Ranking the fantasy football value of top first-round picks


Rushing, protecting and picking off the passer are essential skills to win football games. And those attributes proved too tempting to resist in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday.

Because teams swarmed to take 16 defensive players and nine offensive linemen, only a sprinkling of the new skill-position talent — who’ll find themselves drafted again late this summer by fantasy football owners — were taken off the board.

Even the Green Bay Packers, with their glaring void at receiver following the trade of Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders, opted to select two defenders from reigning national champion Georgia. The Packers will likely Purdue’s David Bell, Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson or Colorado State tight end Trey McBride with their No. 53 pick, greatly increasein g

That was mostly due to the rush of wide-receiver picks triggered by the Atlanta Falcons’ No. 8 selection of USC’s Drake London.

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Three of the following four picks were wide receivers, and two more were taken by the time the Tennessee Titans traded AJ Brown and replaced him with Arkansas’ Treyon Burks at pick No. 18.

The Pittsburgh Steelers then selected hometown quarterback Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh at No. 20 to begin their transition from the Ben Roethlisberger era.

So it starts, the plotting for a new fantasy season with an influx of fresh talent.

Here is the USA TODAY Sports+ Top 10 first-round selections most likely to produce in fantasy football.

4. New York Jets – CB Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, Cincinnati

10. Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, New York Jets

Defensive points are minimal in fantasy, but by adding this charismatic, confident cornerback to a unit that includes defensive lineman Quinnen Williams and linebacker CJ Mosley, the Jets firmed up the unit with a Cincinnati product who didn’t give up a touchdown pass during his college career.

His ball-hawking ability makes No. 4 pick Gardner a likely candidate to produce interceptions, too.

Similar to their MetLife Stadium roommates, the Jets, the Giants have a serviceable defensive unit that required more star power. They got it with No. 5 pick Thibodeaux, whose name was among top-pick talk.

“Like the Jets, the Giants are solid in their matchups and they could be a starting defense for several consecutive weeks, as Denver became last year after adding one key player — (defensive back) Patrick Surtain, a single pick that made them a top -10 defense,” said Austin Swaim, the associate editor for sports analytics firm numberFire and a FanDuel fantasy sports expert.

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Former Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis on the field in the first half of Georgia's spring college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Athens, Ga.  (AP Photo/Brett Davis)

Former Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis on the field in the first half of Georgia’s spring college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Brett Davis)

The returning playoff team possesses solid defensive talent. They needed to tend to their run defense, and this No. 13 pick from Georgia significantly helps the cause.

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Providing new quarterback Carson Wentz a solid option opposite Terry McLaurin, Dotson (91 catches, 1,182 yards, 12 touchdowns at Penn State) went No. 16.

Swaim said others will be better, referring to Purdue’s David Bell and Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson, who were both bypassed in the first round.

“I’m a lot higher on (Robinson) than a lot of people, but he was insanely productive last season,” Swaim said. “He’s been in the SEC. He didn’t have very good quarterback play and he accounted for 43.6% of his team’s overall receiving yards at 5-foot-8.

“A team can utilize him a lot like the 49ers utilized Deebo Samuel. You can line him up in the backfield, pitch it to him, do a lot of gadget things with him. When I see the high point of catches, I don'” t like some guys to do that. Robinson, you can line up anywhere and he’ll go get the ball.

After trading Tyreek Hill, it was surprising to see the Kansas City Chiefs use a second first-round pick on a defensive player rather than take Bell, whose 4.65-seconds 40-yard dash time muted his 93 catches, 1,286 yards and six touchdowns.

“Every year, we see these guys drop because they don’t have the measurables, but my colleague compared to him post-combine by height, weight, speed with Davante Adams, Chris Godwin, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins,” Swaim said. “I’m not really worried about how he didn’t separate himself with the 40 time. He can certainly play.”

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6. Garrett Wilson, WR, New York Jets

This Ohio State product went 10th overall, just before the New Orleans Saints selected his receiving teammate Chris Olave at No. 11.

That decision will be one to watch for years as Wilson heads to perhaps become the favored receiver of last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson.

As we’ll discuss when we get to Olave, the mistake-prone Jets might have one more regret to ultimately lament.

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Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8 passes) against the Clemson Tigers during the first quarter at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8 passes) against the Clemson Tigers during the first quarter at Heinz Field.

5. Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Even though oddsmakers predicted mobile Liberty quarterback Malik Willis would go before Pickett, the Steelers were sufficiently impressed with the playmaking signal-caller best known for his keen anticipation (and small hands).

