News & Analysis

Fantasy football mock drafts: Strategy or best player available?

By Patrick Thorman
Apr 11, 2018

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Dec 31, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) motions in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Early April fantasy mock drafts are about as exciting as curling up with a Farmers’ Almanac, and roughly as predictive. The NFL draft is still weeks away from upending depth charts around the league, and more well-adjusted fantasy gamers remain months away from thumbing through stale draft guides while plotting when to pick the Rams defense.

Why, then, do we insist on mocking up our free time, when we could at least be drafting for money?

Because we’re a little sick? Undoubtedly. Because it’s actually helpful? Surprisingly, yes. Mocks help to flesh out early trends and strategies based on an ever-evolving player landscape, which in turn shapes the advice we pass on in articles, tweets, and podcasts. They offer early windows into which players are rising, which are losing value, and the late-round fliers that will help tip our leagues.

Perhaps the most functional takeaway from early mocks is discovering players who are consistently available at various stages of the opening rounds, depending on which draft slot you are picking from. Once we get a sense of this, we can build strategies and test them – seeing the kind of roster builds we like best when picking in the early, middle, and late stages of the first round.

Let’s take a look at the latest PFF Fantasy mock – which can be viewed in its entirety here – and talk through the strategies of several drafters. We will also dive into what stood out from the “best player available” crowd, and some general emerging trends. Bear in mind most of this mock was completed prior to the Brandin Cooks trade.

Team-specific strategy

Round Position Thorman Selection
1.10 RB7 Leonard Fournette, JAX
2.03 RB9 Melvin Gordon, LAC
3.10 RB16 Jordan Howard CHI
4.03 WR19 T.Y. Hilton IND
5.10 WR30 Cooper Kupp LAR
6.03 RB25 Rex Burkhead NE
7.10 WR40 Will Fuller HOU
8.03 WR42 Jameson Crowder WAS
9.10 TE11 George Kittle SF
10.03 WR52 Martavis Bryant PIT
11.10 QB12 Patrick Mahomes KC
12.03 TE15 Tyler Eifert CIN
13.10 QB20 Matt Ryan ATL
14.03 WR65 Tyler Lockett SEA

My approach from the 10th slot was similar to the last mock draft, when I picked sixth. Grabbing running backs early seems particularly important when drafting toward the end of Round 1, as the backs with the safest workloads dry up quickly. Depth charts are especially tenuous now, before a strong rookie running back class is sprinkled throughout the league. Early-offseason drafting comes with a certainty tax, and it’s well worth paying while roles crystalize. Nowhere is this clearer than in fantasy backfields.

Last mock, I took Rob Gronkowski in the third round to pair with two stud running backs, before going with six straight wideouts. It worked out better than this draft, where four backs in the first six picks (sixth-round Rex Burkhead is irresistible) left me light at wideout. Not ideal in a PPR league. I went late on tight end and, as usual, at quarterback. I was happier with how a RB-heavy approach turned out from the sixth slot and, although each draft is a snowflake, will try to add a wideout with my second- or third-round picks next time I’m picking late.

Round Pick Moore Selection
1.12 WR5 Michael Thomas NO
2.01 WR6 Julio Jones ATL
3.12 TE2 Travis Kelce KC
4.01 RB18 Dion Lewis TEN
5.12 RB23 Alex Collins BAL
6.01 WR32 Devin Funchess CAR
7.12 QB4 Carson Wentz, PHI
8.01 RB31 Isaiah Crowell CLE
9.12 WR50 Marqise Lee JAX
10.01 WR51 Kenny Stills MIA
11.12 RB46 Giovani Bernard CIN
12.01 QB14 Jared Goff LAR
13.12 TE18 Cameron Brate TB
14.01 RB55 LeGarrette Blount DET

Michael Moore took the opposite approach to start off, despite picking at the turn. It appears to have worked out well. After grabbing two studs in Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, Moore went with Travis Kelce and Dion Lewis for his next back-to-back picks. Lewis is staring at a role that translates better in PPR leagues, similar to Moore’s 11th-round pick, Giovani Bernard. Pass-catching running backs, seemingly more available than ever before, are a mostly inexpensive cheat code in this scoring format.

