With all due respect to Andy Williams, the next couple of months are the most wonderful time of the year. That’s because we’re getting into fantasy football draft season, when owners try to give themselves the best kind of present come Week 16, a.k.a. Christmastime: a league championship.
But how to avoid filling your draft-day stockings with lumps of coal? (Okay, time to move on from yuletide references.) Here are some strategies you should consider before making your all-important picks.
The ol’ reliable of draft strategies, grouping players into tiers still makes a ton of sense. It’s a handy, fairly simple way to make decisions between players from different positions and to extract close to maximum value from each pick.
The basic idea is to organize players at each position into tiers, according to how similar you think their fantasy results will be. For example, at running back, a lot of people think that there’s a clear “big three” at the top of Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott (not necessarily in that order), so you could call that “Tier 1.” Then “Tier 2″ could consist of LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, Melvin Gordon, DeMarco Murray, Jay Ajayi and Jordan Howard. You might see a drop-off at that point to the next group, which could include (I’ll use average draft position rankings at Fantasy Pros for guidance) Marshawn Lynch, Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Crowell, so you lump them together as “Tier 3.”
After doing that for RBs, WRs, QBs and TEs (and maybe defenses, but please don’t waste your time tiering place kickers), you are now ready to use those groupings to make draft-day decisions. The way it works is that as you get to the end of each tier, you might want to pick a player from that group instead of a someone at another position who has more players left in his tier.
For example, let’s say you get to Round 4 and you’re trying to decide between Spencer Ware (ADP: 45) and Greg Olson (46). You might see that Olsen is the last player in your Tier 2 of TEs (having possibly made Rob Gronkowski the sole member of Tier 1), whereas if you pass on Ware you might still get another RB in his tier, such as Ty Montgomery, Mark Ingram or Dalvin Cook, with your next pick. Bingo! You take Olsen.
Fantasy drafters have been using tiers for years and with good reason. It’s a good way to get a sense of positional scarcity during a draft, and organizing the groups yourself beforehand constitutes excellent preparation.
A much newer kid on the draft-strategy block, one that emerged in response to the NFL’s shift toward pass-first offenses. The idea here is that, whereas running backs used to be the coin of the realm in fantasy, leading to widespread “get ’em early and often” mindsets, the position is actually the most volatile. Because RBs get injured at a higher rate than other players, they are less likely to give you a good return on expensive investments in them, and thus it makes more sense to skip that position early in drafts, when it’s crucial to avoid busts.
It’s key to note that going Zero RB means only avoiding RBs in the early rounds. Starting at Round 5 or so, you should begin stocking up at the position, looking for high-upside players and/or backs who are an injury away from a big role. As Rotoviz’s Shawn Siegele wrote in his landmark 2013 article explaining the strategy, “Zero RB benefits from randomness. Whenever a starting RB gets hurt, my lineup gets better.”
When a stud RB gets injured, you don’t necessarily have to have his backup already in hand to benefit; you’ve already benefited by not being the owner who wasted a high pick on that stud RB. Obviously, injuries can strike any football player at any time, but by using Zero RB, you’re attempting to tilt the attrition that often afflicts that position to your favor.
Double up at uncertain situations
This strategy sort of combines the Zero RB concept with handcuffing, in which owners make a point of using a late-round pick to take the backup to the stud running back they drafted early on, as an insurance policy against injury. In many cases, though, existing injuries, suspensions or previous ineffectiveness cause RBs to tumble down draft boards, making them intriguing targets in middle rounds to be paired with a backup.
For example, Doug Martin (ADP: 71) has been banned from the first three games for using performance-enhancing drugs. If you think he’ll get his starting job back and play well when he returns (and reports from Buccaneers camp indicate that will be the case), you could go into drafts looking to snag him in the sixth round, and if that happens, you could make sure to spend a 12th-rounder on Jacquizz Rodgers, who is expected to start in Martin’s absence.
Other possible combinations include the Chiefs’ Ware/Kareem Hunt, Ravens’ Kenneth Dixon/Terrance West, Vikings’ Cook/Latavius Murray, Jets’ Bilal Powell/Matt Forte and Redskins’ Rob Kelley/Samaje Perine. You do run the risk of winding up with frustrating committee situations, or even having another RB from the same team emerge as a workhorse (such as Danny Woodhead with the Ravens or Jerick McKinnon with the Vikings), but at least you didn’t blow a premium pick on that mess.
Wait on QB/TE
Most leagues only require you to start one player each at quarterback and tight end, so there isn’t the same urgency to stock up at those positions. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for waiting until the double-digit rounds to select either position, all the better to emerge with a strong group of RBs and WRs.
It’s easier to advocate waiting on a QB, given the tremendous depth there, with the likes of Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning going in Round 10 or later. Weakness at TE is hardly the biggest flaw a fantasy roster can have, however, and the later rounds do provide opportunities to roll the dice on high-upside sleepers (Eric Ebron, O.J. Howard, Jack Doyle) or go with solid-but-unspectacular contributors (Julius Thomas, Jason Witten, Cameron Brate).
What usually happens in drafts is that picks made early inform later ones. For instance, if you find that you started RB-RB, you might make a point of looking for WRs in the middle rounds.
But what if you tried the opposite approach? Obviously, you have to start a draft in Round 1, but you can use mock drafts to discover what positions you’re comfortable taking at various points in the draft.
For example, you might not like what you’re left with at TE if you don’t take one early in mocks, so go into a real draft ready to spend a high pick on Gronk, Kelce or Jordan Reed. Or you might be intrigued by the selection of mid-tier RBs, such as Montgomery, Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy and Mike Gillislee, making it more tempting to go WR early.
Speaking of those mid-tier RBs, I am finding that the position tends to fall off a cliff after Round 7, so I’m conscious of having at least three, and preferably four, on my roster by then, knowing that there are more than a few good-looking WRs left (and not just Eric Decker).
In the item above, I advised doing mock drafts, and that gets to the best draft strategy of all: do plenty of preparation so that you’re ready for whatever unfolds. Each draft is different — expecting certain players to be available in certain rounds because your cheatsheet or ADP list tells you so is a mistake.
Unfortunately, as with so many endeavors, there’s really no substitute for putting in the work, but if you do, you’ll be ready to pounce on value whenever it presents itself. Did everyone in your league wait on QBs, and you’re shocked to see Tom Brady waiting for you in the fifth round? Go ahead and take him, secure in the knowledge that you can dig up gems at other positions later in the draft.
I look at Zero RB as a strategy to employ if that’s how the early rounds work out. If I can’t pass up, say, A.J. Green in the first, Dez Bryant in the second and then find myself staring at Alshon Jeffery in the third, that’s when I’ll say, “Well, I guess this is going to be a Zero RB draft,” and know that I’ll be collecting RBs in the middle rounds.
Do as much homework as you can, and you’ll find yourself acing that draft-day test. Fantasy titles don’t tend to come gift-wrapped, but with any luck, and continued diligence, you’ll have a well-earned title waiting under the tree.