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Lessons Learned from the 2018 NFL Season

As we officially put a bow on the 2018 NFL season, it's good practice to look back at the trends and movements that shaped the past year before moving forward. Fantasy football owners experienced many ups and downs, culminating in an unpredictable final few weeks that undoubtedly led to playoff upsets galore.

Whether you hoisted a trophy or are looking for redemption in 2019, we encourage you to reflect on your draft process. Did you target RB early like everyone else? Did you pick the right quarterback or were you forced to stream the position?

As a fantasy football writer, editor, ranker, and player who claimed the top spot in three leagues this year, including our very own RotoBaller Experts League, I decided it was worth sharing what I learned in the process. My hope is that you can learn from my successes and mistakes in order to get the best return on investment when it's time to draft for 2019. For the record, I did have one team where my starting lineup on Week 1 included Derek Carr, Jordan Howard, Dion Lewis, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry, Michael Crabtree and David Njoku. I renamed that team "Learning Experience." Speaking of, here are some key lessons I learned in 2018.

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Waiting on QB Isn't Just a Good Idea, It's Essential

Visuals are always good, especially simple ones. Let's look at the first 10 fantasy quarterbacks drafted in 2018, according to NFFC ADP.

Now, here were the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks in terms of overall points, courtesy of FantasyData.

You'll notice that four of the first 10 quarterbacks, drafted to be fantasy starters, didn't finish in the top 10. Rodgers and Wilson, two of the top three choices, were in the lower half of those standings. Watson was fourth when it was all said and done but he was slightly unpredictable, ranking as the ninth-most consistent QB throughout the fantasy regular season. Most of that production came early in the season too, as he put together four straight 300-yard passing games between Weeks 2-5. From Week 9 on, or when it really mattered most, he only cracked 300 yards once and didn't toss more than two touchdowns in a game. You were better off streaming Josh Allen or Jameis Winston instead.

Conversely, we know that Pat Mahomes was taken in the latter half of most drafts, we all severely underestimated Andrew Luck's comeback and vets like Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger never get respect from the fantasy community even though they perpetually put up big passing numbers. This year, players like Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo, Cam Newton or even Drew Brees may be undervalued because of either injuries or age concerns. Why take a player like Goff or Wilson when you can wait several rounds later and get comparable value?

It should also be noted that taking a QB late doesn't guarantee success. If you drafted Matthew Stafford, which I cleverly did in multiple leagues, or someone like Derek Carr, you had no choice but to take to the waiver wire. This year's rookie QB class is not as talented or NFL-ready as last year's so you won't have someone like Mayfield or Allen as readily available. Hold off on quarterback until after the first 100 picks are off the board and then shoot for upside. If you're in a deep-enough league where you feel the need to roster two QBs, my favorite strategy is the same approach I have in best-ball formats - grab one high-ceiling player (Winston, Mayfield, Wentz) and then follow soon thereafter with a high-floor pick (Rivers, Prescott) in order to hedge your bet.


Take an Elite TE or None At All

There is no bigger discrepancy in positional value than that of tight end. In full PPR scoring, three tight ends finished over 250 fantasy points and only four other players finished over 150 fantasy points. The next 11 TE were completely interchangeable, posting between 104-147 total points, a difference of three points per week. If you owned Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, or George Kittle, you had a clear advantage over the competition with a player that was just as valuable as a low-end WR1. If you didn't, you either lucked into grabbing Eric Ebron early in the year or you may as well have streamed the position.

Early ADP indicates Kelce is creeping into the late second round with Ertz and Kittle gone by the mid-third round. After that, there's no need to reach on Eric Ebron or Jared Cook in hopes of repeating their unlikely success. Wait it out until the first 10 tight ends are off the board and grab a rising player like Austin Hooper or Chris Herndon IV. Not having a reliable player at a thin position where you must start one each week is unsettling, so don't hesitate to target someone like Ertz or Kittle before loading up on WR in the middle rounds.


