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Navigating the First Round of Best Ball Drafts

04/12/2019Nathan Coleman

With best ball season in full effect there isn’t a better place to start your research than at the top of the fantasy football player pool. Whether you’re playing on Playdraft, Bestball10s, Fantrax, or the FFPC, the first pick is crucial to championship teams. Although ADP may tell a different story, below are my rankings of the top running backs and where they should be drafted.

Round 1

1. Ezekiel Elliot (2.0 ADP)

Shades of 2018, the start of the draft is dominated by bell cow backs with towering ceilings and the highest of floors. Phenom Saquon Barkley is the most talented offensive weapon in the league, while Elliot remains a volume vacuum. Both backs are interchangeable at No. 1 and No. 2.

For now, the slight nod will go to Amari Cooper trade beneficiary and crop top enthusiast Elliot. From a team context perspective, it doesn’t get much better than Dallas. The Cowboys sport an elite offensive line, a mobile QB, and talented wideouts that will stretch opposing defenses to defend the field both vertically and horizontally. With all the components of an above average offense, Zeke will have the added advantage of more scoring opportunities in a positive game script.

2. Saquon Barkley (1.0 ADP)

We know the down side of the Giants' offense. Negative game script, stacked boxes, and an Eli Manning-led passing “attack”. We also know that despite obvious pitfalls, Barkley remains a volume magnet (first in Weighted Opportunity) capable of slipping through any potential tacklers (first in yards created).

Besides the obvious talent and touches, what catapults Saquon past his ADP from last year is the retooling of the Giants' offensive line. Laugh at general manager Dave Gettleman as we may, but Big Blue should form a formidable group with the addition of guard Kevin Zeitler and more reinforcements likely coming through the draft.

3. Christian McCaffrey (4.0 ADP)

Anytime your primary back can finish with the same amount of receiving fantasy points as Jarvis Landry (Half PPR WR17) you know it’s a monster season. McCaffrey is an easy pick at No. 3. He doesn’t leave the field (first in snap share), and dominates inside the 20 ranking fourth in red zone touches.

Though the Panthers have warned of a possible lightening of the work load for C-Mac, there is some meat left on the bone from an efficiency perspective. McCaffrey ranked outside the top 12 in yards created, juke rate, evaded tackles, and breakaway runs. Why am I optimistic? Besides massive volume, the Panthers O-line stayed mostly intact coming into 2019. The group finished inside the top 12 in adjusted line yards and should give McCaffrey every opportunity to improve.

4. Alvin Kamara (3.0 ADP)

The recently pushed narrative for Kamara is that his draft stock is contingent on the landing spot of backfield mate Mark Ingram. With Ingram’s departure to Baltimore, Kamara’s potential boost in volume was short lived as Latavius Murray will spend the next four years in the Big Easy. A goal line maven himself, Murray will potentially hinder Kamara’s deadliness inside the 20. Speaking of the red zone, Kamara is no slouch himself, finishing first in inside the 20 targets the past two seasons, second in red zone touches, and second in touchdowns.

Murray will certainly pose a threat to AK's scoring output, but there is plenty of production pie in the New Orleans backfield. Since 2015, no team has accounted for more fantasy points at the running back position. Kamara remains a best ball player’s dream, finishing as the weekly RB1 seven times over the last two years. Kamara is firmly in the first tier of the draft and should routinely be going in the top five.

5. Melvin Gordon (6.0 ADP)

Every year Gordon has his detractors, but you can’t argue with his production and effectiveness. MGIII ranked 10th in opportunity share and finished in the top 12 in evaded tackles, juke rate, breakaway runs, and production premium. My only concern is health and his potential for massive touchdown regression as he has six more scores that what is expected per playerprofiler.com.

Phillip Rivers targeted running backs 28.4% of the time on pass plays, good for the third-highest rate in the league. Combine healthy pass volume, strong efficiency, and consistent production and its no wonder that Gordon finished fifth in 2018 and sixth in 2019 in fantasy points per game.

6. Todd Gurley (5.0 ADP)

It feels odd to see Todd Gurley at No. 6, but few backs have seen the his workload and it appears to have finally taken a toll on the 24-year-old. At this point a reduction in touches is almost a given and the Rams have no qualms with ceding work to inferior backfield options (see the 2018 playoffs). That said, their offense remains lethal, ranking first is red zone trips per game. Inside the 20, L.A. concentrated touches toward its star running back to great effectiveness in part due to their utilization of no huddle rushes.

It’s no surprise than that Gurley had more touchdowns, red zone touches and goal line carries than any other back in the league. Of course there are still a lot of questions to be answered, as an off-season injury news or a lack of backfield additions would help shed some light on the state of the Rams marquee offensive weapon.

