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Fantasy Football: Safest and Riskiest First Round Picks

The Safest and Riskiest First Round Fantasy Football Draft Picks in 2022

Can you smell it? That scent in the air? It is the smell of fantasy football, and it will be here before you know it. There is something about the Fall, am I right? The temperature starts to drop, leaves start to fall from the trees, the evening gets a little chilly, and you start to get stuck behind buses on your morning commute, sending you into a rage that knows no bounds before you even start your work day.

The crisp evening fall air just makes you want to throw on a flannel and a pair of Uggs.

No, just me? Whatever, Tom Brady wears them. Anyway, with fall approaching, that means football season is approaching. As much as I am looking forward to the Jets making me miserable for 17 weeks, I am more excited for the fantasy football season to kick off.

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Fantasy Football is a Marathon

There is an old saying in fantasy football circles. Actually, I am not sure if that is true. I might have made it up. Anyway, that saying is “the season is won on waivers.” I am not sure where I got it from, but I think it has some merit.

Those of us that were lucky enough to scoop up Elijah Mitchell on waivers after Week 1 last year surely had a deeper running back stable than a few of our league mates.

A few of us also laughed all the way to a championship as Kyle Shanahan drove everyone nutty as he abandoned Trey Sermon in favor of Mitchell all season long.

The fantasy football season is a marathon and not a sprint (that is definitely a saying everyone is familiar with in one way or another), but there are ways to set yourself apart when the season begins.

Draft Strategy: The First Round

You likely won’t make or break your season by missing a pick or two in your draft. That being said, one could argue that no pick is more important than the one you make in the first round of your redraft league.

I attack every draft the same way and want the “safe studs” in the first few rounds. I am targeting the guys that are going to have a perfect combination of talent and opportunity.

Usually, I start throwing darts at high upside players in the second half of the draft. If one or two hits and I combine that with the successful addition of “safe stars” in the few first rounds, you have yourself the recipe for a championship-caliber team.

It can sometimes be hard to know exactly who you should be targeting in the first round. Some players are safer bets than others. Let’s break it down.

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Fantasy Football: Safest and Riskiest 1st RD Picks

The Safest Players in Round 1

The players discussed in this article will be based on their current ADP in redraft leagues. I will be breaking down the twelve players that are the most likely to go off the board in standard 12-team leagues in round 1.

This can obviously change as we get closer to September, but I will do my best to address the players we all care about the most. First, I will touch on the guys I feel are the safest to grab in the round. These are the guys that you should pull the trigger on immediately if you are lucky enough to have them fall into your lap.

Jonathan Taylor – RB (Indianapolis Colts)

Taylor is universally ranked as the player that should be first off the board in 2022. His current ADP is 1.01, and anyone who watched any football in 2022 understands why. Taylor was not only the bell cow for Indy, but his breakaway speed and homerun ability make him a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

The colts will continue to rely on the run game as the foundation of their offense and have the offensive line to do so with success.

Not only does Taylor see ¾ or more of the snaps from the backfield on a weekly basis, but he also got more opportunities in the red zone than anyone else in 2022, and I expect that to continue. Taylor had 42 carries inside the 10-yard line last season, which was easily the most in the league.

Touchdowns are juicy in fantasy football, and Taylor is going to have a ton of them. As obvious as it is that Taylor is going to see a lot of carries and scoring opportunities, there is another part of his game that makes him extra valuable that might not be as obvious. Taylor slowly became more of a factor in the passing game as last season went on.

By season’s end, he was 11th among running back in the league in routes run and ended the season with 40 receptions for 360 yards. Matt Ryan will be under center for the Colts in 2022, and Ryan targeted running backs more than any other QB in the league in 2022. Believe it or not, Taylor could have a bigger season in 2022 than he did in 2021.

Derrick Henry – RB (Tennessee Titans)

There are some concerns with Derrick Henry. He missed half of the 2021 season due to injury, does not get featured in the passing game, and has seen insane volume the past few years. I am here to tell you, fear not. I do not care about any of those factors. Before Henry’s injury last season, he was on pace to outproduce his historic 2,000-yard season in 2020.

Injuries happen, and there is always a concern with running backs’ bodies breaking down. With Henry, it is important to remember he got a late start to his career and has a little less tread on his tires than most running backs to this point in his career. Henry has already been a volume monster in recent years, and I do not expect that to change.

With a huge contract and no passing game to speak of in Tennessee (AJ Brown has left the building), I expect the Titans to ride Henry until the wheels fall off. Henry was averaging an astounding 30 touches per game before his injury last season.

He was pacing the running back position in both standard and PPR leagues without having much involvement in the passing game. Somehow he was averaging over 2.5 more PPR points per game than his monster 2020 campaign.

Injuries happen in football, and sometimes they scare us. With Henry, it is important to remember that he returned in the playoffs last season and looked every bit like himself. His potential volume and output make him a rare high floor and high ceiling player wrapped into one. Pick him if he is there.

