Summer is heating up, but soon the leaves will be turning those familiar yellow, orange and red hues and you will hear that crisp fall air bristle between the branches and whispering to you the sweet nothings of football season. And you know what that means; it will be time to get ready for your annual fantasy football draft!
These strategies apply for a 12-team standard or PPR redraft league. If your league has more or fewer teams, there is still something to be learned here as long as you’re participating in redraft. Next, I’m going to assume the roster composition is made up of one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one kicker, one defense and about five or six bench spots.
The one fundamental rule to follow in this game is to wait for a quarterback. Since you only need one starter at the position and there are about 12 to 14 satisfactory QBs available this year; you do not gain enough of a statistical advantage by drafting one early as opposed to simply waiting it out. I’ll cover this more when I talk about specific quarterback strategies.
Another very important rule to follow is to draft a kicker in the last round. Resist any and all urges to draft New England’s Stephen Gostkowski in the third-to-last round. The difference between the game’s best kicker (K1) and worst starting kicker (K12) will likely be only a fantasy point or two per game at the end of the season. It is more advantageous to take a shot on a late-round sleeper or handcuff to protect your lineup if you prefer that strategy.
Also, it would be best to draft a defense in the second-to-last round. Maybe in the third-to-last round if one of the elite defenses is available. The larger lesson is you don’t want to reach. Defensive scoring is notoriously volatile from year-to-year. For example, San Francisco is typically drafted as a Top 3 defense this year; however, they overhauled their defensive secondary. Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman could miss most of the regular season due to injury. Pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith had some off-the-field problems which may lead to a suspension. Point being, they aren’t a lock despite their high draft value and that pick would be better spent on a RB or WR.
With those cornerstone rules in place, let’s begin to get more specific.
Over your first ten picks, you should attempt to select 4-5 RBs, 4-5 WRs and either 1 TE or 1 QB. What you’re looking to do here is really establish an excellent foundation of backs and receivers. This not only gives you options to optimize your lineup every week to start the player with the best matchups, it gives you some wiggle room to really hand-pick your late-round sleepers or under the radar rookie without fear of jeopardizing your roster.
It’s also fine to have four RBs, four WRs, one QB and one TE after ten picks, but this may leave you feeling compelled to draft a backup QB and TE. This might sound crazy to some, but you don’t really need a backup QB and TE all season long. This is especially true if you opted to disregard my earlier strategy about waiting for a QB. For example, if you draft Peyton Manning, which will undoubtedly require a very early selection, you should be set at that position for the entire season. When his bye week comes, you can add a second QB and cut that backup after the week is over. Roster spots should be considered opportunities to score points and an unnecessary backup produces no points.
Let’s now focus on positional-based strategies.
Quarterbacks: The only reason to not wait for a QB is if everyone is caught waiting for one. If Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers is available late in the third round, go ahead and pull the trigger. If Drew Brees is available in the fourth, it’s not unreasonable to draft him. Generally speaking though, the reason why you wait is because of value-based drafting. For example, Matthew Stafford scored about 23 fantasy points per game (FPPG) while Colin Kaepernick, the No. 12 QB, averaged 20 FPPG. Stafford failed to score enough points to really make his draft position valuable. You could’ve waited many rounds to draft a quarterback while only sacrificing a handful of points, especially with guys like Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and even Ryan Tannehill vastly outproducing their draft position.
Running backs: Again, as mentioned, you want 4-5 RBs and 4-5 WRs after 10 rounds. The top RB tier is Jamaal Charles. He is in a category unto himself. Next up are LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte. Both backs are every-down options that are sure to see a lot of yardage and accumulate a ton of receptions. Rounding out the first round of your fantasy draft are Eddie Lacy and Adrian Peterson. You should feel great about having any these guys as your No. 1 back.
In the following tiers, you should be constantly trying to find the sweet spot between value and potential. There are the backs who proven to be injury-prone while possessing huge upside like DeMarco Murray, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Arian Foster. There is also a huge crop of second-year backs that are looking to build on successful rookie seasons such as Le’Veon Bell, Montell Ball, Giovani Bernard, Andre Ellington and Zac Stacy. It is possible to secure three RBs from this group if you go RB-RB-RB to start a draft.
