Fantasy football is great for many reasons, but one of my favorite is that it allows for people looking for all types of participation to join and have a good time. Want to do something small with your friends? Go for it. Want a hyper-competitive battle with self-proclaimed fantasy football gods from all over the country? Bring it on. However, there are three big lessons I’ve learned over my 15 years of fantasy football that should help every single fantasy football competitor out there. If I was teaching a class on our game, this would be the first day’s curriculum.
1. Mock Drafting is Required
Coming out of a fantasy football draft with a great looking team is all about preparation. And no, a trip to the grocery store to pick up the first magazine you see the night before the draft does not qualify. The only way to get a feel for the trends of this year’s drafts is to mock, mock and mock some more.
A mag may tell you Jonathan Stewart is a great option in the fifth round — won’t you be shocked when he comes off the board in Round 3? Conversely, your mag could peg Knowshon Moreno as a quality No. 2 back, but if DeAngelo Williams or another premium free agent comes to town, you’ll look pretty silly spending an early pick on Moreno when he is literally a No. 2 back.
When you’re done reading this article, go to Fantasy Football Calculator, Couch Managers or any of the quality mock draft sites out there and do a mock. A few days later, participate in another. Keep doing one every few days and you’ll start to see trends develop. Matt Forte is listed as an early third-round guy according to Calculator’s ADP, but I haven’t been able to get him in the second half of the second round even once. A year ago, Arian Foster was a big mover in the weeks leading up to the start of the season — and for good reason.
Doing multiple mocks allows you to play with strategies at the beginning, middle and end of your draft. You may find you prefer to wait to draft a QB until the seventh or eighth rounds, or you may find wisdom in grabbing an elite tight end in the third or fourth round. You never know until you try, and drafting your real teams without mocking takes away the opportunity to iron out potential draft mistakes.
2. Safe Early, Upside Late
Many drafters have become accustomed to relying on stat projections to gauge fantasy worth. While projections have their place and lead to some nice discussion material, they shouldn’t be the Holy Grail of your preparation. A single stat line is never going to capture a player’s fantasy value fully.
Example time: let’s say I think both Peyton Hillis and Matt Forte will total 1,500 yards and score 10 TDs this year. If that’s where the preparation stops, I’d call both player equally valuable and be happy with either in the second round. However, Hillis also stands to lose some playing time to Montario Hardesty, and he also runs the slight risk of being a one-year wonder. With Forte’s better track record and cemented lead-back status, I’d feel more comfortable with him reaching that projection than Hillis.
In fact, you can think of the two players on a sliding scale — while I may think both finish the year with the above stats, I could say Hillis is capable of totaling 1,000 to 1,500 yards and scoring six to 10 TDs. On the other hand, I may think Forte is a lock for 1,400 to 1,600 yards, and I see him scoring eight to 12 times. When thought of in these terms, two initially similar players become very different.
When I say “Safe Early,” I’m suggesting you draft the players with the highest floors, meaning they have the lowest chance to be early-round busts. I’d take Forte over Hillis, who could move to a committee and doesn’t have a lengthy track record. I’d draft Calvin Johnson over Roddy White, who may receive less targets with a legitimate No. 2 in the fold. I’d take Aaron Rodgers over Michael Vick, whose playing style lends itself to a higher chance of injury. You may disagree with those rankings based on upside, but I caution you to manage your risk wisely at the beginning of your draft.
On the flip side, all you want at the end of fantasy drafts are players with sky-high upsides. Don’t waste your time picking guys like Mark Sanchez, Reggie Bush or Lee Evans. While they should perform at about their draft level, there’s not much room for profit in those picks. Instead, you want to target a QB like Tim Tebow, who could be a fantasy monster if he wins the starting job in Denver. You want Bernard Scott and Delone Carter, guys that could wind up starting for their teams depending on free agency. If you see any room for a late-round guy to wind up with significant playing time, pounce.
3. Ignore Kickers and Team Defenses
You probably already subscribe to the kicker theory, and you may be on board with devaluing team defenses. But I’m not just saying leave them for the end of your draft — I’m saying don’t draft a kicker or defense at all. It may seem counter-intuitive, since that’s likely at least 20 percent of your starting lineup, but there’s a good reason for the strategy.
Like we said above, you want to find some risky picks that have the chance for big payoffs at the end of the draft. You take away two chances to find that golden egg by drafting a kicker and a defense. Instead, focus on grabbing more running backs than you could possibly need. Pre-season injuries do happen, and fantasy contributors do sometimes come from the ranks of August warriors (thank you, Willie Parker).
Focus on teams with uncertain situations at the running back position. Roy Helu, Delone Carter, Mikel Leshoure and Ryan Williams could all emerge as starting candidates with good pre-seasons. Montario Hardesty may play more than you think. Ben Tate, Toby Gerhart and Javon Ringer could be fantasy forces with one big injury. If you have a chance to grab a potential starter or a clear-cut No. 2, take it. Upside trumps all at the end of the draft.
There really isn’t any upside in taking one kicker over another. Final kicker rankings change so much from year to year that it makes it hard to peg a few guys “the best” with any level of certainty.
With defenses, standard one-defense leagues will allow for plenty of waiver wire defenses throughout the season, and planning to play the matchup game against bad offenses and — especially in 2011 — rookie quarterbacks could lead to top-five defense numbers from a ragtag group of unwanted units.
The week before the season kicks off, you’ll be able to drop two of your wild card picks that didn’t pan out to add a kicker and a defense. The Cardinals get to play the Panthers in Arizona in Week 1; how do you think Cam Newton will do on the road in his first NFL start? The moribund Bills offense comes to Kansas City in Week 1, meaning the Chiefs could be in for a nice point total as well.
Some leagues won’t let you employ this strategy, putting minimums and/or maximums on the players you can draft and own. In this case, you’ll have to play in the framework of the rules and adjust your thinking.
Do you have tried and true fantasy tips for the Cafe community? Post them in the comment section.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe, writes for FanDuel and Razzball and has previously written for FanHouse. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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