Nearly everyone who is participating in fantasy football leagues has either just had their draft or will have it this weekend or next, so I thought I’d talk a bit about draft strategy and illustrate it with my own team.
As I posted last weekend, I am in a 14-team PPR league and had the #1 overall pick in a snake draft.
Most drafts are “snake” drafts to even out the choosing. If you draft #1 overall, you’re not drafting again until the end of round two, then have the very next pick at the top of round 3, so that first pick better be a fantasy stud.
Rule #1 – Take a running back in the first round at all costs
The reasoning behind this is simple: supply and demand.
True “bell-cow” backs are a vanishing breed as the NFL goes more to the passing game and RBs are no longer the power position they once were…with a few exceptions.
I went the safe, prudent route and took Adrian Peterson with my top pick. If you do NOT draft an RB in round one, you’re going to be sorry fairly quickly because there are perhaps 10-12 backs that will produce great fantasy numbers. Adjust for PPR leagues, for example, and a guy like Reggie Bush becomes a late first-round or early second-round pick, depending on the size of your league.
Some “good bets” for normal OR PPR leagues at RB are guys like Jamaal Charles, Shady McCoy, Marshawn Lynch (no Percy Harvin on the field for Seattle after all), Matt Forte (especially in PPR leagues), Ray Rice, and CJ Spiller. Those are the sorts of guys you’re after in your first two rounds in general.
However, as I drafted at the end of the second round in a 14-team league, all the top-tier RBs were gone when I drafted next.
Rule #2 – Where you draft ‘em is as important as whom you draft
The reasoning behind this is a little less clear. When you draft a favorite player too early, you shoot yourself in the foot. Since you’re going to lose out during the middle-to-late rounds on several guys you target anyway, as they’ll be invariably drafted a few picks before you get to pick again, VALUE becomes the mantra as the draft passes through the first couple of rounds.
Since the top-tier RBs were gone, it also meant that a lot of teams will be looking for other positions and the RB position, after initial depletion, won’t be flying off the board as furiously as they will those first two rounds.
However, again with my last 2nd/first 3rd picks, I took a good, long look at the draft board and took a pair of wideouts that had slipped a bit due to the run on RBs: Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall.
Since both are established stars now and both are top-5 projected WRs in PPR leagues, I drafted the most dangerous WR duo in the league. Both had double-digit TDs in 2012 and Bryant had 93 receptions, Marshall 112. Marshall’s chemistry with his QB, Jay Cutler, is second to none and Bryant is a budding superstar. I felt happy about those two where I got them.
Rule #3 – Don’t draft a QB until round 5 at the EARLIEST
The reasoning behind this is the opposite of that behind drafting RBs. Because it’s a passing league, productive QBs are going to be around even in the later rounds. With my own draft, I had the last pick of the 4th round and first one of the 5th, so I took my second RB, David Wilson of the Giants there, then was “pondering” someone OTHER than Christian Ponder: Matt Ryan or Tony Romo? I went with Matt Ryan due to the weapons he has and also the fact I already had a Dallas Cowboy on my roster in Dez Bryant.
Rule #4 – watch those bye weeks!
Nothing is more demoralizing than not paying attention to bye weeks only to find after you’ve drafted that nearly all your players have the same 2 bye weeks, whatever they are. It’s two almost guaranteed losses on your slate, and that can be the difference between you getting into your league’s playoffs and your fantasy season ending after week 14 or 15 – except for “consolation” round games if your league rewards losers.
Rule # 5 – As for Tight Ends, take Jimmy Graham early or wait until the 5th or 6th round for another one.
Reasoning? Graham is the top TE by a long shot in 2013, with Gronk’s injury problems. he’s also the only TE likely to top 1,000 yards, and since he goes so early it means you’re probably going to give up production at RB. Weigh your options if Graham is there when your 2nd-round pick comes up and don’t feel bad about passing him up if a Dez Bryant is still around or a second top-tier RB. It’s likely those guys will produce more than Graham, and more than Graham will out-produce the next group of 5 TEs like Tony Gonzalez and others. I still wouldn’t consider Graham until round 3 because that’s where he will actually be a value.
