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Who should I draft in the first round of my 2021 fantasy football draft?

Wherever you’re picking in the first round, here’s how to nail your opening selection in your fantasy football draft.

Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers looks on during Panthers Training Camp at Wofford College on July 30, 2021 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Your first pick just might be the most important one you make in your fantasy football draft. And whether you’ve drawn the first overall pick or the last in the round, having a sense of which players to take with that pick will inform the rest of your draft strategy. Here are the player to consider with your first-round pick, based on where you’ll be picking.

No. 1 pick

Sure, the NFL has changed a lot over the last two decades, but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about fantasy football: the value of the stud running back. Now, there are a handful of players at the position who are just as dangerous as receivers. Which is why Christian McCaffrey should be the first player off the board in your draft.

Injuries limited him to just three games last year, but in 2019, he had 1,387 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as well as 116 receptions, 1,005 receiving yards and four touchdowns. That made him the top scorer in regular and PPR fantasy formats. McCaffrey is just 25, so he should bounce back this season. There are some concerns about this offense with Sam Darnold at quarterback, but that could just mean even more touches for McCaffrey.

A close second for the first pick is Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. He had 1,557 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in just 14 games last season. And that’s not all. He caught 44 passes on 54 targets for 361 yards and a touchdown.

Top 5 pick

Whether McCaffrey or Cook goes first, the other one should be the second pick. Alvin Kamara is an easy top-five pick too. He had 932 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season along with 756 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 83 receptions. And that was in the Saints’ vertically challenged offense. New Orleans’ offense still has some question marks, but Kamara is the one sure thing here.

Titans running back Derrick Henry broke the 2,000-yard mark on the ground last season, putting him in some elite company. He’s not much help in PPR formats—he had just 19 catches last season—but that kind of rushing production is hard to ignore. One note of caution with Henry. He had 378 carries last season, for a total of 397 touches. That kind of workload can take a toll on a player, and with the addition of Julio Jones, the Titans should be passing more this season too. Still, he’s too good to pass up.

Ezekiel Elliott should be a top-five pick too. I might even take him before Henry. He’s a workhorse running back in an offense that should be one of the league’s more explosive units this season. He’s also got Dak Prescott back which helps. Even last year, Elliott still managed to catch 52 passes for 338 receiving yards and two touchdowns, along with a respectable 979 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground.

Middle of the first round

There are still going to be some excellent do-it-all running backs on the board in the middle of the first round. And while it might be tempting to overlook those guys for the top players at other positions, it’s a pretty steep drop-off at the running back position. If you miss out on one of these players, you’re going to be stuck with rotational and committee running backs.

Giants running back Saquon Barkley might have slipped off the radar for some after he missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL. But let’s not forget that the year before, he ran for 1,003 yards and six touchdowns and caught 52 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games. In his 2018 rookie season, Barkley caught 91 passes for 721 yards and six touchdowns to go with 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. He could be a top-5 fantasy performer by season’s end. Aaron Jones of the Packers is another stud in all formats.

In PPR formats, two players who should definitely go somewhere in the middle of the first round are Jonathan Taylor of the Colts and Austin Ekeler of the Chargers. Taylor should see an increased workload this season. The Chargers entered camp talking up Ekeler’s potential in the passing game.

Nick Chubb of the Browns is worthy of a selection here in traditional formats, but has less value in PPR. Antonio Gibson from Washington is another good pick in this range, in either format.

End of the first round

This is where you can start to think about players at other positions. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce will be a popular pick in this range. His 105 catches were the fifth most in the NFL last season, but his 1,416 receiving yards were the second most. He also had 11 receiving touchdowns, putting him in a three-way tie for fifth most.

Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs would be great picks here too. There’s no reason to think that both players won’t again be among the top three receivers, and while Adams may not catch another 18 touchdown passes this season, he could very well come close.

Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Ridley, and D.K. Metcalf also deserve some consideration.