Fantasy football managers have all heard some form of the following words of wisdom: you may not win your championship on draft day, but you can certainly lose it. Then there are those who ended up with the third overall pick in drafts this just-completed season and “had” to take Christian McCaffrey.
How’d that work out?
The 2023 season had more than its fair share of draft-day landmines in the early rounds. Of the first 24 picks, according to Yahoo ADP, 11 missed at least one game. Of those, seven missed multiple games. Then there were players like Bijan Robinson, Tony Pollard, Davante Adams and Garrett Wilson, who all played full seasons yet, for a variety of reasons, underperformed their ADP in those early rounds.
It’s almost enough to make one wonder how anyone was able to thread the needle and actually win titles in 2023. Yes, drafting deep rosters, hitting the waiver wire and a little bit of luck certainly help in that regard.
This is a good time to take a look at some positional combinations in the first couple rounds that paid dividends. These are the four most successful combinations at the top of drafts, revealing the percentage of duos that won Yahoo Fantasy titles in 2023. All told, they make up more than 77% of the title-winning duos.
Like in the NFL, fantasy football can be a copycat league, so look for plenty of fantasy managers to use the first couple strategies. Beyond the positions however, it really is about picking the right players — not just on draft day — that wins the titles.
Running Back/Wide Receiver (28.6%)
This could be called the “Christian McCaffrey Hero RB strategy.” With over 2,000 scrimmage yards, 21 touchdowns and 357.8 fantasy points, more than 100 points above Raheem Mostert at RB2. For some context, to go 100 points further down the running back finishes (through Week 17) would jump to Zack Moss at RB27. Quite the canyon.
McCaffrey was likely the only first-round running back who delivered, as the others being chosen in that early range were Austin Ekeler, Nick Chubb, Bijan Robinson and Saquon Barkley. Three of the four battled injuries, and the fourth (Robinson) was underutilized most of the season and underwhelmed in the fantasy playoffs.
With CMC going mostly at the second or third overall pick, which wide receivers were most likely paired with him in this combo? Amon-Ra St. Brown (19.0) and Adams (17.1) went in the back half of the first round, and are the players most likely to have fallen into the range to be paired with McCaffrey.
St. Brown was spectacular all season, hitting either 100 receiving yards or scoring a touchdown in 13 of the first 17 weeks of the fantasy season. He was at his best in the fantasy playoffs, going over 100 yards and scoring a touchdown all three games.
Adams battled inconsistent quarterback play on the way to WR13 (through Week 17), but two of his three 100-yard games came in the fantasy playoffs. He rewarded lucky fantasy managers in Week 17 with a fantastic 13-126-2 line that made him WR2 and helped win a lot of titles.
This being the most successful start to a draft, imitators will abound next summer. Hero RB strategies could be very popular, especially if McCaffrey remains atop most pre-draft rankings. There are young running backs who could go early as potential hero/anchor RBs, too.
Wide Receiver/Wide Receiver (21.2%)
The Zero RB zealots are alive and well with this strategy being the No. 2 draft combo. They avoided the non-CMC running back pitfalls in the first couple rounds, though they also likely had to bypass injuries to Justin Jefferson and the dramatic performance drops from A.J. Brown and Stefon Diggs in the back half of the season.
The winning ticket belonged to CeeDee Lamb, selected early in the second round. From Week 8 forward, he had six games with at least 22 fantasy points (and seven if you count Week 18). That’s RB1 production. In fact, Lamb had 33.9 more fantasy points than McCaffrey from Week 8-17, so this is the company he was keeping. The exclamation point was the 13-227-1 explosion in Week 17 that won a lot of fantasy titles. Since he was going around pick 14, Lamb was likely going in the late-first, early-second round of fantasy drafts.
Tyreek Hill, who was on a quest for the first 2,000-yard season by a receiver before an ankle injury slowed him down late in the season, went earlier with an ADP of 6.3. This could have been a popular combo to win titles, even with Hill’s slow finish. St. Brown could have been a highly productive pairing with Lamb or Hill, and Brown’s early torrid run with the Eagles may have been another part of a potential duo.
Wide Receiver/Running Back (15.4%)
The inverse of the top winning combo, going after the wide receiver in the first round likely saw Hill as the main target as an opening pick. Through the first 12 games, Hill went over 20 fantasy points in nine of them. He averaged 22.2 points per game in that span. While in the fantasy playoffs he missed a game and didn’t come close to that average in the other two games, Hill helped so many fantasy teams win early weeks. That set them up for others to put teams over the top in the playoffs.
The running back side in the second round really centered on two players: Derrick Henry (15.6) and Travis Etienne Jr. (25.7). Etienne probably snuck in the second round and strung together a run from Weeks 5-8 scoring between 21.20 and 34.40 fantasy points. Finishing as the overall RB3, Etienne also had a big fantasy championship week with 118 yards and two touchdowns. Henry was the RB8 on the season, but in playoff Weeks 15 and 17, he scored under five points each week. If teams won with Henry, it was despite him.
Running Back/Running Back (12.5%)
The warhorse of all fantasy draft strategies, it’s a sign of the times that this strategy finished fourth out of the top four. Considering the players already talked about above, McCaffrey had to be the player to be drafted first. In the second round, it was likely a pairing with Etienne.
Most of these teams with the second-round running back probably saw success with home run picks who were taken later in drafts like Raheem Mostert, Mike Evans, Isiah Pacheco or Brandon Aiyuk. Or maybe they were among those who landed Kyren Williams or Puka Nacua on the waiver wire. Williams and Nacua are prime examples to spend up that FAB and hit the waiver wire early.