Baseball season is underway, as are the NBA playoffs, and for us younger folks, the school year is winding to an end. But more importantly than all of that, the NFL Draft has drawn to a close. So, with well over a hundred days until the NFL season begins, let’s dive into a mock draft. Because nothing says “degenerate” like a fantasy football mock draft in early May.
Note: This is the first round of what eventually will be a full four-round mock draft. These rankings are not final and will change as the season draws closer.
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1.01. Le’Veon Bell – RB – Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell’s fantasy football seasonal finishes on a per-game basis in his career: 2, 2, 4, 1 and 16. In 2017, Bell finished as an RB1 (since this is a twelve-team mock draft, RB1 means top twelve) in twelve out of fifteen possible games. Put simply, Bell is the most valuable asset in fantasy football when he’s on the field.
The problem is that staying on the field has been difficult for Bell thus far in his NFL career. Bell has missed thirteen games due to injury and five more due to suspension during his five-year career, and has played all 16 games just once. There’s also the concern that Bell holds out due to his lack of a long-term deal with Pittsburgh, but more information will come out as the season draws closer, so Bell’s ranking as the top pick hinges on him suiting up for Week 1, with or without a new contract.
Anyway, Bell is hyper-productive when he’s on the field, seeing an average of nearly 25 touches per game over his entire NFL career, although the massive workload could be contributing to his injury concerns. What truly puts Bell above other running back studs like Ezekiel Elliot and Todd Gurley is his ability to catch the ball. Bell has seen an average of 6.4 targets per game during his career, which boosts his fantasy value greatly in PPR formats.
Provided he can stay on the field, Bell is the most valuable asset in fantasy football, and deserves to be the top pick in 2018 fantasy drafts.
1.02. Antonio Brown – WR – Pittsburgh Steelers
While Bell is the most valuable asset in fantasy football, fellow Steeler Antonio Brown is arguably the most dependable. Brown has been a top-three fantasy receiver in each of the last five seasons (in other words, Brown has been a top-three fantasy receiver every year he has been the No.1 WR on Pittsburgh’s depth chart), including three overall WR1 years. During that time span, he has averaged 116 receptions and 1,570 receiving yards per season.
Perhaps the only concern with Brown is his quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Roethlisberger is nearing the end of his career (and actually contemplated retiring after the 2017 season) and he missed four games due to an MCL sprain in 2015 and one more following a meniscus tear in 2016. During the games Roethlisberger has missed, Brown has been significantly less productive, scoring just 12.0 PPR PPG as opposed to the 21.1 PPG he averages when Roethlisberger does play. Still, there isn’t a large enough sample size (5 games) to make an informed conclusion on Brown’s fantasy output with another quarterback in the game.
Picking Brown is a gamble on Roethlisberger’s health, but Brown is the most dependable player in fantasy football when Big Ben is healthy and is a solid selection at 1.02 in PPR formats.
1.03. Todd Gurley – RB – Los Angeles Rams
After a letdown 2016 season, Todd Gurley and the Rams’ offense exploded onto the scene in 2017 behind the hiring of Sean McVay, and Gurley ran away with the overall RB1 position and helped many fantasy owners take home a title.
However, don’t let Gurley’s historic 2017 fool you into taking him first overall in 2018. For starters, Gurley averaged 12.3 yards per reception in 2017, which was a gaudy statistic that placed him second among all qualified backs behind Chris Thompson. For reference, Alvin Kamara placed third in yards per reception among backs with 10.2, more than two yards less per reception than Thompson and Gurley.
Not only that, but Gurley led the entire NFL in yards after catch (YAC) and YAC per reception. In fact, Gurley had the fourth-highest YAC/catch (12.63) of the last quarter century, behind only 1992 Lorenzo White (13.14), 2011 Fred Jackson (12.84), and 2016 Tevin Coleman (12.65). While running backs normally lead the league in total YAC due to receiving the ball closer to the line of scrimmage, the fact that Gurley led the league in total YAC is remarkable given that he was only fifth in receptions among RBs with 64, well behind the top three of Bell, Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey (86, 82, and 80, respectively).
The Rams made a concerted effort to involve Gurley in the passing game in 2017, but his YAC and yards per reception will likely drop in 2018 simply because it’s unlikely for any running back to sustain that level of efficiency. Furthermore, Gurley had six receiving touchdowns, a total that only two running backs have repeated in the following season since 1975.
Additionally, the Rams’ offense will almost certainly take a step back in 2018 as opposing defenses adjust to McVay’s game plan. McVay’s style of offense caught opposing defensive coordinators off guard in 2017, but now teams will have a year of tape and an entire offseason to think about how to stop the Rams.
Barring something dramatic happening, Gurley should be able to finish as a fantasy RB1 again, and likely a high-end one at that, but expecting him to replicate his 2017 numbers is unreasonable. That said, Gurley is still deserving of the third overall pick for 2018 despite the incoming negative regression.
