NFL Fantasy Football 2011: The Ultimate Guide

Tom ShelleyCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2011

NFL Fantasy Football 2011: The Ultimate Guide

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    Now that the Collective Bargaining Agreement has been signed and the NFL Preseason starts this weekend, fantasy football leagues are gearing up for another season.

    Millions play fantasy football, but only a few make it deep in their league's playoffs. Some get there by luck, but the consistent winners rely on much more than that to dominate. This guide will help you stack up to the competition.

    Whether you've had experience in fantasy football or are brand new to this exciting game, check out this guide to winning your league.

    Please note: This is an overall guide on how to play fantasy football. It does NOT examine individual players or teams other than to provide examples for each topic. It bears no bias towards any team or player.

How Does Fantasy Football Work?

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    Those of you who are seasoned fantasy veterans can move on to the next slide, but for those who are new to the game should continue reading.

    So how does this whole fantasy football thing work?

    In a nutshell, you are picking the players in a draft and free agency (also called the "waiver wire") who perform consistently the best at their position, regardless of team. In essence, you're creating a team of the best players and team defense possible.

    Once you have your players, you will start a certain amount of offensive players, a team defense and possibly defensive players. Each week you can select up to your league's pre-defined number of players per position and they "start" for your team. You will be matched up against someone else's players that week and whoever gets the most points from their starting players wins that match-up.

    Before your league's draft, check out their rules on scoring. Most leagues reward a big play (like a touchdown or interception) more than just accumulating yards.

    This means that a quarterback who throws three touchdowns and for 100 yards is more valuable than a quarterback that throws for 300 yards but no touchdowns.

    You also want to stay away from a quarterback or running back who makes a lot of mistakes. Leagues tend to deduct points for interceptions or fumbled balls. Make sure you're not picking up a guy who has problems taking care of the ball.

    Statistics like that can be found nearly anywhere. Use your favorite search engine or sports website to check a player out before you go and draft him.

Step One: Research, Research, Research

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    Unless you want to end up like Taco or The Dre from The League (who drafted Tiki Barber years after he retired), you need to do your research.

    The first place to start is offseason moves. What players did teams draft in the first few rounds? Which players retired? Who went where in free agency?

    Why is this important?

    For instance, Kevin Kolb would be an OK pick at quarterback, but now that he's in Arizona will he do as well? He's only had a week to practice in the new system. This means he probably will come along slower than someone who's been with a team for a few years. This also drops the stock of any Arizona receivers (ie Larry Fitzgerald). On the flip side of the coin, this increases the stock of whoever starts at running back for them as they will run the ball more with a new quarterback in their system.

    Another example would be the Ravens picking up Ricky Williams. Ray Rice is not a bad pickup for any fantasy team as he had around 1,700 all-purpose yards last year. However, with the addition of Williams, will Rice see fewer carries? What about around the goal line? You don't want to draft Rice only to find out that Williams will be their goal line back since you get more points for touchdowns than yards gained.

    How do you find out how the players will be utilized? Check out recaps of preseason games and look at a team's depth chart. This can give you a decent indication of how much a player will be used.

    Additionally, you may want to check some of the less apparent statistics on a player.

    For example, how many times were they targeted? Does a team utilize its tight end as a blocker more or as a pass-catcher? How many yards per carry does a certain running back get? If he rushed for 100 yards, but it was on 40 carries, that indicates that they may not have a high level of talent or a good offensive line to block for them.

Step Two: Pre-Draft Strategy

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    As your league's draft looms in the near future, you need to develop your draft strategy. A good draft can make or break your season.

    For instance, will you draft for best talent available or need for a certain position? What position will you draft first? Second? Wide receiver? Running back? Quarterback? Depending on your league's scoring rules, some positions are set to provide you with more potential points than others.

    Also, take a look at the fantasy football player rankings from your favorite sports news website. ESPN does a great job of putting this information out there and also sorting it out by position. Then take these rankings and compare them to how you rank each player and create your own list of top players.

    For each round, especially the first few, come up with a contingency plan in case the player you wish to draft has already been taken. For example, if you wanted to draft a running back in the first round, but all the top-tier guys have been taken, see if it would be more valuable to draft a top quarterback or wide receiver instead and maybe wait until the next round to see if you can snag a running back then.

    Chances are the draft will not play out how you want, so having a backup plan is vital.

Step Three: The Draft

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    The day has come. It's draft time.

    Whether you do a live draft or use an online service, the draft is where you assemble your team for the season.

    So what to do when it comes time for the big event?

    Firstly, make sure you have the most current versions of each team's depth chart handy (you don't want to accidentally draft a guy who didn't even make the 53 man roster). This can be vital in the later rounds of the draft when you may be drafting a 2nd or 3rd wide receiver or backup running back.

    Second, make sure you have your player rankings and draft strategy ready to go (and hidden from any competitors if your draft is live).

    Third, if you're drafting online, log in early. The worst thing that could happen is your Flash Player needs updating or some technical problem. You will be on auto-draft if the draft starts without you and that can be disaster.

