Fantasy Football Draft

Fantasy football draft day is the best day of the year for many fantasy footballers. I equate the day of the fantasy draft to Christmas morning for grown men. You finally get to unwrap your presents and see what kind of team you get. There are always surprises – not always pleasant ones – though most drafts are a mixed bag. Unlike Christmas, though, if you plan ahead and prepare for draft day, you’re going to walk home with a handful of great stuff to play with the whole year through. Well, at least through the next season.

Knowing how to plan for your fantasy football draft makes drafting a much more pleasant event. So I’m going to give instructions for fantasy football drafting, whether you’re one owner in the crowd, or the league commissioner. This is the big day, so make the most of it.

Fantasy Football Draft Kit

Below are the optimal supplies you want to have at a fantasy football draft. You can get by with a pen and paper, but if you want to hit on all cylinders, have these supplies at hand. You want redundancy, because pens and highlighters are prone to stop working, get lost or taken during the draft.

  • 2 Pens
  • 2 Yellow Highlighters
  • Player Lists by Position
  • Bye Week Schedule
  • Strength of Schedule
  • Last Year’s Stats
  • Spiral Notebook

Many players bring with them a fantasy magazine, which gives them a cheat sheet, bye week listings, schedule and sometimes even strength of schedule rankings. I don’t like having a fantasy mag with me at a draft. For one, you end up spending all day rifling through your magazine for the right information, instead of having it handy on one sheet of paper. Two, it looks bad for the other owners. You want them to see you prepared with original hand-written or hand-typed notes, instead of working against The Sporting News magazine from several months ago.

Back in the 1990’s, we had a late addition to our league, who showed up at the draft carrying a briefcase full of notes. That was impressive, because it looked like he’s come from some kind of fantasy football corporation, or he was bringing readouts from his fantasy football laboratory. After he won the league his first two years in, we talked about stealing his briefcase just before the draft. It was great fun to finally be the one to dethrone the guy, his third year in the league.

You want to be the guy with the briefcase – not the one holding the fantasy mag, trying to figure out how to steal the briefcase.

Prepare Draft Lists

Let me dwell on this point for a minute more. Prepare a draft list for your league’s scoring system. Don’t use a cheatsheet made to other scoring rules. If you use such a cheat sheet, make notes and alterations on it, so you don’t make bad decisions when you’re on the clock.

If you use a good fantasy league management website, such as “My Fantasy League”, you can go onto last year’s league website and print off the final points totals for each position, according to your league’s scoring rules. This is the absolute best resource you can have, to evaluate this years projections and rankings.

Pay Attention to Surging Players

When you have last year’s point totals before you, pay special attention to the final 6 weeks or so from last year. This is when a few players who breakout the next year start to come on. It’s a lot more telling to see what a player was doing when the last games were being played, as opposed to what they were doing in September of 2009. (See the Denver Broncos roster, which looked great going 6-0, but ended up losing 8 of their last 10 games. You don’t want to give them too much credit for that fast start.)

This is where MyFantasyLeague is so much better than CBS SportsLine, which dumps your league site the day after the Superbowl. On My Fantasy League, you can customize points parameters, seeing how teams did in Weeks 11 through 16, for example. The sleepers and breakout players literally jump off the page at you.

Evaluate Running Backs Differently

One exception to this rule is the running backs list. Every year, a handful of backups come in midseason or later, then have a month of brilliant games and big fantasy weeks. The next year, everyone assumes they are ready to become a huge fantasy star, and these guys often flop.

Why is that?

Imagine you’re an RB that hasn’t been on the field for any meaningful time until Week 10, your team’s 9th game of the year (due to bye weeks). Then imagine that all 11 players on the opposing defenses you’re running against have played 8 games, and are banged up, tired and sometimes even injured from the pounding. Then finally imagine the workhorse running back on your team gets a season-ending injury, thrusting you into the starting position.

This is a great place to be. You have fresh legs, while the players chasing you around the field and trying to power through you on tackles are worn down. Suddenly, an average back looks quicker, faster, and stronger. You look like you run harder, because you are able to run harder. You break arms tackles and fight for the extra yards. You break off long runs. You’re suddenly a stud NFL player, and a stud fantasy football rusher.