1.04. Ezekiel Elliott – RB – Dallas Cowboys
After a drama-filled first half of the 2017 season in which he was seemingly suspended then reinstated weekly, Elliott finally stopped appealing the NFL’s ruling of a six-game suspension and missed weeks 10-15 before making a quick return to end the season. During the ten games he played, though, Elliott was ridiculously productive, averaging 125.2 total yards per game, slightly down from his 2016 average of 132.9.
Although future off-field incidents may be a (minor) cause for concern in dynasty formats, the aforementioned six-game suspension in 2017 may actually be beneficial for his 2018 redraft value, as the Cowboys handed Elliott an average of 24.2 carries per game last season. Extrapolated over an entire season, that’s 387.2 total carries, a number that hasn’t even been remotely approached since DeMarco Murray’s monster 2014 season, and toting the ball that many times in one season obviously increases chance of injury. The Cowboys love feeding Elliott the ball, and that shouldn’t change in 2018, as his suspension and the Cowboys’ ensuing offensive collapse illustrated the Dallas’s absolute offensive dependence on him.
Elliott may not catch the ball as much as other top backs — Bell, Gurley, and David Johnson are all utilized much more in the passing game — but his rushing volume makes him one of the safest picks in all of fantasy, and he deserves an early first round selection, even in PPR leagues.
1.05. David Johnson – RB – Arizona Cardinals
After a dominant 2016 in which he accumulated more than 400 PPR fantasy points, David Johnson missed almost the entire 2017 season after fracturing his wrist in Week 1. Many fantasy owners (including yours truly) stashed DJ on the bench the whole season, eagerly awaiting his return. Unfortunately, his anticipated return to fantasy football stardom didn’t come to fruition in 2017, but that shouldn’t hamper his 2018 draft stock too much, if at all.
Johnson is one of the best dual-threat running backs in the NFL, as he had more than 2,000 scrimmage yards (1,239 rushing, 879 receiving) in 2016 to go along with a whopping 20 touchdowns. While it’s unrealistic to expect Johnson to replicate his insane 2016 output, he’s still in line for monster volume as the bell cow running back in Arizona. Besides Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, there really isn’t much to get excited about in Arizona, even with the signing of Sam Bradford and the selection of Josh Rosen in the 2018 NFL Draft.
The Cardinals’ offense is going to need to heavily feed Johnson the rock in order to disguise their offensive deficiencies elsewhere, and that can only bode well for Johnson’s fantasy value. The only knock on DJ is that, unlike a lot of other running backs in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts, the Cardinals aren’t expected to win a lot of games in 2018 and there’s concern that that could hinder Johnson’s total rushing volume. However, Johnson is an elite pass-catcher out of the backfield, as he finished with a 19 percent target share in 2016, second on the Cardinals behind Fitzgerald and first in the league among running backs.
A negative game script might be cause for concern with running backs who don’t catch as many balls out of the backfield, like Jordan Howard or Carlos Hyde, but Johnson contributes enough through the air to eliminate the uneasiness about the Cardinals’ lack of overall talent. Don’t let the missed season concern you too much: Johnson is one of the best running backs in the league, and is a worthy investment in the first round of fantasy football drafts.
1.06. DeAndre Hopkins – WR – Houston Texans
This just in: Brock Osweiler is not a very good quarterback. With quarterbacks not named Osweiler, DeAndre Hopkins has averaged 1,228 receiving yards per season with two top-five fantasy receiver seasons. In his lone season with Brock Osweiler, Hopkins massively underperformed his first-round ADP and finished as the WR26.
In 2017, Hopkins rebounded after that disappointing 2016 season, finishing as the WR2 behind Brown on a ridiculous 11.6 targets per game. Hopkins led the league in both total targets (174), target share (35 percent), and receiving touchdowns (13) in 2017 despite only having Deshaun Watson behind center for six games. Watson is expected to be fully back by the start of the 2018 season, so there’s no reason to worry about Hopkins underwhelming due to poor quarterback play in 2018 as he did in 2016.
Volume reigns king in fantasy football, and Hopkins is one of the biggest target hogs in the NFL, as he’s seen an average of 172.3 targets over the last three seasons. That alone makes Hopkins a low-risk fantasy investment.
However, despite what some may be expecting, the Texans offense is not going to be the same behemoth it was in 2016; Watson’s production was unsustainable and will come back down to Earth in 2017. The average TD percentage for NFL QBs is around 4.5 percent. In 2017, Watson posted a TD percentage of 9.3 percent. As Matt Kelley of PlayerProfiler.com noted, Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady has only posted a TD percentage above 6.5 twice in his career.
