A Blueprint for Winning Your Fantasy Football Draft
With the first game of the 2013 NFL season just over a week away, fantasy draft season has hit the home stretch.
That isn't to say there isn't still a ways to go. Thousands of leagues will be holding their drafts over the next several days, and the folks at SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio have gone so far as to designate Saturday, Aug. 31 as "National Fantasy Football Draft Day."
If you're one of the many fantasy owners busily making final preparations for their fantasy draft, then this article is for you.
This is a clear, easy-to-follow draft blueprint. There aren't any guarantees that by following this your fantasy squad will go undefeated, but by implementing the strategies outlined here, you can pick a team that will be in the thick of the championship hunt.
Nothing can derail the championship aspirations of a fantasy football team quicker than a bad draft, and showing up on draft day unprepared is a sure way to ensure it ends that way.
The first step in your draft-day preparations is to make sure you have an up-to-date cheat sheet at the ready.
Better yet, take a little time and look over a few cheat sheets. Examine where they differ and where the "experts" agree.
If you're really feeling froggy, average several cheat sheets together and then tweak the mean according to your own personal preferences. That will give you a customized set of rankings that best reflects both the belief of the consensus and your own opinions.
Stay away from the cheat sheets in fantasy football magazines. Those magazines are great summer reading and have some excellent strategy tips, but they're also woefully out of date.
They aren't going to reflect that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell has a mid-foot sprain that will sideline him until October, nor will they note the increase in Michael Vick's fantasy value now that he's been named the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Make sure to check on the latest injury news and player updates prior to your draft as well. With the third week of the preseason in the books, there have been a number of recent events that have had a major impact on fantasy football.
Kenbrell Thompkins, we're looking at you.
Know Your Scoring
It never ceases to amaze me how many fantasy owners (both newcomers and veterans alike) torpedo their own title chances because they draft a team that doesn't jibe with the scoring for their league.
Don't assume that the sixth league you're drafting for will have the same scoring as the first five. Take a moment to examine your fantasy league's scoring and how it affects player values.
If your league awards a point for catches, then pass-catching running backs like Reggie Bush of the Detroit Lions and Shane Vereen of the New England Patriots get a bump up in value.
If your league only awards four points for passing touchdowns but six points for rushing scores, then mobile quarterbacks such as Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers have greater value.
Knowing the impact that your league's scoring has on players will go a long way toward helping you get the most bang for your buck on draft day.
Wait to Draft a Starting Quarterback
Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers are both phenomenal football players. They will almost certainly have fantastic seasons in 2013, both in the NFL and fantasy football.
Neither player has any business on your fantasy football team.
The reason is simple: value—the magic word in fantasy football.
There is a ton of depth at the quarterback position this year, due in large part to last year's rookie invasion of talented young players.
You can wait in drafts, stock up at running back and wide receiver and still get a quality signal-caller.
Right now, according to the average draft position data at My Fantasy League, Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys is the 12th quarterback being selected in fantasy drafts this year. That's the same Tony Romo who topped 4,900 passing yards and finished eighth at his position in fantasy points in 2012.
You can see a detailed breakdown of the logic behind the strategy here, but the long and short of it is that savvy fantasy owners are exercising patience with the quarterback position in 2013.
Load Up at Running Back
I have something of a mantra in fantasy football, one that has served me well in the decade I've been playing and writing about the game.
"You can never have too many running backs."
For years, running backs have reigned supreme in fantasy football, and while it seemed in recent seasons that other spots were closing the gap, 2013 has been a flashback year.
As more and more teams adopt a committee approach in the backfield, the number of true "bell cow" running backs has shrunk. There are maybe 25 running backs in all of fantasy football right now who can be called legitimate weekly starters with any real confidence.
Loading up at running back early is absolutely critical. With the exception of Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, every player taken in the first round of most drafts has been a running back.
If there's a bright side to all this, it's that the front end of the running back position is a bit deeper than in recent years. Teams picking in the middle of the round (usually considered a fantasy wasteland) can still land high-end starters such as Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks or Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns.
Taking a running back with your first two picks is probably the safest course of action in fantasy drafts this year, and if your league has a "flex" spot, an argument can be made for taking a ball-carrier in each of the first three rounds.
Wide Receiver Is Deep This Year
In recent years, many fantasy owners have eschewed the running back position early in drafts, choosing instead to grab an elite wide receiver.
Granted, Calvin Johnson is a ridiculously productive fantasy option. He broke the single-season receiving yardage record last year, and he's finished as the top fantasy wideout each of the past two years.
Johnson's a viable first-round selection, but fantasy owners shouldn't feel a great deal of pressure to make a wide receiver one of their first two picks.
There's plenty of depth at the position to fall back on.
There's also plenty of talent to be had at the position in later rounds.
Youngsters T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts and Cecil Shorts of the Jacksonville Jaguars each have top-25 upside, as does DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles. All three are being selected around No. 30 at their position.