Austin Ekeler – RB (Los Angeles Chargers)

The Chargers have spent the last few seasons looking for the thunder to Ekeler’s lightning. Even though LA has failed to find that player, it has not hampered Ekelers production. The Chargers boast an electric offense led by Justin Herbert, who many feel has cracked the top 5 QB list and is only going to continue getting better.

Ekeler is heavily involved in every aspect of the Charger’s offense and should have plenty of scoring opportunities for this high-flying offensive juggernaut. Ekler finished as a top 2 running back in overall scoring last season, and the Chargers are not going to slow down.

Ekeler only ranked behind Najee Harris in target share and receptions in 2021 on his way to 70 receptions and 647 receiving yards. Couple that with heavy red zone usage, and you have yourself a shiny RB1. Ekeler is as safe as it comes.

Najee Harris – RB (Pittsburgh Steelers)

It does not get much safer than Najee Harris in 2022. Harris did what King Henry was on pace to do before being injured in 2021; he led the league in touches. Najee managed 381 touches during his rookie campaign on an offense led by Big Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben has since retired, and it looks like the Steeler’s offense will be led by a combination of Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett.

It is easy to see the path for Harris to outproduce his 2021. There is zero competition in the backfield, and Harris will be a three-down back that gets involved in every aspect of the offense.

The Steelers are going to run their offense through Harris in 2022 in part because he is so talented but also to hide subpar QB play. Expect a lot of run plays and a lot of screens and check downs to Harris.

Justin Jefferson – WR (Minnesota Vikings)

Justin Jefferson is my favorite wide receiver to draft, period. Jefferson burst onto the scene in 2020 with 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns and took the league by storm. He proved that he was not a flash in the pan in 2021 and went on to outproduce his 2020 campaign with 20 more receptions, over 1,600 yards receiving, and ten touchdowns.

Jefferson was third in the league in target share in 2021 and has averaged more than 15 yards per catch in his first two years in the league.

Kirk Cousins is one of the more polarizing QBs in the league, but he is consistent and feeds his stars. Jefferson is the clear top pass catcher on the team. The Vikings did not add another receiver in the offseason, and Adam Thielen is approaching his mid-30s and not getting any younger. Jefferson is as safe as it comes.

Joe Mixon – RB (Cincinnati Bengals)

It probably will not surprise you at this point to hear why I am high on Mixon. The short answer is volume. Mixon was a second-round pick last season and easily outperformed his ADP.

He was third in the league in touches and was a focal point on a breakout Bengals offense. He finished as RB3 in half-PPR scoring in 2021 and was used often in the red zone as he also ranked third in the league in goal line carries.

Mixon is the clear three-down workhorse and has next to zero competition for touches out of the backfield. In addition, the Bengals completely overhauled their offensive line in the offseason, and it was clearly their biggest weakness and may have cost them a Super Bowl Victory.

Mixon was uber productive behind a horrid offensive line. Can you imagine what he will be able to do behind even an average one?

The Riskiest Players in Round 1

Now let’s touch on the guys I think are riskier propositions in round 1. This doesn’t mean I do not think they are worth round 1 selections. It just means I think they have a higher probability of not performing up to expectations and their draft ADP.

Christian McCaffrey – RB (Carolina Panthers)

This one might seem like a silly and obvious cop-out, but I am not here to generate flaming hot takes. McCaffrey, or CMC to the young whipper-snappers, might be the riskiest pick of your 2022 draft if you decide to take him with your first pick of 2022.

CMC is the embodiment of risk/reward. When healthy, CMC might be the most electrifying and versatile player in the NFL and can carry your fantasy team for weeks on end.

He is elite in the run and passing game, and the Panthers run their offense through him. Hell, he was so good early in 2021 that he had some folks convinced that Sam Darnold might be an MVP candidate. The Panthers were a completely different offense without him. Injuries have derailed his past two seasons, but if he can stay healthy, he has a clear path to a potential RB1 finish.

Cooper Kupp – WR (Los Angeles Rams)

Discussing Cooper Kupp in the “risky” part of my article is not meant as a knock on Kupp. My concerns are that he set the bar so high last season that he may have unreasonable expectations heading into 2022.

Kupp led all receivers in just about every major receiving category in 2022 and averaged the most fantasy points per game for any receiver since 2012.

Kupp will continue to be a focal point for the Ram’s Offense, but some regression is expected for both the Rams’ offense and Kupp himself.

Couple that with the addition of Allen Robinson to the wide receiver rooms and a healthy Cam Akers, and there are a few more mouths to feed in this offense. You can do worse than Cooper Kupp but having reasonable expectations is key.

