Draft Prep: What Could Go Wrong With Every First-Round Draft Pick

Ryan Heath puts every 2018 fantasy first-round pick under the microscope.

(Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)

It’s finally starting to feel like that time of year again; training camps are starting up, mock draft lobbies are actually filling up, and my Twitter feed is full of beat reporters endlessly hyping up guys you’ve never heard of. That’s right: It’s redraft season. Which means it’s time for you to start preparing.

Every year, we find ourselves loving many of the players going in the first round. These guys are bona-fide studs – all poised to be capable leaders of your squad. They’re first-rounders for a reason, after all. But make no mistake – all of these players seem similarly amazing, but no decision you make this year will have more of an impact on your fantasy season. The fastest way to lose your league is by making a first-round pick that doesn’t return on its draft capital. “Easy,” you say. “All these guys will be great as long as they don’t get injured.” History disagrees with you. Last year, 6 of the top 12 picks in PPR according to MFL ADP did not finish within the top 10 at their position. Three of these players underperformed on the field relative to expectation (Devonta Freeman, Jay Ajayi, Mike Evans), two of them sustained long-term injuries (David Johnson, Odell Beckham), and one was ultimately suspended for six games after appearing to be in the clear in the preseason (Ezekiel Elliott). The Zeke case was a special one, but the others weren’t. DeAndre Hopkins, Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, and Adrian Peterson were among the first-round busts of 2016, and players like C.J. Anderson, Marshawn Lynch, and Eddie Lacy were routinely drafted in the first round in 2015. First-round busts are simply a fact of fantasy football.

What makes this reality more painful is the clarity of hindsight. We should’ve realized how crucial former OC Kyle Shanahan was to Devonta Freeman’s success in Atlanta, and we should’ve known the Dolphins offense would stall after losing Ryan Tannehill in the preseason, derailing Jay Ajayi’s season. What if we were to try doing this for this year’s batch of first-rounders? By predicting the worst-case-scenario for each of these players and the narrative that would surround it, you can determine which of them sound the most plausible to you. Remember, we know at least a few of these guys will underperform, and at least one more will succumb to a season-ending injury. Some of these scenarios will sound more ridiculous and contrived to you than others; that’s great, it means you’ve identified the players with low bust potential, so you know who to target. When reading through this list, also try picking out the three or four doomsday scenarios that seem the most plausible to you. Choose one more player more-or-less at random to get injured, and you’ve got your personal list of landmines to avoid. Just try not to get too annoyed at me taking my chance to relentlessly bash your guy.

Todd Gurley (RB, Los Angeles Rams)

Excuse me, could you take a moment to discuss our lord and savior Sean McVay? Todd Gurley’s fantasy stardom rides on everyone’s favorite “fresh offensive mind.” (I puke in my mouth a little every time someone says that to me at this point.) The Rams did vastly overachieve expectations last year, and made tons of big-name additions this offseason. Offseason championships are guaranteed to inflate ADPs, but not necessarily fantasy production. Coach McVay has an incredibly difficult task ahead of him: keeping the egos of all this team’s Los Angeles millionaires in check. If the young coach loses the locker room when success doesn’t come immediately, this offense will regress, dragging Gurley’s touchdowns and efficiency down with it.

The team’s scoring production is due to regress regardless, as the Rams finished 1st in the NFL in scoring last year but just 10th in total yards. Gurley scored 21 touchdowns last season, a difficult feat to repeat for any back. Last year’s touchdowns and his team’s offseason championship is driving his ADP, but the jury is still out on either of those things paying actual dividends in the form of fantasy points for this season.

Finally, it’s worth remembering Gurley was the RB20 in 2016. The Rams looked completely different that year and were still coached by Jeff Fisher, but it proves that any player can be held back massively by their situation, a theme you’ll notice among the next 11 players. Nobody is invincible.

Le’Veon Bell (RB, Pittsburgh Steelers)

It’s reasonable to predict a slow start similar to last year for Le’Veon Bell, as he once again won’t be reporting to training camp due to his contract dispute. Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Bell had over 400 touches last season, a number that has been studied extensively in the context of RB production. I’m linking a CBS article from a few years back examining the subject – here’s what stands out:

We went back and looked at the past 10 years for running backs who had 400 touches in a season, including the playoffs, and found 27 occasions where it happened for 17 different running backs. Of those 27 times, only five — Edgerrin James (2004), LaDainian Tomlinson (2005), James again (2005), Adrian Peterson(2009) and Ray Rice (2011) — produced an increase in Fantasy points the following season…

…The 22 other examples where a running back hit 400 touches over that span showed varying results — all negative. Two running backs — Tiki Barber and Ricky Williams — retired following consecutive seasons with 400 touches. And nine times a running back suffered an injury — Arian Foster (2013), Peterson (2013), Michael Turner (2009), Steven Jackson (2007), Larry Johnson (2007), Shaun Alexander (2006), Clinton Portis (2006), Curtis Martin (2005) and Jamal Lewis (2004) — that caused him to miss games following a 400-touch campaign. Some of those injuries could be attributed to the heavy workload the year before.