It goes even deeper than that with the wide receivers. There are upside plays—like Vincent Brown of the San Diego Chargers and Michael Floyd of the Arizona Cardinals—available outside the top 40 who are more than capable of becoming weekly starters in three-wideout fantasy leagues.
A solid stable of wide receivers is an important part of a winning fantasy team. However, reaching early isn't a requirement to assemble one.
The Tight End Conundrum
The turmoil surrounding the New England Patriots this year has shaken up the top end of the tight end position in fantasy leagues.
The arrest and subsequent release of Aaron Hernandez and multiple surgeries for Rob Gronkowski knocked one player from the top five and cast clouds of uncertainty over another.
It essentially leaves fantasy owners with two options at the position in 2013.
First off, forget about Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. Graham is a great player and a fantastic fantasy option, but his second-round asking price is just too high. In order to justify it, Graham has to finish as the top tight end, and he'd have to do so by a wide margin.
The value just isn't there.
That leaves fantasy owners with a choice to make.
If you want a top-five option, such as Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys or Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons, then be prepared to pick in the first six rounds.
If you swing and miss on those players, there's a tier of ho-hum options beneath them such as Owen Daniels of the Houston Texans and Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings. They're serviceable weekly starters, but not worth overpaying for by any stretch.
In fact, if you don't wind up with one of the "big guns," the best course of action may be to eschew the tight end position until the later rounds and then roll the dice on a young upside play such as Tyler Eifert of the Cincinnati Bengals or Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns.
The latter strategy is certainly a riskier move, but it could pay off big time if one of the youngsters hit.
Save Defense and Kicker for the End of the Draft
It may be tempting to use a pick in the middle rounds to secure the services of an elite fantasy defense such as the San Francisco 49ers.
Resist that temptation.
For starters, there's no guarantee that the defenses we think are elite fantasy options at the beginning of the season will end it there.
Over the past five seasons, five different teams have finished as fantasy's top defense. Only two teams (the Chicago Bears in 2011 and 2012 and the Green Bay Packers in 2008 and 2009) managed a top-five finish in successive years.
There's just too much that can change from year to year to trust any defense with that sort of draft capital.
In fact, you can wait until late and still wind up with an elite defense just by playing the matchups.
In Week 1, the Indianapolis Colts host an Oakland Raiders team that has looked absolutely horrific in preseason action this year. The week after that, the Raiders host the Jacksonville Jaguars.
You can draft the Colts late, swap them out for the Jaguars, drop Jacksonville for the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 (against the New York Jets) and ride a wave of offensive ineptitude all season long.
Kickers are even more unpredictable than defenses. We'll make this simple.
Any pick spent on a kicker before the last round is a wasted one.
OK, so you know all the advice we've given you so far?
Be prepared to throw it out the window once the draft starts.
Nothing will sink a fantasy football draft faster than stubbornly sticking to a "plan" regardless of how the draft unfolds. You have to be ready to change things up.
If every team in your league waits to draft a quarterback and Drew Brees is just sitting there in the fourth round, then you should pounce on that value under center.
If you've already drafted three running backs and rookie Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals drops farther than he has any business falling, then pull the trigger. Your surplus of backfield options could come in handy when injuries strike, whether they hit your team or another team comes calling after injuries hit theirs.
Every draft is its own animal, and you have to be willing to alter (or even abandon) your draft strategy in order to maximize the value you get with your selections.
Look for Upside with Your Bench Picks
Depth is a very important part of a successful fantasy football team. Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, and unless you're the luckiest of the lucky, odds are sooner or later one of your starters is going to get hurt.
However, aggressively targeting depth options with upside is just as important.
Yes, there's a bit more risk involved with targeting less-proven, high-ceiling types, but playing it safe with your late-round selections isn't going to get you anywhere.
Sure, Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans is the starting quarterback for a playoff team, and the 32-year-old is an OK fantasy backup. However, OK is all he is, and in 10 of his 16 games last year Schaub threw one or fewer touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Brandon Weeden of the Cleveland Browns had a very uneven rookie season, but he seems to have taken to Norv Turner's vertical passing offense and will likely be playing from behind quite a bit this year.
Target upside plays late in drafts. If they don't pan out, they can easily be cast aside, but if they do, you'll not only be better insulated against injury, but you could also have a valuable trade commodity on your hands.
In fact, that same caveat holds some water with fantasy starters.
Lance Moore of the New Orleans Saints may be a more proven commodity and have a higher floor as a fantasy WR3, but youngster Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns (an emerging talent and his team's top target through the air) has a much better chance of outperforming his draft slot.
Don't Freak out About the Bye Weeks
It happens every year.
Fantasy owners, concerned about bye weeks, pass on superior options in drafts because they have the same week off as another player already on their roster.
Don't fall into that trap.
Yes, running back Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs has the same Week 10 bye as Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns. But if you somehow have the good fortune to be able to draft both, who cares?
Bye weeks should be used as a tiebreaker between similarly ranked fantasy options. That's it.
If it means that you end up with a team where several guys have the same week off, so be it. That's a bridge to be crossed later.
For now, just worry about building the best team you can.