tells you so much about how good he is. What about where they are drafted among the player pool? Let's look at some round-by-round results:

  • RB picked in the first round: 2/30 had 400-plus points, 12/30 had 300-plus, 23/30 had 200-plus. 
  • Second round: 3/23 had 300-plus points, 13/23 had 200-plus. 
  • Third round: 1/20 had 300-plus points, 8/20 had 200-plus points. 
  • Fourth/fifth round: Zero scored 300-plus points, 8/35 scored 200-plus points.
  • Sixth/eighth round: 1/45 with 300-plus points, 7/45 with 200-plus points

Well, that pretty much goes the way you would expect it to, but … it's not very promising, is it? You've got a coin flip's chance at hitting on a 200-point scorer in the second round, and pretty close to the same in the third round. After that … gross. Between 2016 and 2020, just 15 of 80 running backs drafted from the fourth through eighth round reached that 200-point mark, and even if you lower it to 150 points -- less than 10 points per game if you play 16, but low enough that it should allow some more useful guys who missed time to sneak in -- you're only at 32/80. 

If you've heard of the term "RB Dead Zone," that's what it's talking about -- after the third round, your chances of hitting on a running back diminish dramatically. That's been true for most of Fantasy Football history, and it's been true lately -- the one exception was in 2019 when 9/18 RB drafted in this range scored at least 190 points. However, that was a season when just 17 RB were taken in the first three rounds on average; right now in 2021, there are 20 RB being taken in the first three rounds.

But it's all relative, right? How do the other positions fare?  

So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen's huge season, and find out.

Wide receiver

  • First round: 6/21 had 300-plus points, 15/21 had 200-plus points. 
  • Second round: 6/30 had 300-plus points, 15/30 had 200-plus points.
  • Third round: 18/30 had 200-plus points. 
  • Fourth/fifth round: 29/49 had 200-plus points. 
  • Sixth-eight round: 13/66 had 200-plus points, 35/66 had 150-plus points. 

The early-round WR don't have quite as much upside as their RB counterparts -- none of them are going to score 400 points, and in the first two rounds, one-quarter of RB reach 300 points, while 23.6% of WR do. That's not a big gap, but it fits with the idea that the early-round RB are more likely to give you a really, really big return on your investment.

What's interesting is that, through the first three rounds, at least, RB and WR hit that 200-point mark about as often, with possibly a slight edge to RB:

First round

RB: 76.7% - WR: 71.4%

Second round

RB: 56.5% - WR: 50%

Third round

RB: 40% - WR: 60%

We're dealing with small enough sample sizes that the gaps in percentages aren't as big as they might appear, but I think you can generally say that the early-round RB -- at least the first two rounds -- provide more reasonable upside without a significant increase in risk, in recent history. 

Once you get past those first two rounds? Well, it ain't a WR Dead Zone, that's for sure. 

Among WR drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds, nearly 60% of them reached 200 points over the last five seasons; just 22.9% of RB in that same range did. From the sixth through eighth rounds, around 20% of WR reached 200 points and fifth rounds more than half got to at least 150; for RB, only 26.7% even got to 150 points. 

So: Early on, RB have the edge. After the first few rounds? WR are the better bet? Got it? Hang on to that one. Let's take a look at TE and QB. 

Tight end

  • First round: No TE have had an ADP inside the first round in the last five years; Travis Kelce currently does, however. 
  • Second round: 2/4 had 200-plus points. 
  • Third round: 4/5 had 200-plus points (George Kittle was on pace for it in 2020 but played just eight games). 
  • Fourth/fifth round: 2/6 had 200-plus points, 4/6 had 150. 
  • Sixth-eighth round: 2/19 had 200-plus points, 6/19 had 150-plus. 

Tight end is what it is. The good ones? Generally worth the price. After that, you're generally better off targeting late-round dart throws and streaming. 

