Fantasy Football is a fun game, but when bragging rights and money are involved, it’s important to be ready and prepared for one of the most important parts of the fantasy season: The Draft. Some of this information may seem basic to some of you, but it’s surprising how many fantasy managers ruin their seasons by making some simple, and avoidable, mistakes. The age old adage that you can lose but not win your league on draft day couldn't be more true. So here are five of the most basic fantasy football strategy principles that I follow leading up to and during draft day.
1. Prepare Yourself
Success doesn’t come from natural abilities alone. Whether you’re playing a sport, starting a business or just playing a video game, practice and research are the most important factors that result in success. Fantasy football is no different.
I have played in a league with my friends from college for the past six years now. We have had just three different winners, and only four teams total have been in the championship game. Luck is a big factor in fantasy football, but luck only favors the prepared. I can tell you that the owners who make it to the championship are the ones that research and watch film year round, while the rest rely on the cheatsheets we create a week before the draft. If you expect to be competitive in any league year-in and year-out, put the effort in. It takes just an hour a week to do some research and keep up to date on your favorite players. View training camp reports, check updates on players' health, read about what coaches have to say regarding conditioning and attitude, use Twitter to follow beat writers-- anything to get the slightest edge. Those who don’t research won’t know about the latest ADP trends, popular sleepers or position battles. And this information is what makes the difference between drafting an Alfred Morris or an Evan Royster two years ago.
Lesson to Heed: Study up - there's no shortcut for hard work!
Editor's note: Our 2014 fantasy football draft kit has everything you need, all in one easy place, to prepare you for your drafts. Exclusive tiered rankings, sleepers, draft strategies, mock draft tools, NFL rookies, dynasty leagues, team previews, player analysis & more... and we're practically giving it away for just $2.99!
2. Don’t Enter the Draft with Strategic Tunnel Vision
Far too often have I heard from other owners that they plan on going “RB-RB-WR-WR”, or “QB early and grab all the position players while others go QB later.” Those strategies, in theory, could work. In all the scenarios you play out in your head, you will probably end up with LeSean McCoy and Montee Ball, and still grab Alshon Jeffery and Vincent Jackson as top receivers. Let me be the one to tell you right now: the odds are that you’ll end up with some talent, but nowhere near the value that you could have landed had you embraced a more dynamic strategy.
Let’s say you're picking eighth and you want to draft Peyton Manning in the first, or Aaron Rodgers in the early second. What if, for some unknown reason, Matt Forte falls to you at #8, and in turn players like Demaryius Thomas and Jimmy Graham are available in the second? While it’s not wrong to draft Manning or Rodgers at the spots you planned, you're very likely missing out on value by refusing to diverge from the path you planned. Don’t be afraid to go into the draft with nothing but your cheat sheet and knowledge of the tendencies of other fantasy players, and a few loose strategies that you're willing to adapt.
For me, I always go into a draft with one simple list of a color-coded player ranking system (both overall and positional), including sleepers at each position and ADPs for every player. I also know the tendencies of the other owners, since we are heading into our seventh season together. With this information, I am able to work the draft board much more efficiently than most of my opponents, finding strong value with every pick, including most of my favorite sleepers. I prefer to wait on quarterbacks since I know the position is deep, but I am not afraid to jump on someone who is sliding just a little too far.
Lesson to Heed: Be flexible, adapt to the changing circumstances, and seize the value when it presents itself.
3. Know When to Stick a Fork in a Well-Done Player
Did one of your favorite players just have a bad fantasy season? For years, he was a consistent top ten producer at his position, so year-in and year-out, you snagged him because he helped you win your fantasy championships. But he just hit 30, and he looked slow all last season. He pulled a hammy halfway through the year, and he was subbed out on more plays than usual to catch a breather or to give someone more “explosive" a chance. This is the oft-repeated chart of declining value for a fantasy player.
Nevertheless, this particular player has consistently stated throughout the offseason that he is “as healthy as he’s been in a while,” and “feels rejuvenated.” You want to believe him, and feel like you should still take him in the second round because “it was just a bad year.”
Let me tell you: it could have absolutely been a bad year. Sometimes, people get injured or don’t go into the season at full capacity for various reasons. More often than not, though, a player's body begins to break down after years of abuse. While he can still be a consistent producer, his numbers just can't any longer match up to his name, making a sizable draft-day investment a poor one.
We’ve fallen for these players far too often in fantasy, and it’s not worth an early-round gamble. Players like Hakeem Nicks, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Miles Austin were all victims of this kind of decline last year, and there are plenty of other names that you could add to that list. All of these guys were drafted relatively high. In hindsight, given their respective situations, it was probably foolish to believe that any of these players could have had the season many expected them to have. Hakeem Nicks has degenerative knees, Jackson is an aging player in a new offense with soft tissue injuries and speed problems, Jones-Drew is a small aging player who was in a holdout and Austin was coming off a miserable season in which he suffered multiple hamstring injuries.
