Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: The Best Rounds to Draft Each Position in 2014
The dog days of summer may be in full swing, but it hasn't felt this much like fall in quite a while.
That's because all across the NFL, players are reporting to training camp. In less than two weeks, the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants will kick off the 2014 preseason with the Hall of Fame Game.
If there's football being played, it also means that fantasy football is being played, and sure enough, as the calendar prepares to turn to August, fantasy draft season is about to kick into high gear.
In fact, some leagues have already drafted and savvy fantasy owners will use those drafts to help determine when to target the players they covet.
Taking things one step further, the true sharks try to enter draft preparation with an open mind and then cater their draft plan to best take advantage of the values available at each position.
So where are those values? Are stud wide receivers the way to go in Round 1 this year? What about the high-end quarterbacks?
Read on and find out!
Best Round: Sixth
After he re-wrote the record books while finishing as the top fantasy quarterback in NFL.com default fantasy scoring by over five points a game in 2013, many fantasy owners are taking the bait on Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos as a second-round pick in fantasy drafts.
Drafters at NFL.com are going that one better. With an average draft position of 10th overall, Manning is being chosen in the first round of many 12-team leagues.
Resist the temptation to draft Manning, or, for that matter, any "elite" fantasy quarterback.
Manning's historic season was just that and record-setting years are seldom repeated. In fact, the last two times the single-season touchdown record fell, the quarterback who broke it threw at least 20 fewer scoring passes the following season.
That includes Manning, who went from 49 touchdown passes in 2004 to 28 in 2005.
Where you won't find Manning is on the list of quarterbacks who have topped 5,000 passing yards or even 40 touchdown passes in successive seasons.
The list is one name long: Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints.
Add in the hole you'll be digging for yourself at running back and/or wide receiver by drafting a signal-caller early, and the value just isn't there.
Especially when you consider the options available in the sixth round or later of most drafts.
There's Washington's Robert Griffin. Griffin's second NFL season was an injury-marred mess, but the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year was a top-five fantasy quarterback in points per game two years ago. Throw in a Jay Gruden offense that just made Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals a top-three fantasy quarterback and the arrival of wideout DeSean Jackson and a healthy Griffin appears set to bounce back in a big way.
Or Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles. Foles was fantasy football's third-ranked quarterback last year on a per-game basis. Yes, Foles probably isn't going to post a 27-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio again in 2014, and the loss of Jackson hurts, but there's still plenty of fantasy upside present in Chip Kelly's offense.
There are numerous other options, which kind of makes the point.
Avail yourself of the depth under center in 2014 and wait to draft a starter at quarterback.
Other Good Rounds: Eighth, 10th, 11th
In fact, you can wait quite a bit later and still find a viable fantasy signal-caller.
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots posted three consecutive top-three fantasy finishes before injuries to the receiving corps led to a big backslide last year. Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys is undervalued every year despite annually posting top-10 fantasy numbers.
Each are available in the eighth round or later of many fantasy drafts.
Dalton and Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers each posted top-five fantasy seasons in 2013 while leading their respective teams to the postseason.
Neither is even being drafted as a fantasy starter in 12-team leagues, with ADPs in the double-digit rounds.
In fantasy football, winning is all about value.
And in 2014, the value at quarterback lies later in drafts.
Best Round: First
To say that the running back position was a dumpster fire in 2013 is something of an insult...to filthy metal containers filled with burning garbage.
Of the top 10 running backs selected in the nearly 9,000 fantasy drafts last year at My Fantasy League, fully half were major disappointments.
After that implosion, and with more passing and committee backfields than ever before in the NFL, the stranglehold running backs have had on the top spots in fantasy drafts is looser than ever.
And yet, if you're lucky enough to land one of the first four picks in a fantasy draft this year, taking a running back in the first round is the only way to fly.
At NFL.com, the first four players off draft boards are Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, LeSean McCoy of the Eagles, Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs and Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears.
There's good reason for that.
All four backs are the unquestionable starters for their respective teams, every-down backs with track records of elite fantasy production.
However, once you get past that quartet, questions start clouding the position.
Will Giovani Bernard see enough touches with the Bengals in 2014 to justify his lofty draft slot?
With more uncertainty than ever surrounding the running back position, the "sure bets" carry even more fantasy value.
Other Good Rounds: Second, Fourth, Sixth
There's something to be said for eschewing the second tier of running backs for an elite wide receiver like Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions or grabbing the edge that Saints tight end Jimmy Graham affords at that position in Round 1.
With that said though, it's almost a necessity to draft at least one running back in the first two rounds.
It's a matter of depth. Simply put, there are quite a few more wide receivers who inspire some level of confidence as weekly starters than there are running backs.
With that said, if you're bound and determined to wait at running back, there are options.
In fantasy drafts held since June 15 at My Fantasy League, both Alfred Morris of the Redskins and Andre Ellington of the Arizona Cardinals are both sliding into the fourth round.
Ellington, in particular, is an interesting case. The second-year pro was the first rookie back to lead the NFL in yards per carry since Ickey Woods in 1988, and there's top-10 fantasy upside present if Ellington gets the 20-22 touches per game forecast by Darren Urban of the team's website.
Fantasy owners willing to roll the dice on a couple of rebound candidates in the sixth round or later may be able to hit paydirt with a couple of former fantasy studs.
Granted, there are questions swirling over both Chris Johnson of the New York Jets (an uncertain role on a new team) and Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens (facing a suspension coming off a horrible 2013 season).
Risks aside, there is also more than a little potential for reward. After all, in Johnson and Rice, we're talking about a pair of running backs with 10 1,000-yard seasons between them and who have each missed the top 15 at their position all of once in the past five years.