Statistically, the Fantasy point decline was staggering. Of the 20 times a running back played the year after getting 400 touches and saw a decline in production, 15 had their Fantasy points drop by at least 30 percent and 10 by at least 40 percent.” 

It’s clear that elite talent is capable of holding up to the stress of a 400-touch workload, but there are certainly no guarantees for Bell as he enters what is likely his last year on the Steelers. They have every incentive to run him into the ground as much as possible while he’s still with the team, so you have to worry about how his body will hold up, especially given the historical dangers of a drop in production described above.

I can’t not mention that the Steelers lost their offensive coordinator and that QB Ben Roethlisberger has been contemplating retirement for years now. If there were to be a season for the wheels to fall off in Pittsburgh, this would be the one.

Ezekiel Elliott (RB, Dallas Cowboys)

The offensive line should be good again, but will the offense? Dak Prescott regressed hard from his rookie year, and there’s not a single receiver on this Cowboys team that will prevent Zeke from facing stacked boxes all season long. The over-under in Vegas for the Cowboys’ wins this year is at 8.5, and Zeke will have to earn every single one of them. He’s been incredible any time he’s been on the field the last two years, of course, but this Cowboys offense is shaping up to be dangerously one-dimensional. I’m reminded of Todd Gurley heading into 2016: a generationally-talented back that every defensive coordinator in the league knows they can sell out to stop without being punished. Insert a joke about Jason Garrett being a cheerleader here, and you’ve got a potential disaster brewing in Dallas.

David Johnson (RB, Arizona Cardinals)

First of all, the wrist injury is not the thing to worry about. I’d appreciate if people would stop parroting that. If it wasn’t his legs, I don’t care. Similarly to the case against Zeke, the Cardinals as a team are worrisome. A new unknown head coach Steve Wilks and a completely new QB room leaves a lot of uncertainty for what the offense will look like. OC Mike McCoy has not led an inspiring offense since he was handed prime Peyton ManningSam Bradford will have to do.

Unlike the Cowboys, the Cardinals do have some weapons in the passing game, or rather, a weapon in Larry Fitzgerald. The real concern is the offensive line, a unit that Pro Football Focus has ranked at 27th in the league. Bradford’s odds of surviving the season behind that line are dismal, and DJ won’t have the space he’d like coming out of the backfield.

Antonio Brown (WR, Pittsburgh Steelers)

AB shares some similar concerns to Bell; a new OC and the creeping regression of the aging Big Ben. Perhaps JuJu Smith-Schuster and offseason darling James Washington steal away some target share, which was at 30.7% for AB last year. That was up from 27.8% in 2016, and his targets per game jumped from 10.3 to 11.6 between those two years. Reports that the Steelers are enamored with the rookie Washington to the point that he may start on the outside in addition to the possibility of a sophomore leap from JuJu in the slot could lead to a decline in targets for AB.

Alternatively, the Steelers could decide to let Bell carry the offense since they seem to plan on letting him hit free agency and have no incentive to preserve his body. Bell fancies himself an NFL WR2, if you weren’t aware.

Alvin Kamara (RB, New Orleans Saints)

If he gets off to a great start, the narrative will be that Mark Ingram’s return from suspension will ruin his volume. If he gets off to a slow start, the narrative will be that he’s not built to be a three-down back. Either way, Kamara is not matching his TD efficiency from last year. On average, he scored a touchdown every 16.3 touches. For comparison, Le’Veon Bell scored every 36.9 touches last year, Ezekiel Elliott on every 29.7 touches, and Kamara’s teammate Ingram scored on every 24 touches on average. Even Chris Thompson managed “only” a touchdown per 18.5 touches last year, and nobody believed that was sustainable.

Kamara’s TD efficiency was ludicrous last year, and you’re paying a draft-day price that assumes he’ll keep it up. And, as I said, you won’t ever be able to trade Kamara at his true value this year, since all your league-mates will be super annoying about him no matter what happens the first four games.

Saquon Barkley (RB, New York Giants)

What could Saquon’s debut look like, you ask? Remember Melvin Gordon’s rookie year? Think of that, but with Odell Beckham whining about his targets.

The offensive line, despite replacing human turnstile Ereck Flowers with Nate Solder at left tackle, is still horrendous. PFF projects the unit as 25th in the league, which even assumes improvement from last year. It seems unlikely that Eli Manning will support a top 6 RB, a top 3 WR, and a top 10 TE as is being projected. There may not be many touchdowns to go around, and many will probably come on Evan Engram and Odell busting big gains, limiting Barkley’s red zone opportunities. This team is not built to play possession football and hasn’t supported a 1000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw in 2012.