Then imagine it’s the start of the next year. You’ve won the starting job, and suddenly you shoulder the burden from Week 1. You play the same defenses, but those guys across the ball are fresher and stronger. By the time they get worn down, so are you. You just aren’t as effective.

Midseason Football Stars

There’s a long list of players that fit this description over the past 5 years or so: Julius Jones (Cowboys rookie season), Ryan Grant, Steve Slaton, Justin Fargas (several times), Mewelde Moore (for Vikings & Steelers), BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Derrick Ward, Ahmad Bradshaw, the list goes on and on.

I’m not saying this is always the case. Occasionally, a kid gets his chance and never looks back. But you have to take with a grain of salt certain performances, or give them a second long look, just to make sure. For instance, the scenario above describes Jamaal Charles, Justin Forsett and Jerome Harrison. You could say that Ricky Williams and Jonathan Stewart were relatively fresh, due to splitting time, at the end of last year, while Shonn Greene’s playoff production was the classic case of fresh legs against tired opponents.

This can be taken too far, of course. You can over-analyze anything, and sometimes a talented player is just going to excel. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t just assume that Jamaal Charles and Justin Forsett are as good as they showed over a month or a half-season, or that Jerome Harrison is going to rule in fantasy football, because he had a couple of big games in December. Sometimes, there are other factors, especially at the running back position – the position that athleticism and raw physicality are most important in football.

Have a Plan – Don’t Panic Early

Okay, so let’s imagine you have the 10th pick in a 12-team league. Certainly, you need a list of 15 players you feel comfortable drafting, since you’ll be drafting at the 10th pick and the 15th pick. But you want to have a series of contingency plans, in case the first round doesn’t go the way you expect it to. That means considering the players you have at the top of your draft list, including the ones you never expect to make it to that 10th pick. That also means planning for a “worst case scenario”.

Decide on a Draft Strategy – Example #1

Go into the draft with a strategy in place. Maybe you pick 10th overall and think the running backs are all about the same after the first 7-8 players, and you prefer to go with the “depth” approach to your running backs, getting a bunch of guys with “upside”. To offset a potential imbalance in talent at that position, you want to get your difference makers at a different position. Since your league is a point-for-reception league, you decide to draft two WRs to start your draft.

So you go WR-WR, then start to target a series of running backs starting in the 3rd round. This is usually insane, taking your best RB when they’re picked over (20th best, perhaps) in the 3rd round. But you’ll take another runner in the 4th, the 6th and the 8th, hoping that, with a lot of options, you’ll hit on a diamond in the rough. This is where the guys take receivers and quarterbacks high usually go wrong, because they tend to be cavalier with their RB choices later.

Decide on a Draft Strategy – Example #2

Another player might think going WR-WR is insane in any situation. You might also evaluate elite runners at 7-8, just like the first example player, but you realize that runners are only going to get worse, if you don’t draft them in the 1st and 2nd. You also know that “sure things” are never certain, and “upside” is hard to gauge. So you decide to draft the best runner on your list when your pick comes at #10, the draft the best runner on the board when your pick comes at #15. You know that good 2nd-tier receivers should still be available in the 3rd and 4th round, so you’re going to draft a team of “solid veterans” and work from there.

Knowing that you are going to have guys without what are considered “high upside”, you decide to draft a quarterback in the 5th round, then a double-up on a talented backup running back in the 6th, whom you think will either win a starting job at some point, or you think has an injury prone starter in front of him. In either case, your subsequent draft choices are predicated on what you did in the 1st and 2nd round. That’s what I’m talking about: analyze your team’s weaknesses after round 2, then analyze your team’s weaknesses after round 4, and tailor your draft strategy accordingly. Whatever you choose should be given some thought before draft day, when you have a little time to analyze the draft pool. (That’s one reason people use mock drafts, to determine relative depth at each position.)