Best Round: Fourth
Given the aforementioned catastrophe at the running back position last year, more and more fantasy owners are hitting the wide receivers early in 2014.
That's all well and good, but wide receiver remains the deepest position in fantasy football, as evidenced by the options available in the fourth round.
Vincent Jackson of the Buccaneers, Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons and Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals are all veteran receivers with multiple top 10 fantasy finishes under their respective belts.
With the exception of White, who battled injuries in 2013, all four also finished the 2013 season as top-20 fantasy options in fantasy leagues that award a point for catches.
Yes there are questions surrounding them (age, Johnson's contract impasse with the Texans), but the "ageism" that often seeps into fantasy football means the veterans are also available at something of a discount.
If younger upside players are more your speed, the fourth round has you covered there as well, with players like Victor Cruz of the New York Giants, Michael Floyd of the Cardinals and Percy Harvin of the Seattle Seahawks all available in Round 4 or later at My Fantasy League.
Going the wide receiver route early in fantasy drafts may not be a bad idea in 2014, but fantasy owners who choose patience at the position will have choices later in drafts.
Other Good Rounds: Eighth, 10th, 12th
Fantasy owners must truly believe in the saying "out with the old, in with the new," because the players listed above are hardly the only veteran wideouts who have gone under the fantasy bus.
Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts has slipped into the 10th round or later in many drafts, despite posting top-10 fantasy numbers two years ago.
Sure, Wayne is well on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a torn ACL, but reports regarding Wayne's recovery have been universally positive and he was on a top-15 pace before getting hurt in Week 7 last year.
Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers was a top-20 fantasy option in PPR formats in his first year with the team in 2013, but the return of a healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Stevie Johnson has cooled fantasy owners on Boldin's prospects this year.
To the tune of the 12th round or later, a fantastic value for a player with Boldin's resume.
Then there's Cecil Shorts of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dwyane Bowe of the Chiefs and James Jones of the Oakland Raiders. All three are the top receiving options for their respective teams.
None of those offenses are going to be confused with the Denver Broncos any time soon, but with a draft-day price tag in the double-digit rounds, it won't take much for that trio to outperform their draft slots.
Best Round: Seventh
The tight end position comes down to one question in fantasy football in 2014: to Graham or not to Graham.
There's no argument that Graham is the top fantasy option at the position this year or that Graham can afford a fantasy squad a decided edge at the position.,
Of course, there's also no denying that Graham's first-round price tag in many fantasy drafts gives more than a few fantasy owners heartburn.
If you're one of those owners, there are a pair of appealing options available in the seventh round of most drafts.
Jason Witten of the Cowboys and Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers finished as fantasy football's sixth- and seventh-ranked tight ends in PPR leagues in 2013.
The 32-year-old Witten hasn't finished outside the top six at his position since 2006. Olsen has posted back-to-back top-seven seasons and will serve as the de-facto top option for a shaky group of Panthers pass-catchers in 2014.
Both should serve as solid weekly starters, and the long gap between Graham and the duo is valuable time that can be spent loading up at running back and/or wide receiver.
Other Good Rounds: First, Eighth, 15th
It's completely understandable that fantasy owners are wary of shelling out a first-round pick for Graham. Much like drafting a quarterback early, it forces fantasy teams into scramble mode at running back and wideout.
With that said though, a healthy Graham also affords teams a big weekly advantage in fantasy matchups. Over the first five weeks of the 2013 season, Graham was fantasy football's top tight end by almost six points per game.
Getting spotted an extra touchdown per week most definitely doesn't suck.
Fantasy owners who miss out on the names we mentioned aren't completely out of luck though. With offensive coordinator (and tight end whisperer) Norv Turner now in the Twin Cities, Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings is a trendy breakout candidate in 2014.
Rudolph is available in the eighth round of most drafts, as is Dennis Pitta of the Ravens.
Looking for a late-round lottery ticket at the position? Heath Miller of the Pittsburgh Steelers is your man.
Miller's 2013 was hampered by an ACL tear late in the 2012 season, but before that knee injury the 31-year-old was a top-five fantasy performer.
With Miller "poised for a big season," according to Scott Brown of ESPN, and carrying a 15th-round price tag, the 10th-year pro has "value" written all over him.
Kickers and Team Defenses
Best Round: Last
The best strategy where drafting team defenses and kickers are involved is an easy one. Wait.
And then wait. And then wait some more. Check your e-mail. Watch a YouTube video of cats dancing. Whatever.
Just don't draft a defense or a kicker until the end.
As tempting as it may be to grab a so-called "elite" defense in the middle rounds, the fact remains that team defenses can be wildly unpredictable from one year to the next.
Case in point: the 2013 Houston Texans. In the almost 9,000 fantasy drafts last year at My Fantasy League, the Texans had an average draft position of fourth among team defenses.
Thanks to a combination of injuries and the complete and utter collapse of the Houston offense, the Texans finished the season dead last among team defenses in NFL.com default fantasy scoring.
Kickers are even harder to figure out, and the difference in fantasy points between the No. 1 kicker and No. 12 kicker over the past three seasons is less than two points per game.
In fact, unless your fantasy football league requires you to take a kicker, it's advisable to pass altogether in many formats. It's a roster spot better spent on depth or an upside player; you can always snag a kicker off the waiver wire just before the season begins.
Other Good Rounds: Last
No, really. Wait until the end of the draft to take a defense and kicker unless your league's scoring is weighted towards those positions.
And kicker-heavy fantasy leagues are something of a rarity.