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Fantasy Football Guide

by James Joyner on 17 August 2009

Are you ready for some fantasy football?  The one-time pastime for geeks has long gone mainstream, with tens of millions of men playing each year.


I’m a relatively recent convert to the game, having started in the 2002 season.  Most years, I play in two or three leagues, though, so I’ve got more than 20 virtual seasons under my belt. I’ve won my share of championships and virtually always make the playoffs.


Certainly, it’s not because of my encyclopedic knowledge of the depth charts of all 32 teams or my Rain Man-like capacity for doing statistical analysis in my head.  No, I simply prepare well for the draft and then play the percentages during the year.

Preparing for Your Draft

I don’t have any great insights into who’s going to have a great year, beyond such obvious gems as “That Adrian Peterson sure is good” or “LaDainian Tomlinson ain’t as good as he used to be.”  What I do is this:

Check the draft lists

Every year, lots of websites pay their “experts” to rank the best players on how they should perform during the next season.  They’re not great at it for a variety of factors but, unless you’ve got 12 hours a day, six months a year to study fantasy football stats, they’re probably better at it than you are.

Don’t get suckered into paying money

Don’t waste your money buying expensive draft books or “exclusive” online access.  They’re either crap or written too far in advance to be reliable.

Some folks who’ve been at it awhile and provide excellent draft cheat sheets for free:  ESPN, NFL.com, Yahoo, CBS SportsLine, and About.com.

Depending on how much time you have, you may just have to go with one of them and do your  best at factoring in what you’ve read elsewhere.  If so, you may as well pick the one associated with the site hosting your league.  I mostly play in Yahoo leagues these days but all the sites should have their lists integrated into their draft software so you can see who the “best” players on the board are.

Know your league(s)’ rules

The rankings and strategy suggestions you get here and at most of the above-linked guides presume you’re playing in a standard QB-RB-RB-WR-WR-TE-K-DST league with a fairly standard scoring system.   They’ll work pretty well if there’s also a flex player.  If you’re doing something radically different — a keeper league, an auction league, a two-quarterback league, etc. — though, they may not.  Also, if you’re in a point-per-catch league, wide receivers will suddenly become much more valuable and will impact your draft strategy immensely.  Seek out ranking and strategy guides designed around the type of game you’re playing.

Make a spreadsheet

If you’ve got a couple of hours, though, you’re much better off integrating multiple lists together in a simple spreadsheet.  Three lists ought to do it — more than four is overkill and even two will help correct for wild overreach on the part of one site’s compilers.   Note:  Don’t do this more than a couple days before your first draft unless you have to; rankings change late in camp as injuries, trades, and roster moves happen.

Keep it simple:  Player name, position, overall ranking (that is, not positional ranking), team, and bye week.  (Add the bye weeks in last — just sort by team and add them in all at once.)  It’s also worth marking the elite quarterbacks and tight ends by highlighting in yellow, bold text, red font, or some such so you’ll know where the huge drop-off in talent is for those positions.

For players expected to be drafted in later rounds, there will be wild fluctuation in the rankings.   In fact, that’s why you’re doing this exercise.  There will be players ranked 50th on one list, 100th on another, and unranked at all on two more.  What I do in these cases is to simply enter the numbers given and assign a score of 101 to those players not ranked on a given site (you can also just leave it blank and Excel will average it based on the figures available).

Enter your rankings in your league’s online software.

I’m not going to lie to you:  This is a pain in the butt.  If, however, you somehow get disconnected during your draft and have your own picks entered in rather than getting the 12 quarterbacks and 4th round placekicker the autodrafter will pick for you, you’ll thank me.

Also, the draft itself can be stressful given the ticking clock and the heckling from the other competitors.

In Yahoo leagues, at least, you can just start with their rankings and drag-and-drop.  Save frequently.  If you play in multiple leagues using the same system — and I now refuse to play anything but Yahoo leagues for this reason — you can just transfer these to all your teams.  (I’ve played in CBS and ESPN leagues and they’re fine, too. I’m just saying that maintaining leagues on multiple sites is harder than doing it all on one site.)

Keep an eye out for late-breaking injuries and other news

You don’t want to be that guy who wastes an early round pick on a player who everyone else knows is going to be on IR or has just been suspended for giving steroids to drunk dogs.

Draft Strategy

There are a lot of competing theories out there.  Traditionally, I’ve simply followed the “Best Available Player” strategy until the late rounds.  Based on recent experience and changes in the way non-fantasy football is played, though, I’m going to argue for a variation on that theme.

First, though, some general rules.

