There was a time when fantasy draft strategy was simple: You wanted to start with two straight running backs. No team that was weak at running back could plausibly contend for a fantasy title, therefore sensible fantasy owners made stocking up at that position their draft-day priority.
At some point, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy — if everyone thinks that they’ll be hosed if they don’t draft running backs early, then everyone drafts running backs early, then the supply of them really does dry up quickly, and those who choose other positions early really do get hosed. Boom, done. RB-RB it is. Next question.
But the NFL’s transition to passing league has altered the landscape of the first two rounds. For example, in 2002, four passers threw for over 4,000 yards; in 2012, 11 did. The 2003 season saw only two passers accomplish that feat; in 2013 that number was nine. Top wide receivers are now widely viewed as first- and second-round values, and even a tight end (Jimmy Graham) or two (if Rob Gronkowski could ever stay healthy) elbows into the top tier.
So now there are options aplenty, and an accompanying proliferation of strategies. What makes the most sense in this brave new world? Does this era of record-breaking quarterbacks demand that you take one early? With evidence that running backs get hurt more often than wide receivers, and with the imperative not to draft a bust in the first couple of rounds, aren’t wide receivers the safest bet early on? But most people still seem to agree that running backs are the lifeblood of fantasy football, so isn’t it still important to heavily invest in them?
To help make sense of this new world, here are six strategies to help guide your hand on draft day.
Try to avoid painting yourself into a corner
The one situation you don’t want to confront in a fantasy draft is where you feel like you must draft a position at which you feel deficient, and thus you pass up a player who represents a better value. Starting a draft RB-RB or WR-WR is a good way to immediately put yourself in the mindset of having to make up ground at the other spot (not that I’m saying you should never do that, and I’ll elaborate on that shortly).
Basically, you should try to get a good sense of where players tend to be selected and the players you like best in that range. Then play the hand the draft deals you, without being locked into a positional sequence.
An ideal draft is one in which you maintain enough roster flexibility to take the proverbial “best player available” in each round. That is why drafting a quarterback or tight end in the first round is not for the faint of heart — it sets up some tough choices later on because the elite RBs and WRs tend to go fast.
Of course, tough choices are inevitable in most drafts, so what’s the best way to handle them? By following the next piece of advice.
Participate in multiple mock drafts/Mind your ADP
Mock drafts provide a couple of vital benefits: They help you test out different draft paths and they help familiarize you with the average draft position (ADP) of different players.
Let’s take a hypothetical example: You do a mock draft, and get Packers RB Eddie Lacy in the first round, then find Bengals RB Giovani Bernard available in the second. Great! You love both those guys. But then you get to the third round, and start looking for wide receivers, and you don’t like what you see, whereas you’re loving Arizona Cardinals RB Andre Ellington. Okay, so you take him to fill your flex spot. But now you’re really looking weak at wide receiver. Would it have made more sense to go WR in the second round and hope to make Ellington your RB2?
The mocks can provide insight on what choices can pay off. For instance, you may take three running backs in several mocks and then find you are perfectly content with your fourth-round choices at wide receiver. Great, now you can go into a real draft with the idea that starting RB-RB-RB is a viable option.
One thing that really helps in making choices between players you like is a sense of their ADP. If you know a running back you love is generally getting drafted in Round 5, then you probably don’t have to draft him in Round 2, and you can use that valuable pick at a different position.
A corollary to this is to familiarize yourself with your league’s default draft list. Those lists will differ depending on what site you use, and the lists strongly influence when certain players come off the board. If your real draft is going to be hosted by, say, Yahoo, it’s a good idea to do some mock drafts at that site and become particularly well acquainted with their draft list.
Fixate on value, not players or positions
This is closely related to both points above, but it’s worth highlighting. If you put the blinders on and concentrate on filling a certain position or adding a certain player by an artificial deadline, it can get you in trouble. Particularly when it runs counter to ADP. That was the case for one of the participants in our recent Washington Post mock draft (the results of which will be available Friday).
The owner — who is not a Redskins die-hard — shocked everyone by taking Robert Griffin at No. 17 overall. This fellow explained later he went into the draft with the intention of taking a quarterback in the second round. The problem? By the time he picked, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were all gone, so he took the next guy he liked.
If he had stayed flexible (Tip No. 1) and been more mindful of ADP (Tip No. 2), he would have known RGIII almost never gets selected before the fifth round (and often later), so my colleague could have safely taken Griffin, or a QB1 with similar upside, as high as the third round and landed a more valuable commodity — such as a WR1 like Dez Bryant — in the second.
