Let's set an all-too-familiar scene: You've just opened up your league's draft room on ESPN, or have just arrived at your league's live draft table. The first order of business, as it is every year, is determining your draft order, either seeing it within the ESPN draft room (fortunately, you can do this as far in advance as one hour ahead) or drawing it live among your leaguemates.
Either way, draft-slot selection is one of the more stressful parts of the fantasy football league process, and if you've played this game for any length of time, surely you've fallen prey to that sinking feeling, "ARRRGGGH, I drew the 11th pick, but I REALLY had my heart set on -- and my plans based around -- the 5!!!
One of these stresses centers upon the minimal time you're afforded to adjust your strategy accounting for your spur-of-the-moment draft slot. We spend countless hours perfecting our cheat sheets, then (in most cases) spend mere minutes adapting our plans based upon where we're picking. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
I don't expect anyone to formulate a draft plan based around all 12 possible draft slots; that's needless wasted time. Instead, I've done the work for you below, solving the proverbial puzzle of Rounds 1-2 from each slot: breaking down the most likely candidates available at each draft slot in both rounds, and identifying any later-round strategic angles you should be considering from each.
This examination is for a 12-team, ESPN PPR (Point Per Reception) league. If you're seeking draft-slot strategy for a 10-team standard PPR, you can read that here.
Draft slot 1
Round 1 (pick 1 overall): Go RB, and it has to be Le'Veon Bell or Todd Gurley, who are going more than two full picks, on average, ahead of Ezekiel Elliott or David Johnson (though a case can be made for Johnson, the 2016 No. 1 PPR scorer).
Round 2 (pick 24): One of the reasons you need to go RB in Round 1 is that there's effectively no chance that any of the top 12 running backs will make it back here, with No. 12 (in ADP and my own rankings) Devonta Freeman the only one with even long-shot odds. Most 1-slot teams will find either RBs 13-15 (LeSean McCoy, Jerick McKinnon or Joe Mixon), WRs 10-12 (Adam Thielen, T.Y. Hilton or Larry Fitzgerald) or TEs 2-3 (Zach Ertz or Travis Kelce) available 24th (and 25th) overall, which isn't a bad place to be through two picks. The additional benefit of the 1-slot is that it has good odds of your getting a "gift" selection should any teams pass on Mike Evans, Freeman or Rob Gronkowski. The trap: Do not get coaxed into selecting QB1 Aaron Rodgers at either 24 or 25, thinking it's a long wait until your 48/49 Rounds 3-4 swing picks. Rodgers' projected production compared to that of a replacement quarterback doesn't come close to justifying that early a pick. If you're eager to draft him, consider his lasting to the 48/49 swing picks an effective "gift" pick -- though I'd call that more the realistic range to begin considering it than it being outstanding value.
Tristan's best start: Bell/Thielen.
Draft slot 2
Round 1 (pick 2): Feast upon leftovers from whichever of Bell or Gurley wasn't picked. Again, an RB it should be. If you feel particularly strongly about Elliott or Saquon Barkley, they're not untenable No. 2 picks, but I wouldn't, not this soon and certainly not seeing the drop-off after pick 22 (one before the 2-slot's second-rounder).
Round 2 (pick 23): Again, the reason for the RB -- and a veteran RB, at that -- in Round 1 is that Freeman et al. probably won't make it back to pick 22, though McCoy should if you're comfortable beginning with him as your RB1. This and the 1-slot are destined for similar Rounds 1-3 outcomes, but this team gets first crack at any "gift" picks that escape the top 22. McCoy (as your RB2), Thielen and Hilton are looking like especially strong picks here.
Tristan's best start: Gurley/McCoy.
Draft slot 3
Round 1 (pick 3): It's Johnson for me, but it can be Elliott for you if you have a strong preference, as I don't consider one decidedly "safer" than the other. WR1 Antonio Brown enters the equation, but be aware that selecting him this soon can corner you into lucking into Freeman falling, reaching for the McCoy/McKinnon/Mixon tier in Round 2 or piecing the RB position together. Barkley, too, increases your prospects of a risk/reward-oriented roster.