With running back Najee Harris, receiver Diontae Johnson and the sturdiest of leaders in Mike Tomlin, Pickett joins a confident crew.

“They had so much intel on Pickett. He played in their building. Passing on him for Willis? I never saw it,” Swaim said. “Rookie fantasy quarterbacks are usually not that good for the talent around them, but as for themselves, they can take on a huge role.”

That’s still conceivable for Willis, with openings at Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Seattle.

“Willis has that dual-threat ability that you so covet in fantasy football,” Swaim said. “Fantasy owners got burned a bit last year by Trey Lance and Justin Fields not being quite ready as pro passers, but Willis shows on film his ability to simply carry his team on his back and get yards in space — a lot more similarly to Lamar Jackson than these other guys.

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4. Treylon Burks, WR, Tennessee Titans

Minutes after the Titans dealt AJ Brown to Philadelphia, they replaced him with Arkansas’ Burks, a 6-3, 225-pound force who draws Deebo Samuel comparisons following an 1,104-yard campaign.

On a team returning from being the AFC No. 1 seed, Burks is expected to be targeted frequently by Ryan Tannehill.

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Jameson Williams attends the 2022 NFL draft on April 28, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Jameson Williams attends the 2022 NFL draft on April 28, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

3. Jameson Williams, WR, Detroit Lions

This star Alabama receiver tore his ACL in the College Football Playoff national championship. Swaim expects him to be eased into the season, but his talent is superb and a return to health gives the No. 12 pick a strong shot at ultimately reaching Pro Bowl status.

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2. Chris Olave, WR, New Orleans Saints

Many saw this pick as a toss-up between him and Garrett Wilson, but there are more impressive intangibles with Olave.

“He just collides all over the field out there, and his route running right now is a lot more polished than Wilson,” Swaim said. “Between the hashes, as a slot-type of guy, he actually caught more passes than Wilson last year, which is helpful for a rookie as the NFL looks for those smaller, slot types in the red zone rather than big dudes or running backs .”

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1. Drake London, WR, USC

Hip-hop artist Drake knew this was coming. He bet $100,000 ON Feb. 14 that London would be the first receiver taken. Because he was, Drake collected $335,000.

The 6-5 London has a very interesting body type. Inspecting his college production, he performs as a No. 1 receiver like the more diminutive Cooper Kupp.

“They threw to him almost every play, 15.1 targets every game, and as I first looked at him analytically, it looks like a 5-foot-9 slot guy, but his frame reminds of Darren Waller or Mike Evans — a big dude, a big target,” Swaim said. “He’ll catch touchdowns next season. And in the right spot, his fantasy viability could be even better, although I expect him to land at one of the weaker offenses.

“Look, he might even benefit from a team that has a less defined hierarchy than say a Buffalo Bills. Going to a team without top-end talent, you can pencil him in for seven to eight targets a game.”

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Iowa State RB Breece Hall has serious Fantasy Football potential.

Iowa State RB Breece Hall has serious Fantasy Football potential.

Looking ahead

Meanwhile, the second and third rounds loom now, and Swaim believes some of the most talented fantasy players have yet to be picked, starting with Iowa State running back Breece Hall and Colorado State tight end Trey McBride.

Hall is “a slam dunk to be fantasy viable next year, especially if he ends up in the right spot. He could be an RB-1 in a 12-team league if it’s the right fit. He’s an unbelievable talent,” Swaim said.

“The only thing I’m concerned about long-term is that he had 700-plus college carries, so I’m a little worried about his durability. But that will not have an impact next year,” Swaim said. “He is NFL ready — as good as it gets — and one of the best running back prospects we’ve had in the last few years.”

The Cincinnati Bengals, with a tight-end void, would’ve been a perfect home for McBride, but they balked, selecting Michigan safety instead of Daxton Hills.

McBride was a top-25 college receiver, with an impressive target rate and more than 1,000 yards.

“The competition is not very good in the Mountain West Conference, but, athletically, he fits the bill and he’s likely going to a good team,” Swaim said. He can actually become a TE1 in his first season.”

Also look for running backs Rachaad White of Arizona State and Missouri’s Tyler Badie to produce on NFL Sundays — more so than Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III because of their three-down abilities.

White scored 16 touchdowns and had 43 receptions last season while Badie had 54 catches and rushed for 1,604 yards.

“Badie could have an immediate impact just because we see these guys in fantasy, like James White of the Patriots and JD McKissic of the Commanders,” Swaim said. “They get work on third down and they become viable in PPR leagues, even if they’re not getting all the carries.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft fantasy football projections: Drake London leads crop of WRs



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