"Do Not Draft" list: Why Aaron Rodgers is on it

Eric Karabell
ESPN INSIDER

Avoid Rob Gronkowski! OK, that is not exactly what we say every year in the annual "Do Not Draft" blog entry, but choosing to select running backs and wide receivers in the second and third rounds of fantasy football drafts -- both PPR and traditional -- is clearly the recommendation from this end.

Why is this? Well, put simply, the value just is not there for the intriguing Gronkowski that early, and it has not been for years. Having the eccentric New England Patriots tight end lead off this oft-misunderstood column also has become tradition because fantasy managers continue to make him one of their building-block players, thinking they get the proverbial leg up on opponents. That is simply not reality.


The goal is to win your league, not win at individual positions, and while most rank Gronkowski as the top tight end in the sport, it is hardly consensus and he comes with obvious risks. To start with, Gronkowski is never a lock to play every week, and even when he does, he is not as productive as he used to be. He is, after all, 29 years old, so we should not expect the same great things he provided at age 22. Last season, in fact, the highest-scoring tight end in PPR scoring was actually Kansas City Chiefs talker Travis Kelce, and the Philadelphia Eagles' Zach Ertz was right there as well. Gone are the days of Gronkowski being easily the best tight end.

Gronkowski remains a productive player, of course, but my contention is that running backs and wide receivers are the ones fantasy managers must focus on for the early rounds. Depth is precarious and the difference between the top tight ends and those in the middle rounds is, kind of like at quarterback, not what most realize. There will be, just like every season, surprising performances from quarterbacks and tight ends, but since we need only one of each for most of a season, it is not like running back and wide receiver, positions where depth truly comes into play. Relying on someone that constantly grapples with injury is a poor investment so early.

Some of the names you will see below are repeaters from previous years in the "Do Not Draft" blog, and the philosophy has not veered. It is a risk-versus-reward game and I stick with what works for me. It is also worth noting that none of these players is going after the 10th round in ESPN ADP (average draft position). I mean, we could tell you to avoid drafting Sam Bradford, Bilal Powell and Brandon Marshall, but they are not the least bit coveted to start with.

Let us go position by position.

Quarterback

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: By some definition, the first quarterback off the draft board must be recognized in this space, and often it is Rodgers. Nobody disputes that he is terrific and it seems unwise to assume he is suddenly brittle, so that is not the concern. There is simply no reason to invest in any quarterback in the first five -- perhaps 10 -- rounds of a single-quarterback draft. There is ample depth here -- definitely more than 10 quarterbacks worthy of being a fantasy starter -- and streaming the position remains a decent plan. Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson simply are not worth the early-round investment.

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: Perhaps he is healthy, perhaps not. Nobody seems to know for sure and we might not find out until September. I realize the argument for investing in Luck at a reasonable price goes against the Rodgers argument, to some extent. With ample depth, why not take a chance or two. I see that point, but I regard roster spots as precious. I often wait until the double-digit rounds to invest in any quarterback, and I might not worry about the backup until the bye week. I might also select two of them before other teams get a backup and go with matchups. With Luck, I could wait until September, and then if his shoulder is still a mess or the line cannot protect him, I simply find someone in free agency. But I see little path for him returning to top-5 fantasy value anyway, so it is not worth the risk in the top 100, and that is his ADP.

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers: People seemed to fall in love when he finally emerged as statistically relevant after being exiled from New England, but he finished with seven touchdown passes versus five interceptions and was a borderline top-10 fantasy quarterback in those five weeks, indistinguishable from many others. Joe Flacco and Blake Bortles outscored him in that small sample, so why are people going crazy over Jimmy G and making this unproven passer with limited resources around him a clear top-10 option? I am not. Give me Matthew Stafford, always a top-10 scorer, or the big upside of Patrick Mahomes.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: Well, if you can find someone to start at quarterback for the weeks Roethlisberger plays road games, then I recommend it. His home/road splits tell the tale of a player worth relying on only some of the time (75 home passing touchdowns for four seasons, 35 on the road). Is that how you want to enter a season?

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: Quickly back to earth after his aberrant 2016 campaign, Ryan is not even much of a matchup play anymore. Bortles has outscored him two of the past three seasons except, you guessed it, for 2016, and nobody talks about drafting Bortles.