Round 2 (pick 22): One of Freeman, Gronkowski or Evans (if not a higher-ranked player at those positions) is guaranteed to last until here, giving the 3-slot one of the greater Round 2 advantages. Unless you had to have Brown in Round 1, I'd resist the urge to reach for the McCoy/McKinnon/Mixon) tier at RB, especially since there's a chance one or more could make it back to you in Round 3.
Tristan's best start: Johnson/Evans.
Draft slot 4
Round 1 (pick 4): Brown and Elliott are by far the strongest choices here, but unlike in a 10-team league, Elliott makes more sense in a 12-teamer, because of the weak odds of a top-12 RB making it back to you in Round 2. Neither is an "incorrect" pick.
Round 2 (pick 21): Freeman has been known to make it back to this pick, which would ease the nerves of 4-slot teams who took Brown and be a home-run RB/RB pairing for those who took Elliott in Round 1. More likely, you'll have your choice among A.J. Green, Davante Adams, Evans or Gronkowski, an outstanding pairing with Elliott as well and a strong reason to go RB first.
Tristan's best start: Elliott/Adams.
Draft slot 5
Round 1 (pick 5): The 5-slot is a solid place to be in serpentine drafts this season, but it's better in 10- than 12-team leagues. Brown is commonly going fifth overall -- and he's a great pick when he does -- but RB12 Freeman probably still isn't making it back to pick 20, so this team might be the most likely to go RB-less through the first two rounds. If that's problematic, Barkley and Alvin Kamara can be this pick, but that could be doing one of the next three teams a huge favor.
Round 2 (pick 20): Going RB-less through Round 2 isn't catastrophic for teams in the 5-slot, because one of McCoy/McKinnon/Mixon could make it back to you in Round 3, and Jordan Howard isn't much of a reach at pick 29 beside. Assuming neither Christian McCaffrey nor Freeman makes it this far, there's no shame in taking the best available between Green/Adams, or the player I'd be most apt to pick, Gronkowski, who gives you a pair of no-doubters to start the draft.
Tristan's best start: Brown/Gronkowski.
Draft slot 6
Round 1 (pick 6): Now it gets interesting. Who do you like among the RBs: Kamara (my choice), Barkley or Kareem Hunt? Or, since there's an outside chance that Freeman could last to 19th overall, do you take WR2 DeAndre Hopkins? Many choices, without a truly "incorrect" one. I'd go with the RB, and while Barkley is the one mentioned in the earlier slots -- primarily due to his sky-high ceiling -- Kamara's experience and status on a more well-rounded team stands out.
Round 2 (pick 19): The 6-slot is in good positioning in Round 2, because of the realistic prospect that Freeman lasts, with the alternative to that being your choice between Green/Adams/Evans or Gronkowski.
Tristan's best start: Kamara/Green.
Draft slot 7
Round 1 (pick 7): Another leftovers situation, this should almost assuredly be your preference among Kamara, Hopkins, Barkley or Hunt, with mine going in that order. Don't fear the WR, as there's a good chance Freeman will still be there at pick 18, and even if he's not, it'd mean Michael Thomas or Keenan Allen is, which is an outstanding WR/WR combination to start your draft.
Round 2 (pick 18): Freeman is commonly being selected 18th-21st in most leagues, giving him good odds of a pairing with Hopkins. Failing that, a team that wishes to avoid the aforementioned WR/WR scenario could grab Gronkowski here, knowing that the most likely "best available" picks come pick 31 in Round 3 might be the wide receivers Fitzgerald, Doug Baldwin or Tyreek Hill (WRs 12-14).
Tristan's best start: Hopkins/Freeman.
Draft slot 8
Round 1 (pick 8): The leftovers are dwindling but they're still plenty warm. The 8-slot might well be the place to be in 12-team formats, because it guarantees a top-seven RB or a top-two WR, and since one of the top-12 RBs should make it back to pick 17, it means it's probably the easiest position from which to guarantee your preference of RB/RB, RB/WR or WR/RB, with the identities of each being quality players. The odds are also great that those who go RB/RB from the 8-slot will find either Baldwin or Hill (WRs 13-14) available in Round 3, so there's little sacrifice made at wide receiver. Hopkins most commonly is lasting until here, but Barkley has lingered in some drafts and a Kamara/Barkley/Hunt consolation prize is fine.
