Fantasy Football gives each participant one shot to draft their expected star in the first round. While a team can still be successful with a failed first-round pick it is by far the most important pick for every team in the draft. You not only expect them to score the most points for your team, outside of quarterbacks, but you completely draft your team around your first-round pick. While everyone has their own strategies and opinions I believe running backs in early rounds are more valuable than any other position in the first round.
Pick One: Jonathan Taylor
Last season stats: 17 Games Played (GP), 333.1 Fantasy Points (FP), 332 Attempts (ATT), 1,811 Rushing Yards (RUYDS), 18 Rushing Touchdowns (RUTDS), 5.4 Average Yards Per Carry (AYPC), 40 Receptions (REC), 360 Receiving Yards (RCYDS) and 2 Receiving Touchdowns (RETDS).
Pick one should not need an explanation for anyone who followed football last year and Jonathan Taylor absolutely dominated the league and fantasy football, but just in case you’re not convinced he should go number one let me explain in deeper detail. Last season Jonathan Taylor was only 23 years old and lead the league in touches, total yards, and finished second in total touchdowns out of all skill potion players last season. While losing two starting offensive linemen in the offseason, the Colts still have an elite trio of Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith leading the way while the addition of Matt Ryan should make Taylor’s job even easier.
Pick Two: Derrick Henry
Last season stats: 8 GP, 175.3 FP, 219 ATT, 937 RUYDS, 10 RUTDS, 4.3 AYPC, 18 REC, 154 RCYDS and 0 RETDS.
Prior to breaking a bone in his foot, Derrick Henry was the seventh highest scoring fantasy player behind only quarterbacks and scoring over 40 more points than the second highest scoring running backs in the first 8 weeks. He was on pace for a historical season and should be a very easy choice as the second overall pick. While there are concerns about the success of the Titan’s offense overall due to the trade of AJ Brown and the decline of the offensive line, Derrick Henry is going to be the focal point of the offense likely leading the league in touches if he can stay fully healthy throughout next season.
Pick Three: Najee Harris
Last season stats: 17 GP, 226.7 FP, 307 ATT, 1,200 RUYDS, 7 RUTDS, 3.9 AYPC, 74 REC, 467 RCYDS and 3 RETDS.
When drafting in a spot in which several different players can easily be taken I believe the best strategy is drafting for the highest potential where there doesn’t seem to be too much risk at the same time. This season I believe that player is Najee Harris. After being incredible at Alabama the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Najee in the first round to take control of the offense next to an aging Ben Roethlisberger and he did not disappoint in the slightest. After leading the league in touches and being the 4th highest scoring fantasy running back during his rookie season there seem to be high expectations for him to have an even better campaign during his sophomore season. While being held back by offensive line play/injuries, a completely immobile quarterback who also had the fastest release time in the NFL last season, and a lack of RedZone chances Najee Harris is in a much better situation to have a great second year. While Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin has stated Najee will not receive the same amount of touches in his second year there is still a ton of reasons o believe he has the ability to finish as the top running back this year. Aside from his incredible rushing and receiving skillset, which is arguably unmatched, the running back depth behind him is very lacking. While he may not touch the ball 381 times again he can easily still touch the ball anywhere from 300-350 times throughout the season. While the offensive line is still near the bottom of the league they are going to start the season fully healthy and are full of young players who could potentially develop well throughout the season. They also signed and drafted several offensive linemen to give them even more depth. With Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett taking over the starting quarterback job this opens the playbook allowing Pittsburgh to use their more mobile quarterbacks to benefit the offense altogether. Matt Canada, the offensive coordinator, used to take advantage of his quarterback being mobile at the University of Maryland but had to change his playbook to fit Ben Roethlisberger’s current skill set. While the mobility of a quarterback creates a completely different aspect of defense worrying about the deep ball these quarterbacks bring could be even more valuable. Roethlisberger’s weak arm limited the offense altogether not allowing Najee to get the RedZone touches he should get this year. While he may have fewer touches than the year prior I expect efficiency and touchdown rate to increase potentially making Najee the best overall running back in football after this season.
Pick Five: Cooper Kupp
Last season stats: 17 GP, 294.5 FP, 191 TGT (Targets), 1,947 RCYDS, 16 RETDS
This could easily be considered a steal to get Cooper Kupp at pick number four (even though four is still a very early pick), but the value of having a top elite running back is greater than having a top elite wide receiver in standard scoring in my opinion. After his first year of having an elite quarterback like Matthew Stafford, who loves passing to his slot receiver, Cooper Kupp put up one of the best wide receiver seasons of all time. He had the 8th most targeted season of all time with the second most receiving yards in an NFL season in history. He also had the second most receptions in an NFL season ever while also topping the top 15 in most receiving touchdowns in an NFL season. With a full year of chemistry with Stafford and both publicly speaking out about how much better an understanding they have in their offense, Cooper Kupp could easily finish as the WR1 again and even potentially be the number one scoring player in fantasy outside of quarterbacks.