Furthermore, Watson had an average depth of target (aDOT) of 11.1 yards, the highest mark among all NFL starting QBs despite coming out of college with concerns about his deep ball. Moreover, according to airyards.com, Watson’s expected completion percentage was almost two percentage points higher than what would be expected based on the depth of his throws.
Watson is primed for regression in 2018, and that obviously bodes poorly for Hopkins. However, even if Watson takes a step back efficiency-wise in 2018, Hopkins should be able to finish as a fantasy WR1 for the second consecutive season based on volume alone.
1.07. Odell Beckham, Jr. – WR – New York Giants
Odell Beckham’s 2018 offseason has already been more eventful than his 2017 season, and May has just begun.
The superstar wide receiver missed the final twelve games of the 2017 campaign after fracturing his ankle in a Week 4 bout against the Los Angeles Chargers. In recent weeks, speculation has arisen about his future with the Giants after Beckham stated he would not step onto the field in 2018 without a contract extension. It’s safe to assume the Giants will not trade away their superstar wide receiver and this ranking is dependent on him suiting up for Week 1 regardless of his contract status.
On the field, Beckham Jr. is one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL and one of the most valuable wideouts for fantasy. In his four years in the NFL, Beckham has finished third (in four games), sixth, third, and first on a per-game basis in PPR formats. He’s averaged double-digit targets per game every single year in the league and has had double digit touchdowns every year as well.
Heading into 2018, the Giants have bolstered their offense with the additions of tackle Nate Solder, rookie guard Will Hernandez, and running back Saquon Barkley. The Giants struggled with injuries all of last season and that, combined with the new additions to the offense, should mean more scoring opportunities overall for New York as a whole. The expected improvement of the Giants offense from 2017 to 2018 obviously bodes well for Beckham’s fantasy production. Despite the off-field question marks, Beckham has proven himself enough as one of the best wide receivers in football and clearly warrants a first-round fantasy selection.
1.08. Keenan Allen – WR – Los Angeles Chargers
Finally, Keenan Allen stayed healthy for an entire season and proved just how productive he could be as a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
Over the last few years, Allen has been plagued by injuries: a lacerated kidney here, an ACL tear there, with a fractured collarbone somewhere in there too just for good measure. The NFL community was tragically deprived of Allen during his first few seasons in the league, and, as a result, the narrative surrounding him heading into 2017 was that he was an injury-prone player, despite most of his injuries being purely unlucky (seriously, how do you lacerate a kidney?).
In 2017, Allen stayed healthy en route to a 100-catch, 1,400-yard season in which he finished as the WR3 overall in PPR leagues behind only Brown and Hopkins. Allen finished fifth in the NFL in targets in 2017, and was fourth in the NFL in targets per game in 2015, the year that the lacerated kidney stole the final eight games of the season from him.
Although the Chargers have a whole host of capable pass-catchers behind Allen, such as the Tyrell and Mike Williams, Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon, and Austin Ekeler, Allen has clearly proven himself as the top WR in Los Angeles’s pass-happy offense, and his volume makes him a fairly safe fantasy option provided he can stay healthy.
1.09. Michael Thomas – WR – New Orleans Saints
After a breakout rookie season in which he finished as a top ten fantasy receiver, despite being behind Brandin Cooks on the Saints’ depth chart, Michael Thomas showed he could handle a top role in 2017 by finishing as the overall WR6 in fantasy PPR leagues.
Thomas saw 149 targets in 2017, the most a wide receiver has ever seen during Drew Brees’s time with the Saints. However, despite finishing as the WR6 in fantasy and seeing 149 targets, there were a lot of fantasy owners who were a little bit unhappy with their first-round pick’s production, mostly stemming from the fact that he only caught five touchdowns.
However, Thomas’s touchdown numbers should experience some positive regression in 2018, as his 2017 numbers were an outlier relative to how many targets and yards he accumulated. Of the 221 pass-catchers who have gotten at least 1,245 receiving yards in a season since the merger, only 20 of them (nine percent) have finished with five or fewer touchdowns. Of the 193 pass-catchers who have seen at least 149 targets in a single season since 1992, only 32 of them (17 percent) have caught five or fewer touchdowns.
It’s not like Thomas is T.Y. Hilton or Allen, who put up numbers without being a red zone threat. Thomas had nine touchdowns in 2016, and his style of play depends on using his 6’3” frame to outwork defenders for catches. His lack of touchdowns in 2017 was likely a fluke and he should see some positive regression in that department in 2018, perhaps leading to even better numbers in 2018 than his first two years in the league.
1.10. Alvin Kamara – RB – New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara broke onto the scene in 2017 with 1,550 total yards and 13 TDs en route to an overall RB3 finish. Heading into 2018, his ADP is 1.05 according to Fantasy Football Calculator, a far cry from the twelfth-round ADP he had last September. Although a top-five selection might be a little rich, Kamara is still worthy of a first-round selection despite incoming efficiency regression.