    Fourth, if you're of legal drinking age, I highly recommend you wait to crack open that fresh cold brew until after the draft. You want to have a clear mind and be prepared for anything during the draft. Getting tipsy may cause you to react emotionally during the draft and draft someone you wouldn't have otherwise. Besides, what's a better way to reward yourself for an awesome draft than having a cold one after it ends?

    Fifth, feel free to engage in mental warfare. I drafted online last year but half of the people in the league were in the same room. I convinced my father who wanted Mike Wallace of the Steelers that he wouldn't be taken until the fifth round then proceeded to take him late in the fourth. He was upset, but all is fair when it comes to fantasy football. Remember, anger is temporary, but a championship is forever.

    Also, the first half of the draft should be proven commodities. Do not take a rookie or new free agent on a team early unless they have a great supporting cast around them. For instance, AJ Green may be a phenomenal athlete, but remember he has a rookie quarterback throwing to him. He's someone who will probably be available in the later rounds of the draft.

    Now that you've drafted your team, it's time to move on to the next step...

Step Four: The Starting Lineup

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    OK, so you've got your team, how do you decide who to start?

    Much like drafting, starting players is a series of educated guesswork.

    Look at the teams each player is facing.

    For instance, starting a quarterback against the number one ranked or dominant pass defense is probably not a good idea (like Philadelphia this year). On the other hand, if a player is facing a weak defense, it is imperative that you start them.

    For instance, last year I picked up Ryan Torain off the waivers. I hadn't started him in a few weeks due to sub-par running (and injury) and then I saw in week 14 he was playing Tampa Bay. They had allowed quite a few big games for running backs so I started him. He broke out that game for his biggest game of the year with 172 yards rushing.

    Look at each player's match up each week and field who you think will perform the best.

Step Five: The Waiver Wire

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    If you want to truly make it deep into the playoffs, you need to check and see who has stepped up for their team that hasn't been drafted.

    For instance, in my league last year as well as several others, Arian Foster was undrafted and remained on the waiver wire for a few weeks then went on to rush for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. If anyone realized how well he was going to do he would have been drafted in the first round.

    This example also leads to my next point.

    I picked up Foster after his breakout 231 yard 3 touchdown performance in week one, but dropped him after his week five 25 yard 0 touchdown game. He was scooped up by the guy who eventually beat me in the championship game. I didn't exercise enough patience with him and should have kept him on the team.

    Waiver players are tough bets. Sometimes they get hyped up, only to be a one week wonder. On the other hand, maybe they go on to be last year's Foster.

    So how do you decide who to pick up? Consider the team they were facing. Was it a weak defense? Did they start because of an injury to a starter? And if so, is that player coming back and taking that role over? Research these things as well as looking at actual game footage to determine if the player should be taken.

    I recommend you look at the waiver wire at least three or four times per week.

Step Six: Injuries

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    What about injuries? What do you do if one of your starters gets hurt? How do you know if a player will start or not? You need to check every week before selecting your starting lineup to see if a player is on the injury report.

    First, let's make sure you know the different terms an injured player is listed under.

    Probable: There is a 75% chance that player will play. Chances are you can go ahead and start this player. Unless it's an injury to a vital part of their game (ie a hamstring or groin injury for a speedy running back or a QB's throwing arm) you can go ahead and start this player.

    Questionable: 50% chance this player will play. You should take extreme caution when starting a player listed as questionable. Some players (like Antonio Gates) will still try to play in the game, but most of the time it's a crap shoot as to whether they will be on the field.

    Doubtful: 25% chance the player will be on the field. Most likely you should NOT play someone who is listed as doubtful.

    Out: This player will not be on the field. Check and see how long this injury will last, for if he is put on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, you should probably drop them in favor of someone more healthy (the backup to the position if available, is a good place to start).

    I drafted Jermichael Finley (pictured above) last year, and while he can be a stud in a great Green Bay passing offense, he was injured for the season last year. It's at this point you need to drop the player from your team and either start someone from your bench or pick someone off of the waiver wire.

Advanced Strategies: Team Trends

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    The previous slides can help you assemble a good team, but to push your team over the top without using blind luck you should consider some of the following slides.

    A more complicated statistic to look at is a team's trends on offense. Some teams like to pound the football more, whereas some like to air it out. This is an important trend to examine before you decide to draft a certain player.

    For instance, it is well known in a lot of fantasy circles that in previous years the Indianapolis Colts have preferred their passing game over their running game, even in red zone situations.

    This reduced the value of someone like Joseph Addai. He may be a decent running back, but remember, this is about trying to accumulate the most points and touchdowns are worth more than yards.

    On the other hand, this increases the value of Peyton Manning, a perennial early quarterback selection.

    Another excellent example was Green Bay last year after they lost Ryan Grant leading into the playoffs.

    There was a steep drop-off in talent between Ryan Grant and his backup, James Starks. While the fantasy gurus told us to pick up Starks, what they neglected to realize was how big of a talent difference there was and how it would change the offensive philosophy.

