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From Derick E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports

The First Round: The Best Picks

The real NFL Draft is coming soon, and the biggest stories are always centered around the first round. After all, that’s where most of the game-changing players are, the ones that will rescue your franchise from the depths of despair. That can easily be true in fantasy football as well. Your first rounder can win you the league, but a bust in the first will often doom your season. Let’s take a look at the past few first rounds and see if any patterns emerge.

Draft Data taken from FantasyData, ranking data taken from FantasyPros. Assuming 12 teams, PPR.

(Best Pick Criteria: Finish Top 5 at position (3 if QB or TE) and finish Top 30 overall)

2014

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
LeSean McCoyOverall 61, RB 12
Jamaal CharlesOverall 33, RB 7
Adrian PetersonOverall 443, RB 126
Eddie LacyOverall 25, RB 6
Matt ForteOverall 4, RB 2
Calvin JohnsonOverall 50, WR 18
Demaryius ThomasOverall 7, WR 2
Jimmy GrahamOverall 44, TE 2
Peyton ManningOverall 10, QB 4
Dez BryantOverall 12, WR 4
Montee BallOverall 330, RB 87
A.J. GreenOverall 22, WR 8

A really solid first round all things considered. Adrian Peterson and Montee Ball were the obvious busts. Both are running backs which is notable. Calvin Johnson could easily be considered a bust, as he finished outside the top 12 of his position. That’s not great. Peyton Manning also wasn’t amazing. He wasn’t terrible either, but QB 4 with that high of a draft pick isn’t ideal. Overall, we had two major busts (both running backs) and a minor wide receiver bust. There were two busts in the top five picks, and the one at the end. Interestingly the best picks were 5, 7 and 10.

2015

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
Adrian PetersonOverall 29, RB 2
Antonio BrownOverall 3, WR 2
Le’Veon BellOverall 186, RB 44
Eddie LacyOverall 135, RB 31
Jamaal CharlesOverall 213, RB 49
Julio JonesOverall 2, WR 1
Dez BryantOverall 240, WR 77
Marshawn LynchOverall 256, RB 55
Demaryius ThomasOverall 31, WR 12
Rob GronkowskiOverall 28, TE 1
CJ AndersonOverall 153, RB 36
Odell Beckham Jr. Overall 9, WR 5

It was a landmine for running backs. Out of the six running backs that were taken, only one was playable, the first one. On the flip side, three of the top five WRs were taken in round 1. Best picks were 2, 6, and 12. Every WR taken was generally worth the pick. 

2016

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
Antonio BrownOverall 7, WR 1
Julio JonesOverall 32, WR 8
Odell Beckham JrOverall 13, WR 3
David JohnsonOverall 1, RB 1
Todd Gurley IIOverall 73, RB 18
A.J. GreenOverall 74, WR 28
DeAndre HopkinsOverall 84, WR 34
Ezekiel ElliotOverall 3, RB 2
Allen Robinson IIOverall 75, WR 29
Lamar MillerOverall 66, RB 16
Adrian PetersonOverall 486, RB 120
Le’Veon BellOverall 5, RB 3

Pretty top-heavy, with all four of the first picks being pretty big hits. A ton more wide receivers were taken this year, but after the initial run it didn’t work out well. The top three running backs were all taken, but there were also four busts and two semi busts. The best picks this year were 1, 3, 4, 8, and 12. Either you got a bust or a top five guy, with basically no in-between.

2017

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
David JohnsonOverall 461, RB 111
Le’Veon BellOverall 2, RB 2 
Antonio BrownOverall 4, WR 1 
Julio JonesOverall 27, WR 7
Ezekiel ElliottOverall 59, RB 14
Odell Beckham JrOverall 261, WR 81
Devonta FreemanOverall 68, RB 15
LeSean McCoyOverall 16, RB 7
Mike EvansOverall 53, WR 18
A.J. GreenOverall 33, WR 10
Melvin GordonOverall 13, RB 5
Jordy NelsonOverall 127, WR 43

This draft was all over the place. Two top five running backs and the number one wide receiver, but also three guys that weren’t even close to playable, and three more guys that didn’t hit top 12 status. Best picks were 2, 3 and 11, with 2/3 being running backs. 

