By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Like the levels of a video game adventure, each round of your fantasy draft features pillars of safety, landmines, and hidden gems. The trick is knowing which is which. While countless variables (injuries being the biggest) come into play, it is possible to predict the best strategy at each level. An underutilized insight for many fantasy gamers is the influence of offensive lines on skill players’ production. That’s a factor I focus on in my analysis, and will again here as we break down the draft, one round at a time.
Here is Part 1 of our three-part series: Picks 1-30
Round 1: Picks 1-10
Safest Bet: Alvin Kamara – Pick No. 2 overall
I won’t fault you for taking Saquon Barkley 1.01 (Round 1, pick 1), but there is a distinct possibility that he takes fewer touches to the house and his numbers aren’t as gaudy as last year, especially in an offense that could struggle. If we’re talking “safest,” then I think the Saint is your guy. The odds of his offense sputtering are slim, and Kamara comes with no concerns beyond the big(ish) contract given to Latavius Murray. For that reason he probably won’t have the workload of other elite RBs, but could he score the most touchdowns? Absolutely, and he has the added benefit of an elite offensive line.
Underrated: Davante Adams – Pick No. 8 overall
Even last year, with a banged-up quarterback in outright mutiny against Mike McCarthy’s stale offensive scheme, Adams was the very definition of a target hog and red-zone dominator. Unless you play Week 17 (which you shouldn’t), he finished the fantasy season as the WR1 (WR2 in zero-PPR). With new play-callers in Titletown and one of the league’s best pass-protection units, we could see peak Aaron Rodgers. DeAndre Hopkins may still outscore Davante, but Houston’s horrendous offensive line could cause catastrophe at any moment. By comparison, you can just draft Adams and never look back. I can see him returning top-five value.
Overrated: David Johnson – Pick No. 5 overall
I love David Johnson as a person and a player, but 1.05 is an awfully confident projection for a guy who hasn’t produced at that level since Pokémon Go was a thing. He did compile a top-10 finish last year, but it was a very bumpy ride. It could all come together for Kliff Kingsbury’s brand-new offense in 2019, but it could also be an unmitigated disaster. The Cardinals field one of the weakest o-lines in the league, so if defenses quickly figure out the spread or Arizona’s young skill players simply aren’t ready, D.J. may disappoint again.
Round 2: Picks 11-20
Safest Bet: Travis Kelce – Pick No. 14 overall
While Kansas City’s offensive line has little depth and question marks on the interior, their pass-blocking is not a concern for Patrick Mahomes and his weapons. Kelce led the team in targets last year and probably will again. Even if we anticipate some regression from this offense, big numbers are nearly a given and Kelce can’t be the focal point of secondaries with Tyreek Hill on the field. Can George Kittle say that? Over the last two seasons, Kelce would have finished top-12 if you had to play him as a WR! He gives you a weekly advantage at TE.
Underrated: Todd Gurley – Pick No. 19 overall
A safe pick this is not, but Todd Gurley can still be great. LA has one of the best offensive line coaches in the biz and the tackles are rock-solid. On the interior, the team has been quietly grooming new starters Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen for the last year. Darrell Henderson doesn’t seem ready for primetime and other elite backs (Maurice Jones-Drew comes to mind) have been highly productive with chronic knee conditions. Another top-5 finish would require remarkable efficiency on reduced touches, but in 2018 Gurley and Kamara were tied for third in points per touch. Gurley still has RB1 potential in Sean McVay’s loaded offense.
Overrated: Patrick Mahomes – Pick No. 15 overall
Yes, Mahomes is going to be a perennial top-5 quarterback, but are you more likely to win with him and Robby Anderson/Will Fuller or Juju Smith-Schuster/Dalvin Cook and, say, Carson Wentz? Because generally, those guys are your other options at the quarterbacks’ very different ADPs. Drafting Mahomes, you’re counting on him to outscore your competitor’s QBs by such a large margin that Juju or Cook can’t overcome it. That puts a lot of pressure on Mahomes AND your other picks. At a time when good QBs are plentiful, you’re probably better off grabbing a rare commodity at 2.04.
Round 3: Picks 21-30
Safest Bet: Aaron Jones – Pick No. 33 overall
I’m not telling you to take Aaron Jones at 3.01, but he’s a great value where he’s going. The aforementioned Packers’ line is also highly adept at run blocking, and the new brain trust has expressed the desire to run more. Even if they don’t, Jones doesn’t have daunting competition for carries and through Week 16 last year he was RB20 on a paltry 9.7 totes per game in just 12 games. This kid can ball. I expect the offense to improve and Jones to see more volume — that’s a clear path to high-end RB2 numbers with weekly RB1 potential.
Underrated: T.Y. Hilton – Pick No. 29 overall
Andrew Luck’s mystery ailment is worrisome, but it’s closer to a high-ankle sprain than another surgery on his throwing shoulder. Barring good news, Hilton’s ADP should continue to drop. However, if Luck misses zero to three games, his ace receiver will be a bargain. Worst case, the Colts still have the NFL’s most ascendant offensive line, which they didn’t the last time Jacoby Brissett was pressed into service. The perpetually underrated Hilton seems destined for a career season (1500+ yards) should he and Luck remain mostly healthy. As with Gurley, there’s risk here, but huge rewards are there for the taking.
Overrated: Derrick Henry – Pick No. 32 overall
I ranked Tennessee’s line 11th in run-blocking potential, but that was before Taylor Lewan was handed a four-game suspension and potential starter Ben Davis missed precious reps for a rookie (injury). The good news is that RT Jack Conklin has regained elite form after his own injury woes and Derrick Henry is back from his calf strain. But it may be a month or more before we see the Titans’ optimal o-line, so initially, their behemoth back is unlikely to receive the long runways he prefers. With Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Stefon Diggs being drafted after Henry, this call almost seems too obvious.