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The First Pick

Ah, the first pick in the draft. Always a coveted spot in football, fantasy or otherwise. But is the first pick THAT great? Or has it overrated? Fantasydata.com only has draft data going back to 2014, so that’s what we will use to determine who the first overall pick would have been. Then we’ll look at how they did on the season.

(ADP and scoring data assuming a 12 team standard scoring league.)

2014 – LeSean McCoy

2014 First pick: Lesean McCoy

This one seems to have been a bit of a contentious pick. Oftentimes the first pick is a pretty solid consensus, but McCoy’s ADP was only 2.5, showing there was a lot of debate whether he should have been the pick at all. He’s the only first pick in the data set to not have an ADP in the 1’s.

If you did pick McCoy, it didn’t burn you, but it wasn’t great either. McCoy finished 2014 as RB 12. So he was still an RB 1 in a standard 12 team league, but just barely. McCoy finished 3rd in the league in rushing that year, with 1319 yards. A great amount for any RB any year. What brought McCoy down was the lack of touchdowns. He had just five in 2014. Arguably more important, McCoy’s receiving work went down by a lot. His first five years with Philly he averaged 54 catches and 425 yards receiving with two additional touchdowns. In 2014, he had just 28 catches, 155 yards and no receiving scores. 

Still, if you picked McCoy over the next highest person in Adrian Peterson, you got lucky. This was the year Peterson got suspended from the league after playing just one game. 2014 wasn’t a great year for the number one pick, but it wasn’t a disaster (unless you took AP, which unfortunately many did).

2015 – Adrian Peterson

2015 first pick Adrian Peterson

A great year to have the number one pick. Adrian Peterson came back from his suspension and dominated. He led the league in both rushing yards (1485) and rushing touchdowns (11). Peterson didn’t finish as the number one RB, that honor went to Devonta Freeman due to his far superior receiving work, but Peterson was a close 2nd. You wouldn’t be upset at all with his performance. 

If you bucked the trend and didn’t select Peterson first however, you were in for a world of pain. The next three running backs taken (and many of them went first overall, especially in PPR) were all disasters. Le’veon Bell was suspended most of the season and only managed six games, although he was great in those games. Eddie Lacy had trouble staying on the field consistently, and ended up outside the starting 24 running backs. Jamaal Charles tore his ACL after week five. Just like Le’veon he was great in the games he played, but didn’t play enough games. If you had the first pick this year and took Peterson you were big chilling. If you didn’t, you probably didn’t make the playoffs.

2016 – Antonio Brown

2016 first pick Antonio Brown

The highest ADP we’ve seen yet at 1.3, Brown was the rare non-RB taken first overall. Given the ADP, it seems it was pretty close to consensus as well. This pick also worked out for their fantasy owner. Brown finished as the best WR in fantasy, coming in second in catches, fifth in yards and second in TDs. He was the only receiver to come in the top five in all three categories (although Jordy Nelson just barely missed out on yards).

If you wanted to take a running back first however, you were probably stuck with Todd Gurley. He took a massive step back in year two after a stellar rookie year. Despite getting 50 more carries, his yards per rush and touchdowns plummeted. But as long as you stuck with consensus and took Brown first overall, you were good. 

2017 – David Johnson

2017 first pick David Johnson

The first true disaster at the first overall pick. As long as you were going by consensus, you probably weren’t too unhappy so far, with Lesean McCoy’s RB 12 the worst finish. If you stepped outside consensus things got much dicier, but the agreed upon first pick had been solid. Until now. 

Johnson was a deserved first overall pick, and his ADP of 1.6 showed that. He was a beast in 2016, taking the top RB spot by 30 points over the number two guy. Unfortunately, Johnson suffered a wrist injury that took him out for the whole year in 2017’s season opener. The worst part is you may have held onto Johnson until November 22nd when the Arizona Cardinals finally revealed he wouldn’t be back for the whole year. 

The number two pick in Le’veon Bell fared much better, snatching the No. 2 spot behind Todd Gurley. But that finish may have been a curse on next year’s fantasy draft.

