For millions of football fans, it is time to get serious about drafting our fantasy football teams. A good draft will mean five months of making fun of your friends as you crush your league. A bad draft and you will soon dread checking on your team as you drift further and further from the playoffs.
Below are my five tried and true tips to give you the best chance at making the playoffs in your league. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been playing fantasy football since 2002, with five trips to the podium in eight years.
1. Understand your league rules
Everyone who does a fantasy tips article tells you to understand your league rules. These articles do not always do a good job of explaining why this is so important. Every fantasy football magazine and every set of online player rankings is done assuming some sort of standard rules. The odds are that your league’s rules will have a few wrinkles from those used in the ESPN, KFFL or Yahoo rankings. These wrinkles are going to make those standard player rankings wrong for your league.
If I use my league as an example, we get 1 point for every 20 passing yards (standard is 1 for 25), 6 points for a passing touchdown (standard often 4 points), 1 point for every reception (some rankings do not factor this in) and we get 1 point for every 25 return yards (standard ranking typically ignore the return game).
The implications for my league are:
- Quarterbacks are a little more valuable than standard rankings.
- Running backs that catch balls are more valuable than ones that don’t.
- RBs and wide receivers who return kicks are more valuable than standard rankings.
- Tight ends that catch a lot of passes have tremendous value.
If you understand the implications of your league rules, you will value certain players more than the rest of the league.
2. Create your own predraft rankings
Now that you understand how your league rules will impact the value of certain types of players, it is time to create your own predraft rankings. Historically, I would start by purchasing a fantasy magazine so I could read up on all the players who might become fantasy stars. I would then create a spreadsheet that calculated the average per game points at each position. This would let me compare the relative value of a QB vs. a RB vs. a WR vs. a TE. I would then break each position into tiers and finalize a strategy.
I know, I know, that sounds like more work than it is worth. Fortunately, there are sites out there that do all of this work and more. This year, I stumbled onto the Kubiak spreadsheet which is part of the Football Outsiders product offering. For $20, you can download a spreadsheet, insert all of your league rules and have it rank all of the players for you. There are all kinds of sweet toggles including factoring in injury risk and factoring in the strength of schedule during weeks 14-16.
* I have no affiliation with Football Outsiders and do not make any money if you go and buy their products. I am just a satisfied customer who wishes that he had thought of selling his spreadsheet back in the day.
The best part of the spreadsheet is that it also shows the rankings per ESPN, KFFL and Yahoo’s ADP for each player. What this does is clearly show you how your custom rankings compare to the standard league rankings. That will enable you to highlight at least a dozen players that would be great for your team that the rest of your league will ignore until later rounds.
3. Take part in mock drafts
If you are going to rock your draft, you need a chance to practice using your own predraft rankings. The most important thing to remember is to sit in the correct draft position. If you have a 10 team league and you are drafting 5th, you should always draft 5th in a 10 team mock draft.
The main things I try to get out of a mock draft are:
- Get comfortable with the first two rounds of the draft. By the time I am done with my mock drafts, I have a very short list of the likely players I will end up with. Last year I was drafting 12 out of 12 and knew that I would get either Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson and Drew Brees or Steve Slaton. If I took Slaton I would try to pick Aaron Rogers, Phillip Rivers or Tony Romo in the third round.
- Get comfortable with where you will draft those coveted players you identified in your predraft rankings. If you have a guy ranked 30th and the standard ranking is 70th, odds are you can get him in the 5th or 6th round. Mock drafts will confirm your gut feeling. This year I am drafting 3rd and am trying to see if I can get a guy I have ranked 6th overall in the fourth round. It seems like he will go in the fourth round just before my pick. Now I know that I will have to take him in the third round if I truly want him on my team.
- Play around with drafting QBs early and late. I like to see how good a team I can draft if I take a QB in the first three rounds. I compare that to taking a QB in the 7th or 8th round. I want to be ready to go either way on draft day.
- Play around with drafting a TE in the 4th or 5th round, or taking one much later. Same goals as the QB.
My advice to you is figure out what you want to learn from mock drafts and then do as many as you feel necessary to get totally comfortable with your draft strategy.
4. Stick to your draft strategy come draft day
This tip is critical to your success at the drafting table. I mentioned above that I had done a bunch of mock drafts and had settled on a top WR in the first round and a top QB/ best available RB in the second round. I probably did fifteen mock drafts and either Fitzgerald or Johnson was always picked prior to the 12th pick. About half the time, Brees was sitting there.
Our draft day arrived and off we went. Pick number 12 came up and there sat both Fitzgerald and Johnson and Brees! I was given a scenario that never came up in all the mock drafts that I had done. I should have picked Fitz or Johnson, and Brees. Instead I had a brain fart and took both Fitz and Johnson. I talked myself into dominating our league by having the top two WRs.
The problem was that I wasn’t ready to do the rest of the draft after starting with two WRs. The other QBs got picked in the third round; I again panicked and picked Kurt Warner. The flushing sound you just heard was my entry fee going down the toilet. I ended the season in 5th and out of the playoffs.
The lesson I learned was to stay absolutely committed to your draft strategy. You may leave a great player on the table, but your strategy already provides for great players in all positions. Do not confuse yourself by an impulsive draft pick.
5. Hit the waiver wire hard early in the season
Every year, there are a bunch of WRs and a few RBs that become top fantasy stars. Your job is to identify them and pick them up before your friends. For me, this involves watching the games and making gut decisions early. I will churn through a few different guys early in the season hoping I find a winning lottery ticket.
Last year, the one guy I identified really early on was Miles Austin. Unfortunately I was already loaded at WR so I did not pick him up. It was yet another reminder that I should have stated with my original draft strategy.
So ends my five tips on fantasy football success. Good luck to all of you that aren’t in one of my leagues. At least now my boys know that I have retired my spreadsheets and bought one that runs at a much higher octane.