Oh, and that Ereck Flowers guy? Turns out the Giants plan to start him at right tackle. Good luck, Saquon and Eli.

Deandre Hopkins (WR, Houston Texans)

Phenom Will Fuller and his connection with Deshaun Watson could lead to a decline in TDs for Nuk after his 13 last year… well, I don’t honestly think that’s what would hold Hopkins back, but it could be.

The Texans will want to rely more on Watson’s legs, with their offensive line not being able to hold together for long enough to complete any passes without scrambling. The only problem with that is that Watson tore his ACL last year, and should be staying in the pocket as much as possible for his own safety. However, the offensive line ranked dead last in the league last year, and PFF is not projecting any improvement whatsoever in ranking. With Watson running for his life more often than not and regressing from his own absurd pace last year, combined with the theoretical return of the Texans’ defense to top-10 status, the offense will not be powerful enough to support the sky-high ADPs of both Hopkins and Watson.

Melvin Gordon (RB, Los Angeles Chargers)

I know everyone just loves hearing about Melvin Gordon’s YPC, but it becomes an issue quickly if his volume takes a downturn. He’s posted 3.9 yards per carry each of the last two years, but has been an RB1 because of his heavy red-zone usage and volume. If another back on the team emerges and starts stealing away either early-down or receiving work (hello Austin Ekeler), then Gordon’s RB1 prospects become shaky. Add a healthy Mike Williams to the offense to steal away some more TDs and you’ve got a plodding low-end RB2.

Odell Beckham (WR, New York Giants)

He returns to a much more crowded offense than the one he left last year, with the addition of a workhorse first-round RB and the emergence of freak TE Evan Engram. Engram’s 68 receptions and 722 yards last year were the most by a rookie tight end in the last 15 years. He may not see over 100 targets again with this offense much healthier than last year, but his presence will not be ignored by Eli Manning or new HC Pat Shurmur.

If Odell isn’t being targeted as heavily as he’d like, one kicking net incident is all it could take to land him in Shurmur’s doghouse. In this scenario, Odell’s target share declines even faster than Eli Manning’s skills. Did I mention the offensive line sucks? Sounds like some quick dump-offs to Engram and Barkley to me.

Kareem Hunt (RB, Kansas City Chiefs)

Here’s what I have to say to Hunt truthers: Andy Reid was the cause of Hunt’s struggles in the middle of the season, while Matt Nagy saved him. Guess which one of those is still there. If he’s ready for the start of the season, Spencer Ware has a shot at chipping away at Hunt’s 65% snap share, with Jamaal Charles being the last Chiefs RB to eclipse that number.

Oh, and repeat after me, everyone: We don’t know if Pat Mahomes can succeed in the NFL yet. Treating it as a foregone conclusion that he’ll be an upgrade to Alex Smith’s 2017 is ludicrous. Lastly, as always, losing the aforementioned Nagy could negatively impact the entire offense a la Shanahan leaving the Falcons. You should also be prepared for some frustrating weeks when Reid forgets that Hunt is on his team.

Leonard Fournette (RB, Jacksonville Jaguars)

I said to myself before writing this that I wasn’t going to rag on anybody specifically for injury risk, but I am concerned about Fournette’s durability more than anything else. He’s lost some weight, which could lighten the injury load on his ankles, but it’s difficult to trust. Fournette performed alright as a pass-catcher last year, hauling in 75% of his targets, but fellow back T.J. Yeldon stole some work on third down, which could continue. Is it still cool to rag on Blake Bortles? I don’t hate the guy, but the defense will have to keep Jacksonville in games once again in order for Fournette to do his damage on the ground. Any injuries on the defense could greatly affect Fournette’s game script.

Just to reiterate, my biggest concern is Fournette’s ability to play 16 games. If you’re not sure how to randomly and fairly choose one player to go down to injury as I instructed, go ahead and just follow my narrative and go with this guy. Bless those ankles

There you have it, my constructed scenarios on how every first-round pick according to Fantasy Football Calculator’s PPR ADP could disappoint you this year. Hopefully I’ve opened your eyes to some of the dangers you may have overlooked when evaluating these theoretical fantasy studs. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am over on Twitter (@QBLRyan) or on QB List’s community discord channel for Patreon supporters. Stay safe and avoid those first-round busts, everyone.

2 responses to “Draft Prep: What Could Go Wrong With Every First-Round Draft Pick”

  1. Stephen Dudas says:

    I think there are some other things with Fournette that you can point to other than his injuries. He actually was not that productive per touch (PFF grade indicates that) and the line is not great either. You mentioned Bortels and Fournette’s lack of receiving production as well. His injuries are scary too, but there are other ways his season could unravel.

    Other than that, great article… people always forget about the downside of these guys (and also get angry at me when I bring it up haha)

  2. Mark says:

    Both Gurley and Fournette will go from last place schedules to first place schedules meaning there will be fewer cupcakes to pad those stats.

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