Fantasy football is a simple game, but mastering it is very difficult. There are so many factors that come into play over four months, ranging from waiver-wire prowess to plain luck, that even longtime players aren't guaranteed success.
One of the few constants is the fact that the foundation of a championship squad is built through the draft. It's vital to come away from the selection process with a strong base because no number of in-season pickups will be enough to overcome a poor draft.
It comes down to research and a clear draft strategy to ensure there isn't mass chaos every time an owner is on the clock. With that in mind, let's check out some basic tips and keys to start on the road toward a title-winning season in 2014.
Don't Force Running Back in Round 1
Running backs have dominated the opening round for a long time. Many owners have likely been involved in drafts where no other position was taken until Round 2. They were viewed as the most reliable options due to their high usage and touchdown totals.
Things are changing, though. Due to the rise in committee backfields and the more pass-oriented offenses, running backs are no longer a sure thing. They will still dominate the first handful of picks, but after that it's time to strongly consider another position.
Whether it's Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson or Jimmy Graham, there are options available elsewhere that will provide great value. Johnson, who, as Pro Football Focus illustrates, dominated on slant routes last season, is particularly intriguing after four straight huge campaigns:
It's better to take an elite player at another position than a running back with question marks just to follow the usual pattern. All told, it comes down to scoring as many points as possible, and the reliability of backs is on the decline, which should be reflected when creating a cheat sheet.
Avoid Kicker and Defense Until Last Rounds
One of the biggest mistakes that's still common around the world of fantasy football is the urge to fill out a starting lineup before moving to the bench. That means wasting a pick on a defense and kicker while there are still impact players available at other positions.
The Seattle Seahawks defense is outstanding and will probably lead the position in scoring. Yet, last season it only averaged five points per game more than the 12th-ranked defense. That's not a big enough gap to warrant a selection inside the top 10 rounds.
As for kickers, they should never be picked before the final two rounds. The difference between top kicker Stephen Gostkowski and No. 12 kicker Jay Feely was just 38 points last season. That's less than three points per week, leaving no upside to drafting the position early.
Use those middle rounds to bulk up the bench instead, preferably with as many promising running backs as possible. There is a far better chance one or two sleepers will help guide a team to a championship than a kicker or defense.
Build Rankings Around Preferred Targets
Another mistake owners make is sticking too close to the consensus when crafting their rankings. The purpose of creating a cheat sheet is to make sure you emerge from the draft with a group of players you believe are going to enjoy monster seasons, even if others don't agree.
For example, perhaps you think Rob Gronkowski will return to full strength this season and become an extremely valuable asset at a weak position. Lee Schechter of ESPNBoston.com passed along comments from the New England Patriots tight end, who's making progress.
"I'm not out here running routes or anything at 80 percent as you can see. I'm just running out there going full speed in the drills, but they are just limiting drills I can do from the contact," Gronkowski said. "When I can start getting contact, I will ease into it a little bit, but most likely when I get cleared to do contact, it will be full go, too."
His average draft position, according to ESPN, is currently in the middle of the third round. If he can stay healthy, however, he's worth an early Round 2 pick. Those confident in his ability to stay on the field for 16 games should rank him that way.
The same goes for every player an owner would consider a top target. Final rankings should reflect a personal outlook for the 2014 season, not the consensus one. That way you'll win or lose with players you actually wanted in the first place.
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