Fantasy Football 2014: Breaking Down Best Draft Strategy and Cheat Sheet

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Fantasy Football 2014: Breaking Down Best Draft Strategy and Cheat Sheet
Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

There is no tried-and-true fantasy strategy that transcends all leagues and drafts. There isn't a one-size-fits-all drafting ideology that will guarantee you success. The truth is, the real key to fantasy drafting is flexibility. 

How do you respond to that run on quarterbacks a round before you expected it? What do you do if that sleeper running back you were targeting is taken a few picks before you planned on nabbing him? What happens when you have one of those drafts where your targets aren't quite falling to you?

Those are the factors that really make a draft. But there are a few things you can do to ensure you put yourself in a good position to weather the fantasy storms.

For starters, it's vitally important to have a rock-solid strategy for the early rounds in your draft. That's what we'll be focusing on here. Let's start by taking a look at my top 25 players in fantasy drafts this year. In a 10-man league, you ideally want to snag three of these players.

Mocking the Top 25 Fantasy Players
Draft Slot Player Team Position
1 LeSean McCoy Philadelphia Eagles RB
2 Adrian Peterson Minnesota Vikings RB
3 Jamaal Charles Kansas City Chiefs RB
4 Matt Forte Chicago Bears RB
5 Peyton Manning Denver Broncos QB
6 Marshawn Lynch Seattle Seahawks RB
7 Jimmy Graham New Orleans Saints TE
8 Calvin Johnson Detroit Lions WR
9 Eddie Lacy Green Bay Packers RB
10 Drew Brees New Orleans Saints QB
11 Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers QB
12 Arian Foster Houston Texans RB
13 A.J. Green Cincinnati Bengals WR
14 Demaryius Thomas Denver Broncos WR
15 Zac Stacy St. Louis Rams RB
16 Doug Martin Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB
17 Dez Bryant Dallas Cowboys WR
18 Brandon Marshall Chicago Bears WR
19 DeMarco Murray Dallas Cowboys RB
20 Alfred Morris Washington RB
21 Julio Jones Atlanta Falcons WR
22 Cam Newton Carolina Panthers QB
23 Matt Stafford Detroit Lions QB
24 Le'Veon Bell Pittsburgh Steelers RB
25 Jordy Nelson Green Bay Packers WR

This year is a tricky season for fantasy owners in the early rounds, much trickier than in years past. On one hand, after a season with so many duds, injuries and surprises at the running-back position, the prevailing logic this year would be to quickly snatch reliable running backs early and often. 

On the other hand, how many truly reliable running backs are there? Last season, players like Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Trent Richardson were all either first- or second-round picks. Be it due to injury, a timeshare in the backfield or simply a surprising dip in form, all were major flops.

They weren't the only ones. Stevan Ridley couldn't hold on to the ball. Darren McFadden again couldn't stay on the field. Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson were less effective than in years past. More than a few teams relied on a backfield-by-committee approach.

Sleepers and pleasant surprises emerged, like Zac Stacy, Knowshon Moreno and Eddie Lacy, but in general, the position led to more than a few fantasy players pulling out their hair. 

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

And that's why the early rounds are so tricky this year. Generally in the first two rounds you target can't-miss players, guys you know are safe picks and will reliably produce points on a weekly basis. You can take calculated risks in these rounds, but you are never simply throwing all of your eggs into the "potential" basket here. 

But this year, how many running backs can you truly rely on?

Barring injury, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch all seem pretty safe. Sure, Charles will probably see his touchdown total drop. Yes, Lynch's insane workload over the past three seasons is somewhat concerning. But in general, the top five at the position is your "I can sleep soundly knowing I drafted this player" tier.

Lacy seems like a pretty safe selection himself, but if Aaron Rodgers stays healthy for a full season and the Green Bay Packers air it out, Lacy's upside isn't as high as the top-five guys. Still, toward the end of the first round, he's a strong pick.

After that come the question marks. For starters, can players like Foster and DeMarco Murray stay healthy? The following tweet from John McClain of the Houston Chronicle might give you pause:

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Is Stacy the real deal, or will Tre Mason eat into his touches? Was Martin's rookie season an aberration? (He wasn't having a great year when he got hurt, remember.) Alfred Morris seems safe, but his upside seems tempered, especially with Washington more likely to air it out with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed in the passing game. Will Le'Veon Bell score enough touchdowns to have a big season?

All of those players should be considered in the second round. The problem is, safer players will also be available in that round.

If Rodgers or Drew Brees fall into the second round, don't you want to take the sure thing at quarterback? What about sure things at wide receiver like A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall? What do you do if Jimmy Graham drops? (Though he really should be a first-rounder.)

And let's not forget about Julio Jones, who should have a big year. We may not see him a ton in the preseason, of course, but his receivers coach Terry Robiskie said he's coming along nicely in camp, per Mark Inabinett of AL.com:

It's just the fact that he's moving good. Most of the time guys who are coming off an injury, you've got that little gimp or you see a sense of it on a certain cut or a certain plant. ... He's just been smooth. He's gliding. He's running. ... But to say he's back 100 percent, I can't say that. But he's moving really, really good.

So there's that to consider as well. All of this raises the question: Do you take the plunge on a riskier running back, or do you go with the surer thing at a different position?

Honestly, this is where you need to take the temperature of your league. If running backs are flying off the board fast and furious in the second round, take the plunge on a back. There will be value at the other positions later in the draft.

But if there is a sudden run on quarterbacks or wide receivers, join it. Gladly take the safer player in the second round and nab your backs a round or two later, when all of the players left all come with their own risk anyway. 

Chris Tilley/Associated Press

After all, the draft is about balancing reliability with upside. You never want to overpay for potential early in the draft. You never want to make low-upside picks later in the draft. You're trying to maximize value with every selection, which is why you stay safe early on and start to take bigger risks as the draft reaches the later rounds.

How you start your draft will dictate how you finish it, though. When in doubt in those first two or three rounds, take the safer option. 

 

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