What separates a player from being a mid-round pick to becoming a coveted first-round selection in fantasy football drafts? As we prepare for the upcoming season, I delve into the factors that have historically propelled players into the first round and examine some players that might shape the first round of 2024 drafts. By analyzing the performance of previous first-round picks, their experience levels, and the predictive power of dynasty ADP, we gain valuable insights into identifying potential breakout stars for the upcoming year.
In this article, I take a closer look at what it takes to become a first-round fantasy football player based on a range of factors such as previous season’s fantasy performance, years since drafted, and dynasty ADP rankings. By understanding the patterns and outliers from the past, we can make more informed predictions about the players who have the potential to ascend to first-round status in the 2024 drafts. The only parameter I used for selecting players is that they aren’t currently being drafted in the first two rounds of drafts by our Half PPR ADP.
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4 Players Who Could Become First-Round Picks in 2024
What makes a first-round player?
Before getting into which specific players I think could jump into the first round next year, I did some research to understand the profile of players drafted in the first round. First, starting off with how well players performed in fantasy football in the previous season, a clear indicator of where they might be drafted:
This will obviously exclude the few rookies who made their way into the first round, but it shouldn’t be a shock to see that players needed to perform in fantasy to reach the coveted first round of drafts. A couple of major outliers were Saquon Barkley (2021) and David Johnson (2018), who both suffered season-ending injuries early in the season.
Stefon Diggs (2022) is also the only wide receiver to have finished outside the top 12 at his position and still be a first-round pick the following year. Since wide receiver production is more stable year-over-year, it makes sense that being productive in one year leads to a higher ADP in the following draft season.
Next, I took a look at the experience of first-round draft picks:
It is clear that redraft players skew towards drafting players earlier in their careers. Travis Kelce (2023 and 2021) makes up two of the oldest first-round picks in recent memory and is the only tight end to have reached the first round in this time span.
Similar to what I mentioned above, with wide receiver production being more stable, we also see that wide receivers are typically the only position to have a stable ADP as they progress in their career.
Another data point that we can leverage is dynasty ADP. Dynasty ADP offers a more forward-looking view of player value, so I compared a player’s dynasty ADP in one year to his redraft ADP in the following year:
Turns out, with a correlation coefficient of 0.60, dynasty drafters are pretty adept at predicting which players will be drafted highly in redraft leagues the following year. This partly goes hand-in-hand with the previous observation that first-round redraft selections tend to skew younger as dynasty leagues prefer youth more than anyone.
The final trend I explored builds off of the dynasty ADP and looks at where players were drafted in the year before they were first-round picks. Of the 60 players in this sample, 55 percent were first-round picks the year before, and 86 percent were drafted in the first two rounds!
The biggest outlier here was James Conner, who benefitted greatly from Le’Veon Bell sitting out the 2018 season and went on to become the Steelers’ starting running back for the next three years. The other outlier was Nick Chubb in 2019, who went from a ninth-round pick in 2018, splitting work as a rookie with Carlos Hyde, to leading Cleveland’s backfield the year that Kareem Hunt served an eight-game suspension. So, in both cases, it was an opportunity-based explanation for their bump in ADP.
Now that we have a solid understanding of what it takes to be drafted in the first round let’s get into which players I believe will make the leap in 2024.
- Half PPR ADP: 3rd round
- Years Since Drafted (in 2024): 2 years
- Dynasty ADP Rank: 12th overall
There are few players that I’m currently more bullish on than Chris Olave. The former Ohio State wide receiver posted incredible stats as a rookie, including 2.42 yards per route run (per PFF) on a 14.9-yard average depth of target. He also earned a 26.7 percent target share last year, which was second among rookie wide receivers and 18th overall. Some will say he did that with minimal competition, but should we really expect that to change?
There’s a very real possibility that Michael Thomas is still on the team in 2024, as cutting him would come with a dead cap hit of at least $8.9 million. But Thomas is already showing massive signs of decline (especially following his recent injuries) and will be entering his age-31 season at that point. With no other real receiving threat at receiver, Olave could push for a 30 percent target share by his third season if he hasn’t already achieved that this year.
