There's no one right way to draft in 2021, just like there is no one right way to draft any season. Should you go with an RB-heavy approach early on to lock in multiple studs as your base, or should you take the zero-RB approach and fade the risk at the position? What about reaching for one of the elite tight ends or quarterbacks? Should you embrace risk or play it safe? Lean on rookies, or go with the old reliables?
Hop on Fantasy Twitter or listen to any podcast and you'll hear often spirited debates about what the best approach should be. You've got your Zero-RB zealots, you've got your late-round QB folks, you've got the hype beasts who always want the shiny new toys. There's probably an ideal strategy for every single Fantasy analyst out there. In our Fantasy Football Draft Guide magazine with Beckett Sports -- on newsstands now or you can buy one here! -- I wrote about how, no matter what plan you want to go into your draft with, you have to be flexible, and you have to know how and when to pivot.
And that's especially important in the early rounds, when we're talking about the pillars of our teams. In today's FFT newsletter, you can read my early-round road map feature from the magazine, where I go over how you should approach each round based on where you are picking, how you want your team to look, and what you've already taken. It's not a one-size fits all approach to drafting, but a plan that can guide you through whatever twists the early-rounds throw at you.
And, on the Fantasy Football Today podcast this week, we talked about the top players at each position all week, debating our top-five player rankings for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. There's consensus with the top player at each position, but that's where the agreements end. Make sure you're subscribed to the Fantasy Football Today podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts, or head over to YouTube.com/FantasyFootballToday to watch every episode of the pod, along with exclusive content you won't find anywhere else.
Knowing how to navigate the early rounds won't make or break your team, but getting it wrong can put you in a serious hole. Here's how you should approach it no matter which strategy you want to go with:
To tell you the truth, you don't even need to have a strictly defined approach heading into your draft -- deciding you're going to go RB heavy only to realize everyone else is deciding to do the same means you're going to be paying a premium for players who may not be worth their draft price. That ups your degree of difficulty if you aren't willing to be flexible.
That being said, having a plan for at least the first six rounds -- the core of your team -- can help make sure you're flexible enough to succeed in any draft. So, I'm going to walk you through the first six rounds, identifying what your targets should be based on what you want your team to look like, how to pivot in each round if you miss what you were aiming for, and what my preferred strategy would be
But first, you have to answer a few questions before you really know what you want to do:
- Is this a PPR league?
- Do you need to have multiple high-end running backs to feel comfortable?
- Do you need a high-end QB?
- Are you willing to play the streamer game at tight end?
Keep those questions in mind, and let's put a plan into place.
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How to approach Rounds 1 & 2
In the first round, at least, what you want to do doesn't matter so much as where you pick. That matters in every round, obviously, but it's more important in the first. If you're picking first overall, it doesn't really matter what your strategy is, you're taking Christian McCaffrey. And most people will stick with running back in the first half of the draft, which is a fine strategy, especially if you pick in the top half of the round -- there's a dropoff for me right at RB7, so it's unlikely any of those guys will be back to you in Round 2. So keep that in mind.
Though, to be clear, there are multiple drops in quality at the position, and the biggest ones come at RB2 (Alvin Kamara) to RB3 (Dalvin Cook) and from RB6 (Saquon Barkley) to RB7 (Joe Mixon). Then there's another drop from RB7 to RB10 (Najee Harris). After that, RB10 is just 0.9 projected points per game ahead of RB17 (D'Andre Swift), who is just 0.6 ahead of RB20 (Miles Sanders). Which is to say, RB is pretty deep this year, and if you can't get one of the clear difference makers in the first half of the first round, you may not want to push it.
Which means, those of you picking in the second half of the first round, may want to go with a wide receiver — Davante Adams if he's there, Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, or Calvin Ridley if not. You can then turn around in Round 2 and grab the best of the remaining wide receivers.