Quarterback

You know not to take quarterbacks early, right? You shouldn't be taking a quarterback in the second round of a league where you only need to start one quarterback, and really, you probably shouldn't be taking any until most of the rest of your starting spots are filled -- unless Patrick Mahomes is sitting there in the late third, or something. Nonetheless, here are the relevant stats for QB:

  • First round: No QB drafted in the first round over the last five years, as it should be. 
  • Second round: Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in 2020 are the only QB taken in the second round over the last five years. They both topped 350 points, with Mahomes dropping 425. They are good, as you may have heard. 
  • Third round: There were three QB drafted in the third round. Tom Brady in 2017 is the only one to top 350 points, but Mahomes in 2019 would have gotten there if not for injury. Aaron Rodgers might have in 2017, too, but he missed nine games. 
  • Fourth/fifth round: 2/4 QB scored 350-plus points. Cam Newton in 2016 and Drew Brees in 2017 were very good starting QB, but didn't quite meet that 350-point threshold, nor did they quite manage 20 Fantasy points per game.
  • Sixth-eighth round: 8/21 had 350-plus points, 18/21 had 300-plus. 

The only way to get disappointed by a QB is to take one early. It's still worth it for the Mahomes/Jackson/Kyler Murray/Josh Allen class of dual-threat quarterbacks, but if you don't want that kind of commitment, check out my piece elsewhere in this magazine on what to look for in late-round QB and who to target this season. 

An ideal Draft Day plan

What's the takeaway here? Well, a couple of conclusions stick out to me immediately: 

  1. The elite RB really are worth it -- You can go with a zero-RB approach, but you probably should take an RB with one of your first two picks, and it's not unreasonable to take two. Those are the picks that consistently return the best value. 
  2. The elite TE really are worth it, too -- This year, that's Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle, with a gap between Waller and Kelce. Kelce is the cream of the crop and potentially the biggest edge you can get at any position -- even if he is about to turn 32 midway through the season. Waller and Kittle are both viable second-rounders, and you should choreograph a dance to do just in case one of them falls to you in the third round. 
  3. The non-elite RB and TE really aren't worth it - The guys who have proven they can be elite players -- that can produce at a high level and stay healthy -- are worth the price, but what ends up happening when you've got scarce commodities like RB and TE is you get inflation. Demand for these players is greater than the supply, so you'll have running backs without clear roles like Leonard Fournette and Chase Edmonds going inside of the top 60 and "this-is-the-year-they-breakout" tight ends like T.J. Hockenson and Dallas Goedert going inside the top 65. It's not that those players can't be worth those costs and then some, it's that you're passing up on players with a much higher chance of outproducing them at other positions (namely, wide receivers). 
  4. Wide receiver is so deep -- You've got around a 60% chance of getting a 200-point performer at wide receiver in the fourth and fifth rounds and you can find useful, 10-points-per-game-with-upside types deep in the single-digit rounds.

So, what's the synthesis of all this data and these takeaways? Well, let me walk you through what I would consider something like my ideal draft, with (finally) some who to go with the how:  

First round

If I'm picking in the first three picks, I'm going with a running back. If not? It's Kelce if he's there, no matter where I'm picking. 

Second round

If I got Kelce, I'd like to get a running back here -- especially if Joe Mixon falls to the middle of the second like he did in the mock draft in this magazine. If I didn't take Kelce, I'm probably taking my tight end here -- either Waller or Kittle. I'm willing to reach for the edge they give me. 

Third round 

With tight end and running back (hopefully!) secured, I'm looking for my No. 1 WR here. If I ended up with a wide receiver and tight end in the first two rounds, I'm probably pivoting to a zero-RB build and waiting until a good value appears in the fifth-seventh range -- Raheem Mostert is becoming a nice fallback for me. 

Fourth/fifth round

This is where I'm building out the depth of my wide receiver group. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Robert Woods, D.J. Moore, Tyler Lockett, Cooper Kupp, Diontae Johnson, Kenny Golladay, Ja'Marr Chase, JuJu Smith-Schuster … there is no shortage of potential No. 1 WR in this range. I want two of them. 

Sixth-eighth round

If Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray or Josh Allen are available here, I'll fill my QB spot and never think about it again. If not, I'd probably rather wait until the last two or three rounds and snag a couple of high-upside fliers -- Jameis Winston and Cam Newton being my current favorite pairing. I'll probably snag either my second or third RB in this range, too, and hopefully another high-upside WR -- hopefully my fourth by this point, especially in a three-WR league, which is becoming increasingly common. One guy I find myself circling more and more these days? Jerry Jeudy

After that? You're mostly building depth here. Most of your picks from the eighth round on are going to be bench pieces or waiver-wire fodder before long -- it sounds harsh, but it's true. The sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to become a waiver-wire master. Because the draft is just the first thing to figure out for how you are going to win your Fantasy championship.