By: Pierre Camus (Twitter: @pfunk00)
Who’s #1? Possible Top Picks in a Dynasty Startup
Typically, having possession of the #1 overall pick in a rookie draft or keeper league re-draft is a mark of shame, unless you purposely punted the season to rebuild (wink, wink). In a startup league, however, having the top pick is a bit of a conundrum. In the olden days, having the right to take a clearly dominant player like Jerry Rice, Marshall Faulk, Ladanian Tomlinson or Adrian Peterson (the 2012 version) was the way to go. Nowadays, parity reigns in the NFL like never before and the top fantasy producers fluctuate wildly. Just ask anyone who wound up with Todd Gurley last year.
So who should be #1 in 2017? I pose this question because I recently joined a startup dynasty league and through random selection was awarded the top overall pick. This raised quite a debate among the FFDynasty260 crew as to who the pick should be. Before I tell you my choice, let’s consider all the logical possibilities and come to the best conclusion possible to help me, er… you, in case you are in a similar situation.
It’s Gotta Be a Receiver, Right?
This was the first sentiment expressed among many of my colleagues. Running backs are increasingly replaceable after a few years of use and many enter a committee situation, even after enjoying a dominant season. The typical turnover rate for a RB is 3-4 seasons of top-notch production at best, so it would make sense that taking an elite receiver is the best choice. But what about the level of production you’re going to get for those 3-4 years?
Is it better to have a bell-cow back like David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliot that could finish as a top-five fantasy player for the next couple of years before burning out, or a stud wide receiver like Odell Beckham Jr. that could be a top-10 player for the next decade? We don’t have a crystal ball, so forecasting injuries, suspensions, or unforeseen incidents can’t be used as a gauge unless you are talking about a player with a clear, repeatable pattern of such misfortune (sorry Le’Veon Bell).
Running Backs as Top Picks
You may not be totally shocked to discover that over the past five seasons (including early 2017 data), no running back has been the consensus #1 pick in dynasty startups. Culled from a variety of sources, including the valuable historical data found on mizelle.net, I found the average top picks as follows: 2013 – Calvin Johnson, 2014 – A.J. Green, 2015 – Odell Beckham Jr., 2016 – Odell Beckham Jr., 2017 – Odell Beckham Jr. We’ll get to OBJ in a minute, but let’s first discuss the RBs that were closest to being #1.
In 2013, Megatron was followed by a trio of running backs that included Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson, and (don’t laugh) Trent Richardson. That alone might solidify the argument against taking a running back first, but let’s analyze the effects of that move. Johnson went on to have two seasons of good, but not elite production before retiring. At the time, Johnson was universally hailed as the best receiver in the game, and rightfully so. In his case, injuries slowly chipped away at his health and desire to keep playing the game into his 30s. While he ended up with nearly 1,500 yards and 12 scores in 2013, he barely made WR1 value the next two seasons before calling it a career. Although Megatron wound up being a poor dynasty pick at that point, he was still more valuable than any of those running backs when he was playing.
In 2014, A.J. Green was a stable #1 choice, but the first RB off the board was LeSean McCoy at #4. In retrospect, this turned out to be a much better pick than Josh Gordon at #3 or Johnson at #2. McCoy proved more valuable to fantasy owners in 2016, but he’ll be 29 years old by the time training camp breaks – the same as Green. As we know, a receiver is far more reliable at this age, regardless of past production. For this reason, despite being the fourth-best fantasy point earner among RB last season, Shady is ranked 11th at the position in our Dynasty Startup rankings.
Now, it’s Beckham time. In 2015, OBJ emerged as a weapon while Dez Bryant trailed close behind for draftees. The first RB to go on average that year was Le’Veon Bell at #4. While Bell’s ceiling certainly makes him worthy of the top pick, as mentioned earlier he carries too much baggage. He could just as easily miss an entire season as lead the league in total yards. That’s not the kind of risk you want to accrue with your top overall pick in a startup, which is why he falls to sixth overall in our rankings.
By last season, Zero-RB theory was truly en vogue and the first RB off the boards was usually Todd Gurley, but not until #6. Gurley could be a strong bounce back candidate, but the same could be said for Allen Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins, both of whom were drafted just ahead of him. There simply wasn’t much consideration from dynasty owners in investing a #1 pick at the running back position. Enter 2017 and it’s a virtual crapshoot.