Running Back Will Make or Break You

This might seem obvious but not in the way you think. See, the ZeroWR movement caught steam a few years ago and was in full effect until Episode 2017 a.k.a. "Return of the Running Back" premiered. Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, and Kareem Hunt all had breakout seasons and joined DJ, Zeke, Lev Bell, Melvin Gordon and Saquon Barkley as first-round picks in most drafts, making nine of the first 12 over players selected. We know the fate suffered by those who took Bell or Fournette, while Hunt owners who missed out on Damien Williams likely crapped out early in the playoffs without some fortuitous mid-to-late-round drafting or savvy waiver wire moves.

The thing is, even if you picked Gurley or Gordon, you still needed help in the fantasy playoffs to replace the studs you'd been riding all year long. Bad word choice there probably but you know what I mean. It's not just about selecting the right running back early or even how you draft at all, it's about having the best stable of backs to choose from in any given week. It would seem wise to stash running backs as often as possible throughout the year, even if their playing time is unclear. Those who took a chance on Phillip Lindsay after Week 1 or Gus Edwards after Week 11 were rewarded with a solid RB2. The #AllBenchRB theory espoused by colleague Brett Mitchell has plenty of legs after a season that saw the top running backs miss large chunks of time, especially late in the year. Which leads us to the next point...


Treat the Fantasy Playoffs Like a Separate Season

In baseball, it's not uncommon for players to "flip the switch" and suddenly get re-energized after the All-Star break. Conversely, others get bogged down by the long season and see their numbers decline in the second half. In the NFL, this doesn't happen because, well there is no break. Other than the occasional rookie hitting a wall, players are relatively consistent each week. Still, there are plenty of changes that occur in the latter stages of the season.

Injuries to star players like Odell Beckham, Todd Gurley, James Conner, Aaron Jones and A.J. Green caused them to be absent for the most important part of the season; this required owners to shift gears at the last minute. Steady contributors like Marvin Jones, Kerryon Johnson, Sammy Watkins and others were prematurely shut down to either rest for the playoffs or be saved for next season. Then there's Kareem Hunt.

If you were able to grab the right replacement players like Jaylen SamuelsJamaal Williams, Damien Williams, C.J. Anderson, Justin Jackson, Robby Anderson, Robert FosterEvan Engram, or Josh Allen right before the fantasy playoffs, these unlikely heroes may have led you to a championship. In the RotoBaller Experts League, I found myself with a starting lineup that included five of those players, all of whom I'd plucked off waivers between Weeks 13-15. Yes, you can cobble together a championship team from the scrap heap at the last minute, assuming you have a solid core intact (it helps that I had Nuk, JuJu, and Luck on my side). That leads to our final point...


You Can Build a Winner Off Waivers Alone

This sounds extreme but it's based in fact. You've already seen the QB ADP list - Mahomes wasn't drafted in every league and neither were popular late-season streamers like Prescott, Allen, or Mayfield. At running back, Conner and Lindsay were mostly undrafted while players like Nick Chubb, Marlon Mack, James White, and Derrick Henry were dropped early on in some leagues. You remember what Derrick Henry did during the fantasy playoffs, I assume (492 yards and seven TD between Weeks 14-16).

Wide receiver is a little deeper but there are always players worth streaming in a given week based on matchup. In the first half of the year, you could have picked any WR3 on a team facing the Bucs and gotten double-digit fantasy points out of it. You need a rock at WR1, don't get me wrong, but the rest of the way you can mix and match if done the right way (using RotoBaller's rankings, matchup tool, and analysis articles of course!)

Caveat #1 - If you're in a 16-team league or crazy deep league with five or more bench spots per team, this won't work. There has to be at least a decent player pool available.

Caveat #2 - You can't stream every single position every week. It just doesn't work that way. In fantasy football, you need at least one or two elite players to count on, regardless of position. Find the right anchor early on (Gurley, Hopkins, McCaffrey, Kelce, etc.) and then be ready to compensate for your draft-day mistakes each and every week through waivers.

The bottom line is that your fantasy draft is just the beginning of the team-building process. You must be ready to move quickly on key free agents and cut bait before a fledgling player becomes an albatross hanging around your team's neck. The smart fantasy player is always looking ahead, not back to last year's stats or ADP. And that's exactly why we are here, already planning for drafts to be held in the summer before we know where rookies or free agents will wind up. It's never too soon to prepare - that's how RotoBallers roll.

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