Pick Four: Dalvin Cook
Last season stats: 13 GP, 172.3 FP, 249 ATT, 1,159 RUYDS, 6 RUTDS, 4.7 AYPC, 34 REC, 224 RCYDS and 0 RETDS.
After what could be considered a down year for Dalvin Cooks standards I believe he is going to have a great bounce-back year and is being undervalued by being projected to go late in the first round. The Viking’s offensive line is going to be the strongest it has ever been for Dalvin Cook as well as Kirk Cousins. With Kevin O’Connell being hired as the new head coach changes are going to come to the offense and I expect this whole offense to put up much better numbers than the year prior. With Kevin O’Connell being so pass-heavy with the Rams during his time as the offensive coordinator there he has already used Dalvin Cook as a receiver in training camp and is expected to show his receiving and playmaking skills this upcoming season. With Dalvin stating he has the mentality and determination of remaining a being a bell-cow running back with the combination of the extra touches in the passing game, I expect Dalvin to have an incredible year.
Pick Six: Christian McCaffery
Last season stats: Last season stats: 7 GP, 90.5 FP, 99 ATT, 442 RUYDS, 1 RUTDS, 4.5 AYPC, 37 REC, 343 RCYDS and 1 RETDS.
The biggest risk with potentially the biggest reward in the first round is Christian McCaffery. In 2019 Christian McCaffery totaled 2,392 yards from scrimmage with 19 total touchdowns making him the clear number 1 fantasy running back at the time. In the two seasons since then, he has played in 10 total games not even getting half the amount of total yards or touchdowns he had in his tremendous 2019 campaign. While the offensive line struggled mightily last year the additions of Taylor Moton and Ikem Ekwonu should solidify the tackle spots and create better opportunities on the outside. With Baker Mayfield as the newly acquired Quarterback he could potentially turn the offense around, but after watching him with Cleveland last year and the lack of receiving weapons outside of D.J. Moore it seems unlikely. This leaves McCaffery as the clear focal point of the offense and if he can remain healthy he should easily put up enough fantasy points to put him back in the argument for the number one running back… but is it worth the risk?
Pick Seven: Austin Ekeler
Last season stats: Last season stats: 16 GP, 273.8 FP, 206 ATT, 911 RUYDS, 12 RUTDS, 4.4 AYPC, 70 REC, 647 RCYDS and 8 RETDS.
Austin Ekeler is set to have another great year after finishing as RB2 last season. With an above-average offensive line, a great young developing quarterback as well as great skill positional players around him, Ekeler is in the perfect scheme to fit his skillset. While not only a great runner, Ekeler is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, and with such great talent around him, Ekeler will always have those one-on-one opportunities on check downs always giving him a chance to make a play. While a regression in touchdowns is a possibility it seems unlikely as he had the second most RedZone touches in the NFL last year and due to the success, he will likely receive the same amount of RedZone work. He also plays on a team that could potentially be the highest-scoring offense in all of the NFL, which is always a huge positive for a fantasy outlook. Ekeler is in arguably the best situation around him possible and could be a key piece to any championship team who couldn’t land a pick in the top half of the draft.
Pick Eight: Justin Jefferson
Last season stats: 17 GP, 222.4 FP, 167 TGT (Targets), 1,616 RCYDS, 10 RETDS
After a great two first seasons in the NFL Justin Jefferson made his mark on the league and in fantasy football. This upcoming season is going to have Jefferson in the best spot he has ever been to start a season. His offensive line improved potentially giving Kirk Cousins more time in the pocket to find Jefferson, his receivers around him are established, Dalvin Cook is going to take on a bigger role in the passing game making defenses have to focus on another player, and the new Vikings head coach is expected to turn the offense into a pass-first offense as he had during his time as the OC for the Rams. With the combination of the situation around him as well as his top talent to beat the press, win 1 on 1 coverage, his incredible route running at all levels, and his elite hands Justin Jefferson could potentially have a historical season in terms of NFL history as well as fantasy football. After this season I believe he will prove himself to be the no-doubt best receiver in football at only the age of 23 years old.
Pick Nine: Joe Mixon
Last season stats: Last season stats: 16 GP, 245.9 FP, 292 ATT, 1,205 RUYDS, 13 RUTDS, 4.1 AYPC, 42 REC, 314 RCYDS and 3 RETDS.
After being limited to 6 games in 2020 Joe Mixon finally broke out for fantasy owners who drafted him for the 2021 season. Not only was Mixon a breakout player but the Bengals as a whole extremely outperformed pre-season expectations. Their offense was extremely explosive scoring the 7th most points throughout the season. Their young offensive core has another year under their belt increasing their chemistry and experience in the NFL. After losing in the Super Bowl the Bengals tried to strengthen their biggest weakness which was their offensive line. After being in the bottom 10 of the NFL last year the Bengals totally revamped their offensive line replacing 4 of their 5 starters and are expected to be a top 10 unit in the 2022 season. With an improved offensive line, and another year with Joe Burrow and their explosive wide receivers, Joe Mixon is going to be in a top offense in terms of yards and scoring. Mixon will get all the carries, check downs and rezone touches he can handle with much more space expected to be created by the offensive line. Getting Joe Mixon at number nine could be considered an absolute steal, but the talent pool this year is as deep as it’s ever been for the top nine fantasy players.
