10 Steps to Avoid Disaster in Your First Fantasy Football Draft
Fantasy football is a great way to get yourself more involved and excited about the NFL. It’s not often that a sport can pull together audiences that are both male, female, young, and old; but the NFL has done a great job of doing so by promoting the playing of fantasy football by its fans.
With each new year, the game of fantasy football grows and there is new blood for the fantasy veterans to feast upon. The experienced fantasy veterans know the tricks of the trade. They’ve been here before and they know how to capitalize on the rookie mistakes that they think you will make.
I’m here to help you avoid those mistakes and act like a fantasy veteran, even if you’re a rookie. By following these ten steps, and with a little luck, you will be well on your way to hoisting your league’s trophy at the end of the season.
1. Know Your League Rules
Like any game, the first step to winning is knowing the rules. Most fantasy football leagues follow a fairly similar scoring system, but you want to make sure that you know the in’s and out’s of your league’s scoring system before you even get started looking at the rest of the rules. Things like points-per-reception, individual player scoring on kick returns, and inflated touchdown scoring can change the way your draft will go.
Once you’re done looking at the scoring system, the next most important thing to look at with the rules has to do with the roster limits. Most leagues are similar in scoring, but there is a lot of variance in the number of players and positions that a team may have from league to league. Your league may have a cap on the number of running backs that a team can have, or you might be required to have a backup at every position, or you might be free to do whatever you want to do with your roster. In any event, knowing the roster rules will allow you to avoid surprises on draft day. In order to do this, you should understand some of the odd position titles you might see from your league’s starting lineup:
Team Quarterback (TQB) – This position is used to designate an entire team’s quarterback position. This means that any player listed as a Quarterback on a team’s NFL roster will get you fantasy points. This position isn’t used in many leagues, but it does change the fantasy values of quarterbacks for leagues that do use it. For 2010, this position might increase the value of the Philadelphia Eagles TQB and the Pittsburgh Steelers TQB. With Mike Vick seeing a handful of snaps each game, the owner of the Eagles TQB would receive points both when Mike Vick and Kevin Kolb are on the field. As such, the owner of the Steelers TQB would receive points both from Ben Roethlisberger when he returns from suspension as well as his replacements while he is out.
Running Back / Wide Receiver Flex (RB/WR) – This position is becoming more common and the roster spot can be filled by either a running back or a wide receiver.
Wide Receiver / Tight End Flex (WR/TE) – Like the other flex position, this is a position that can be filled by either a wide receiver or tight end.
Offensive Utility Position (UTIL) – This position is used more commonly in fantasy baseball than it is fantasy football, but it is a unique position that can change a league in an instant. This position can be filled by any offensive player: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end. The most common position used as a UTIL will be quarterback in most scoring systems, but pay attention to the scoring system in your league to determine if a running back or wide receiver might be a better option.
Team Defense / Special Teams (D/ST) – This position is used in almost all fantasy football leagues and refers to an entire team’s defense and special teams unit. Scoring can include things like sacks, interceptions, fumbles, and touchdowns both on defense and special teams.
Keep in mind the number of players that are in your starting lineup. If you’re in a standard league with only one QB and TE position in your lineup, consider that you will only need one of them each week and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have two ‘elite’ players at those positions unless you plan on trading one.
Once you’ve looked through the scoring system, roster requirements, and other rules, you can start to get ready for your draft.
2. Be Prepared — Have a Cheat Sheet
Every fantasy football owner should have what is commonly referred to as a “cheat sheet” when they are at their draft. A cheat sheet is a list of rankings, by position, that you will use to draft your team. While many experienced players will have their own customized cheat sheets, new players would be wise to stick to the experts’ advice. Websites such as ESPN.com, NFL.com, Yahoo.com, and BleacherReport.com are full of cheat sheets that are free for all fantasy players. You can also search around the internet to find ones that might be better catered for your league’s scoring system.
As your draft commences, be sure to cross off the names of the players who have been drafted. By doing this, you will always be aware of what players are available and who you will be targeting with your next pick.
Whatever you do, don’t use a magazine. While magazines have been the preferred method of finding cheat sheets since fantasy football started, they are now an outdated method. Due to the simple fact that a magazine cannot be updated, they are not up-to-date with the most recent injures or depth chart changes that may have happened. Between the time the magazine cheat sheet is written and the time you buy it off the shelf, there can be weeks or even months in time that has passed. Websites, particularly the bigger websites, are updated daily.
When your draft is happening, don’t panic. Look at your cheat sheet; make your decisions calmly and without thinking about what other people will think of your pick. Many people will try to frazzle you by snickering at your pick or making a comment about how a certain player isn’t as good as you think that they are. Most of these people are just trying to get you riled up and get you to make a bad decision.
For the most part, if you go off of your cheat sheet and follow the other tips in this article, you will do just fine. I generally advocate pretty much drafting straight down your “Top-100” list for the first 4-5 rounds of the draft. After that, you may want to look into your positions of need.
If you're looking for my own personal 'cheat sheet', look no further:
3. Watch For Injuries & Suspensions
This one seems obvious, but in almost every draft with newer fantasy players that I have been a part of, someone has reached to draft a player who is either injured or suspended for a decent chunk of the season.
Look at the injury reports before your draft. There are a few subscription websites which do a great job of reporting fantasy-relevant injury news, but if you’re not a part of them, CBS Sportsline also has a pretty good injury page, albeit not fantasy-specific:
4. Have Anticipation of Moves By Other Owners
Following your cheat sheet can help you keep your draft on track for the most part, but it does not take into account what the other people in your league are doing.