Griffin could have another great season, but snagging him in Rd. 2 negates some of that potential value because he now has to produce like a second-round player for your team to succeed. In essence, you’ve just raised the bar on yourself.
Conversely, if a player like Peyton Manning were unexpectedly available in the third round, you should pounce on him. You may have planned to go with a running back with the 9th- and 12th-overall picks, but holy cow, you never thought Calvin Johnson would be there at No. 9! That guy is a tier unto himself — can’t pass up Megatron, right? Right. Don’t look a gift horse (or Lion) in the mouth. Take Johnson, and make the necessary adjustments later.
Avoid tears by embracing tiers
For all the information you can gather from mock drafts, it’s still no guarantee a player is going to be available at the round you expect based on your mock draft results. For instance, you might have noticed that Stevan Ridley keeps going in the sixth round, but all it takes is one other owner who also really likes Ridley reaching for him early, and suddenly you’re left scrambling.
You simply can’t expect certain players to be available at specific points in any one draft. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to group players into roughly defined clusters, or tiers.
For example, you might have noticed a trio of tight ends you really like (let’s say Vernon Davis, Jordan Cameron and Jason Witten) tend to go in the fifth and sixth rounds. Well, that can inform a decision you make earlier in the draft about whether to take, say, Gronkowski in the second as opposed to that enticing running back. You could pass up Gronk, confident you can get a TE1 a couple of rounds later. Conversely, if you hate the running backs that tend to go in the third and fourth rounds, that could lead you to plan for the time-honored RB-RB start.
Grouping players into tiers can help you make apples-to-oranges choices during a draft. If you’re trying to choose between, say, Matthew Stafford and Vincent Jackson, you might notice that there are still several quarterbacks left in Stafford’s tier, whereas VJax is the last upper-level WR on your sheet. Voilà! You choose Jackson.
Remember that the draft is just the first step in shaping your roster
Outside of draft-only leagues (which are great, and very useful as draft preparation), you should be able to make trades and waiver moves, often before the season even begins. Being active in adding and subtracting pieces to and from your roster is critical to fantasy success.
What this means is that it’s okay to come away from a draft feeling like your roster still needs a little bit of work.
Let’s say you draft Megatron in the first, then find Demaryius Thomas has fallen to you in the second. Then you go for your man-crush, Gronk, in the third. You nab a good back in the fourth or fifth round, and by the time the dust has settled, you have corralled some RB2 prospects, but it looms as a weak spot.
No worries, you have plenty of time to address that deficiency. The important thing is that, while you may have preferred to be stronger at running back, you went with the flow of that particular draft and walked away with some kingpins at other positions, guys who can lead you to a title with just a little help.
Once the season starts, you will want to watch the waiver wire like a hawk and be ready to pounce on any potentially unsettled situations at running back. You should also be scanning your opponents’ rosters for trade opportunities. Got a wide receiver to spare (because you didn’t panic during the draft, and consistently took players who represented the best values), while your opponent has one too many running backs? Deal!
Of course, good fantasy owners stay active during the season regardless of the relative quality of their rosters. It is just a reminder that staying knowledgeable, open-minded and, yes, flexible are qualities that will help you create a great roster on draft day — then make it even better.
Take note of your league’s settings
It may sound basic, but it can prove pivotal. Different leagues have different rules for scoring and starting lineup composition, so be sure you are aware of the specific settings of the league for which you are drafting.
If it is a points-per-reception league, then running backs who don’t catch a lot of passes, such as Alfred Morris, will be devalued a bit, while passing-down backs, such as Danny Woodhead, should move up your ranks. Also, since quarterbacks are almost never on the receiving end of passes, they are losing points to everyone else, and thus lose some relative value.
Speaking of quarterbacks, check to see if your league gives six or four points per touchdown pass. If it is the latter, then quarterbacks who run, such as Colin Kaepernick, will have increased value compared to more stationary guys like Tom Brady. Are quarterbacks docked points for interceptions, and if so how many? Penalties for picks could limit the appeal of an interception-prone QB such as Jay Cutler.
Some leagues require each team to start two quarterbacks, which means prioritizing that position early in the draft, before the top QBs are picked over. Similarly, in a league that require three starting wide receivers, you may want to start stockpiling talent at WR sooner rather than later, because depth will be vital.
And one last mandatory piece of draft-day advice:
Don’t draft a kicker until the final round
Just don’t. Seriously.