2018 – Todd Gurley

2018 first pick Todd Gurley

Gurley followed up one of the greatest fantasy playoff carry jobs of all time with another fantastic year. With 1831 yards from scrimmage and a whopping 21 total touchdowns, Gurley managed to repeat as a 300 point scorer in 2018, a rare feat indeed. 

Gurley’s 1.4 ADP showed that there wasn’t much debate going on about who the best player in fantasy was for 2018, and he delivered on all fronts. If you wanted to buck the trend however, problems arose. Le’Veon Bell was the consensus second overall pick, with an ADP of 2.6. The next closest guy was David Johnson or Ezekiell Elliot at 3.5 and 3.7 respectively. But Bell famously sat out the whole year in a contract hold out. 

2019 – Saquon Barkley 

2019 first pick Saquon Barkley

Similar to 2014, if you snagged Barkley first overall you weren’t upset with how it went, but you probably weren’t psyched either. Due to injury, Barkley just managed to get in the top 12 RBs. He was better on a points per game basis (unlike McCoy in 2014 who was worse) but it wasn’t ideal by any means. Drafting Barkley first overall might’ve seen you struggle to make the playoffs in your league, but if you got there he delivered big time. 

His 1.9 ADP shows there was some discussion on who the number one pick should be however, with Alvin Kamara the next likely candidate to be picked first overall. He was even more of a disappointment than Barkley finishing RB 18. Just like Barkley small injuries here or there hampered him. To be fair to Kamara he was RB 11 in PPR as well. 

But neither of those guys could hold a candle to Christian McCaffrey who delivered an all-time great fantasy season, doubly so if it was PPR. This led to an inevitable pick in 2020.

2020 – Christian McCaffrey

2020 first pick Christian McCaffrey

The second 1.3 ADP we’ve seen and for good reason. McCaffrey was an animal in 2019. He went over 1000 yards rushing AND receiving and had 19 total touchdowns. CBS has his season as second best all time to LaDainian Tomlinson’s untouchable 2006 where he scored 31 total times. But the bane of running backs struck again. Multiple injuries limited McCaffrey to just three games. Amazingly, McCaffrey was incredible in every game he did manage to suit up for, rocking 24.4 points per game (30.3 PPR), top in the league. On the flipside, the more temporary nature of his injuries meant you had to keep him on your bench the whole year.

The consensus second pick didn’t fare any better. Sporting a 2.5 ADP, Saquon Barkley was lost early in week two to the dreaded ACL tear. Barkley finished with a depressing 9.4 total fantasy points on the year. If you were scared McCaffrey was headed for a major regression and bucked the trend by taking Barkley, you got screwed even worse. 

Conclusion

So we’ve got seven years of data to work with here. Two of the seven years you had your first overall pick perform…decently. McCoy in 2014 and Barkley in 2019 both finished as the 12th running back, which is fine, but not what you wanted from the first pick. There was also a pretty significant chance you took Peterson first overall in 2014, which would’ve been a catastrophe.

Two years saw a complete disaster at the top draft slot, with the first player taken suffering injuries that prevented them from playing most of the season. McCaffrey in 2020 at least did great in the three games he played, but he probably burned a spot on your bench for 10+ weeks. Johnson in 2017 on the other hand gave 0 value and probably cost his owners the season instantly. 

Finally, there were three years that saw the top overall pick pay off. AP in 2015 finished RB 2 (although it was a shaky consensus year and any of the other guys you would’ve taken would have been terrible), Antonio Brown in 2016 finished as the top wideout and Todd Gurley in 2018 was well worth the pick.

Overall it’s a small sample size. 3/7 isn’t bad considering it basically got you the best or second best person at the position. But 2/7 is a rough rate to completely bust as well. Over the past seven years, the first pick doesn’t seem THAT valuable. Not much more valuable than other first round picks anyways, and you have the added detriment of picking in the 2nd round last. Am I saying the first overall pick sucks? Not at all. But I’m not sure if it deserves the lofty reputation it gets. Keep that in mind for next year, especially if your league allows draft pick trading.