I have never put on football pads, laced up cleats, and gone out and gotten knocked off my feet on a gridiron. In fact, the closest I’ve come to playing organized football is intramural flag football at college. Which gets intense, don’t get me wrong, but I have a feeling there’s a slight difference between that and the game that we all love to sit down and watch on Sundays. Not only do I not have any playing experience, but because I am only 21 years old, I have not been watching football for a very long time compared to many people. But don’t write me off just yet.
I have done one thing for longer than a lot of people can say they have: I’ve been playing fantasy football for about 8 years now. I have my dad to thank for that one. He started letting me “help him” get ready for his drafts every year until in 2005, he brought me to a draft for the first time. I was 13 years old. Let me paint that picture for you: Little 13 year old me, in my Steve McNair jersey (because come on, what else would I wear to my first fantasy football draft?), with 10 guys around a table as they all drank beer and made jokes that I wouldn’t understand for years. I’m sure my dad got some flak for bringing a little kid to the draft, but our team, “Thunder and Lightning,” was no joke. And since that draft, I’ve been nothing short of obsessed with fantasy football. And damn proud of it. I started my first league with 7 of my friends in middle school. I kept track of the rosters, schedule, pickups, and scores by hand because I didn’t want to pay for a site to organize the league. Try to imagine a 14 year old with a folder full of that stuff and you’ll start to get an idea of how serious I take fantasy now.
8 years later, my dad finally let me own my own team in his 12 team money league last season, and I had the most points and best record for the season before losing in the championship. So yeah, despite still being a kid and never playing the game on the field, I’d like to say I know a thing or two about fantasy football. Specifically, I’ve learned a few guidelines over the years that I now abide by because they have held true regardless of format or season. Every season is different when it comes to position scarcity, and every league has little nuances that change how valuable players are, but when it boils down to it, each of these rules is something that will help you beat the competition on draft day.
Rule #1 (also known as the rule you better follow, or you’re not allowed to read anymore): Thou shalt not draft a kicker until the last round
Seriously, this deserved biblical phrasing. Don’t draft a kicker until the last round. You will be ridiculed for the remainder of your time on this earth. If you somehow manage to pick a kicker that loses his job or just isn’t scoring, there’s this magical place called the waiver wire where you’ll probably find a top 5 kicker. If you really need to be convinced as to why you shouldn’t waste a pick on a kicker, fine. Here’s a real stat for you: Last year, Stephen Gostkowski was the only projected top 5 kicker to end up in the top 10 at the end of the season. In fact, only 2 of the projected top 10 kickers actually ended up in the top 10. So on top of kickers being the position with the least difference in points from top to bottom, preseason kicker rankings literally mean nothing. Move along now.
Rule #2: Don’t draft a defense until the last 3 rounds (in a 10 team league)
This one is a little less universally followed, but one that I’ve adopted over the past few years. As great as it is to own an elite defense (think the Ravens or Bears at the top of their game in the 2000s), the price tag is pretty high. If you’re going to be the first one to draft a defense this year, it’ll be the Seahawks or 49ers, who are both going on average in the 7th round. Also going in the 7th round this year? Torrey Smith, James Jones, DeSean Jackson, and Pierre Garcon. All receivers with question marks, sure, but also guys who are either the #1 or 2 option on their team and a more than serviceable option with the chance of outperforming their draft position. The fact of the matter is most weeks, defenses don’t have make or break performances. They hover around 4-7 points (in standard leagues) and you hope for a small bonus for points allowed and a handful of sacks. Sometimes even the best defenses put up zeroes (SF had -1 once last season and nothing at all 3 times). And there are always a few defenses that come out of the woodworks and have a great season thanks to return touchdowns and other unpredictable circumstances. So in a 10 team league, all you have to do is pay attention on the waiver wires throughout the year and you’ll end up with a good enough defense. Worst case scenario? Pick up whoever is playing the Jaguars or Jets…
Note: this is a rule to be followed for a 10 team league only. The bigger the league, the less opportunity you have on the waiver wires and the more important your draft becomes. Example: in my 14 team league this year, I plan on being one of the first 3 people to draft a defense. All rules are not created equally
Rule #3: Don’t go along with a position run
This rule really extends to just don’t let how other people are drafting affect the way you draft. You’ve done your research, done mock drafts to test out different strategies (you have done that, right?), and you know how you want your ideal draft to go. So when the random tight end run in the 5th or 6th round happens, don’t panic and draft Kyle Rudolph (if you want to be extra safe, just don’t ever draft Kyle Rudolph). Continue to fill the other needs that your roster has, and if your pick was going to be a tight end until the guys you wanted were taken, just wait! Don’t get peer pressured into making a pick you know shouldn’t have been taken for another 2 rounds. Mock drafting is great because it helps you figure out approximately how long you can wait on your sleeper picks, but you can never tell how your actual draft is going to go because, let’s face it, there’s always at least one guy in your league that plays by no rules but his own. And all it takes is that one guy to start a chain reaction and affect everyone else’s draft strategy. But not yours. Stay the course and just continue to build your team the way you intended on building it. Drafting unaffected by your league mates isn’t always easy, but if you can steer clear of their influences you can take advantage of their mistakes.