Draft Strategies – Example #3

Let’s put a third player in that 10th spot, who once again decides that the elite runners dry up right before he picks. He hopes he’ll get a chance to draft elite runner #8, but the player goes one spot before he picks (with one QB gone, too), so he decides to draft the absolute best receiver in the draft. But he flinches at the idea of drafting two wide receivers, fearing what dreck he’s going to find at runner in the 3rd round. So instead of doubling up at a position, he bites the bullet and drafts a solid 2nd round running back. If both players hit, neither position is going to be a complete waste, so he has more flexibility in later rounds, drafting the best player available.

In the 3rd round, he decides there are still a few elite WRs on the board, and the players behind him at 11/12 each took a RB and are likely to draft WRs before he drafts in the 4th, so he decides to draft a wide receiver in the 3rd. In the 4th, he grabs the next-best running back, grabbing a rookie who might start slowly, but should come on once he gets used to the pace of the game. Like the player in example 1, he knows that his running backs are a little iffy, so he decides to draft a 3rd runner in either the 5th or 6th round, just to be cautious.

Draft Strategies – Example #4

Finally, lets look at a player who wants to take the best player available, but is convinced that you can get star receivers later on. So when he drafts in the 1st round (at the 10th spot), he decides to draft a running back that he thinks is a little underrated or overlooked among the 2nd tier RBs, and then drafts the 2nd best quarterback in round 2, probably Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. He decides this is the best way to get certain big production in his lineup, thinking he’ll get good receivers later on.

In the 3rd and 4th rounds, he decides to add that younger runner who hasn’t established himself quite yet, while drafting a wide receiver who has fallen inexplicably. When a mini-run on TEs starts in the 5th round, he decides to get one before they get picked over, then drafts a 3rd runner in the sixth, assuming the wide receivers will hold until the 7th round. This is pretty much how he planned the draft to go, thinking he could get a star quarterback and tight end, while covering the running back position. To accomplish this, he decided to hold off on drafting star receivers, though he grabbed one, so he wouldn’t be entirely bereft at that position.

Planning a Fantasy Football Draft

Each of these examples have one thing in common: the drafter based later picks on the strengths and weaknesses of his team. He didn’t decide to draft 4 running backs, telling everyone they needed to “make him offers”. He didn’t play the contrarian by drafting WR-WR, then end up drafting 1 running back in the first 6 rounds. He didn’t draft a quarterback in the 1st, then draft a backup quarterback in the 6th round, because he was “the best player available”.

In this way, you can draft non-runners high (in high performance scoring systems), if you plan before the draft how to make up the difference at running back. Most of the players who have absolute disasters on draft day do so, because they are cavalier about filling the holes in the roster after the first few rounds. If you neglect the running backs early, you don’t compound the problem by ignoring them later, by drafting a 4th receiver, an early defense and a kicker. Know your roster and understand the best way to address those problems is now – today – through the draft.

Drafting in the “Middle Rounds”

Unless you make insane picks in the first 5-6 rounds, most of the players you draft should make some contribution to your team. Still, some are going to disappoint, and a few of the first 72 players are certain to get injured. That’s why the middle rounds are so important, because most people don’t hit on every single starter they pencil in on draft day. You have to plan on getting really, really lucky drafting your QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs and TE, or you have to be good (and little lucky) when drafting in the middle rounds. Being good means being prepared.

What are the Middle Rounds of the Draft?

I’ve seen people refer to the middle rounds as anything from the 5th round on, and I suppose that’s about right, if you have a 14 or 16 round draft. My main local leagues have been 20 rounds over the last 15 years, so I tend to consider the middle rounds as a little later. For the sake of our discussion here, let’s define the middle rounds as the rounds after you draft your fantasy starters.

That means the 7th round-on in leagues without a flex position, and the 8th round-on in leagues with a flex position. (QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, TE, Flex) Split the remaining number of rounds with the late rounds and you have the middle of the draft.

Middle Round Draft Strategy

Your middle round draft strategy should address weaknesses to your roster, while adding players with high upside and who can play in an emergency. That’s tough, because players with high upside who can play in an emergency are usually drafted in the first 7 rounds. The players you’re going to be drafting are all going to have questions marks, so the best strategy is to draft a combination of the qualities above in the different players you select.