In 2017, Kamara averaged 6.1 YPC (fourth among all RBs with at least 100 carries in the post-merger era) and 7.7 yards per touch while performing extremely well in almost every efficiency metric.
There are two possibilities here: either Kamara is the greatest running back of all time, or his efficiency will come down in 2018. While it’s up to you to determine which is more likely, I’m slightly more inclined to believe the latter option. Although his efficiency will come down, his total rushing volume will likely go up in 2018. In the first four weeks of the season (i.e. before the Adrian Peterson trade) Kamara averaged a meager 3.8 carries per game. In the last 11 weeks of the season (excluding the game against Atlanta when he left in the first quarter due to a concussion), he averaged 9.5 carries per game. The expected uptick in volume for Kamara in 2018 should be enough to mitigate the production lost due to efficiency regression, at least as a runner.
What makes Kamara so valuable though is his pass-catching ability out of the backfield. Kamara finished third among running backs in targets (101), third in target share (19 percent), and first in yards (826) in 2017.
Here’s a fun fact: over the last five seasons, the Saints have finished in the top five in total targets to RBs every single season, including two seasons (2016 and 2017) where they finished first and two more (2013 and 2014) where they finished second. The Saints love throwing the ball to their running backs, and that’s excellent news for Kamara fantasy-wise, especially in PPR.
Sean Payton lined up Kamara all over the field in 2017, using him in single-back formations, two-back formations, and in the slot. New Orleans recognizes what a weapon Kamara can be as a receiver and they obviously have a history of throwing the ball to their backs, so it’s not crazy to expect Kamara to replicate or at least come close to replicating his 2017 numbers as a receiver.
Overall, even with the incoming efficiency regression, Kamara is worthy of a first-round selection in PPR leagues due to his receiving prowess and an expected uptick in rushing volume.
1.11. Julio Jones – WR – Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones may be the most maddeningly inconsistent player in fantasy football.
Jones disappointed fantasy owners in 2017 despite finishing as the fantasy WR7 in PPR, mostly due to his wildly unpredictable play. In fact, in 2017, Jones only finished in the top 24 among WRs six times during the fantasy season despite finishing second in the NFL in receiving yards and sixth in targets. Put simply, Jones will win you a couple weeks a year, but he’ll also lose you a couple weeks a year, and good luck predicting which weeks are which.
However, at the end of the day, his upside is up there with any wide receiver in the league, and he still puts up ridiculous end-of-year stats. Moreover, if Michael Thomas had a surprisingly low amount of touchdowns in 2017, Jones’s three touchdowns were nothing short of shocking. Of the 211 players who have seen at least 148 targets in a season since 1992, only nine of them have caught three or fewer touchdowns. Of the 55 players who have gotten at least 1,444 receiving yards in a season since the NFL merger, Jones is the only one with three or fewer touchdowns.
Even for Jones, who has never been much of a red zone threat, scoring only three touchdowns given his production in other areas is astounding. So he is in line for some positive touchdown regression in 2018.
Jones’s fantasy outlook for 2018 is similar to previous years: inconsistent play with fantastic year-end numbers. If you pick Jones in the first round, look for high-floor players later in your draft to pair with him.
1.12. Saquon Barkley – RB – New York Giants
With the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Dave Gettleman and the New York Giants opted not to take a potential franchise QB and instead selected Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. While I don’t like the pick from a real football perspective, it looks like a fairly decent situation for Barkley from a fantasy standpoint.
The Giants have no other running backs even in the same stratosphere as Barkley talent-wise and he should see very little competition for touches right from the start. Barkley is the best running back prospect we’ve seen in years, with a fantastic combination of athleticism, pass-catching ability (93rd percentile college target share), and rushing efficiency (three consecutive seasons of 1,000+ yards and 5.5+ YPC).
The only real cause for concern with Barkley is the state of the Giants’ offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, New York had one of the worst offensive lines in football last season, but the additions of former Patriots tackle Nate Solder via free agency and UTEP guard Will Hernandez in the second round of the NFL Draft should propel the Giants up those rankings a little.
Furthermore, the Giants offense should be much improved in 2018 with Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard back at 100 percent and a better offense obviously equals more potential fantasy upside for a running back. The Giants receiving corps of Beckham, Shepard, and tight end Evan Engram is one of the better pass-catching trios in the NFL, and the potency of the receivers should prevent opposing defenses from keying in too much on Barkley, (see Leonard Fournette’s efficiency struggles in Jacksonville).
Between Barkley’s pass-catching prowess and projected volume, he looks like an RB1 right off the bat in fantasy football. The offensive line and lack of an NFL pedigree may concern some, but I’m buying into the talent and volume here and have no problem selecting him at the end of the first round of fantasy football drafts.