    In three games, Starks rushed for a total of 101 yards and no touchdowns. That's not each game. That means his average yards per game was 33.7.

    Yikes.

    This is not totally his fault as he averaged only around 10 rushes per game.

    The reason is that the Packers realized they had way more explosive weapons in their passing game, so they virtually shut down their running game.

    So rather than picking up Starks on the waivers, it would have been been more advantageous to go out and get the Packers' third or fourth string wide receiver (or their backup tight end after Jermichael Finley got injured) than to get their second string running back. In addition, the value of Aaron Rodgers skyrocketed.

    In summation, take a look at how much a team runs or throws the ball and what their offensive identity is. Read some interviews with their quarterback or head coach.

    Some teams will flat out say they plan on running the ball more or passing more in the upcoming season. For other teams, you're going to have to do a little more research than that.

Team Trends Part Deux: The Running Back Committee

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    One thing that must be considered before drafting a running back (especially early) is whether a team believes in having a definite starting running back or if they have a running back committee.

    A team that has more than one running back that they start on any given play can be extremely difficult to figure out in terms of which back will get the most yards and/or touchdowns.

    A prime example of this was 2010's New England Patriots.

    On their week one roster last year, they listed Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor and then Sammy Morris.

    In their first game against the Bengals, Fred Taylor had the most rushes at 14 attempts for 71 yards, yet 3 other backs saw at least one snap.

    Then you added Danny Woodhead to the mix who started to see some snaps.

    By week 3 you had Green-Ellis carrying the ball 16 times for 98 yards and a score and Woodhead who rushed three times for 48 yards and a score.

    So where Fred Taylor seemed to be the feature back to start the season, Green-Ellis eventually took over and a former Jet seemed to be the clear second stringer while everyone else got left in the dust.

    The point is, you seldom know what you're going to get when it comes to running back by committee. It can be a crap shoot as to who gets the most carries any given week, and in this writer's opinion you should stay away from running backs that are a part of a system like this until very deep in the draft.

Advanced Strategies: Picking a Top Tier Defense

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    Picking an elite team defense can be extremely tricky.

    However, there are ways to increase your chances of having one of the best in the league.

    First, look at where the team ranked in rush and passing defense over (at least) the past three years. Have they gotten better? Have they consistently ranked in the top five or 10 defenses? Are they on the rise, or the decline? This is a great place to start.

    Next, take a look at key retirements, injuries, draft picks and trades. Did a team pick up some dominant defensive players? Did they lose key starters? Did they pick up a stud linebacker (or other position) in the draft? This will increase or decrease a defense's value depending on the results.

    If you're still unsure of who to pick at this point, take a look at their defensive coordinator. Is he well-respected around the league? There are a few top-tier defensive coordinators who tend to whip their defense into shape and confuse opposing quarterbacks year after year. You should be familiar with who they are. A great defensive coordinator can sometimes turn mediocre talent into a fearsome defense.

    Finally, believe results over hype. Seldom does a team go from the 25th ranked defense to the number two ranked defense in one offseason. Sometimes the addition of a few great players can take a good team and make it great, but a few good acquisitions cannot change an awful defense overnight.

    Chances are, in most leagues the Eagles defense will get picked very early. My advice to you is if they fall to a good spot to pick your team defense, they're not a bad team to chose. However, do not fall into the hype trap and pick them up prematurely. If someone else in the league does, stick to your guns and pick a great defense when the time comes. Trust me, there are at least 3 or 4 team defenses who will perform in the same ballpark who don't believe in hype - just results and hard hitting.

Other Advanced Strategies

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    Finally, here are a few more things to consider.

    The first is bye week stacking. Analysts go back and forth on this, but I believe it is a sound tactic. Basically, you draft so that the majority of your players have a bye week on the same week. The logic behind this is that while you'll have a poor week one week, you wont have to worry about exchanging out starters any of the other weeks and thereby dominate the majority of your match-ups. Most leagues go for at least 13 weeks before the playoffs are seeded, so losing one game won't affect your record too much.

    The other is trading players. I list this as an advanced strategy because it is incredibly easy to get taken advantage of in a trade. If you wish to trade with another player, do your research. Make sure you're not trading away a proven commodity (like Tom Brady, for instance) for someone who may or may not have a good season. On the other hand, if you have an abundance of players at a position and one of them had a great week, consider trading that player because of the increase in their hype. You might land a considerably better player because of one good week.

    Remember:

    1) Be ruthless. You're playing to win.

    2) Other players are in it to win it as well. Never ever trust another person in your league during the season.

    3) Do your research! Check out what multiple analysts and multiple websites have to say about players and teams every couple of days. Remember, those pro analysts are doing the same guesswork as you. They can be just as wrong as anyone else. No one can predict the future.

    4) Have fun! In the end, this is a game of educated guesswork. You could have a stacked team after the draft only to have them all have down seasons. It happens. But as long as you're having fun, it'll be a successful season no matter what!