We often see a jump in production for wide receivers from year one to year two. Olave, who only found the end zone four times in 2023, is poised to get closer to his full potential in 2023 and enter the first round of drafts in 2024.
- Half PPR ADP: 3rd round
- Years Since Drafted (in 2024): 1 year
- Dynasty ADP Rank: 15th overall
This one is pretty simple: we have a highly-drafted running back on a team with little premier talent at the position outside of him. In April, the Detroit Lions made waves when they selected Jahmyr Gibbs with the 12th overall pick. It was partly a surprise because they also signed David Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million deal just over a month prior.
But Montgomery is among the least efficient backs in the game – in 2022, he ranked 41st out of 48 running backs in rushing yards over expected per carry at -0.26 (per NextGenStats). While Montgomery will likely be on the roster in 2024 (Detroit would only save $500k by cutting him), I don’t think he’ll offer the team more than slight breaks for Gibbs.
Back to Gibbs, the player in question. Gibbs became just the second running back drafted in the top 12 picks since Saquon Barkley was the number two overall pick in 2018. In his final season at Alabama, Gibbs averaged 3.39 yards after contact per rush and 1.82 yards per route run (per PFF), demonstrating his dual-threat ability. Gibbs, should he perform to expectation, is ripe for being a first-round fantasy football draft pick in 2024, and a two-round jump is not out of the question.
- Half PPR ADP: 4th round
- Years Since Drafted (in 2024): 6 years
- Dynasty ADP Rank: 38th overall
Training camp got off to a hot start a couple of weeks ago, with Calvin Ridley seemingly running at light speed compared to his teammates. The last time we saw Ridley in 2021, he missed most of the season by taking a mental health break following a season in which he posted 1,300 receiving yards and 2.32 yards per route run on a broken foot. Ridley, now over two years removed from that foot injury, looks as healthy as ever and ready to reemerge as an elite receiving talent.
Ridley will have plenty of competition when it comes to targets, too. Jacksonville returns Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram – their top three targeted players in 2022 – while having each of them under contract through at least 2024. Fortunately, Jacksonville was one of the most concentrated passing attacks last year, so if he slots in as one of the primary targets and they continue to have a condensed target tree, he should be able to thrive as a fantasy asset.
It’ll be an uphill battle for Ridley to reach the first round of 2024 drafts as he hasn’t played a meaningful down of NFL football since Week 7 of the 2021 season. But, should he return to form and be paired with one of the best young quarterbacks in, Trevor Lawrence, the wheels are up for what Ridley can achieve in Jacksonville.
- Half PPR ADP: 7th round
- Years Since Drafted (in 2024): 3 years
- Dynasty ADP Rank: 53rd overall
This is the one with the longest shot to make it by far, and Javonte Williams needs a lot to go his way to reach the first round next year. The obvious hurdle for Williams is his health. If Williams is able to make it through this season without suffering any major setbacks, Williams will have been nearly two full years removed from his ACL tear at the start of 2024, which is often a positive indicator for players.
The second thing needing to go right would be a change in the backfield’s situation. This offseason, Denver signed Samaje Perine to a two-year, $7.5 million free-agent deal. They can cut him in 2024 and save $3 million in cap space if they choose. Even if they did keep Perine, Denver’s only other rostered backs are Tony Jones Jr., Tyler Badie, and Jaleel McLaughlin. With only three draft picks in the first four rounds of the 2024 NFL draft, Denver should be in no position to use a luxury pick on a running back. The most likely outcome I see is Williams’ situation, and potential role, getting better this offseason.
Finally, I have already written about how I think Denver is one of the more favorable backfield situations for running backs, and that is in large part due to the presence of Sean Payton, who will be around for a while. If not for his mid-season ACL tear, I surmise that Williams would likely already be getting drafted in the first or second round of drafts this year. It’s a long shot but not out of the question.