Let’s say you drafted 9th in a 10-team league. It’s now the 5th round and you’re looking at drafting either QB Philip Rivers or RB Knowshon Moreno. You would like to get both of these players, but you know that the player drafting after you has two picks between your current pick and your next pick. You look at his roster and see that he drafted QB Drew Brees already. This should make your pick easy —you draft Knowshon Moreno with this pick. You do this because you’re assuming that the guy picking after you will not draft Philip Rivers because he already has a quarterback and doesn’t need another one. Thus, Philip Rivers is likely to be available to you with your next pick.
Situations like this happen a lot with tight ends and quarterbacks and can be particularly helpful if you’re near the beginning or end of the draft order. When you’re picking in the middle, it’s harder to determine exactly what other people are likely to do, but it can still be done — just try to look at the positions they need and who the best players are available at those positions.
5. Pay Attention to Positional Drop-offs (Tiers)
Although it is important to draft good players at every position, the best fantasy football minds would tell you to pay close attention to the major drop-offs in talent at the various positions.
Although most cheat sheets don’t break down into tiers, one good way to do this is to look at the auction values of the players, even if you’re not in an auction league. By doing this, you can see that there are sometimes a big grouping of players bunched together, followed by a big drop-off slightly afterwards. Even though a player may be ranked only one spot behind the guy above him, he might be a significantly less valuable fantasy commodity — the rankings themselves don’t always tell the story.
By paying attention to the tiers of players, you might veer a bit from your cheat sheet in order to get better value. Even though you might have a specific running back ranked higher overall than a specific tight end; you might determine that there is a big drop-off in tight end after the guy you’re looking at, while there are a number of guys who are pretty close to the running back you’re looking at. Because of this, you might draft the tight end first while hoping to land either the running back you were looking at with your next pick or at least someone close to his tier.
6. Look At Bye Weeks When Drafting Your Bench
While I feel that many people overvalue the “bye” weeks of their players, they are something to take into consideration, particularly at positions like quarterback and tight end, where you may only have one backup on your roster.
If you’re looking at backup quarterbacks late in the draft and you see that your starting quarterback has a week 9 bye, you should do your best to find a backup quarterback who does not share the same bye week.
This isn’t as important for running back or wide receiver, as you should be trying to draft a good number (five or more) of each of those positions and bye week replacements shouldn’t be much of an issue.
While you can always use free agency to pick up and drop players based on bye week scenarios, the talent pool can often times be depleted by the time you get around to picking someone up.
7. Don’t Overvalue Your ‘Sleepers’ or ‘Busts’
Every year, fantasy owners think they know who will be the breakout player of the year at various positions. And every year, most of them are wrong.
Although there are players who have breakout seasons every year, the majority of fantasy-relevant players remain the pretty much the same from year to year. Some may have better or worse years than we expect, but we have to go with the assumption that most players aren’t suddenly going to go from mediocre to great, or great to mediocre.
If you have a “hunch” about a certain player, feel free to pick him or avoid him — just don’t make it the only thing you consider. Just because you love WR Devin Hester doesn’t mean you should take him in the 8th round. And just because you hate RB Ryan Grant doesn’t mean you should let him fall to the 5th round.
8. Your Last Two Picks Should Be Your Defenses & Kicker
I can’t stress this enough — do not try to get cute and draft “the best defense” or “the best kicker.” These positions are far too random for you to be passing up on talent in earlier rounds for the chance that your defense or kicker is going to slightly outscore the other defenses and kickers.
In 2009, the top-scoring defense was the San Francisco 49ers. Their average draft position among defenses? 15th. In 2008, the top-scoring defense was the Baltimore Ravens. Their average draft position? 11th.
It’s a guessing game. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s, no matter how early they make their guess.
Even if every other team in your draft has taken a defense and a kicker, do not budge — wait until the last two rounds.
9. Avoid the “Favorite Player” and “Favorite Team” Virus
Letting personal feelings get in the way of fantasy value is a very common mistake that fantasy owners make every year. You might be the biggest fan in the world of your favorite team, but that has nothing to do with the fantasy value of the players on the team.
If you’re a Packers fan, don’t feel bad about drafting Matt Forte, just because he’s on the Bears. And don’t draft Jordy Nelson just because he’s a Packer. It doesn’t matter. You don’t get extra fantasy points because he’s a Packer, and you don’t get fantasy points taken away because Matt Forte is on your most-hated team.
Do not let your personal feelings get in the way of making a good fantasy decision.
10. Practice Makes Perfect: Make Use of Free Mock Drafts
The internet has changed fantasy football in many ways, but perhaps one of the biggest is the invention of the fantasy mock draft. A mock draft is a fake draft filled with real fantasy football players who are trying to prepare themselves for their real fantasy draft.
In a mock draft, you can practice your various draft strategies, acclimate yourself with the average draft position of your favorite sleepers, and just get a better feel for what it will be like on draft day. There are numerous websites which are running fantasy mock drafts at all times, but my personal favorite is ESPN. On ESPN, you can choose from leagues of different sizes (number of teams) and also choose between either a traditional ‘snake’ style draft or an ‘auction’ style draft.
Try to find a mock draft that mirrors your own league in terms of size and draft type. Complete a handful of mock drafts before your real draft to get prepared. ESPN’s software is great because it will email you the full results, round-by-round, of your draft, so you can see exactly what happened even after the draft is over.
Pay attention to the mistakes you make. If you find yourself thin at a certain position, make note of it for your next mock draft and try to determine when you could have made a better pick to help your position that you’re weak at.
The more prepared you are, the better off you will be during your real draft.