Ezekiel Elliott heads up a 2018 mock fantasy draft
Around this time last year, we fast-forwarded to 2017 and what a fantasy draft might look like. While the top spot was way off (thanks, Todd Gurley), I feel confident that at least half, if not more, will end up being first-round picks this year. If you have a league that allows future draft picks to be traded, or just prefer 15 months to plan, this article is for you. Below is a three-round mock for the 2018 fantasy season. We use a standard, 12-team league, standard scoring and a flex position. It also takes into account projections for this year (injuries, free agency, etc.), and next year’s NFL draft, using our own Steve Palazzolo’s 2018 mock. Player’s ages at the start of 2018 are in parentheses.
- Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys (23) — Of the big three in 2017 fantasy drafts that also includes David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell, Elliott has by far the friendliest environment to still be ranked so highly in 2018. Not only will he be just 23, but he will still be behind a veteran offensive line that returns most of its pieces after finishing as a top-five run-blocking unit the last four years, according to PFF. Perhaps more importantly, he has an ascending quarterback in Dak Prescott. Compare that to the aging and brittle (in both cases) Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger, and Elliott has a smooth ride to the top pick in 2018.
- David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals (26) — If Johnson keeps producing like he did in 2016, he could make just as good a case for the top spot as Elliott. Johnson topped 2,000 total yards last year in just his second season and showed no signs of slowing down. He lags (slightly) behind Elliott in age and quarterback play after Palmer showed signs of his age but should be quarterback-independent for at least the next two or three years.
- Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (26) — If injuries, off-field issues, and contracts weren’t factors, Bell would be the top pick in fantasy drafts every year. In two of his last three seasons, he’s recorded two of the top 75 best RB/WR/TE seasons ever by fantasy points per game. But, alas, those factors mentioned above are holding back Bell’s real and fantasy potential. Over four seasons in the NFL, he’s missed a total of 17 games between injuries and suspensions. Now Bell is a free agent after 2017 and the Steelers have to weigh the risk of paying big money to a player in the most replaceable position in the NFL. That isn’t to say he won’t be back in Pittsburgh, the setting for his success, but there’s enough doubt to hold him back from the top spot.
- Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants (25) — 96 receptions, 1,374 yards, 11 touchdowns. By any measure, this would be a great single season. Beckham has averaged that over the course of three since entering the league. And he’s done all that with a quarterback who has been PFF’s 17th-, 29th-, and 35th-best quarterback the last three seasons. 2018 should be no different, as Beckham will still be just 25, under contact, and should have more help around him to draw attention away in the form of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram.
- Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (25) — Not far behind Beckham would be Evans as the top receiver taken in 2018 drafts. After two low-end WR1 seasons, Evans had a Beckham-like season in 2016 with 96 receptions, 1,321 yards, and 12 touchdowns. There’s no reason to think Evans can’t keep that kind of production in to 2018 with a young quarterback and now two pass-catching threats he didn’t have last year in DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard.
- Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (30) — It’s always dicey investing so much in a 30-year-old non-quarterback, but an exception can be made for one of the best fantasy receivers of all time. Averaging 1,578 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last four seasons, Brown’s body has held up and his game isn’t prone to as much contact as bigger receivers jumping for the ball. Brown is one of the safest picks even two years from now.
- Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (29) — Jones has been on an absolute tear the last three seasons, averaging 107 catches and 1,624 yards. There are some concerns about whether Jones can keep that up as he gets older. He also won’t have offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as he did in the previous two seasons. But quarterback Matt Ryan is in the prime of his career and Jones should continue dominating.
- Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints (24) — It may be a surprise to see Thomas this high, but it won’t be after the 2017 season. While he was blocked by Brandin Cooks during his rookie season in the 2016 season, that won’t be the case now that Cooks has been shipped to New England. And no one else in New Orleans is as big a target as Thomas, meaning he will be utilized in the red zone. The only question mark is Brees and if he can continue to be effective in what would be his age-39 season.
- Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans (24) — By 2018, Henry should have the starting job in Tennessee locked up. Current starter DeMarco Murray is scheduled to make more in 2018 than Henry will during his entire rookie deal, making Murray a prime candidate to be cut by then. And why not? After legitimate concerns of overuse at Alabama (395 carries his senior year, Nick Saban? Really?), the Titans scaled back his workload, with only 110 carries his rookie season. But Henry averaged a stellar 4.5 yards per carry on those and finished with a positive pass grade from PFF. He’s also on a team that produced the fifth-best fantasy running back this season. Not much will change next year, so expect Henry to be a first-rounder
- T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts (29) — Despite averaging 81 receptions and 1,250 yards the last four seasons, including 91 and 1,448 last season, Hilton may still be underrated. And much like Antonio Brown, his game is reliant more on route-running and timing than size, meaning Hilton should continue to produce in the Colts’ high-powered offense. Also like Brown, the Colts have yet to find someone to legitimately challenge Hilton’s role as the top receiver.
- Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers (25) — After a quasi-disastrous rookie campaign, Gordon bounced back in a big way to finish as fantasy’s eighth-best running back in 2016. He totaled nearly 1,000 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns and added over 400 yards receiving, all while playing in only 13 games. So will Gordon be able to continue this type of production? He should, as quarterback Philip Rivers gets older (2018 will be his age-26 season). Additionally, the Chargers keep adding weapons to take the heat off Gordon, such as the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft, WR Mike Williams.
- Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders (24) — Much like Derrick Henry, all Cooper needs is to land the top job before he’s taken in the first round of fantasy drafts. 2018 should be that year. Michael Crabtree will be in his age-31 season then and should relinquish more attention to Cooper after averaging 87 catches, 960 yards, and eight touchdowns in his two seasons in Oakland. Cooper’s still managed over 1,000 yards in those seasons, but Crabtree’s presence has no doubt affected Cooper’s stats, especially the 11 touchdowns in that time.