Or you could be really aggressive and snag one of those elite tight ends: Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, George Kittle. Because, while Kyle Pitts could be an elite tight end as a rookie, or maybe Mark Andrews takes another step forward, the big three at tight end can give you one of the biggest edges at any position. Last season, Kelce outscored the No. 3 tight end by 146 points in PPR, while Waller outscored No. 3 by 104 points. At WR the gap between No. 1 (Adams) and No. 22 (Chase Claypool) was smaller than the gap between Kelce and No. 3; at RB, it was like the difference between No. 1 (Alvin Kamara) and No. 9 (Ezekiel Elliott).
You could even consider going after Patrick Mahomes. We typically don't recommend taking a QB that early, but Mahomes might be worth it. You'll lock up nearly 30 points every week, which is a heck of a way to start your team. Pairing Mahomes in the second with Kelce could be a coup.
This is the base of your team, and it's important to get it right. So, let's look at some possible directions you could go depending on what you do in the first two rounds, in my order of preference:
- RB/WR-TE -- My preferred strategy in 2021, because you get that foundational piece at either RB or WR along with a TE who might outscore your opponent's by 5-10 points every week. I started our draft for this magazine with Travis Kelce and Michael Thomas from the No. 6 spot, but R.J. White might have had the best start of anyone, ending up with Christian McCaffrey, Justin Jefferson, and Darren Waller. So, you don't necessarily have to take a TE in the first two rounds, just know the top three will probably be gone by 30th overall.
- RB-RB -- You've invested so much at a risky position, that you need to get some sure things, so focus on the best WR for at least the next three rounds, though you could take a swing on Pitts joining that elite group of TE in Round 5. This is probably the riskiest strategy, but with plenty of upside.
- RB-WR -- Probably the chalk play. Everyone wants one of the elite WR and one of the elite RB, and this is the best way to get there. This is probably best if done from the top half of the draft order where you can grab someone like DeAndre Hopkins or Justin Jefferson with an elite RB.
- WR-WR -- You won't see many people go with this approach, but it's a viable approach in the second half of the round. In the draft in this magazine, you'll see someone could have paired Davante Adams (10th overall) with A.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, or Michael Thomas. Thomas and Adams are my top wide receivers and top-10 players overall, so that's a pretty killer start.
- RB/WR-QB -- And by, "QB," I mean Mahomes. Not my preferred strategy, but if you can pair Mahomes in the second round with one of the top RB in the first half of the first round, it's a viable strategy. The problem is, with most drafters probably waiting until after the sixth round to take a QB, you're putting yourself at an inherent disadvantage elsewhere, but Mahomes can make up for that.
How to approach Rounds 3 & 4
Here's a bit of a roadmap for how to proceed from each of the five different approaches above, with my preferred strategy for each:
- If you started RB/WR-TE: Get another RB -- My preference would be to have at least one RB by the third round, but if I went with an RB in the first and a TE in the second, I'm totally fine with snagging someone like Miles Sanders, Chris Carson, or Josh Jacobs in the third, especially in a Non-PPR league. By the fourth round, you're getting close to the point where you run out of reliable RBs, while the depth at WR is incredibly strong -- Robert Woods, Allen Robinson and D.J. Moore will all probably be there, and I'd be OK with any of them as my No. 1 WR if it came to that.
- If you started RB/WR-TE: Load up at WR -- However, you could also start to pivot to a zero-RB approach from here. RB prices tend to get inflated outside of the upper tiers, so the WRs available in Rounds 3 and especially 4 are likely to be more reliable performers with similar upside to the RB in that range. In our draft, I started out with Kelce, Thomas, Ridley, and Woods, securing three of my top eight at the position along with the best TE in the game. Your margin for error at RB is a lot larger with that approach, but even if you took an RB in the first round, ending up with two of Ridley, Woods, Keenan Allen, Terry McLaurin, or Julio Jones is a pretty awesome way to start your WR group.
- If you started RB-RB: Time to get some pass-catchers -- Some of you may want to get a high-end RB in your flex, and if they hit that could be a huge advantage -- and that may be the ideal move in non-PPR.. But given the bust rate of even early-round RBs -- which only rises as you get to the third and fourth round, historically -- the safer move is to focus on other positions. If one of the elite tight ends is available in the third, that's my recommendation, followed by a WR in the fourth; if not, starting out with two high-end RBs and ending up with any of the previously mentioned WRs as your top two is hard to turn down.