Inviolable Rule

You must not draft a kicker until your very last pick. More than any other position in fantasy football, kickers are wildly unpredictable.  One year, a guy’s lights out; the next year, he’s mediocre.  Beyond that, the difference between the best kicker in the league — and, again, you will have no idea who that might be until the end of the season — and the 12th best kicker (subrule 1b – you may only have one kicker on your team at any time) is about 2 points a game averaged over the year.

Near-Inviolable Rule

You must not take a defense or defense/special teams until your second-to-last pick.  While it’s often said that “Defense wins championships,” this is not said about fantasy football except in derision.

Every year, two or three defenses are projected to do so much better than the rest, the experts will rank them high enough to justify taking them in the 5th or 6th round.  Sometimes, that pans out; sometimes it doesn’t.   I’d rather have another running back or wide receiver.

Generally good rule

Unless there’s someone available late who’s too good to pass up, I never take a second TE, DST, or K.  Only the last is inviolable (after all, if you don’t take a kicker before your last pick, how can you take two?).  That’s not to say that backup TEs and backup DSTs aren’t useful; just that the low end guys are interchangable and you’re likely better off taking a flyer on a rookie RB or WR.

Two Running Backs

When I first started playing fantasy football a few years ago, all the experts agreed:  Take a running back with your first pick and then take another running back with your second pick.

In my very first draft, I wound up taking two wide receivers (Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss) with my picks because I drafted late and everyone else followed that rule.  It worked out well.  It would have worked out even better if I hadn’t let myself get talked into trading Moss, who had an outstanding year, for Corey Dillon, who was hurt most of the year.

But I digress.

The reason behind this conventional wisdom was that running backs were much more reliable point scorers than wide receivers or quarterbacks, especially as the weather got bad late in the season, and that receivers and quarterbacks available in the middle rounds weren’t all that much worse than the ones available early.

Over the last couple of years, though, the emergence of the running back by committee in the NFL has thrown a wrench in this tried-and-mostly-true system.  Now, few running backs get 30 carries a game.  And a guy might get 200 yards in a game and get zero touchdowns because they team employs a short-yardage specialist.

Running Back-Wide Receiver

The main competing school of drafting now says that you take the best RB or WR left on the board and then, with your next pick, take the best guy from the other position.  So, if you draft a RB in the 1st round, you grab a WR in the 2nd and vice-versa.

The rationale is two-fold.  First, you’re likely to get a top flight wideout with this approach whereas you almost surely won’t if you wait for round 3.  Second, you’re likely to wind up with two better players this way than if you took two RBs.

Wide Receiver-Wide Receiver

A true maverick approach that’s being touted by a handful of gurus is going with two WRs.  They argue that the combination of the decline of the bell cow RB and the pass happy nature of the league puts so much of a premium on wideouts that you should grab the best two you can early.  Furthermore, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there are actually a ton of very good running backs available in the later rounds.

ESPN’s Ken Daube is one advocate of this school.  He’s run the mock draft scenarios and demonstrates that WR-WR produces more points in the first five rounds than other combinations:

Fantasy Football Draft Strategy ChartAs you see, WR-WR is not only the best system according to the chart but RB-RB winds up worse than the RB/WR combos, too.

Best Available Athlete

My problem with such charts, though, is that they’re built around averages of various mock drafts and try to extrapolate to how your league will draft.  But your league will only draft once this year and the behavior of your fellow managers may depart radically from the norm.  For example, there’s always the Homer, who tries to get every single player from the Patriots.  Or the guy who takes quarterbacks early.  Or the guy who doesn’t show up and gets autodrafted.

What I’ve tended to do in the past, then, is just grab the Best Available Athlete, period, in the early rounds.  The top guy on my draft board spreadsheet is who I go with.   If it’s a RB, I take an RB.  Ditto for WR or QB or TE.  I’ve wound up with some really terrific talent with that strategy.

The downside, however, is that you may wind up with a lot of talent on the bench.   If you go RB-RB-RB-RB in the first four rounds — and I’ve done it — you’re going to have not only two solid starters at running back but have depth there to deal with injuries and bye weeks.  And you’ll leave fewer of them on the board for your opponents, who may overpay in trades to compensate.

But you’re going to be tempted to switch out for matchups during the year and often guess wrong.  And, if you’re in a league with grownups with families, like I am, you’ll find that not all that much trading goes on.  So you may just have a lot of points going into the ether while you have mediocre guys in required starting slots.

My Best Advice:  Modified Best Available

Given that, you’re better off following a modified Best Available strategy.  Take the top guy on your spreadsheet the first five picks unless you’ve already filled your starter allotment for that position.   So, if you went RB-RB or WR-WR, don’t take a third WR or RB.  Or, if you took a QB, don’t take another one.

If you’re in a standard league, then, ideally, you’ll fill your QB, RB1, RB2, WR1, and WR2 slots with your first five picks (although probably not in that order).  Be flexible, though.  Don’t reach for a quarterback if there’s nothing but third tier guys on the board.  And if one of the elite TEs is available early, go ahead and grab him.