Let’s assume you’ve skimped on wide receivers to this point, so you want to add a couple of wideouts in the middle rounds, to stock out the position before it gets completely picked over. Use one of those picks on a steady veteran who can fill in as a bye week starter and in an emergency injury situation, then use the other pick on a wide receiver who has better upside potential. Maybe this is someone who has shown flashes in his first 2 years, but is coming into his 3rd year. Maybe this is a talented rookie who is going to start from day one. Maybe it’s a guy who was great two years ago, but slipped out of the picture, due to injuries.

Drafting Runners in the Middle Rounds

The same can be said for the running back situation. There are occasionally 1 or 2 starting running backs hanging around in the early-middle rounds, so consider drafting one of these guys, just in case of a disaster to one of your already-drafted players. Along with that, draft a backup or rookie who could become an absolute star, if he ever gets on the field. In this way, you’ve stashed a guy on your bench who could be a difference maker later in the season, while drafting a backup or fill-in, if you have injury issues early in the season.

Another option that many fantasy owners employ is “handcuffing” your running back. A handcuff player is a backup for one of your own running backs. If your starting RB goes out due to injury, drafting his backup means you still have a runner to start. You can’t say the same if you draft a bench runner who sits behind someone else’s RB. For this reason, when you draft a running back, you might choose to “handcuff” him to his own NFL backup – like the classic 1958 prison escape movie starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. (The escapees were handcuffed together and had to learn to work together.)

The problem with handcuffing is that you end up spending 2-3 extra picks to handcuff all your starting runners, and this severely limits your ability to draft sleepers. When I handcuff, I only do it with players that I assume are going to maintain production levels, and I only do that with 1 or 2 of my most valuable running back situations. As always, you want to prioritize, analyze and not get tunnel vision with any one strategy in a fantasy draft.

More Middle Round Draft Strategies

If you aren’t certain about a player you drafted earlier, the middle rounds are a great time to double up on that position. The positions to address in this way are quarterback and tight end. If you waited on either of these, quickly doubling up on one of these positions is a good strategy. You double-dip before the talent level at these positions fall of, which they’re bound to do.

The same can be done for Team Defenses. If you waited a while on a team defensive unit, you can draft two units that you feel have potential to stand out, assuming this gives you twice the chance that one works out.

Middle Round Tip – Use Your Yellow Highlighter

Use your yellow highlighter to mark off players when they’re drafted. Not only does this keep you from being the dumbass who keeps trying to draft players who were drafted 3 rounds ago, but it also helps you devise your middle round draft strategies.

Once a lot of players start disappearing from the draft list, you’ll start to notice something as you’re highlighting them. Suddenly, you’ll notice one or two names on the list that are surrounded by a sea of yellow. If you see a player on your list who has ten highlighted players below him, you automatically know that he’s a high value mid-round player. Highlighting the drafted players lets you “draft for value” or draft “the best available player”.

Unless your draft projections are way off, or everyone else in the league knows the latest injury news that you don’t know, the same applies for any position in fantasy football.

Drafting in the Late Rounds

The late rounds of a deep draft can also be important. A lot of lesser fantasy owners view the late rounds as some kind of comedy bit, drafting players because they have funny names or to jibe a rival that they drafted their backup. Some owners want to stock up with the hometown team. Others are completely out of ideas and draft old players who can barely make an NFL roster anymore, just because those are names they know.

Of first importance is to never run out of names. Have enough players on your list that you don’t run out of people to draft. Do your research and make certain these players have fantasy value. The thing is, there are always players with value you can draft, so learn who they are and have them ready to go. You want to walk out of a draft with a few players on your list you would have liked to have added to the roster. Consider those the start of your Week 1 free agents list (some fantasy websites call this a “Watch List”).

Drafting in the late rounds of a fantasy football draft is simply a continuation of the middle rounds. The only difference is that fewer of the players are going to “hit”. Even if you are highly successful in your fantasy football draft’s late round, several of the players are likely to be the ones you cut in your first few add/drop periods, making way for valuable free agents that have broken out in the first weeks of the NFL season.