Pick Ten: Ja’Marr Chase
Last season stats: 17 GP, 223.6 FP, 128 TGT (Targets), 81 REC, 1,455 RCYDS, 13 RETDS
Ja’Marr Chase absolutely exploded in his first year in the NFL putting up not only the second most receiving yards a rookie ever has in a season but the second most receiving touchdowns a rookie has in a season as well. Chase rewarded every fantasy owner who took a shot on him with a WR3 finish after serious questions came out about his hands during training camp and pre-season. Chase already had chemistry with his quarterback Joe Burrow from their time at LSU together but their chemistry is expected to continue to develop after their first season at a professional level together. As stated under Joe Mixon the Bengal’s offensive line greatly improved this offseason and their whole offense is expected to benefit. Ja’Marr Chase excels at taking advantage of defense mistakes scoring a ton of long touchdowns while being extremely efficient with his receptions. His production per reception last year was .1 lower than Deebo Samuel putting him at the second highest efficiency per catch in the NFL averaging 18 yards per reception. While it seems likely Chase is due for regression in this statistic it does not seem as certain as the regression Deebo is set to see in this statistic due to his long ball chemistry with Burrow and the potential to be in the highest scoring and most productive offense in the NFL. I believe Tee Higgins is set up to have a better fantasy value at his average draft pick than Ja’Marr Chase, but he will still have several weeks where he catches one or more long touchdowns as well as weeks he will end as the WR1 by a large margin.
Pick Eleven: Stefan Diggs
Last season stats: 17 GP, 182.5 FP, 164 TGT , 103 REC 1,225 RCYDS, 10 RETDS
After having an incredible first year with Josh Allen and the Bills Stefan Diggs took a slight step back in 2021 catching 24 fewer catches, over 300 fewer yards, and a lower efficiency per catch. While he took a hit in those categories Diggs scored 10 touchdowns last year which is a career-high in a season for him and still ended as WR8. With Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders leaving this past offseason that opens up 184 targets for the Bills receiving core. With the Bills only signing Jamison Crowder in the offseason, who cannot seem to stay healthy in recent years, and not drafting a receiver until round five Bill’s wide receiver room is lacking depth and talent outside of their starting three. Crowder will not be able to take all of the 184 targets open from last year and Diggs as well as Gabriel Davis is expected to benefit from all these open targets putting them both in situations to have a great upcoming season. While all these open targets are very important to Diggs’s value this year the real value comes from the benefit of having arguably the top quarterback in the NFL while being in a very pass-heavy offense. While Gabriel Davis absolutely dominated at the end of last year setting him up for an expected massive breakout season, he was getting stats at an unsustainable rate that could last throughout the whole season. While Davis still might have a great season I believe Diggs will benefit greatly from the loss of Sanders and Beasley putting up more touchdowns, receptions, and yards than he did last year. I believe Diggs will end as WR3 behind Kupp and Jefferson this year and is being disrespected in most rankings systems. I believe he will finish as WR3 and would take him over Ja’Marr Chase personally, but as of right now Chase has more value.
Pick Twelve: Deebo Samuel
Last season stats: 16 GP, 262.0 FP, 121 TGTs, 77 REC, 1,405 RCYDS, 6 RETDS, 59 ATT, 365 RUYDS, 6 RUTDS
Based on last season alone Deebo Samuel deserves to be an earlier pick than 12, but with so much risk around him, I believe he should be the last pick of the first round. Deebo Samuel is not only a WR but an overall gadget the 49ers can take advantage of in any manner. Get him the ball and he will make plays, especially in the open field. At 26 years old Deebo touched the ball 136 times between his receptions and carries and did most of his damage on his own in the open space. While his stats last year were incredible and watching him be explosive was very entertaining I am more concerned with his production than any receiver taken before him in this round. Deebo lead the NFL in yards per reception last season at an absurd 18.2 YPR which is a number that is expected to see regression in the 2922 season. The amount and type of contact he takes make him more like a RB/WR hybrid while that can be good for fantasy production it takes a toll on his body. While the tackles on the offensive line are great there are question marks on the inside of the line basically making the 49ers push more to the outside this season which could be very beneficial for Deebo but limits his running room as well. The 49ers also spent a draft pick on a running back and have a bunch of young talented running backs leaving the question of how many carries Deebo will get unless injuries occur. The 49ers also have a new starting quarterback this year in Trey Lance who looked like an average quarterback in his limited playing time last year but showed flashes of potential in his rookie year and can easily have a breakout sophomore campaign. I believe if you’re taking Deebo Samuel you aren’t only taking a risk on Deebo absorbing all the contact without injuries but also hoping for a breakout campaign for Trey Lance for Deebo to return the value in the first round. Deebos speed and ability to make any play in the open field a touchdown warrants him worth the risk at the end of the first round and even potentially has a higher ceiling than some of the players drafted before him, but also has a lower floor than them as well.