With fantasy football draft season in full swing, this is the ideal time to discuss some general draft strategy. This isn’t an X’s and O’s type article, or one that highlights specific players you should or shouldn’t draft. There are years when it’s best to jump on top-tier running backs, and there are years to go “Zero RB.” There are pros and cons to these specific strategies and virtually every strategy in between. The problem is that you won’t know until it’s all said and done how you “should have” played it. Just like in almost every other realm, history dictates after the fact how we view and dissect these strategies. And just as is the case in other aspects of life and history, it’s not as simple as people retroactively make it seem. This year, David Johnson and Le’veon Bell are going first and second in almost every single draft. This is almost universally accepted because they were the two best fantasy players last year. If they repeat last season’s performances or even improve, we will all confirm that it was the correct route. If either or both of them underperform or miss significant time with injury this season, then the narrative will be that running backs shouldn’t go so early. There have been countless studies on the bust rate of fantasy players at different positions in fantasy football. The truth is that all football players are at risk of injuries, and they’re also all at risk of underperforming. Cam Newton (quarterback), Todd Gurley (running back), and DeAndre Hopkins (wide receiver) all severely underperformed last season despite remaining relatively healthy. There’s no foolproof or failsafe plan on how to draft. All we can do is give ourselves a greater chance to make the best decisions during each point in the draft. Let’s go over some of the “do’s and don’ts” to consider before, during, and after your draft.
SECTION ONE – BEFORE THE DRAFT
Rule #1: Know. The. Rules.
This sounds simple and obvious. Yet you’d be surprised how many people draft without having an understanding of their league’s scoring system, format, roster configuration, free agent acquisition method, and other basic information. I’ve had countless people ask me to join their leagues without even knowing themselves which site they were playing on! Sorry, but that’s not how I operate. There is a lot of information I need to have in advance of the draft. Is it an auction or a draft? Is it a best ball or salary-cap league? Do you acquire free agents via waiver claims or Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB)? Is a passing touchdown worth three points, four points, or six points? Is it a Point Per Reception (PPR) and/or an Individual Defensive Player (IDP) league? How many players are in your starting lineup and on your bench each week? Can you use a quarterback in your Flex spot? Do you get an Injured Reserve (IR) spot? Are trades allowed? These are some of the many questions you should be able to answer before you participate in your draft. Otherwise, you might as well just throw your money away. This is the part where I mention that Fantrax has insanely customizable settings to fit all of your league’s needs.
Rule #2: Punch Your WeightYou should generally try to play against those who have a similar interest level as you do. You don’t need to sign an iron-clad contract or fill out a psychological profile prior to competing in a fantasy league. But if you’re playing amongst friends and family members, you probably have a general sense of how seriously people will be taking this endeavor. Speaking as someone who does take fantasy very seriously, I really don’t like playing against people who don’t. If you’re a relative newcomer to the hobby, I’d caution against competing against people who have a significantly higher skill level or budget than you do until you get your feet wet and gain some experience. Playing fantasy should be fun and engaging. If you are a beginner competing against sharks, you’re more likely to lose and become disenfranchised. Start small and work your way up. At the same time, it’s always a good idea to test yourself if you have the opportunity and can afford to do so. I still have a screenshot somewhere from several years ago when I went up against a very well-known analyst for the first time in an early DFS league. It was a pretty good barometer for me to judge myself against and gave me some confidence in my game.
Rule #3: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Once you have a clear understanding of your league’s rules, you need to then go out and draft the best team possible. Before going into a draft, you should have a general idea on how to go about accomplishing this. At the very least, you should have some form of basic cheat sheet that shows players in a particular order. Personally, I like to plug in projections from several sources using my league’s scoring system in order to come up with a more customized ranking for each draft. I do not create my own projections per se. However, you shouldn’t be a slave to anyone else’s projections, either. I will tweak my rankings based on my own personal opinion on a player. Because circumstances change constantly, even online projections can become outdated pretty quickly. When Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was announced, many fantasy owners and websites alike tried to quantify the fantasy impact. We are fortunate to live in such a digital and technological age where projection software spits out revisions pretty quickly, but you still want to do your due diligence to ensure that your rankings and projections reflect the most accurate and up-to-date information.
Rule #4: Don’t Hold Grudges
Most fantasy players are sports fans first and foremost. Most of us have real life teams that we love and real life teams we cannot stand. However, this is fantasy, not real life. And in fantasy, you need to be able to separate the two. If you go into the draft with the mindset that you are going to either gravitate toward or avoid a particular player or set of players because they play for a certain team, you’re just cutting off your nose to spite your face. You have to be able to place your personal rooting interests aside. Though it’s not exactly the same category, the concept of not letting personal feelings interfere with your fantasy roster also applies to players who may be “bad guys” or have criminal records. Refusal to draft Ezekiel Elliott, Joe Mixon, or anyone else who may be of that ilk is just going to decrease your chances of winning. The sad truth is that you don’t score fantasy points for morality. Perhaps putting your winnings toward a worthy cause can ease the moral dilemma we struggle with when rostering such nefarious characters. You also should never dismiss a player who may have underperformed or who was injured in the past. I know plenty of fantasy players who will swear off of a particular real-life player based on something that occurred in a previous season. This is pure folly. The same player can be a bust for you one season and a savior the next. Athletes are not robots. They have bad days, bad games, and bad seasons just as we do.