In some mocks, we see Bell and Gurley at the top of the RB list, but both just outside the top five overall. Our Dynasty Startup rankings sensibly have David Johnson #1 with Ezekiel Elliott two spots behind. I’m continually surprised that Zeke doesn’t get a bit more love from the dynasty community, ranking eighth on average in startups according to FantasyFootballCalculator, but that seems to be a reflection of the continual movement away from the RB position early.
Wide Receivers as Top Picks
In early drafts and mocks, it appears Odell Beckham may repeat as the top average selection in dynasty drafts for the third year in a row. There’s no doubt that he should be in line for another year of 1,300+ yards and 10 TD. The addition of Brandon Marshall on the other side should only help draw attention away from him. The main concern with OBJ is how long Eli Manning will be around and effective.
Eli has enjoyed fairly stable production the last three seasons, completing around 63% of his passes and going over 4,000 yards each time. He is 36 years old entering this season, however, and it might not be long before he joins his brother on the TV circuit once he’s done selling all his authentic memorabilia (cheap shot, I know). The Giants took possible eventual successor Davis Webb in the draft, so the window may be closing sooner than we think. Is Beckham the type of player who can thrive with any QB at the helm? We have no idea, but he seems to be a transcendent talent that should thrive as long as he doesn’t get in his own way.
A year ago, Antonio Brown was a common pick at the #1 spot in re-draft leagues and a contender for the second wide receiver to be selected in dynasty leagues. There are some red flags with him, however. First, his production declined significantly in 2016. Brown caught 30 fewer passes and wound up with 550 fewer yards. Second, his quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may not return in 2018. As mentioned with Beckham, it’s not often you see a Hall of Fame caliber receiver play without an elite quarterback for most of his career. In fact, of Antonio Brown’s 49 career touchdowns, he has never caught a single one from a QB other than Big Ben. Brown’s value is inextricably tied to the offensive system run by Pittsburgh and the level of play at the QB spot, making him a player to be wary of even in the latter part of the first round in dynasty startups.
Mike Evans is the last candidate that could be considered, since he is a young receiver who has a nose for the end zone and is the focal point of his team’s offense. Should I say, was the focal point of the offense… The Bucs are suddenly loaded with skill position players, including DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin, and Jeremy McNichols, all of whom will eventually take a bite out of Evans’ 30% target share from a year ago. He is a solid first-rounder, but shouldn’t be considered ahead of Beckham.
There is one last option we haven’t reviewed yet and that is simply trading the pick! In rookie drafts, it’s not uncommon to dangle the top pick in exchange for veteran talent and/or future picks. This helps teams who are in “win now” mode by forsaking potential in order to achieve stability. In a startup, things are a bit different. Surely the chance to secure the best player in the league will give you an advantage for years to come, right? It is, unless you aren’t sure who the best player will be in a year or two or three…
As always, trade value shifts according to league rules and your league mates’ ideologies, but I would almost always encourage a fantasy owner with the top pick to at least explore trade opportunities. If you can stay in the middle of the first round while acquiring another mid-round pick in this year’s draft or a relatively high pick in next year’s draft, don’t hesitate to do so. Just as it is with NFL teams, you have to take a long-term approach and consider the value of extra or higher combined picks, as opposed to one player who could make or break your success.
At this point, you may be ready for me to reveal who I have #1 on my dynasty startup board. Of course, doing so might give a competitive advantage to my league mates (who surely read everything I publish…). For the sake of transparency, I can divulge that I initially had David Johnson at the top without hesitation, which happens to jive with our FFDynasty260 Startup rankings.
In recent days, and after more careful research on the matter that came in writing this article, I’m torn between OBJ and Zeke. Although Elliott won’t return as much value in the passing game for PPR leagues, he is nearly four years younger than Johnson and will continue to have a more favorable surrounding cast. The Cardinals are rebuilding their receiving corps from the ground up and will need to find a successor for Carson Palmer ASAP. Beckham would be the safe choice, but given the way the top RB dominate the fantasy landscape these days and the severe drop-off at the position once the second round hits, I can increasingly visualize myself taking Elliott. That is, if that trade offer I sent doesn’t go through…