Fantasy Football Draft Strategy Guide

Disclaimer: links used in this post apply to the 2015 fantasy football season.  If you’re reading this post in the future, take a minute to find the current versions of the pages I talk about.

     Congratulations, football fan.  You’ve successfully made it through the offseason and now as training camps begin, you’re counting down the days until the new season is officially underway.  While this time of the year is all about seeing what newly drafted rookies are made of and players fighting for NFL roster spots, it also marks the start of a different kind of football: fantasy football.  That’s right, the beloved game within a sport that’s played by millions is also getting underway, and whether you’re a league commissioner, veteran, or newcomer, you know that there is one rapidly approaching day which will play a large role in determining the fate of your season: draft day.
     While many fantasy football players will call their draft one of their favorite events of the year, it is also a very nerve-wracking one, as it seems near impossible to predict the performance of hundreds of players in the upcoming season.  However, if your goal is to end the season hoisting a trophy, earning bragging rights, or even collecting a cash prize, it’s no secret that you’re going to need a strong draft.  But how exactly do you make sure you end up with a roster that will lead you to glory?  Well, that’s where I come in.
     I’ve been around fantasy football since I was six, and owned my first team when I was eight, giving me about ten years of experience with the game.  During these years I’ve learned a lot, but perhaps no lesson has been more valuable than this: there is no surefire way to have success at fantasy football.  I’m sorry to break it to you, but some players have breakout seasons, while others become bust, become injured, or even suspended.  For instance, Adrian Peterson’s 2014 season was cut to just one game after he was suspended for child abuse.  This meant that every fantasy owner who drafted him in the first round saw their season blow up in their face.  My goal is to give you the information you need to draft intelligently so you end up with a competitive, fun team.  We all like winning, but just as important is having a team of players you like that you will enjoy cheering for.
     One last thing before we get underway, though.  This is not going to be about which players I like and hate or think could surprise people or tear an ACL in week 1 warmups.  I’ll let you do your own research and discover your diamonds in the rough.  This will be more about tips on what you should do to prepare for the draft, what positions you should take in certain rounds, what to do with rookies, and so on.  Additionally, not limiting my information to players I like at the time of writing makes the guide timeless, as the tips given should be as helpful in 2015 as in 2025 and beyond.
     The very first thing you should do to prepare for your draft is simply to know what kind of league you are playing in.  How many players are in your league?  An 8-team league is very different from a 12-team league.  For instance, if both leagues had a standard 15-round draft, the 12-team league would draft 60 more players, meaning much more emphasis is placed on players in later rounds.  Does your league start two quarterbacks?  Is there a flex position, and if so, can you start a running back there or just a wide receiver or tight end?  Is it a PPR, or point per reception league?  If so, slot receivers and pass-catching backs become much more valuable.  Do you start defensive players, or just a team defense?  Do you start two wide receivers or three?  Are there yardage bonuses for players?  All these questions could influence which kind of players you should draft, or when you should draft them.
     Once you know all the specifics about your roster and points system, the next step is actually doing some research on players.  Trust me, this does not need to be super extensive, and sometimes superfluous information can just make everything more confusing.  However, you should definitely know things like who the starting running back is on each team, or the members and order of the committee if multiple backs are expected to receive carries.  You should have an idea of the important moves in free agency, and which teams the big name players switched to.  For instance, if a star wide receiver has gone from a Super Bowl contender to a bottom-feeder, his value will not be the same as in prior years.  You should also check up on all the injured players in the league, to make sure you don’t draft someone who won’t be playing for most of the year.  If a player has no timetable for return, generally he should be avoided unless he is a true superstar, in which case he becomes an option if he starts slipping through the cracks during the draft.
