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The perfect 2021 fantasy football draft strategy, round by round

Nov 8, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs with the ball in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

You just finished dinner and plopped down on the couch to catch up on the latest binge-worthy TV series. Suddenly, a friend texts you: “Hey, are you ready for the draft?!?” A sick, sinking feeling sets in — you forgot about the fantasy football draft. Panic ensues. 

If this sounds like you or a “friend” you know, there is no need to fret. Below is a detailed fantasy football draft strategy, laying out exactly what to do round by round for the 2021 fantasy football season.

This master plan is back with a simple premise: Follow the guide step by step and you're sure to enter the season with a quality roster that balances reliability and upside. Sept. 9 can’t come soon enough.

Pair this with PFF’s fantasy football rankings/projections and my 2021 PPR Fantasy Football Rankings & Tiers to build a top-tier squad.


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ROUND 1 (1-12): DRAFT A RUNNING BACK, WIDE RECEIVER, OR TRAVIS KELCE

The running backs have returned to the top of the fantasy football food chain. It wasn’t so long ago when drafters selected Julio Jones and Antonio Brown over their bell-cow counterparts, but a few talented running back draft classes have returned leagues to the golden days.  

Every fantasy football draft is unique, but one thing’s for certain: Running backs are the drivers behind fantasy-winning teams. Get your studs early and wait till the later rounds to take shots on backs in ambiguous backfields. That’s where we’ll find the next breakout at the position

Unlike last year, when the strategy was sheerly focused on grabbing a workhorse running back no matter what, 2021 presents us with a different approach in the second half of the first round. 

If you miss out on the Tier 1 crop of running backs — Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones or Derrick Henry — be open to drafting an elite wide receiver in the second half of Round 1. This is less so the move in half-PPR formats because receivers can’t make up ground versus running backs as easily without being rewarded a full point per reception. 

Over the past three seasons in PPR scoring, wide receivers have the highest percentage of top-12 finishes (55%). The Tier 1 wide receivers — Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley and DeAndre Hopkins — are strong bets to meet Round 1 production without the cost. Five of the top seven players in PFF’s PPR fantasy projections are those aforementioned wide receivers. 

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is the third option here if he happens to fall to the back end of Round 1 (10-12). Targeting tight ends with elite upside will be a recurring theme in this piece, as the approach provides fantasy managers a massive positional advantage. 

ROUND 2 (13-24): DRAFT A RUNNING BACK, WIDE RECEIVER OR DARREN WALLER

Fantasy managers should feel comfortable taking an elite wideout in Round 1 because Round 2 is also filled with a plethora of running back talent. The non-first-round Tier 2 running backs Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, Najee Harris, Antonio Gibson, Jonathan Taylor and Clyde Edwards-Helaire — provide enough production for a roster's RB1 slot.

If you went with a running back in Round 1, take whoever remains from the Tier 1 wide receivers or Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller at the tail end of the second round. 

With hardly any target competition to speak of, Waller has a legitimate shot to unseat Travis Kelce, the five-year reigning TE1 in fantasy football. Even if he doesn't quite catch Kelce, the cost of acquiring him in the second or third rounds compared to Kelce's mid-first-round price tag is the vastly superior value. Waller led all players in fantasy points per game from Weeks 13-17 (26.5) last season.

ROUND 3 (25-36): DRAFT A WIDE RECEIVER OR GEORGE KITTLE

Oct 25, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) runs the ball against New England Patriots defensive back J.C. Jackson (27) in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, your roster is one of the following: RB-RB, RB-TE, RB-WR. It's essential to draft at least one running back in the first two rounds because the talent pool starts to fall off at the start of Round 3. Also, the middle rounds are chock-full of wide receiver talent, which should be the primary focus. 

Draft the highest-ranked wide receiver from Tier 2, which includes Justin Jefferson, Keenan Allen, A.J. Brown, Allen Robinson, Terry McLaurin, CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper.

If you still haven’t drafted a tight end, George Kittle is your guy. He has scored over double-digit fantasy points in 64% of his games since 2018 and finished last year ranked first in yards per route run (2.84) for the third time in a row. With TE1 overall upside, his Round 3 ADP is straight blasphemy. 

If, for some reason, you’ve avoided running backs up to this point or the other drafters went extremely receiver-heavy through the first three rounds, don’t shy away from either D’Andre Swift or Chris Carson (who often is also available in Round 4). 

Swift finished last season 18th in fantasy points per game (14.9), due in large part to his 46 receptions and 10 touchdowns. Carson was a top-eight fantasy running back through the first six weeks of the 2020 season, averaging 20 fantasy points per game (seventh), notching four RB1 fantasy finishes and seeing 16.4 touches per game (13th) on only a 56% snap share.

ROUND 4 (37-48): DRAFT A WIDE RECEIVER OR RUNNING BACK

The wide receivers in Round 4 are practically just as good as those in Round 3, so continue to pound away at the position. The Tier 3 wide receivers include Chris Godwin, Diontae Johnson, Robert Woods, D.J. Moore, Julio Jones and Tyler Lockett

If you have only one running back rostered, then Carson, Darrell Henderson, J.K. Dobbins and David Montgomery should be the priority targets. Henderson’s ADP on the platform you draft is extremely important to take note of because his ADP could be easily in the 60s, making it unnecessary to select him this early. 

As the primary runner in a high-flying Los Angeles Rams offense, Henderson should be valued as a fourth-round pick, so be smart and take advantage.

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