Can we identify some guys this year who are being drafted early despite significant risk? Well, would you spend a pick on Arian Foster in the first round? He’s suffered multiple hamstring injuries, is coming off back surgery and is getting up there in age and touches. Will you trust spending a top 10 receiver pick on Andre Johnson, who has a new quarterback in a new offense, and who doesn’t seem motivated to play for the Texans after threatening to hold out? Chris Johnson’s ADP has him being taken as a starting running back in most fantasy leagues-- do you trust him in a timeshare with a below average offensive line in a new system with no passing game to speak of?
Lesson to Heed: Every player has a shelf life. Sometimes it’s better to let someone else risk an early-round pick on a reclamation project.
4. Don't get Addicted to Rookie Madness
Rookies that failed to meet expectations last year: Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Giovani Bernard (third-round ADP), Kenbrell Thompkins, Montee Ball, DeAndre Hopkins, Zach Sudfeld, EJ Manuel (starter in a 2QB league), Christine Michael, Tyler Eifert, Justin Hunter. That's 11.
I think Cordarrelle Patterson and LeVeon Bell brought their expected value to the table.
Players like Allen, Woods, Williams and Reed weren’t even drafted in a majority of leagues-- their respective ADPs are actually BELOW anybody those identified as underproducers above. Does this mean that all rookies are poor fantasy producers? Absolutely not. Let’s remember Robert Griffin, Rob Gronkowski and Adrian Peterson. Rookies do pan out, and sometimes they offer up some incredible value. But we can’t forget about people wasting early picks on Ryan Mathews, Trent Richardson or even Calvin Johnson.
It’s clear to me that rookies in general tend to be overvalued based on their overall ability. While players like Montee Ball and DeAndre Hopkins have all the potential in the world to become stars in this league, it was borderline foolish of owners to spend such high picks on them last year, especially given that they weren’t even considered to be atop the depth charts on their own teams last year. It takes a lot of adjustment to play in the NFL, and unless you are getting good value for a rookie, it's almost always better to wait until the end of the draft or free agency to take one. Last year, wasting a mid-round pick on a top rookie likely meant missing out on a guy like Alshon Jeffery, Michael Floyd or Josh Gordon-- players who already had a year of experience in the NFL.
Are you going to spend a seventh-round pick on Sammy Watkins, who doesn’t seem to be having any chemistry with EJ Manuel so far? Will you draft Bishop Sankey in the fourth, though he hasn’t yet earned carries over Shonn Greene of all people yet? What about Terrance West, who will almost certainly not be starting until Ben Tate gets injured, or Eric Ebron, going as a starter in a 12-team league even though he’s not even starting for his team yet and despite the fact that tight ends are notorious for having a long transition time? Who knows-- these guys might pan out, but I’m betting against it. I’d rather snag Patriots rookie James White in one of the last rounds of the draft and take guys like Marvin Jones, Khiry Robinson, Reuben Randle and Andre Holmes in the middle of the draft-- I'd prefer a player who has proved it at the NFL level any day of the week.
Lesson to Heed: Rookies are young, attractive, and have bright futures ahead of them...and these are all great reasons to avoid them until the last few rounds.
5. Sleepers, Value, Upside, and More Sleepers... Get it?
Handcuffing is important, but drafting sleepers is more important. To put it bluntly: what’s the point of drafting someone like Christine Michael in the eighth round when he'll be nearly valueless unless Lynch gets injured? Why wouldn’t you spend a pick on Marvin Jones, a player with a later ADP who possesses a ton of talent, scored 10 touchdowns last year and set the Bengals record for yards in a playoff game? Marshawn Lynch has been relatively healthy lately, so it may be completely worthless to hold onto Michael, while grabbing Jones as a WR4 or WR5 could deliver substantial value as a key trade piece in the middle of the year.
A corollary here is to draft for upside. Don’t be afraid to grab the high-potential pick, even if they seem safe. Guys like Alshon Jeffery, Michael Floyd and Josh Gordon were relatively safe picks as backup fantasy receivers last year. They each came into the NFL with high expectations, demonstrated some potential during their rookie years and had great offseasons. The earliest ADP for these players wasn’t before the tenth round, so you could've grabbed any one of them for a late-round pick. Why “waste” your mid and late-round picks on boring veterans, backup quarterbacks and handcuffs when they are much more readily on the waiver wire than high-potential starters? The second you feel confident with your core team, grab every guy you can that you think gives you good value, and don’t be afraid to be thin at a position, as you can always adjust and trade one of your established guys once your breakouts start to breakout.
Lesson to Heed: Draft for Upside, Draft for Value, Draft for Sleepers. If a few of your value picks hit bit, you'll be playing with house money.