Wide receivers: There is a strong first- and second-tier of receivers and the risk really starts to creep in beyond these groups. At the top of the list are Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and Julio Jones. You could even be so lucky as to draft two of these WRs if they fall toward the second-half of the first round and you start your draft WR-WR. In Tier 2, you have Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown, Randall Cobb, Keenan Allen and Pierre Garcon. This group spans the middle of the second round until the end of the third.
Instead of stacking RBs one after the other, you may find more comfort in alternating between the two positions. A hypothetical team from the No. 8 pick might be Forte, Cobb, Spiller, Michael Floyd and Ryan Mathews. This spreads out the players’ value more evenly across your team. A team constructed this way might better handle the loss of a key player due to injury. For example, if you waited until Round 3 to draft a RB (let’s say Ellington) and he ends up out for the year; this puts you at distinct disadvantage since your best starting RB may have been selected in the fourth round.
There are two trains of thought diverging from these recent pass-loving seasons. There is the old school train of thought that would have recommended drafting two RBs in the first two rounds. This has been a very common strategy and will continue to be for a long time. The antithesis of that approach would be to select three WRs and a RB in the first four rounds. This is obviously the road less travelled and a bit of a contrarian point of view.
For example, if you had the No. 10 pick, you could draft J. Jones then B. Marshall in second round. In Rounds 3 and 4, you would take A. Ellington and A. Johnson. There are pros and cons to such a strategy. For example, one pro would be the fact that you’ve locked up three elite starting receivers and any other quality WR you draft could be traded away or provide a ton of flexibility when making lineup decisions. The obvious downside is you really have to nail your RB picks. In Round 5, your second RB would be someone like Toby Gerhart or Chris Johnson. Both guys are capable of productive seasons, although it just depends what your priorities are. Would you rather draft a RB2 in Round 5 (Gerhart) or a WR3 like Mike Wallace or Jeremy Maclin?
Tight ends: Like the quarterback position, there is a lot to gain by waiting for the right value. If you are unable to secure Jimmy Graham, reaching for one of the other TEs would be a mistake. There are a ton of low-end TE1 options like Zach Ertz, Ladarius Green and Charles Clay who all have excellent potential to exceed their draft value. The position is full of sleepers and value plays. Dennis Pitta is looking to rebound after injuries derailed his 2013 season. Martellus Bennett played very well last year with the Bears. Tyler Eifert is waiting in the wings in Cincinnati. Dwayne Allen is finally healthy for the Colts. You might even be able to stream TEs in some 8- or 10-team leagues. The longer you can wait, the better.
In standard scoring leagues last season, the No. 4 TE was Jordan Cameron and the No. 12 TE was Delanie Walker. Cameron scored 8.9 FPPG while Walker averaged 6.2 FPPG. When you can wait about 10 rounds and only lose less than 3 FPPG, there’s just no point in reaching for a slightly above-average TE.
Team defenses: Wait until the second-to-last round and definitely don’t bother to take a backup. Take the best one available and hope for the best.
Kickers: Always wait until the last round. If someone doesn’t follow this rule, give him or her a hard time.
10 Tips and Tricks
1. Handcuffs are a little overrated, but definitely consider one to protect your best RB.
2. Keep a close eye on how teams are drafting. For example, if you have the No. 11 pick in a 12-team league and the 12th pick already has a QB, take your QB on the back-end of the turn.
3. No backup kickers. No backup defenses. If possible, avoid backup QBs and TEs as well.
4. Watch college football too! The sooner you see players with your own eyes the better.
5. Late-round fliers (ADP after the 120th pick) at the important positions. QB: Rivers, Roethlisberger and Josh McCown. RB: Darren McFadden, Khiry Robinson, Charles Sims and Lance Dunbar. WR: Kenny Stills, Aaron Dobson, Markus Wheaton and Brian Hartline. TE: Eifert, Allen, Jace Amaro and Jared Cook.
6. Always try to get your league-mates talking about what they think of certain players. If someone during the draft compliments you on a nice pick, make a mental note of that because you might be able to trade that player to them later on.
7. Send reasonable trade offers. Don’t look to take advantage of other teams with bad trade offers. That would be a quick way to alienate a potential trading partner.
8. There is no offseason. Follow all the news and read as many fantasy football opinions as you can. Most experts aren’t always right, but if you absorb more information from more sources, you can better discern the talent and situation for different players.
9. Rookies are risky. Don’t try to look like a genius by making lots of tough calls on unproven players.
10. Have fun. It’s only a game!