SECTION TWO – DURING THE DRAFT
Rule #5: The Truth About ADP and Rankings
When it comes to ADP, there are a couple of things to note. First, you must not forget the “A” in ADP. It stands for “average.” It is merely an average of where that player is being drafted. A player with an ADP of 12 might get taken first overall in one draft and twentieth in another. Do not let ADP dictate where you draft a player and don’t be afraid to reach as long as your logic is sound. In 2011, LeSean McCoy had an ADP of 8, sixth among running backs. I took him with the number two pick in my draft. I still remember that because he balled out that year en route to a league-leading 20 touchdowns. For what it’s worth, I also took Tom Brady fifth overall in 2008, the year he scored three total fantasy points. (What can I say? They don’t always work out.) Keep in mind that each site has its own ADP and thus its own default rankings. Here on Fantrax, Mike Gillislee’s ADP is 93. On Fantasyfootballcalculator.com, it’s 58. That’s a significant difference, and these kinds of discrepancies exist with a large number of players’ ADP. Any differences in scoring systems or roster configuration can further widen the gap between a player’s ADP and his actual expected value. This is yet another reason why you should have your own rankings handy. Even end-of-year rankings don’t always tell the whole story. Last week I noted that Coby Fleener finished last season as the #13 overall tight end. That’s 100 percent true. However, when you play fantasy, you don’t just count up the most points at the end of the season. You play each week. And I failed to mention that Fleener scored only six fantasy points in just four games last season. So despite a pretty decent overall final ranking, he was considered a liability last season. Now I still maintain that Fleener is undervalued going into 2017, which is why I emphasized his season totals rather than his weekly performance to justify my stance. When drafting, you need to decide if you want the boom-or-bust type player, or one with a higher floor. Your personal tolerance or aversion to risk might be the deciding factor when choosing between players. This dynamic can also change at any point in the draft with any player at any position. In the #DWG3 league, I took Christian McCaffrey at 2.12 because I feel that he has the potential to be an elite option at running back given that league’s unique scoring system. However, he also can very easily wind up outside of the top-20. With the very next pick, I took Drew Brees, primarily because of his consistency. I didn’t want to take two risky picks that early in the draft.
Rule #6: Adjust Constantly
As Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s great to have your cheat sheets and your projections at the ready, but you have to be ready to adjust your strategy based on how the draft unfolds before you. No two drafts are exactly alike. You should have an idea of each player’s relative value. But you cannot afford to fixate on a particular player or even a particular position at any specific point in the draft. You have to be prepared to deviate from your plan at a moment’s notice. You need to have contingencies in place to account for a variety of scenarios which are likely to occur. Simply put, things happen. Drafts generally have a minimum of 150 picks. Players you are targeting will get taken the pick before it’s your turn. Positional runs take place. Someone may draft a kicker in the ninth round, or three straight tight ends. Maintaining mental and emotional flexibility is the most important asset you can possess during a draft’s many ebbs and flows. This is especially the case in a normal draft where you have anywhere from one to two minutes in between picks. Instead of saying, “I’m banking on taking Jordan Howard with my next pick,” you have to know what you will do in the event Howard is not available. If you are ill-prepared, you are more likely to panic and make a bad pick, further exacerbating the situation. This is where your rankings and projections will come in handy. You will know exactly where to go with your next pick and you will avoid making a mistake.
Rule #7: Embrace the Space
My fiancée Erica is one of the best people you’d ever have the pleasure of meeting. She’s pure of heart, she completely genuine and honest, and her moral fiber is second to none. However, she does have a flaw. And no, I’m not referring to her choice in spouse. I noticed this flaw (let’s just call it a quirk or idiosyncrasy so I have a place to sleep tonight) shortly after she and I moved in together. Neither of us had a ton of household items when we moved in together. We certainly did not have a lot of décor, whatever that is. I offered to put up my wall-hanging of The Undertaker, which my Aunt Laurie gave me in 1992. After all, it’s like three feet by three feet. Suffice to say, Erica shot that one down rather quickly. Instead, she bought picture frames for the walls. She bought doormats. She bought a rug to put on top of the carpet. She bought rocking chairs and footstools. She bought a coffee cart and little signs to hang throughout the apartment. She bought a sign for the bar before we actually had a bar. While many of these items are still currently displayed proudly in our home, there were times she would find an item that she truly fell in love with, only to realize that she had already purchased a similar item that she felt less passionate about. When I asked why she didn’t just simply wait to buy these types of items until she found ones she truly loved, she said that any space that was open and empty made her uneasy. She had to fill the space or else it didn’t feel like home.
