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A beginner’s guide to fantasy football

Christian McCaffrey remains one of the most coveted players in fantasy football drafts. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

So you want to try your hand at fantasy football, eh? Well, as you’ve probably figured out, the first step is to draft a team. Whom to draft and when, however, takes a little more figuring out, and that’s where this oh-so-helpful primer comes in.

To get you going, we’ll play things relatively conservatively — the truly galaxy-brain strategies are best explored once you’ve joined the ranks of fantasy addicts — and rely on the most fundamental of draft-day concepts: average draft position.

More commonly referred to as ADP, it funnels the results of thousands of individual drafts into actionable intel. Essentially, you get a crowdsourced set of rankings that also have some predictive properties, given that ADP tends to inform the choices of those drafting with you as well.

For this exercise, we’ll assume a 12-team league and go with the default lineups used by behemoth fantasy sites ESPN and Yahoo: one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end and one flex (RB/WR/TE), one defense/special teams and one kicker. We’ll use half-PPR (points per reception) scoring, a popular option that splits the difference nicely between full- and non-PPR formats, and we’ll draw our ADP from the aggregated rankings at Fantasy Pros.

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Overview

Let’s start with a look at how many players ADP tells us you can reasonably expect to be drafted at each position from the first through 10th rounds. That’s enough to fill out your lineup (minus the defense/special teams and kicker positions, which really should wait for the later rounds) and add a few key backups.

  • RB: 7, 6, 4, 5, 3, 2, 4, 5, 3, 5
  • WR: 5, 3, 5, 5, 5, 8, 4, 3, 5, 3
  • QB: 0, 1, 2, 0, 3, 1, 3, 2, 2, 1
  • TE: 0, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 0, 2

Takeaways

Running backs fly off the shelves in the first two rounds, and then the eagerness for them cools. To avoid being left shorthanded, you’ll probably want to take at least one in the first two rounds.

Wide receivers take center stage in Rounds 3 through 6. This makes sense, because after the first 12 or so backs go off the board, running backs are historically outscored by wide receivers in what’s known as the “dead zone.”

In general, the fact that you need multiple running backs and wide receivers in most lineup structures means they start getting snapped up early and often.

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By contrast, the “onesie” positions of quarterback and tight end don’t generally carry the same need to stockpile depth. As a consequence, they tend to be meted out sparingly over the course of drafts. In other words, if you want a quarterback or tight end and they start to get drafted just ahead of you, there’s no need to panic. You can — and probably should — wait a bit, and you’ll probably still come away with a top-12 option.

Making a pick

“This is all well and good,” you say, “but how does this help me figure out exactly who to draft?”

Well, that’s where ADP comes back into the picture.

Let’s say that you have the eighth overall pick and, having seen that there’s no great rush to pick a quarterback or tight end, you decide you want a running back or wide receiver. Going back to Fantasy Pros, their ADP suggests that the likes of RBs Jonathan Taylor, Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry, plus WRs Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson, will be gone by the time you pick. However, if any one of them is still available, his ADP tells you that lots of folks would jump at the chance to snap him up.

It’s more likely that your crowd-vetted running back choices could come down to some combination of Dalvin Cook, Najee Harris and Joe Mixon. At wide receiver, Ja’Marr Chase has an ADP of 9, so he has a great chance of remaining on the board at 8.

This is where your own preferences and analyses come in. If you’re convinced that huge things are in the offing for Chase, who sat out the 2020 college football season before immediately lighting up the NFL as a rookie, maybe he’s the call there. If so, then you might be feeling some urgency to grab a running back in the second round, particularly because you know the popularity of that position tends to drop off sharply in the third.

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A glance at ADP tells you that your likely running back options in the second include D’Andre Swift, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones and Alvin Kamara. Does that sound good? If not, then try to game out what happens if you go with a running back in the first. According to their ADP, WRs Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams might not make it to you in the second, but it’s not out of the question. Even if they’re gone, at least one wide receiver from among CeeDee Lamb, Deebo Samuel and Tyreek Hill should be there. In addition, the consensus top tight end, Travis Kelce, might be yours for the plucking. A lot of fantasy analysts would also endorse an RB-RB start, and our overview tells you that if you go that route, there should be plenty of well-liked wide receiver options in the following rounds.

Okay, we delved into the first couple of rounds, but you should also use ADP to see who tends to be available in later rounds. For example, many analysts see a major drop-off after the first five tight ends (Kelce, Mark Andrews, Kyle Pitts, George Kittle and Darren Waller) and make a priority of getting one of them, which usually means using a pick in the first four rounds or so. However, if you like what you see in some of the lower-ranked options (e.g., Dallas Goedert, Zach Ertz and/or Dawson Knox), you might go into a draft prepared to use your early picks at other positions.

Hmmm, decisions, decisions. But that’s the fun of a draft, right? You get to play general manager, and see if your take on who’s available and when translates into a dominant squad.

Of further note

Remember that every draft is different, and picks can and will be made that veer sharply from ADP. Heck, maybe you’ll make one of those picks, particularly if you pay heed to my running back rankings, where I have Saquon Barkley fourth at his position (ADP: 13th at RB).

If and when unorthodox picks are made ahead of you, it gives you a chance to get great value on a player who fell to your spot, at least as suggested by his ADP. As such, regardless of the draft plan you began with, you should be prepared to pivot if unexpectedly fruitful opportunities arise. Maybe you wanted to start RB-RB, but Jefferson and Chase fell to your first two spots. Rather than look a gift horse in the mouth, go ahead and grab ’em, and use ADP to help you find a few solid running back prospects as things move along.

Not all ADPs are created equal, by the way, and the aggregated ranks at Fantasy Pros are just one option. You might choose instead to take guidance from the decisions made by drafters that we know have real money at stake, such as at the Underdog and FFPC platforms. Just be sure to bear in mind that those platforms have settings (e.g., best-ball, three-WR lineups, full PPR, etc.) informing their ADP that may not be the same as the ones your league employs.

Oh, and this is important: only draft players you feel good about. Don’t take someone you don’t want just because some “expert” says you should, or because he fell and now represents an ADP value. If, for whatever reason, you have a bad feeling about a player, trust your gut and pick someone else.

Once you have your squad and the season begins, you’ll want to use the waiver wire to replace drafted players who are underperforming with free agents who have either gotten off to hot starts or show signs of blossoming.

There’s more, so much more, to learn about fantasy football, but with any luck this exercise has left you ready to get started on good footing.

Now go forth and draft!

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