2018

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
Todd Gurley IIOverall 3, RB 2
Le’Veon BellOverall N/A, RB N/A
David JohnsonOverall 38, RB 9
Ezekiel ElliottOverall 7, RB 5
Antonio BrownOverall 10, WR 2
Alvin KamaraOverall 5, RB 4
Saquon BarkleyOverall 4, RB 3
Leonard FournetteOverall 157, RB 39
Melvin Gordon IIIOverall 29, RB 7
DeAndre HopkinsOverall 14, WR 4
Kareem HuntOverall 42, RB 11
Odell Beckham Jr. Overall 41, WR 14


Besides the disaster that was Le’Veon Bell holding out, this was a pretty solid draft. Only Fournette was a major bust, and there was only one more semi bust in Odell. Every other spot you got solid or great value. Best picks are 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10. 

2019

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
Saquon BarkleyOverall 46, RB 12
Alvin KamaraOverall 43, RB 11
Christian McCaffreyOverall 1, RB 1 
Ezekiel ElliotOverall 12, RB 5
Davante AdamsOverall 78, WR 26
DeAndre HopkinsOverall 16, WR 3
James ConnerOverall 114, RB 31
David JohnsonOverall 120, RB 33
Le’Veon BellOverall 67, RB 15
Julio JonesOverall 21, WR 4
Michael ThomasOverall 3, WR 1 
Nick ChubbOverall 26, RB 8

Back to a more normal distribution, with three busts and one semi. There were a solid amount of really good picks too, with five guys that placed in the top five of their respective positions. Best picks were 3, 4, 6, 10 and 11.

2020

Player Draft PositionEnd of Season Rankings
Christian McCaffreyOverall 234, RB 51
Saquon BarkleyOverall 476, RB 115
Ezekiel ElliottOverall 52, RB 10
Alvin KamaraOverall 4, RB 1
Clyde Edwards-HelaireOverall 77, RB 19
Derrick HenryOverall 17, RB 3
Dalvin CookOverall 9, RB 2
Michael ThomasOverall 251, WR 88
Joe MixonOverall 211, RB 47
Josh JacobsOverall 49, RB 9
Davante AdamsOverall 8, WR 1
Austin EkelerOverall 110, RB 28

Bit of a disaster this year, with busts (pretty much due to injury) all over the place, especially for the running backs. Then again, that’s pretty unavoidable considering 10 of the 12 picks were running backs. For both running backs and wide receivers it was 50/50 whether you got a stud or a bust. There were four major running back busts and one semi, and there was one wide receiver bust. If you avoided that though, you likely got the best WR or one of the top three RBs. Best picks were 4, 6, 7, and 11. 

Conclusions:

As always with these articles, the sample size is pretty small so nothing conclusive can really be gleaned from the data. However there are some trends and maybe misconceptions that can be corrected. As I’ve shown in past articles, getting the first pick isn’t all that cracked up to be, and wide receivers are often a safer bet than running backs. Something I’ve noticed in this set is that the top three picks hit at the same rate that the bottom three picks (of the first round) do. It was seven “best” picks for 1-3, and eight for picks 10-12. Every year had at least one “best” pick in the 10-12 range, which wasn’t true for the 1-3 range. Picks 4-6 produced the most best picks (10), whereas picks 7-9 produced the least (4). 

Final Thoughts: 

Given that picking in the 10-12 range allows you first choice in the second round, it can be argued that those picks are superior to the 1-3 picks. Then again, we’d need to run the numbers on the second round to be sure. Regardless, this data should help you properly value your first round pick. Maybe consider trading back if you’re in the top three, or in that rough 7-9 range where you aren’t likely to get a stud and you aren’t getting a super high second rounder either.