Fantasy Football League Rules and Scoring Tips
A fantasy football league gets started when one or more NFL fans decide to found a league. The league’s founders make a mental list of friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members who they know to be interested in NFL football and ask them whether they want to play. The founder is often the commissioner in Year 1 and he (or she) has tremendous sway in all the league’s details.
Starting a fantasy football league requires foresight and planning. Nothing about it is difficult, but it has many moving parts. The founder usually has an idea of the kind of league they want.
How a Local League Works
If not, then some brainstorming is required. Consider the scoring system and other rules their association will have. Also consider who you’re going to ask to join. The rules you make and the owners you recruit are what makes give your league a unique identity.
In this article, I’ll provide a template for founding your own fantasy football league. After reading this guide, you should have a thorough understanding of what you’re doing. I’ll try to be comprehensive, so no question your league owners ask is going to stump you.
When adding owners, don’t choose people you know who don’t like sports or gaming. While a non-sports fan can learn to love the NFL, this hobby is not for everybody. Lukewarm owners are the bane of fantasy football. For social reasons, once you invite a friend or family member, it’s hard to uninvite them.
With that in mind, another option for league founders is to go online to find players. Online leagues include people from all over the country, or all over the world. I’ve played fantasy football against guys from Eritrea. Currently, I’m in a league with people from a variety of locations, including foreign countries: Australia, Canada, California, Minnesota, and Texas. Depending on your orientation, you might view California or Texas as a foreign country (SFX: laughter). You can go to FF player forums, Craigs List, Facebook, or other social media sites.
However you recruit, the commissioner and any other co-founders must decide several factors:
- League Size
- Entry Fees
- The Draft Date
- The Draft Rules
- Rules & Bylaws
- Scoring System
- Roster Size
- Starting Lineups
- Free Agency
- Length of Season
- Schedule Setup
- Playoff Setup
- Prize Money
- Next Year’s League
A. The Preseason
Determining the size of your league is important, because it determines how strong the teams are going to be. The 12-team league is the conventional choice, because owners have found over the years it provides a nice balance for the NFL player pool. The 10-team league is another popular option, but the roster is going to be stronger and the free agent pool is going to be bigger.
- 12-Team League – Everyone paying attention should be able to field a full starting lineup, even with the scarcer positions. The free agent pool should include a decent selection on the waiver wire, but it won’t be no-brainer decisions. This divides into three divisions, much like the NFC or the AFC used to have. The 4-team division concept usually allows for a 5-team playoff with 3 division winners and 2 wildcards, though the 6-team playoff with three wildcards is also common.
- 10-Team League – This is an option for owners who have less reliable options, or those with newbies. The starting lineups in this league should be stronger. If a player’s draft goes badly, the waiver wire should be filled up with more pickup options. At the same time, the teams are not so strong that everything seems luck-based. This divides up into nice 5-team divisions with 13-week regular season in which you play divisional opponents twice and non-divisional opponents once.
- 8-Team League – Having eight teams means that every team owned by someone paying the least bit of attention should be formidable. A couple of teams are going to look like All-Star squads or dream teams. This begins to strain at the borders of pure luck, because everyone should be able to field solid lineups. It becomes a matter of who has a big week at the right time, or a matter of matchups and injuries. Don’t go on forums to brag about the strength of your roster, because people will laugh you off the message board. 6-team leagues exist, too, but you might as well be playing against your little sister.
- 14-Team League – This adds another level of challenge to drafting and free agency. It becomes harder to field a mega-squad. Also, it’s more likely that one or two teams are going to be fairly bad, especially if the owner doesn’t much care about participating. This brings into play the dreaded abandoned team, which really bothers most dedicated owners. Imagine being in a playoff chase and your division rival gets a walkover, because the owner stopped making roster moves weeks ago. For a league with elite owners, this can add a level of challenge. You can have two 7-team conferences or a round-robin format in which everyone plays each opponent once for a 13-week regular season, somewhat like college conferences work.
