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Your Fantasy Football Draft Gets Interesting at No. 5

There’s a clear-cut top four. But what should you do if you land the fifth pick?

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NFL training camps begin in four weeks. That’s too far away for us to dive headfirst into fantasy mock drafts, but it’s still close enough to make us thirst for some fantasy goodness. It’s time to dip our toes in the waters and look at the top five players for fantasy drafts in 2019.

Four of this year’s top five players would, if we still regularly hand-carved letters into rocks, already be written into stone. Those four are:

  • Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants
  • Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys
  • Christian McCaffrey, running back, Carolina Panthers
  • Alvin Kamara, running back, New Orleans Saints

That is likely the order the players will be taken in most drafts later this summer, but the specific order isn’t as important as recognizing those four make up the clear top tier. Elliott, Barkley, and McCaffrey were the top three players in touches and yards from scrimmage last season, and they are a strong bet to finish as the top three again in 2019. The Giants have few options beyond Barkely after trading Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns. McCaffrey averaged 6 yards per touch last year while playing on more than 91 percent of Carolina’s snaps, putting a huge gap between him and the next closest players (Elliott and Barkley at 83 percent each). Elliott has led the league in rushing yards per game for each of his three NFL seasons and caught more passes in 2018 (77) than in his first two seasons combined (58). Kamara did not reach the same level of touches as the other three, but he still came in the top four in fantasy last year, slotting ahead of Elliott in PPR, half-PPR, and standard-scoring leagues. Mark Ingram has been replaced by the less-versatile Latavius Murray as his backfield mate in New Orleans, so Kamara could have his largest role in the New Orleans offense to date.

But while the top four is settled, the fifth spot in fantasy drafts could go to as many as seven different players—it’s as wide open as the fifth spot in the Warriors starting lineup. So to satiate the late-June fantasy thirst, let’s look at six players who could be the missing piece to the fantasy football top five in drafts this year.

David Johnson, Running Back, Arizona Cardinals

In 2016, Johnson was the most valuable fantasy player in standard leagues and by far the most valuable in points per reception leagues (1,239 rushing yards, 879 receiving yards, 80 receptions on 120 targets, and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage will do that). Johnson was the near-unanimous no. 1 choice entering 2017, but he sprained and dislocated his wrist in Week 1 and was lost for the season. Last year Johnson was fully healthy, but terribly misused. He’s one of the league’s best players in open space, but unimaginative then–Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy sent Johnson into the middle of the defense at the second-highest rate in the league, while the had the fifth-lowest rushing rate in the league.

Unlike McCoy, new Cardinals head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury loves exploring the vast expanses of space more than stoned Neil deGrasse Tyson. Kingsbury has talked about restoring the old Johnson, telling reporters in March that the team’s goal is to get Johnson “back to the form he had in previous years.”

The top of the first round is about minimizing risk, and drafting Johnson depends on how much you trust that Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense will translate to the NFL in his first season. Even if Kingsbury can succeed, he’ll have to show he can adjust that system once NFL defensive coordinators figure out how to stop it. Kingsbury could lead a revolution, but he could also pass too close to the sun.

Of the non-top-four running backs, Johnson has the clearest path toward being the no. 1 overall player for the 2019 season, but it’s not risk-free.

Melvin Gordon, Running Back, Los Angeles Chargers

Gordon suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in late November and played just 12 games last year, but on a per-game basis, he outscored Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott in half-PPR scoring. Gordon was more involved in the pass game than ever before in 2018. He set a career high in receiving yards and tied his career high for receiving touchdowns in four fewer games. Gordon averaged 6.1 yards per touch (fifth among running backs) after never surpassing 4.8 in his three previous seasons. He’s gotten better each year, and he’ll be in a contract year in 2019.

Gordon’s knee injury from December 2018 is more worrisome than David Johnson’s wrist injury, but Gordon won’t be on the roller coaster Johnson is riding with a rookie head coach and quarterback. We have seen Gordon produce at a top-tier fantasy level in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense, while Johnson’s potential with Kingsbury is a still a thought exercise.

DeAndre Hopkins, Receiver, Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins’s Chuck Norris fact is that in 2015 he played with Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden at quarterback for an entire season and still finished with 1,521 receiving yards (third in the league) and 11 touchdowns. Hopkins was a marvel without a competent quarterback, but since Deshaun Watson showed up in 2017, Hopkins has been nearly unguardable. Among wideouts in the past two years combined, Hopkins leads in total fantasy points (both in standard and PPR scoring) and is second in fantasy points per game to Antonio Brown (in standard and PPR), second in receiving yards (2,950), tied for first in touchdowns (24), second in receptions (211), and first in targets (337). Now that Brown is on a different team, Hopkins might have the top tier all to himself. He’s also missed just one game in his NFL career.

Davante Adams, Receiver, Green Bay Packers

The only two players with more than 30 receiving touchdowns combined in the past three seasons are Antonio Brown with 36 and Adams with 35. Touchdowns are usually random year to year, but not for Adams, who has gained Aaron Rodgers’s trust like few receivers have before. He had 12, 10, and 13 receiving touchdowns each of the past three years, and he is the lone option on the Packers roster who has spent significant time in the offense after Randall Cobb left for Dallas in free agency. Last year Adams had 169 targets, second-most in the league, to Julio Jones’s 170, and that could go up in 2019.

“I’d like to throw to Davante more,” Rodgers told reporters during OTAs in June. “He’s that open. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”

Julio Jones, Receiver, Atlanta Falcons

In the past Julio has been known for exploding some weeks and disappearing in others. But in 2018, Calvin Ridley emerged as the Morty to Julio’s Rick. All eight of Jones’s scores in 2018 came in the second half of the season once Calvin Ridley’s September scoring binge drew defensive coordinators’ attention. Jones led the league in receiving yards (1,677), targets (170), and yards per route run; finished second in first downs and second in deep targets; and tied for fourth in catches (113). If Jones can produce anything close to his second half in terms of scoring, he’ll be the no. 1 receiver in fantasy in 2019.

Todd Gurley, Running Back, Los Angeles Rams

Someone is going to take the risk. Gurley has been the dominant fantasy force for two seasons in a row, but an arthritic component to his knee combined with the Rams’ drafting Memphis running back Darrell Henderson in the third round suggest that Gurley is going to be part of a timeshare designed to maximize his impact for later in the season.

”Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it’s a shoulder, a knee, an ankle,” Travelle Gaines, Gurley’s trainer, told CBS Sports’ Dave Richard in June. “He’s now at the year-five mark [since he had ACL surgery at Georgia in 2014], all we’re doing is managing that. If we can pound him less in the offseason while keeping his weight down, working on his strength, working on his agility in short areas, that’s going to give him a better chance to be healthy Weeks 14 through 17 when they really count.”

Common sense suggests Gurley will see more touches than he saw in the playoffs but fewer than he did in the 2018 regular season, when he was on the field for five out of every six plays. Perhaps he could still capture enough of his energy from the last two years and be the rare player at no. 5 overall who far surpasses his draft slot. But the priority in Round 1 is to minimize risk, and Gurley has a lot of room to fall.