Things to Look For in the Final Rounds

There are things to look for in the final few rounds of a draft. You’re filling out your roster at this point, so address any final roster holes you have. While you’re doing so, go through these following thought processes.

  • Any Remaining Handcuff RBs
  • Backups Runners of RBs on Other Rosters (Trade Bait)
  • 2nd Receivers on any NFL Team
  • 3rd Quarterback
  • Starting Kicker

Don’t ever draft a kicker 10 rounds before the end of the draft. Don’t ever draft a kicker 5 rounds before the end of the draft. Draft a kicker in the final round of the draft and be done with it. If you see one guy who’s head-and-shoulders above the rest or who fell round-after-round, you have my permission to draft him in the next-to-last round, to beat the final rush on kickers. But you don’t want to be married to a field goal kicker, because you’ll be able to find productive kickers on the waiver wire, if you have to.

The fact to remember about kickers is their stats change completely from year to year. Because kick production depends on so much out of the hands of the kicker – moving the ball on offense, not scoring touchdowns on offense, turnovers either way – there’s really no predicting who is going to have a big year and who isn’t. PKs on teams like the Indianapolis Colts the year Peyton Manning threw 49 TDs and the New England Patriots the year Tom Brady threw 50 TDs sucked, because those offenses scored too many touchdowns. All the kicker did was kick extra points. You can’t predict that kind of stuff, so don’t try. Don’t make drafting a field goal kicker a priority.

Drafting a 3rd Quarterback

If you waited a while on drafting a quarterback, then drafting a third quarterback is perfectly legitimate. I’ve advised people before to draft 3 QBs and 1 is certain to work out. That’s assuming their other positions are stocked out with productive players.

Drafting 2nd Receivers

There are going to be 2nd receivers on a number of the less touted offenses still on the board. A few of these are likely to be on teams with lousy defenses that give up lots of points, and therefore may need to throw the ball a lot to catch up. That means these players might get trash points in the 2nd half of games. Since they’re on the field every play their offense is on the field, they’re likely to get more chances than all but the most productive 3rd receivers in the league, even on good offenses. And you never know when this flanker’s team ends up being one of those dark horse contenders, because 1 or 2 every year come out of nowhere.

So find a list of 2nd receivers, perhaps by crossing out or highlighting a comprehensive depth chart list (printed out the day of the draft) and keeping track of which #2’s are still out there.

Late Backup Running Backs

Most of the time, drafting running backs really late is a complete waste. That’s because these guys are usually 3rd stringers. If they get on the field, it’s usually so late in the season, that you’ll have cut them six weeks ago anyway. But if you have nowhere else to go with the pick, drafting another handcuff for a starting runner on your roster makes sense.

If a rival hasn’t drafted a valuable backup by this point in the draft, and there’s only 1-2 backup runners who matter, it’s time to cherry pick one of the last valuable runners. Once again, this is panning for gold, but you never know when it pans out. I don’t normally draft guys to set up trade fodder later in the season, because if a person hasn’t seen the value of drafting one of their own player’s backups on draft day, they aren’t likely to see the value during the season. I’ve seen guys who wouldn’t make that trade, even after their runner goes down with an injury. In other words, good fantasy owners are going to have a backup plan in place, and bad fantasy owners aren’t likely to have lost interest. So don’t draft players purely as trade fodder.

Drafted Fantasy Football Players

That’s one final note about the players you’ve drafted, and trading in-season. I’ve noticed that, once teams have drafted an NFL player, they automatically confer added value onto that player. They might have swapped picks without a thought before they draft a player, but they wouldn’t get rid of a player they actually took the trouble to draft. Go figure.

So when you prepare for a fantasy football draft, get ready to stock your team with players you’ll feel comfortable keeping on your roster all season. Worry about trades later, when the results start to come in. As soon as Week 1 is in the books, you’re likely to have a couple of guys on your roster you have doubts about, no matter how good your draft was. But that’s a good thing, because you’ll probably need a spot or two open to make big additions in fantasy football free agency. That’s for another day, though.