Rule #4: Minimize risk, maximize consistency early on
Other than the kickers rule, this one is the most important one to remember on draft day: A league is not won in the first few rounds, but it can be lost there. In general, as long as you draft the right way in the first few rounds (read: you don’t do anything stupid) you will have a solid nucleus for your team, as will the rest of your competition. But as the best available players start going from surefire starters to unproven rookies and the like, that is when you turn your team into a champion. Early on, there are players who fall in the high risk/high reward category because of injury concerns, lack of consistency, being on the Bills, etc. If your first two or three picks all fall into this category, you better be a leprechaun or know where to find Stevie Wonder in those superstition commercials because you’re going to need a whole lot of luck to come out on top. I’m not saying avoid these players completely, because if the risk works out for you then you could end up winning your league. But the more risks you take early on instead of grabbing the guy you know is going to be a solid pick, the more chance that your team becomes the laughing stock of the league.
Rule #5: Your bench has a purpose. Use it correctly
Read that one again. Your bench is not the picks that you throw away while you brag about how amazing your starters are. Believe it or not, there is a correct way to assemble your bench just like you did with your starting lineup, and it can make a huge difference in the outcome of your season. Each player on your bench should have a purpose, not just a waste of a roster spot. The first role is an obvious one: the potential fill in. These bench guys can replace one of your starters if need be, whether that be on a bye week or in the case of an injury. Think consistency with these players. Maybe they aren’t the type to break out and win you a week, but they’ll get you enough that you can get by while you wait for the return of your starter. The remainder of your bench should be boom or bust type players. Backups of injury risk starters, rookies who might earn playing time, and other breakout candidates. Someone is going to go from relative unknown to weekly starter, and it’s much easier to end up with one if he’s already on your bench than if you have to duke it out with the rest of your league on the waiver wire for him. One last thing about bench players: they should all be running backs or wide receivers in standard sized leagues. Seriously. They are the positions that you will most likely need replacements for and the most likely positions to break out. I’ll allow you (yes, you needed my permission) to have a backup QB if you drafted RGIII or another QB with injury risk. But that’s the limit. Don’t own 2 defenses. Don’t own 2 tight ends. That’s what the waivers are for. You’ll notice I left out the possibility of owning 2 kickers. That’s because nobody that has ever read anything about fantasy football has thought about owning two kickers at the same time. I’m quite sure that if there were such a person in existence, he/she would not have made it this far in my article anyway, as they are far beyond my help.
Other than following these rules, the best way to ensure success in your league this year is by mock drafting. Test out these strategies and see how you like the way your team looks afterwards. Leading up to a draft, I mock at least once a day, more depending on how the first one goes. Try out every different strategy you can think of until you find the one that is right for you, because the more prepared you are for whatever comes your way on draft day, the better chance you have of winning.
I will be writing more fantasy related articles leading up to the start of the season, and you can follow me on twitter @PF_Flyers14 if you want to get my take on any of the happenings in preseason in slightly shorter 140 character bursts rather than the over 2000 word article you’ve just read. Congrats, by the way, on getting to the end of my rambling. Just in case you liked it, I promise there will be more to come.