7. David Johnson (9.0 ADP)

I was a staunch Johnson anti-truther in 2018 based off his weak team situation. I’m flipping the script on a new year and taking DJ early and often in drafts. Although not much has changed from a roster talent perspective, the offseason is young, as is new Sean McVay-lite head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Team context still matters for even the most talented of RBs, but the offense cant go anywhere but up after a historically dreadful 2018. Equipped with Kingsbury’s air raid attack, the front office in Arizona will be solely focused on adding talented offensive linemen and playmakers to take pressure off Johnson. To paraphrase the great Mike Leach, balance comes in the form of getting your best players the ball in space, and that's unequivocally DJ.

8. James Conner (12.0 ADP)

The Hero of Handcuffs, Conner quite literally took his opportunity and ran with it. Though not a standout athlete, he was remarkably consistent, ranking seventh in fantasy points per game (Half PPR). Conner displayed a strong ceiling as well, in six of 13 games he finished as a RB6 or higher.

Down a blonde mustache-wearing alpha receiver, the Steel City offense will still be potent, which is more reason to love the ceiling and floor of Conner in 2019. Not only was his season cut short, but his touches were limited due to the Steelers' pass-first offense. Pittsburgh ranked first in pass attempts per game and as a result the 2019 version of the Steelers is due from some positive rushing regression. The last two teams to finish first in pass attempts the previous year saw their rush attempts per game increase by over 20%.

9. Joe Mixon (13.0 ADP)

The Bengals offense was thought of as a sleeper choice after an abysmal 2017. The real breakout belonged to the second-year Sooner who finished fourth in rushing in only 14 games. Mixon will return for a healthy 2019 as a bell cow capable of finishing as an RB1.

Not only will Cinci return A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, and breakout Tyler Boyd, the offense could take a jump forward with the addition of new head coach Zac Taylor. I expect the former Rams' coach to feature Mixon more in the passing game in the same vein as Gurley. Mixon struggled against stacked boxes averaging only 2.5 yards per carry but Taylor was on a Rams' offense that constantly won the numbers game on the ground when it comes to avoiding extra defenders up front.

10. Davante Adams (10.0 ADP)

Adams was a pillar of consistency in 2018 when he led all receivers in fantasy points per game. I have him as my WR1 over Deandre Hopkins as Adams should see heavier volume. Though his time in Tennessee was less than inspiring, I’m a believer in Matt LaFleur having a positive impact on the Green Bay scoring effort. A more nuanced passing attack bodes well for Aaron Rodgers, and by proxy Adams.

Not to travel down narrative street but reports out of the Packers camp have indicated a potential boost in slot snaps for Adams with Randall Cobb leaving in free agency. Per the Quant Edge, Adams saw only 14.2% of his snaps out of the slot in 2018. As you can see above, he feasted on all forms of coverage. It can’t hurt for Adams to see easier matchups against lesser DBs and linebackers. He will also have the benefit of more free releases and cushion leading to higher-efficiency throws.

11. DeAndre Hopkins (8.0 ADP)

What more can be said about Hopkins? The guy is an uncoverable route technician that toys with DBs on the regular. In fact his routes are so lethal that the last two years he ranked second in fantasy points per route. With Antonio Brown moving on to greener pastures in Oakland, I’d argue that no QB/WR duo has a better chemistry than Deshaun Watson and Hopkins. Watson had a QB rating of 115.9 when targeting Hopkins, who accounted for 40% of the teams passing offense.

Why isn’t Hopkins higher on the list? Passing volume and the distribution of targets are to blame. Hopkins will have to vie for opportunities with a healthy Will Fuller along with the emergence of Keke Coutee. The Texans also ranked 22nd in pass attempts so a similar outcome in 2019 could possible leave a smaller piece of the pie for Hopkins.

12. LeVeon Bell (7.0 ADP)

Its odd to see Bell bringing up the caboose of the first round, but I remain skeptical of the Gang Green offense. It seems the fantasy community sees it as a foregone conclusion that Sam Darnold will take the proverbial step forward. Though I believe in Darnold as a prospect, I doubt the positive effects of an Adam Gase-led offense.

With all that said, the Jets' new star running back is in line for massive volume given his contract. Bell should be expected to rank in the top five in Weighted Opportunity Rating, gobbling up the majority of third down and red zone opportunities in addition to early-down work.

His added value as a pass catcher should give him a high floor, counteracting the likelihood of negative game scripts as well. My other concern is that Bell's patented patient style of running may not mesh with an offensive line that ranked 32nd in both stuff rate and adjusted line yards.

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