- If you started WR-WR: Steer into the curve -- If I started with double WR, I'm probably not going to try to play catchup at RB, and you shouldn't either. Embrace that you're zigging when everyone else is zagging and focus on building on that strength. That means an elite TE if available, or two more WRs -- at least in a 3WR league. In a 2WR league, I'd still prefer to fill out my flex spot with a WR alongside a TE, but an RB is a reasonable pivot in Round 3 if none of the TEs are there.
- If you started RB/WR-QB: Time to play catchup -- Having Mahomes is a huge advantage, but you're going to be behind the competition everywhere else. If I had a QB in my first two picks, I would probably try to focus on WR with these next two picks, especially if I paired Mahomes with an RB. However, even if I took a WR with Mahomes, I would prefer to snag two more. Mahomes is a high-upside play, but he's also a high-floor pick, and pairing him with three high-end WR gives you more security over the course of the season along with the high weekly boom potential WR inherently carry -- contrary to what is probably popular belief, high-end WRs actually have more week-to-week variance than their elite RB counterparts.
How to approach Rounds 5 & 6
By this point in the draft, there are too many different permutations of player combinations to go through each individually. Plus as you get further down the board, the less the results of any given draft will look like ADP or rankings -- personal preference naturally takes over when you're comparing, say, Will Fuller, Kenny Golladay, and James Conner. But, this is still where you're putting the finishing touches on the core of your team, so here are some general tips based on what your first four rounds looked like:
- If you went with a balanced approach: We'll define this as "no more than two players at any position", which means you've got a lot of flexibility as you move out of the early rounds and into the middle of the draft. If you want a QB you don't have to think about, you're well set up to snag one of the Josh Allen/Lamar Jackson/Kyler Murray tier, or you can look for Pitts and Andrews if you want a TE you probably won't have to think about who could turn into a superstar. My preference would be to only go with one of those positions in this range and focus on upside plays and streaming at whichever you don't choose, because you still want to build up contingency plans at RB and WR.
- If you went RB heavy: You're actually in a pretty good spot here, because you're in position to avoid the worst part of the draft for running backs. Rounds 4 through 9 have historically been where you get the least bang for your buck when drafting running backs, so if you've already got two or three by now, you're in position to snag one of those second-tier TE or QB or just take the WR values in this range, which will always be plentiful here. Look for solid, underrated guys like Cooper Kupp, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Diontae Johnson, or else target breakout candidates like Brandon Aiyuk, Chase Claypool, Will Fuller, Kenny Golladay, or Tee Higgins. If I've already got both RB spots filled by the beginning of the fifth, I'm probably taking four WRs before my next RB.
- If you went RB-light: We'll define this as only one or zero RBs through four rounds. You might think you need to make up for your deficiencies at RB if you didn't focus on it early on, but as already mentioned, this range for RB makes for pretty poor investments, so your best bet is to keep building up your receiving corps if you already have a TE or QB, or dip into that second tier of both positions. You'll want to focus on upside RB starting in Round 8 and 9, focusing on the likes of James Robinson, Trey Sermon, Kenyan Drake, or Ronald Jones who could be must-start guys if they get the chance, plus some PPR-specialist backs like Tarik Cohen, J.D. McKissic, and Nyheim Hines who can slot in as your No. 2 RB early on. You'll feel like you don't have enough RBs after the draft who you can rely on, but you're betting on the volatility of the position to work out in your favor. Those PPR backs have high weekly upside, those No. 2 backs have high long-term upside if and when injuries happen, and you'll have the flexibility early on in the season to cycle through the latest waiver-wire backs until you find one or two who stick. Stick with the plan and don't panic about your team on Draft Day -- your starting lineup in the championship game isn't going to look much like the one you drafted no matter what approach you took.