Ja’Marr Chase – WR (Cincinnati Bengals)

Man, 2022 was quite the season for the Bengals. First, they were criticized for not addressing their offensive line in the first round of the 2021 draft. Instead of selecting offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who many regarded as the best player in the draft, the Bengals instead too Joe Burrow’s college teammate and stud receiver, Ja’Marr Chase.

Many felt it was important to protect Burrow first before giving him another weapon. While the Bengals’ offensive line was suspect all season, no one is questioning their decision now.

Chase broke Justin Jefferson’s rookie season receiving record, finished as WR5 on a points per game basis, and commanded a 22% target share. Chase is going to be a popular option in round 1 this season and will surely be one of the first receivers off the board.

Where Chase Struggled in 2021 was consistency. His production took a dip from weeks 8 through 13 last season, and teams will surely be paying more attention to him in 2022.

Would not surprise me if he saw double teams on a regular basis. Chase is so talented he may be able to overcome all of these obstacles, but a tougher schedule in 2022, a more competitive division, and a year of game tape for his opponents to study mean a slight regression is possible.

Travis Kelce – TE (Kansas City Chiefs)

Travis Kelce has been a model of consistency for years now. It has basically been a cheat code to have him slotted into your TE slot all season long. The TE position is generally so thin that after the top 3 guys or so, everyone else is interchangeable.

It is just an advantage to have one of the elite tight ends on your fantasy squad. So much so, Kelce has been a staple at the tail end of the first round and the front half of the second round for years.

This year is likely to be no different, and I expect Travis Kelce to be off the board before the second round starts. Kelce was a staple as TE1 for the better part of three years. Mark Andrews finally stole that spot from Kelce in 2022.

Many are wondering, is Kelce’s production starting to slip, or did Mark Andrews’ play just hit another level in 2021? Kelce is entering his age 33 seasons and is coming off a season where he average his worst points per game average since 2017. The loss of Tyreek Hill is sure to change the makeup of the Chiefs’ offense to some extent but will that help or hurt Kelce?

The attention that used to be focused on Hill will likely be shifted to Kelce in 2022, but there are also vacated targets available that Kelce is likely to consume. It is hard to predict just how the chips will fall for the 2022 Chiefs offense, which makes Kelce in the first round a risky proposition in my eyes.

It is hard to fade the primary target of a Patrick Mahomes-led offense, and this might be the year we see Kelce regress.

Nick Chubb – RB (Cleveland Browns)

Nick Chubb is a throwback NFL running back. Chubb might be the best pure rusher in the NFL, and for those of us who watched football in the 90s, we see flashes of a Curtis Martin-like workhorse running back.

You put the ball in Chubb’s hands, and you know he is going to make the right decisions and hit the holes hard.

Chubb has been a top 10 back in weekly scoring for the past three seasons. Where Chubb is held back is he offers absolutely no production in the passing game. He also shares a backfield with Kareem Hunt, who is easily the best handcuff in fantasy football.

If Chubb were to go down, Hunt would immediately step in as an RB1 with top 10 potential. Even with a healthy Chubb, Hunt eats into his work and sees all of the passing work. Hunt even occasionally spells Chubb for early down work and in goal line situations.

It really is an embarrassment of riches for the Browns to get to utilize two elite running backs week in and week out.

Chubb is clearly talented enough for a top 12 finish in spite of his lack of receiving work and sharing a backfield with Kareem Hunt. You just have to wonder if the uncertainty at the QB position heading into 2022, Chubb being another year older, his lack of utility in the passing game, and the presence of Kareem Hunt in the running back room finally catch up to him.

Dalvin Cook – RB (Minnesota Vikings)

Dalvin Cook is one of the more exciting players to watch in the NFL. When healthy, he is on a short list of elite, well-rounded running backs. He is an explosive and elite rusher and is a weekly contributor in the passing game.

He can turn a screen pass into a touchdown in an instant. The question always seems to be, how healthy can Cook stay throughout a 17-game season? He has been plagued by the injury bug for the better part of three seasons.

To Cook’s credit, his time missed has been minimal, and he has played through some painful injuries. Still, the injuries have affected his production, and he missed four games last season. When he was on the field, he was RB11 on a points-per-game basis.

You have to wonder if the weekly production would not have been better if Cook was not playing through injuries.

RB11 is still great production for a fantasy running back but might be a little lower than you are hoping for if you select him in the top half of the first round. Cook is another year older, and running backs do not last as long as other positions.

The Vikings also have one of the best handcuffs in the NFL in the form of Alexander Mattison.

You have to wonder if the Vikings will be a bit more careful with Cook this season and try to keep his legs fresh for a playoff run. He has been nicked up in recent years, and it would not surprise me if the Vikings found ways to get Mattison more involved on a regular basis throughout the season in an effort to keep Cook fresh and healthy.

If you are planning on selecting Cook with a top 5 pick, buyer beware.

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SUNY Geneseo and Albany School of Public Health Alumni. Public Health Research Scientist. Content Creator and Sports Writer for @gamblingpodcast