You can almost always get quality talent at QB and TE in the middle rounds.  So, if a really good RB or WR drops to you, go ahead and grab that backup with your 5th pick.  If the value is close, though, grab a starter and worry about the backups later.

Roster Strategy

Now that you’ve drafted your team, you’ve still got a long season ahead of you.  While a good draft helps a lot, nobody ever won a championship on drafting alone.

Picking Your Starters

For the most part, I keep my studs in place every week.  If you’ve got Drew Brees or Peyton Manning and he’s had a couple of down weeks, don’t panic and put Jason Campbell in.  It might work, of course.  But it’s not the smart long-term strategy.

If you’ve got mediocre talent at a spot, though, or have a real stud as a backup, it gets trickier.  Read the various fan sites (the ones I’ve linked for draft strategy tend to work well) to get their best advice. Factor it in.  But I tend to ride the hot hand:  I don’t swap out a guy who’s been doing well because he’s projected to score 16.7 points and some other guy on my roster who hasn’t done well is projected to get 17.1.

Beware of Bye Weeks and Injuries

The most aggravating part of fantasy football, aside from people who go back and forth 15 times trying to negotiate a trade, is dealing with injuries and bye weeks.  The byes are at least predictable:  They’re right there on the schedule.  But you’ll have to make a lot of moves to deal with them especially if, like me, you tend not to keep backups for the less productive positions.

Injuries are an especial challenge because coaches lie like dogs.  By the end of the season, half your roster will be marked “Doubtful” with a note saying “Game time decision.”   Since your league likely requires you to set your roster NLT 5 minutes before kickup, “game time” is too damned late.

Here’s what I do:  If I’ve got a guy who I can’t count on and have a backup available who’s, say, 75 percent as good, I just go with the backup and grit my teeth if the “Game time decision” dude has a four touchdown day.   If my best alternative is a last-minute waiver acquisition that’s projected to get 3.7 points, I tend to just hope my guy plays.  That’s especially true if picking up the waiver guy will require me to cut someone I’d rather keep.

Churn the roster

Bill Parcell’s tenure with the Dallas Cowboys was not a happy time.  He was what his record was, which was mediocre.  Still, he knows his football.  And one of his main axioms was “churn the bottom of the roster.”   The players he considered Just a Guy (JAGs) were subject to being cut at a moment’s notice while he brought in guys off other teams’ practice squads or off the street.   Most of those guys sucked, too, but he figured he’d never find the gems other guys were missing without the process.  And, really, what’s the harm in losing a JAG?

The same holds true for fantasy football.  I’m always on the lookout for upgrades for my bench at QB, WR, and RB.  I’d rather carry three QBs than a second TE or DST.   They’re better trade bait, if nothing else.   And grabbing a QB who’s looking like he’s going to take off denies him to your opponents, too.

Similarly, if your kicker or defense or tight end is mediocre — and they probably will be if you follow my draft strategy — don’t be afraid to scour the waiver wires every week to see if there’s a guy who’s matchup is more favorable than your guy.  If so, do the old switcheroo.

Trade strength for strength

If the average age in your league is over 30, there’s probably not going to be as much trading as you’d like.  People just don’t have the time to do more than read a couple of columns and make their roster moves.  It helps, though, if you take the initiative and propose deals that make sense for both sides.

Let’s say your WR1 went on the IR and your WR2 isn’t as good as he was supposed to be. Meanwhile, your second string QB or your fourth RB is a lot better than advertised and just sitting on your bench.  Find another owner with the opposite situation and propose a win-win deal that upgrades him at RB and you at WR.

Obviously, you’d rather get Larry Fitzgerald for a kicker.  And you might find some idiot willing to do it!  But it’ll be a lot less aggravating if your league has one fewer knucklehead proposing stupid trades.

The Luck Factor

The joy and curse of fantasy football is that luck is a ridiculously big part of the game.

I’ve won leagues where I’ve limped into the playoffs with a .500 record only to get hot.  I’ve lost the first playoff game in leagues where I was undefeated in the regular season.  Your world-beating running back inexplicably gets two carries during your playoff game and the other guy’s waiver wire acquisition quarterback throws for 400 yards and 5 TDs.  Or vice-versa.

Do your preparation for the draft and due dilligence during the season. If you don’t, you won’t enjoy the experience very much and you almost certainly won’t win with any consistency.   On the other hand, don’t spend 30 hours a week trying to improve your fantasy roster at the expense of your family or social life.  It’s just a game.

Graphic courtesy Play Game Sport.

About James Joyner

James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway and the managing editor of a DC think tank. He's a former Army officer, Desert Storm vet, and college professor. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama.

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