Running back

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills: I curiously have no issue with the consensus top-10 options at this position, even the rookie among them, but then it gets tricky with proven veterans versus new rookies as surefire RB2 choices. The veteran McCoy has indeed aged well and was fantasy's No. 7 running back last season, but there sure is a mess around him on the rebuilding roster, whether it is at quarterback or offensive line, and certainly, a mess of a different kind surrounds him off the field. McCoy is 30, and when the end comes, it could come quickly. He remains a RB2 call for me, but I am concerned.

Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles: As I blogged about earlier this summer, despite early indications from united team personnel, the Eagles have little motivation to make one of their numerous quality running backs the clear star. There is depth, especially when it comes to catching the passes, and Ajayi might never see the field on third down with Darren Sproles and Corey Clement around. No Eagle approached 1,000 rushing yards in their Super Bowl-winning season. Ajayi has one year left on his deal and well-documented knee problems, and this is a team expecting to play in January. Ajayi is an occasional RB2, not someone to count on for massive numbers.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: A physical specimen with little value in the passing game, Henry is going to share time with former Patriots option Dion Lewis, but it might not be what most people think. Lewis rushed for 896 yards on 5 yards per tote last season, so let us not assume he is strictly a third-down option. I think Lewis is the one to draft, though neither makes my top 20. People are a bit too excited about Henry.

Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders: Lynch was highlighted in this space a year ago, and while the second half of his season looked better than his first, it still was not special. Lynch is 32 and barely a factor in the passing game. I see a theme here. Standard scoring on ESPN is a point per reception, and other than Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette and Chicago's Jordan Howard, most top-20 running backs catch significant passes. Lynch's appearance on this list is hardly about new coach Jon Gruden getting excited about Doug Martin, but in a general sense I am avoiding this offense.

Others later in drafts: Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins; Frank Gore, Miami Dolphins; Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns; Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers; Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Wide receiver

T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts: This is all about Luck and his prospects of returning to prominence and remaining on the field. Hilton as a top-10 wide receiver, based on 2017 returns, seems a bit dangerous. If it is the fourth round, however, I see opportunity. Again, nobody is saying to ignore the likes of established stars Gronkowski, Hilton and Rodgers, but there is little value in current ADP figures.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown just does not share, and I do not see that changing. Smith-Schuster is talented, and on most other teams, I would predict stardom. On this team, I predict Brown gets a million targets. No second wide receiver he has played with has seen enough volume to be a WR2, and that is how aggressively Smith-Schuster is going in drafts.

Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns: Again, I do not deny the skills. Gordon is immensely talented and showed it in 2013. That was a long time ago, and while we want to see this player perform, there is obvious risk based on off-field issues. Even the Browns seem concerned about his summer absence. Even in non-PPR, I would rather draft the security of his teammate Jarvis Landry.

Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles: Whenever a team admits that a key player might not be ready for Week 1 due to recovery from offseason surgery, there is room for skepticism. A week or two could easily end up being a month or six weeks. Jeffery is not healthy and last caught 60 passes in 2014. Do not presume touchdown totals repeat from year to year. They often do not. (Julio Jones will catch eight touchdowns.) Carson Wentz should be fine, but as with the Chiefs, there is a prime tight end option here and other weapons.

Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams:
Always be skeptical when a presumed top player joins his third team in as many seasons because there is always a reason why. Cooks is dependent on big plays, and on this rush-first team, I do not see him securing enough of them. He is well into WR3 range for me, behind his less heralded teammate
Robert Woods

Sammy Watkins, Kansas City Chiefs: Another fellow with three teams in three seasons, I really like the starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He will be a star. However, it is wrong to assume Watkins, a noted and brittle underachiever, will suddenly have that monster season, especially on a club with Kelce and Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. Compare Watkins statistically to well-traveled Mike Wallace, who likely goes undrafted in most leagues, and you might not like what you see.

Jordy Nelson, Oakland Raiders: His ADP is actually more reasonable than I expected, but I still have trouble making the case for him as a WR4. I have little faith in Derek Carr making Amari Cooper a WR2, but at least Cooper is young and potentially dominant. Nelson is not Cooper.

Other later in drafts: Dez Bryant, free agent; DeSean Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins; Sterling Shepard, New York Giants; Martavis Bryant, Oakland Raiders

Tight end

Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins: In addition to ignoring the top options in the first three rounds, I would avoid Reed in the later ones. When healthy, he can be awesome, just like Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert, but these fellows just cannot stay healthy and health is not a skill that players gain later in their careers. Draft Reed or Eifert and you still will need to draft another tight end. It is not worth it.