Despite selecting only one wideout in the six rounds following his back-to-back receiver start, Moore added the No. 1 receivers of the Panthers (Devin Funchess), Jaguars (Marqise Lee), and Dolphins (Kenny Stills). Yes, Kenny Stills. In the meantime, he stocked up on Kelce, Lewis, Alex Collins, Isaiah Crowell, and Carson Wentz. Despite the end-of-draft slot, the approach yielded a solid roster led by alpha wideouts, a stud tight end, and an upside quarterback – illustrating how there’s always Moore than one way to skin a fantasy cat.

Round Pick Clasgens Selection
1.04 RB4 Ezekiel Elliott DAL
2.09 WR9 A.J. Green CIN
3.04 WR14 Adam Thielen MIN
4.09 TE3 Zach Ertz PHI
5.04 WR26 Julian Edelman NE
6.09 RB27 Duke Johnson CLE
7.04 RB29 Chris Thompson WAS
8.09 QB7 Kirk Cousins MIN
9.04 WR47 Pierre Garcon SF
10.09 RB41 Tarik Cohen CHI
11.04 WR58 Cameron Meredith NO
12.09 RB49 James White NE
13.04 QB17 Philip Rivers LAC
14.09 WR69 Mike Wallace BAL

Picking from the fourth slot, Dan Clasgens dug even deeper into the supply of pass-catching running backs, selecting PPR assets Duke Johnson (sixth round), Chris Thompson (seventh), Tarik Cohen (10th), and James White (12th). Cohen, especially, is interesting. With a creative new offensive coaching staff, his upside is intriguing, if still an unknown. The rest are strong values, albeit with capped ceilings due to a lack of handoffs and goal-line work. If Ezekiel Elliott stays healthy, Clasgens can mix and match at the RB2 spot, confident in a solid floor.

Versions of the “modified Zero-RB” approach show up via more than one drafter. This is not an extreme example, but after selecting Elliott, Clasgens takes three excellent wideouts (A.J Green, Adam Thielen, and Julian Edelman), with the consensus third-best tight end mixed in (Zach Ertz). He made an interesting selection of Kirk Cousins over Drew Brees, as the seventh quarterback selected. Both are backed by strong teams, making pass volume their main worry. Overall, Clasgens emerged with a well-balanced team despite heading in with a somewhat receiver-heavy plan.

Round Pick Buecher Selection
1.07 RB5 Alvin Kamara NO
2.06 WR7 Davante Adams GB
3.07 WR15 Stefon Diggs MIN
4.06 WR21 Larry Fitzgerald ARZ
5.07 WR29 Marvin Jones DET
6.06 WR34 Michael Crabtree BAL
7.07 TE9 Delanie Walker TEN
8.06 RB33 Derrius Guice
9.07 RB38 Nick Chubb
10.06 WR54 Chris Godwin TB
11.07 RB44 Theo Riddick DET
12.06 WR61 Rishard Matthews TEN
13.07 QB19 Dak Prescott DAL
14.06 WR67 John Brown BAL

For the second mock draft in a row, Tyler Buecher executed his “modified Zero-RB” goal — this time from a mid-draft slot. Last mock, he picked Le’Veon Bell second overall, but this time Buecher opted for Alvin Kamara. He then went on a five-receiver binge, before sewing up tight end (Delanie Walker). All five wideouts are arguably their offenses’ top option, and no one can argue they won’t be heavily targeted. Drafting Davante Adams at 2.06, in front of Keenan Allen and A.J. Green, shows how high the Packers’ top option is climbing among sharp drafters.

Buecher’s running back approach is interesting. He took Kamara as the fifth back off the board, after the “big four.” We can expect Kamara to be hotly debated as the fifth-best running back throughout the offseason due to role and regression concerns. Also, Buecher’s affinity for rookie running backs shines through. He drafted Derrius Guice in the eighth round and Nick Chubb (for the third time in three mocks) in the ninth. Last mock, he took Chubb in the eighth round and Rashaad Penny in the 10th. If one or both are drafted into juicy roles, Buecher profits from a consistent source of early-offseason value: cheap rookie running backs still without an NFL team.