     With a basic idea of the changes from last season to the current one, now you should start making a gameplan by coming up with a list of guys you want to draft.  What I like to do is make a list of guys in the four main positions (QB, RB, WR, TE) that are potential targets, and list out where you believe they will each go in the draft.  You should have an idea of how many of each position you want to draft, and then create different tiers of players.  For instance, here’s how I would make plans for drafting two quarterbacks.  I would take the top couple quarterbacks in the league and put them into my star category, and list where I think they will be drafted.  Estimates of where players are drafted can be found at a number of places, such as the Yahoo draft analysis page: http://football.fantasysports.yahoo.com/f1/draftanalysis?pos=ALL, and the ESPN live draft results page: http://games.espn.go.com/ffl/livedraftresults?position=ALL.  For instance, if I’m in a 10-team league, and my top quarterback seems to be going around pick 15, I’ll label him as a 2.  If my next quarterback is around pick 20, I’ll label him a 2/3, since he could either go in the second or third round depending on the draft.  After I do this for my best couple QBs, I’ll move on to my solid starter category.  If I don’t get one of the top quarterbacks, I’ll still be happy starting these guys.  Then I’ll make a list of backup quarterbacks.  For this group, you’re looking at guys that probably won’t end up as someone’s starter.  In a 10-team league, this means the 11th best quarterback and below.
     When I’m looking at backups, I have a couple things in mind.  First, my starting quarterback should be projected to do a good bit better than my backup, so my backup will probably only end up starting on my starter’s bye week, if my starter plays the league’s best defense, or if the backup plays the worst defense.  So for a guy who will only start a couple times at most, I can be a little more lenient on my player selection.  I’ll typically go for either my favorite team’s quarterback, a good quarterback coming off a poor season, or a rising star who could end up a top-10 QB by the end of the year.  There’s no point in settling for someone who’s an average signal caller in the league year after year.  This a definitely a position to take a chance.
     So once quarterbacks are done, I would do the same for the other positions, starting with tight end.  Why tight end next?  Well, they’re pretty similar to quarterbacks in terms of fantasy football.  Most league’s start one, a roster should never have more than two of them (excluding 2-QB leagues), and there’s typically a couple a small group of elite ones that separate themselves from the pack.  So again, take the elite tight ends (usually not more than two here), and the other solid top-10 or 12 or however big your league is, and group them and note their draft positions.  If you want a second tight end, do the same for backups, although I don’t advocate drafting two because there simply aren’t enough good ones, and on your starting tight end’s bye week you can simply drop your worst bench player to pick up a tight end to play for one week.
     Running backs and wide receivers are slightly different just because there are much more of them starting in the league and more will be drafted.  For instance, if a fantasy team has two quarterbacks and one tight end, it may also have four running backs and six wide receivers.  This means that instead of just having a couple players in a couple different tiers, many more players must be sorted.  For these positions, I prefer more of a continuous list of players I want to draft rather than specific tiers.  So I’ll end up with a list of maybe 20 running backs and 25 wide receivers again by projected draft round.  However, what I’ll do now is take my big list and divide it into a couple sections.  My first section will contain players that I want to be the best RB or WR on my team.  The next grouping will be for my RB2 and WR2s, followed by a group of RB3s and WR3s and so on.
     What I’ll end up with is a guide so when I’m drafting I make sure to grab someone in each group.  If other people in my league undervalue my players, and I have a chance to grab two RB2s, that’s great, and it means I’ll only need one player out of the RB3/RB4 group.  However, if most of my WR3s are being taken and I don’t have one yet, I know that my next pick should be one of those receivers before I fall behind.
     The end goal with these groups of quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends is to give flexibility during the draft so we don’t have to scramble and pick someone we don’t want to.  If we’re in round five, we should be able to look at our rankings and have players from a couple of different positions available that we feel comfortable selecting.  Then all we have to do is see what positions we’ve already drafted and select our next player according to our needs.  Sure, it takes some work, but nothing worth having comes easy.
     The last thing I would advise to do before drafting is going online and practicing through a mock draft.  There are many different places to mock draft online, and I’ve found that participating in mocks can be very helpful because it’s one thing to have a plan, but executing it against other real people while under a time limit is another thing entirely.  It’ll help you get used to the process and adapting to different situations.
     When entering a mock draft, try to pick one as close as possible to your league settings.  This means joining a draft with as many people as are in your league, and with as similar rosters as possible.  Additionally, if you know ahead of time what draft pick you will have in your actual draft, make sure you choose that spot in your mock.  If you aren’t sure where you will pick, it may be helpful to try mocking from a couple different positions to get a feel for what will be available in multiple spots.
     Finally, the day has come.  You’ve prepared all you can, and now you’re actually drafting.  After all the waiting, it’s your pick in the first round.  Who are you taking?  Here’s the answer: with your first pick, you should almost always choose a running back.  There are some circumstances where if you’re one of the two or three last picks of the round you could consider other options, but especially if you’re in the first half of the first round, it simply has to be a running back.