Round 2 (pick 17): Again, the options abound here, with the 8-slot nearly guaranteed a choice between at least the Melvin Gordon/McCaffrey pair at RB or the Thomas/Allen pair at WR. There's really no wrong way to go (outside of reaching lower).
Tristan's best start: Barkley/McCaffrey.
Draft slot 9
Round 1 (pick 9): Leftovers (of the pick No. 6 options) remains a wise direction from the 9-slot, which is one of the tougher slots from which to draft in a 12-team league. It grants you either the RB who remains from the Kamara/Barkley/Hunt trio or WR2 Hopkins, and in the latter case, selecting him puts you at high risk of missing out on the Julio Jones/Odell Beckham Jr. next WR tier as well as any of Dalvin Cook/Leonard Fournette/Gordon trio in Round 2, cornering this team into a WR/WR start. They'd be great WRs, but at pick 33 in Round 3, this team has only a slim chance of RB16 Howard remaining available and would be reaching to take Kenyan Drake, Alex Collins or Derrick Henry (RBs 17-19) there. Hunt should be still available and is my preferred pick, but keep your fingers crossed that he is, as he opens up stronger combinations in Rounds 2-3.
Round 2 (pick 16): If you selected Hopkins and are lucky, someone remains from Cook/Fournette/Gordon here, though there's only an outside chance of it happening. A wide receiver -- Thomas or Allen -- is the most likely best player available at 16, but taking McCaffrey instead is a perfectly reasonable selection for anyone who got Hopkins in Round 1.
Tristan's best start: Hunt/Allen.
Draft slot 10
Round 1 (pick 10): The 10-slot grants you only a slim chance at a top-7 RB -- you'd have to luck into Hunt lasting -- and forces you to pick from touchdown-averse Jones or Beckham and his recovery from a broken ankle (which, granted, has gone fine so far), a conundrum that isn't really so and in fact should not persuade you to dip into the RB pool for Cook/Fournette/Gordon. This is one slot where a WR/WR start does have a somewhat high prospect of making the most sense from a "best value" standpoint, but fear of that shouldn't steer you from those best players on the board.
Round 2 (pick 15): If you're dead set against going WR/WR -- and that's an understandable opinion considering that, at pick 34 in the third round, Howard (RB16) has only a long-shot chance at making it back -- McCaffrey isn't a reach here, generally going 15-18 in most drafts thus far. I see a good chance that one of the Cook/Fournette/Gordon trio makes it back here, which is why your pick of the WRs 3-4 was wise in Round 1.
Tristan's best start: Jones/Gordon.
Draft slot 11
Round 1 (pick 11): The 11-slot is one that sounds worse than it is, as while it grants you only a long-shot chance at a top-7 RB, it guarantees you one of Jones/Beckham (if not Hopkins) while granting you a near-certain RB from the Cook/Fournette/Gordon trio in Round 2. While going WR/WR at this spot knowing that 16 RBs will probably be gone before the 11-slot's Round 3 pick (No. 35) is a risky venture, it also means a combo including two from Hopkins/Jones/Beckham, which is extremely unlikely but would also be an outrageously good pairing.
Round 2 (pick 14): The frustrating part of picking here is that you're effectively handed leftovers at RB and WR in each of the first two rounds, not that a Fournette/Gordon consolation prize is a bad one.
Tristan's best start: Beckham/Fournette.
Draft slot 12
Round 1 (pick 12): It's the toughest spot in which to be in a 12-team draft, not because of its Rounds 1-2 picks, but rather its 36/37 Rounds 3-4 swing picks, where the best available running backs might commonly be Drake, Collins and Henry (RBs 17-19) and wide receivers might be Stefon Diggs, Allen Robinson and Golden Tate (WRs 16-18), with either tight end Ertz or Kelce (TEs 2-3) having only a small chance at lasting. Since a wide receiver has the greatest likelihood of being "best player available" come picks 36/37, a running back with either of these swing picks is imperative. I like Cook ...
Round 2 (pick 13): ... and think getting your pick between Thomas/Allen is too valuable to pass up here. It's plenty reasonable to pair Cook/Fournette if both are available and you're comfortable with a Diggs/Robinson/Tate as your WR1. Do not, however, allow Jones or Beckham to get past this spot in the draft.
Tristan's best start: Cook/Thomas.