Round Pick Barrett Selection
1.02 RB2 Todd Gurley LAR
2.11 RB13 Mark Ingram NO
3.02 WR12 Doug Baldwin SEA
4.11 WR23 Demaryius Thomas DEN
5.02 WR25 Robert Woods LAR
6.11 TE8 Greg Olsen CAR
7.02 RB28 C.J. Anderson DEN
8.11 WR44 Emmanuel Sanders DEN
9.02 WR46 Chris Hogan NE
10.11 TE14 Jordan Reed WAS
11.02 QB9 Andrew Luck IND
12.11 RB51 Doug Martin OAK
13.02 QB16 Ben Roethlisberger PIT
14.11 DST2 Los Angeles Rams DST

Of the drafters who went with a “best player available” approach, and perhaps among all drafters, Scott Barrett appears to have the strongest roster. Taking Ingram over Barkley at 2.11 stood out, as Barkley will almost certainly be drafted into a feature back workload due to required draft capital and his three-down profile, but Ingram is nothing if not consistently overlooked in fantasy circles.

Barrett feasted on value players who are inexpensive at this early stage of the offseason due in large part to not being “sexy.” Greg Olsen, Chris Hogan (pre-Brandon Cooks trade), and all three Broncos fit that bill. Upside shots Jordan Reed and Andrew Luck come with steep injury discounts, and are backed up by reliable veterans. We were required to roster defenses and kickers in this 16-round draft, and Barrett grabbed the Rams a round before most drafters took their defenses — three picks before he took DeSean Jackson – in a savvy move given the roster requirements.

General themes

Drafters who took a mostly BPA approach tended to have the most balanced teams. More than one mentioned they prefer to get their core set, regardless of position, and then adjust their approach based on early-round picks. Daniel Kelley, Jeff Ratcliffe, Curtis Patrick, Barrett, and Loechner all stood out in this regard.

BPA is the most executable strategy for fantasy gamers of all skill levels, and anecdotally, it seems least subject to variance in its outcome. As with all draft approaches, it hinges on picking the right players (#analysis). However, without redundancy built in at specific positions, all of them are somewhat fragile.

As we mentioned above, running backs with locked-in three-down workloads dry up quicker than an open bar at the FSTA Conference. There are roughly a dozen such backs, and they were gone after Loechner picked LeSean McCoy with the seventh pick in the second round, and even Shady is shaky with Buffalo’s crumbling offensive line and league-worst quarterback room.

We can quibble over Christian McCaffrey’s role (2.05) and how to classify Barkley — a nice snag by Kelley at 2.12 – but passing on running backs through the first round-and-a-half will leave fantasy backfields rudderless. It’s certainly not a death knell – Ratcliffe and Moore recovered nicely – but drafters can’t expect running back gifts to fall to into the third round.

“Wait on quarterbacks” is the fantasy version of “eat your vegetables.” We know we should. We’re sick of hearing it. We need to do it anyway, because every year drafters still gorge on those tempting early-round passers. Of course, a writer draft won’t yield accurate draft positions for typical fantasy leagues. We’re pretty much all hipsters.

Despite the top tier of passers somehow lasting into the seventh round (Tom Brady, 7.03), we can look at the rosters to know even the last quarterback drafters still wind up with functional production. I took upside (Patrick Mahomes, QB12) and safety (Matt Ryan, QB20). Barrett did the same with Andrew Luck (QB9) and Ben Roethlisberger (QB16). Loechner got Jimmy Garoppolo (QB11) and Jameis Winston (QB18). You’d be hard-pressed to point out a roster with bad quarterbacks, and reaching for one – when more important positions are short on certainty – remains a bad idea.

Tight end is just the opposite, but it doesn’t mean we need to reach for them. After Gronkowski and Kelce (some may argue Ertz), there is little need to reach among mostly similar players. Every offseason we tell ourselves pretty things about several tight ends and proclaim the position deeper than ever. Every year we fool ourselves, and for what? Best-ball win percentages tell us tight ends rarely move the needle, and look at each mock drafter’s tight ends. Most appear to be in fine shape.

Gronkowski is more affordable than usual, and a third-round investment is hard to argue with. Pushing up the mid-range tight ends, however, likely sacrifices valuable running back and receiver depth for low-ceiling output. If you’re convinced on any player, by all means shoot your shot (Hunter Henry looks particularly attractive), but take it from a recovering Eric Ebron truther: don’t overdo it.

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