Rule # 6 – Don’t rule out guys on bad teams
Even the worst team sometimes has That One Guy who stands out and everyone else bites it. I drafted Jacksonville Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts in the 9th round, and in his second season (2012), he was 21 yards short of a thousand-yard season, which brings us to rule #7:
Rule # 7 – Be high on young players on the upswing
While rookies naturally have some risk tied to them, it’s okay to draft a rookie – for the right pick. However, WRs in particular tend not to hit their full potential until their second or third seasons. I have 3 that fit that bill. Dez Bryant broke out in the second half of his third season – last year – and looks to be the budding superstar that I mentioned earlier. Shorts is in a similar boat being a rising 3rd-year player who also has the luxury of no Justin Blackmon for those first 4 games due to Blackmon’s suspension.
Besides, when Blackmon was getting his rookie legs under him last year, Shorts was the most consistent and productive WR in Jacksonville. And Jacksonville will be throwing a lot because they’ll be behind most of the time – don’t forget things like that. My other young WR has a 2-game suspension himself, but getting a talent like Cleveland’s electric Josh Gordon the 11th round for the bench means his suspension doesn’t affect me at all.
Rule # 8 – Draft TWO GOOD QBs for several different reasons
One reason is that you will be able to get your hands on good, productive QBs in the middle rounds, and most people only draft their main QB and wait until nearer the last few rounds for their back-up.
That’s their mistake.
What happens if your main QB goes down to injury? There goes your season. If you have 2 good and healthy QBs, it gives you a luxury few fantasy GMs have: playing the match-up game.
After I drafted David Wilson and Matt Ryan back-to-back, I waited the 27 picks until my next choice and was amazed to watch name after name go off the board while one guy stood out like a neon sign at the top of my updated-as-drafted list went on: Tony Romo.
Ryan plays in the tough NFC South and this year, the NFC South plays the teams in the NFC West, so it’s highly likely Matt Ryan is going to have some pedestrian fantasy games. When you’ve got another guy every bit as valuable in fantasy football with Tony Romo, you can say “Hmm….Ryan against the Seahawks OR Romo against the Jaguars?” or something.
Whom would YOU start there?
I thought so. Drafting Romo puts me in a position to avoid possible poor production days by avoiding the best teams in the NFL at the position that usually generates the most total FPs every week. While I’m still exposed to two Cowboys playing the same week, it’s only during those weeks they face lesser competition and allows me to “double-up” on any TD toss from Romo to Bryant. I don’t like the boom-or-bust there during the long slog of the season – especially against those tougher pass defenses – but that’s where you start a Matt Ryan.
You see what I’m getting at here?
Rule # 9 – Don’t draft a kicker until the final round, or not at all.
You’ll be able to pick up a good kicker form waivers, and it’s almost impossible to know which kickers are going to be in the top-ten from year to year. It’s the most random position of all, one of the least productive in FP, and it’s really not too smart to do like a few idiots in my fantasy league did and draft a kicker in the 4th, 5th, or any other round other than the final one.
It’s probably even worthwhile to wait until the last second to pick one up off waivers just so you can carry that extra position player in case someone gets injured. In that case, simply drop the injured guy in favor of your kicker. I picked up Phil Dawson off waivers after a 14-team draft.
Rule # 10 – Don’t draft your defense until the last 3 rounds.
Again, in my draft I saw defenses start to go in the 4th or 5th round and that’s insane. A lot of good defenses play a very tough schedule this year – Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and others all face a lot of good teams.
Also, defensive teams themselves never get injured. Sure – they can (and do) get decimated by a rash OF injuries, but team defense is where you should play the match-up game. I would draft a good defense if there’s one left on the board in the last rounds OR just pick a defense that plays a horrible team with major QB issues that first week like the NY Jets, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals (horrible line) or Jacksonville Jaguars.