You may be asking how this tale relates to fantasy. When you are drafting your roster, you are trying to put pieces of a puzzle together without knowing what the final product will look like. It can be a very tricky and intimidating exercise. It can make you feel uneasy and frustrated. But you have to find a way to accept and even embrace the empty space. You do not need to draft players in a particular order, and you certainly do not need to draft your “starters” before you draft your “bench.” Especially because the truth of the matter is that during the draft (or even immediately afterward) you can’t say with any sort of clarity which players will fill which roles in any given week. I have been a part of so many drafts where someone will draft their kicker and defense before they focus on bench depth because they feel this bizarre need to fill up their theoretical starting lineup. This strategy may provide someone with a sort of temporary comfort, but in the long run, it will usually prove detrimental to one’s fantasy success.
Rule # 8: Wait on or Stream Defense and Kickers
There’s a reason I didn’t touch on kickers or defenses in my positional overvalued/undervalued series. The reason is that nobody cares. Seriously. As awesome as the #DWG3 league is, my favorite part is that there are no kickers or defenses to worry about. (Thanks, Andy!) Anyway, if you do have to use kickers or defenses, don’t drive yourself nuts. I’m all for preparation, but when it comes to kickers and defenses, it often reaches the point of diminishing returns. In general, you want to target high-scoring teams when selecting a kicker. But even that is hardly scientific. A team can score nine points on three field goals, giving the kicker nine points. A team can also score 56 points on eight touchdowns, giving the kicker eight points. There’s really no way to know. For as much of fantasy that is rooted in educated guesswork, kickers take that to a whole new level. And weather? Don’t get me started. Last season I got so paranoid that Mason Crosby would be playing in record-cold temperatures that I used my last remaining transaction on a kicker. I then watched Crosby score a season-high 12 points. Have I mentioned I can’t stand kickers? As far as actual strategy goes, I prefer to keep only one kicker and one defense rostered at all times. I generally keep the same kicker and then reevaluate when that kicker has a bye week. I am more apt to stream defenses on a weekly basis. Mike Woellert over at 4for4.com does excellent work, specifically when it comes to defenses in fantasy football. Here are two articles that I highly recommend:
Needless to say, I’m not a fan of drafting defenses early. What happens when you take Seattle’s or Kansas City’s defense in the tenth round of this year’s draft only to realize they play Green Bay and New England, respectively, in Week 1? You’re not dropping them, so you’re taking a hit right off the bat. You could have drafted a temporary starting running back Darren McFadden or a player with high upside and picked up the Buffalo Bills’ defense with your next-to-last pick, making your team stronger at two positions in Week 1.
SECTION THREE: POST-DRAFT
Rule # 9: “Point the Laser Here.”
I stole this line from Jim Fassel, former New York Giants’ head coach. He was speaking at a press conference after a game and used this line to emphasize that he was taking full responsibility for what had just happened and also for what was about to happen. Remember that at the end of the day, this is YOUR team in YOUR league. You are the one clicking the “save” or “submit” button. Nobody knows more about your circumstances than you do. More importantly, nobody else is paying for your team. You are. It’s always nice to bounce ideas off of people and try to gauge opinions on matchups, strategy and game theory from various members of the fantasy community. But at the end of the day, this is your deal. Own it. Make a decision and stand by it. If you are trying to make a last-minute decision between two players, and you send out a tweet to your favorite analyst and he or she responds, you thank them for taking the time to try to help you. You don’t blast them for “leading you astray” after it fails to pan out. Nobody is sabotaging you or your fantasy team. Not the players, not the fantasy analysts, and not the random hacks like me. To steal another line from the great Christopher Walken in Wedding Crashers, “We have no way of knowing what lays ahead for us in the future. All we can do is use the information at hand to make the best decision possible.” That’s what every single fantasy analyst is doing – taking the information available and forming an opinion. After that, it’s out of their hands.
Rule #10: Try. And Have Fun. But Definitely Try.
When it comes to leagues that I partake in, I don’t expect everyone to be as obsessive as I am. But I do expect the other owners in any league I play in to respect all of us enough to try. I understand things come up and we all have responsibilities. But at least make an effort. Set your lineups. Make waiver claims or FAAB bids. When a fantasy owner decides to just give up halfway through the season or fails to set his or her lineup each week, it oftentimes takes the air out of the balloon, so to speak. I was in a league several years ago where I got off to a rough start but really began to pick up steam halfway through the season. I won four of five games heading into the league’s regular season finale. I needed to win and have the team directly ahead of me lose in order for me to grab the final playoff spot. However, that team was playing against a team that had become inactive weeks earlier. Any drama that could have existed going into that final week was gone.
At its very foundation, playing fantasy football should above all else be a fun and enjoyable experience. If you’re playing in a local league against friends and family, it’s an excellent way to maintain communication with loved ones with whom you may not get to see on a consistent basis. And the bragging rights should make participating in such a league fun and exciting. If you’re playing against more advanced players or in bigger money leagues, the competitive juices should fuel you to do your very best. Trust me when I tell you that there are few feelings as enjoyable as taking down a league with some incredibly stiff competition, especially when there’s a large financial benefit involved. It’s pretty cool to say that fantasy essentially paid for my wedding. It doesn’t always get me off the hook with Erica, but it’s still pretty cool to say.