     The reasoning behind this is that running backs are the most important position in fantasy football since they can get points for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, and because there isn’t a ton of really good ones.  There is usually a group of around ten or so top running backs that can be expected to receive all of their team’s carries and then a lot of weaker starting running backs and members of committees behind them.  Simply put, you need one of those top running backs as your RB1, or else you miss out on a consistent high number of points every week.  Wide receivers can have great games and terrible games, but these backs will almost always around 20 carries and a couple receptions.  If you pick 3rd in a 10-team league, for example, and you don’t choose a running back, by the time you pick again 18th, all the top-10 running backs will be off the board and you’ll have to settle with a poor group of running backs.  Many people will even choose running backs with their first two picks, hoping to get a second solid starting running back.  Since the quality of running backs goes down quickly after the first wave of them are taken, it’s vital not to miss out.
     When choosing running backs after the first round, I would suggest taking a running back in the second round if it’s good value.  Don’t feel like you have to reach to get a running back and pass up taking one of the league’s best receivers.  However, I would definitely want two running backs in the first four rounds.  If you are unsure of who to take with your third or fourth running backs, here’s the rule I usually go by.  No matter how bad the team they play for is, take a guaranteed starter over a running back in a committee.  With running backs who will end up as either flex plays or backups, there’s no use in picking someone who you know will split carries with one or two other guys, and may not end up the starter.  Go for someone who will get guaranteed touches, even if his team is bad.  Usually bad teams have poor quarterbacks, which means they will utilize the run game more, which is good for these mediocre backs.
      Now, we all have a favorite team in the NFL, and naturally want some players from that team to be on the fantasy team.  Here’s my rule for this: don’t have three players in your starting lineup on your favorite team, or really any team for that matter.  One or two is fine, and will definitely help you root for your fantasy team, but more than that and you become too dependent on the success of your NFL team, and when they lose, so does your fantasy team.  Additionally, many players from one team can kill you come that team’s bye week.  One last thing about this: never draft your favorite team’s kicker.  To score a high amount of points, kickers have to kick a lot of field goals, and if your favorite team is kicking lots of field goals, they aren’t scoring touchdowns.  You don’t want to root against your favorite team scoring TDs, so just don’t take their kicker.
     Speaking of bye weeks, how do we plan for that annoying period midseason where every player becomes inactive for a week?  I have two rules when it comes to byes.  My first rule is that you should never have a week where you cannot start enough quarterbacks, running backs, or wide receivers.  This means that your two quarterbacks should have different bye weeks.  Additionally, if you have to start two running backs, two wide receivers, and a flex, make sure you will always have at least five of these players every week, making sure at least two are running backs and two are wide receivers.  The second rule is that at the offensive positions (QB/RB/WR/TE), you should never have more than three starters with a single bye week.  If you do, your team will require so many bench players that you will have a very low chance of winning in that week.
     To keep track of your players’ bye weeks, I recommend either keeping a tally of your bye weeks if you are live drafting, or paying close attention to your roster’s bye weeks if drafting online.  This way you should never run into trouble.
     To finish off, here are five more quick tips.
1) Stay away from rookies.  I find rookies are way too risky and are busts more often than they are steals.
2) You should have only one defense and one kicker, and you should draft them at the end.  Defenses should be chosen in the second or third-to-last round, while kickers should be taken exclusively in the last round.  This is because these positions are unpredictable and there isn’t a huge difference between a great one and a decent one in terms of points.  Why waste a pick on one early when you could get another running back or tight end?
3) When in doubt, choose a running back or wide receiver.  These positions are highly matchup-dependent, meaning it’s good to have many options on who to start in a given week.
4) You can afford to wait on tight ends.  If you don’t get the #1 or #2 tight end, don’t feel like your getting a steal by taking the highest ranked tight end that isn’t a superstar.  Don’t jump the gun in the fourth round when you can get someone just as good in the sixth.
5) Always be aware of value picks.  It doesn’t matter if there’s a receiver that you don’t particularly love.  If he’s a top-10 guy and he’s still available in the fifth round, he’s a steal!  Always be aware if any top talents are falling a little too far down the board.
     Well, hopefully after you read this you’ll have all the tools you’ll need to kill your next draft.  Good luck, and have fun!

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