Ineptitude of opponent offenses can be as much a factor in any given defensive team’s fantasy points as having a great defense to begin with. Mistakes on offense translate into fantasy points for the defense, and frankly my own strategy is to play those matchups as much as I possibly can.
Why spend a 5th-round pick on the Texans defense when you can pick up a guy like Matt Ryan as half of your match-up QB plan when QBs score double or triple the FPs a defense does in any given week?
Rule # 11 – Draft at least one reserve/sleeper RB late
RBs in the NFL take the worst punishment of any other position and generally see more injuries. You need to prepare for that, and that means having at LEAST two viable spot-starters at RB. One for bye weeks and another for injury replacement. Backs get dinged up and by the middle of the season, you’ll be glad you did unless you just get lucky keeping healthy starting RBs around. In standard leagues, you’ll want to make sure you have at least 3 healthy and productive backs at all times – and that’s assuming they all have different bye weeks. A fourth one late like a Mark Ingram or someone along those lines would be a good insurance policy and I actually recommend getting two.
Rule # 12 – Grab guys in contract years if possible
This one should be obvious – if someone is playing for a payday, they’re going to put in that extra effort and work to maximize their money, period. Statistics back this up generally if you go do the research yourself, but I’ll save you the trouble. The logic is sound, at least, and it behooves you to find out who is in the final year of their contract and keep an eye on them for a value pick at some point in the draft, regardless of position.
Rule # 13 – Don’t “reach” for anyone and know positional value.
I’ve touched on this here and there in this article, but here’s a rough list of position values in order, in a perfect world in a perfect draft:
Go RB1, RB2, WR1 (or TE Jimmy Graham if he’s around in the third round), WR2, FLEX/RB3, QB1, a TE or another RB, WR3 (hopefully a 2nd or 3rd-yr guy with rising stats), QB2, then flesh out with your TE if not taken yet and sleepers or guys that have slipped or been overlooked. Draft your DEF in the last 3 rounds, and just pick your kicker up off of waivers. Be sure and grab someone you’re pretty sure will produce if you see them on the board when you draft, when they should probably have been gone 2 or more rounds ago. Finally, keep listening for player news.
Rule # 14 – in IDP leagues with standard scoring, get JJ Watt or wait until next-to-last round to draft your IDP
JJ Watt of the Texans is by far the most valuable IDP in the 2013 draft based on last year’s production, but Luke Kuechly has been tearing teams apart in the preseason and is a good bet for a great IDP selection.
However, value is every bit as important as the individual (or team defense) when you draft – just like in the real NFL. IDPs simply don’t generate the stats and fantasy points that offensive players do, under standard scoring rules, so keep that in mind when you draft. JJ Watt is no secret, so its likely someone else in your league will overdraft him and you won’t be getting him anyway.
That said, depending on how your roster looks by the time you start thinking about an IDP, JJ Watt or possibly Kuechly may be worth taking a bit early because of Watt’s proven production and Kuechly’s upside. I still would want a solid reserve at every OTHER position (except kicker and team defense) before I’d even entertain drafting an IDP or team DEF.
Rule # 15 – When in doubt, draft the best player available
Flexibility in the draft and having a contingency plan is fine, but sometimes a run on a position with you suddenly on the clock can be daunting. Enough said on that one.
If Watt or Kuechly are there at that point, you might go ahead. Otherwise, I’d wait. And if both those guys go off the board – the “value” issue means to wait until the penultimate round of the draft to take your IDP.
Just for fun, make a note of those teams that take a kicker, IDP, and/or team defense too early. I betcha those are the teams that are going to have major holes at one or more offensive positions and will struggle to stay a .500 club, let alone make the fantasy playoffs. Mark my word.
Always keep your eyes on the prize – the league championship – and be smart about how you go about getting there. If you draft well, a lot of it will take care of itself.
As for the Panthers themselves, only Cam Newton is worthy of a high pick in fantasy leagues. Steve Smith and Greg Olson are middle-round picks, and Luke Kuechly would be the top IDP man.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye