Picture this: You’ve agreed to play fantasy football, either as a first-timer or as someone who hasn’t found a ton of success before. You want to be competitive, both for bragging rights and general enjoyment, but you’re a little lost as to how to get started on the path to success.
It’s a predicament in which many players find themselves, which is why we’ve compiled some fantasy Cliff’s Notes to get you through the difficulties of drafting. Consider this your beginner’s guide to the draft and follow these seven simple steps to a fantasy football winner:
1. Create your own draft board (even if that means stealing an expert’s)
Once you’ve made sure you’ve got an understanding of your league settings — the scoring system as well as the number of players you need to start at each position — the most important thing you can do is establish how you value each player. That means creating your own draft board.
That may sound like a daunting task, but you don’t need to create your own algorithm here. (But if you have, that’s awesome, and you should go ahead and skip ahead to No. 2.) All you have to do is find a fantasy expert’s rankings you like, and use that as the foundation for a ranking. Copy and paste the players into a spreadsheet and move players up and down based on how you feel about them. Add a column reflecting each player’s average draft position, so you have a feel for where they are being picked in most leagues.
If ranking every player isn’t for you, you should at least do so for the first three rounds. When you’re on the clock in the second round, that’s not the time to decide whether you prefer T.Y. Hilton or Dez Bryant. For the later rounds, identify some players you want to target in each, making note of their ADPs so you can snag them in time.
2. With your early picks, take the best player available each time
This one reads obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this tip gets ignored. It is easy in the middle of the draft to start focusing on other things, such as the balance you have at each position, which players you wish were still on the board, trying to determine who will still be available by the time of your next pick, and so on.
But if you’ve followed Step 1, Step 2 should be quite simple. Take the player who is highest on your draft board, regardless of his position. But what if that player in the second round is Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, and you already took Falcons WR Julio Jones? That’s okay — it just means you’re off to a great start at wide receiver.
There is a time to chase positional balance, but the first four rounds aren’t it. Take the best guy when you’re on the clock, and do so with an eye toward the average performance that can reasonably be expected of him. A little risk-taking is a good thing, but try to limit it in the first three rounds.
3. Be prepared to apply more than one strategy
This is an extension of Step 1, but it merits its own mention. Let’s say you’ve been committed all summer to employing the Zero RB approach. (In short: Avoid running backs altogether for the first five or so rounds, then take a lot of them during the rest of the draft, hoping to hit on enough fantasy starters at the position.) You read the initial article from Shawn Siegele. You talked about it with your co-workers. You sketched out matching “Zero” and “RB” tattoos for the backs of your triceps.
Then, while sitting in the No. 5 draft position, your leaguemates — undoubtedly overwhelmed by your inundation of Zero RB theory for the last five months — take David Johnson and three wide receivers in front of you. Le’Veon Bell is still on the board, and you think he’s a better fantasy pick than anyone else left.
Take him! You can still apply principles of the Zero RB theory later in your draft, or totally pivot and go RB-heavy early based on who drops to you in the second round. Draft strategies are great, but not if they cause you to pick lesser players at critical junctures of the draft. Have several gameplans at your disposal and implement the one that makes the most sense based on how the board breaks.
4. Beware of last year’s outliers. (AKA: Don’t draft Matt Ryan this year)
When we say don’t draft Ryan, the Falcons’ quarterback, we mean don’t draft him where you’d have to in most leagues, based on what his average draft position is right now — the late fifth or early sixth round. That’s because one of the biggest mistakes drafters make is just assuming that everything this year will be the way it was the year before.
While there are some relative certainties in fantasy football, doubling down on an outlier such as Ryan – he finished second in fantasy scoring among QBs last year, when he won the MVP, after finishing 19th the year before — is particularly problematic. Look no further than Panthers QB Cam Newton in 2015 and 2016 for an example. He led all QBs two seasons ago in what was an MVP-winning career year, went as the first quarterback in almost every league, and finished 2016 at No. 17. Regression isn’t a certainty for Ryan, but drafting him with only an eye for what he did last season puts you at major risk of not getting the value you need out of that selection.
5. Wait to draft a QB or a TE, if you can. But once you do, take two.
If you’re adhering to the “take the best player available regardless of position” approach advocated for earlier in this story, then you have to be ready to snap up a great value when you see one. But if those don’t present themselves early on at quarterback and tight end, consider waiting until late (like the ninth or 10th rounds) to draft one.
There are a lot more late-round starters to be found at those positions (among QBs this year: Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers; among TEs this year: Hunter Henry, Jack Doyle, Jason Witten) than there are at running back and wide receivers, the latter two of which are the most critical starting spots in your lineup to fill each week. If you can enter the 10th round with, say, four wide receivers you like to go with five running backs you like, you could spend your next four picks grabbing a pair of starting-caliber QBs and tight ends, giving yourself two chances to come away with a very strong starter at the position. Then you can lean on your superior roster depth all year at RB and WR.
6. Use your late-round picks on unfulfilled potential
ESPN analyst and former NFL general manager Bill Polian said during the 2017 NFL draft telecast that when you get to the later rounds of the draft, that’s when teams should target talented guys who underachieved in college, not the hard-working overachievers who have fallen due to a lack of elite athleticism.
The thinking behind it is that late-round picks rarely produce starting-level NFL players, so you’re better off finding a guy who has untapped potential to be unleashed by the right coaching staff than you are someone who is physically limited to excel at the pro level.
You should apply the same approach to your fantasy team. When you get to the 12th round (if you’re not taking a QB or TE there, as described in Step 5) and you’re deciding between, say, Falcons possession receiver Mohamed Sanu and Buffalo rookie Zay Jones, take Jones. Not only does Jones have a chance at a sizable role this year, but his youth gives him an upside that Sanu, as a veteran who has more or less proven what he is, doesn’t.
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