- 16-Team League – The 16-team league is a real challenge, because positions with only one viable starter per team (QB, RB, TE) thin out quickly. You better draft your backup quarterback quickly enough they get picked-over, because attrition happens and those last 5-7 starting QBs in the NFL are prone to getting benched. This allows four 4-team divisions, with two games against division rivals and seven games against the remaining 12 teams. You’ll miss playing 5 teams, though. The free agent pool is very thin in these leagues. I play in one of these leagues and it is very challenging. One team is simply godawful every year, and hope you’re not the one, because the waiver wire won’t help much.
- 32-Team League – This happens, though I’ve never played in one. I’ve heard of people who divide up according to NFL franchises, which sounds neat, though bizarre. A more common option is to weld two 16-team leagues together. That is, each 16-team conference has its own draft and its own player pool. The conferences are self-contained throughout the year, with no interaction at all (games, trades). At the end of the year, the champion of each leagues meets in a main championship game. In this scenario, Tom Brady could be facing Tom Brady in the final, though the chances that a whole roster would be the same is minimal.
I’ve discussed league membership already, but I want to give a special quick note. Recruit NFL fans of good character. Don’t recruit known cheaters or troublemakers. Don’t recruit people who tend to play politics. Avoid rules lawyers. All those are bad, but at least they care. Even worse is the casual friend you recruit for social reasons. If they are a casual fan unlikely to care much, it can really ruin the fun for the other owners. In the end, any one of the types mentioned can mess up your league, especially through trades. (See “How Trades Work” below for an explanation.)
The entry fee is an important part of the recruiting process. Some people only want to play in high-roller leagues. Some people can’t afford to play in leagues with high fees, even if they would otherwise be a good owner. Some don’t care if money is involved or not. Others insist on money, winner-take-all. Deciding on entry fees and payouts is important, because it helps determine what kind of owners end up in the league. Have a vision of what you want and stick with it.
Do not allow owners to skip paying the fees before the season starts. Get paid before the draft, usually before draft day altogether. People are less likely to pay when they are 0-4. I’ve seen this happen several times: the commissioner end up either paying a rival’s entry fee or the entire league gets stiffed on the payouts. It’s a no-win situation and you should avoid it.
The Draft Date
The draft is the funnest day of the year for fantasy football owners. It’s the day of infinite possibilities, when you can still select the perfect team. I compare it to Christmas morning for grown men, when they get to open up their gift and see what team is inside. Also, it’s a chance to see old friends you might not otherwise see all year.
Choose a draft date which is convenient for the league members. Finding a central location is important, whether it’s a league member’s home or a This is one of the biggest headaches for the commissioner, because members have wives and families to consider. It’s best to draft on a Saturday or Sunday as close to the start of the NFL season as possible.
I prefer Sunday afternoon to Saturday afternoon, because one or two owners inevitably have family commitments on Saturday night and end up needing to finish early. The Sunday before Week 1 is a good time, but it’s on Labor Day Weekend, which sometimes poses a problem.
Leagues can have their draft earlier in August, but it brings with it problems of its own. If you go too early in the preseason (Week 3 or before), then some team is going to draft a player who goes out for the year in a preseason game. If it’s a top player, then someone’s whole season can be ruined before the first game is played. If Labor Day Weekend is not an option, then I suggest the Sunday prior to that. All Week 3 NFL Preseason games are finished by Saturday night of that week, so the most dangerous games are out of the way. Note: Week 3 Preseason is the dress rehearsal game, while Week 4 Preseason is when the starters are rested, in anticipation of a long season.
The Draft Setup
Setting up the draft requires several decisions. You’ll need to decide what kind of a league you want. Do you want a draft or auction? In either case, do you want a redraft, keeper, or dynasty? If it’s a draft, will it be a serpentine or a modified serpetine or something else? How many rounds will it be? If an auction, what is the salary cap figure?
- Serpentine Draft – Indidivdual players are drafted like in the NFL Draft. A serpentine draft is meant to weight the picks where they are fair. If you have a 12-team league and you have the 1st pick in the 1st round, then you would have the 12th pick in the 2nd round. The team with the 12th pick in the 1st round had the 1st pick in the 2nd round, and so on. It wraps back and forth, like a serpent.
- Modified Serpentine Draft – A modified draft means you repick the order of selections every other round. At the start of the 3rd round, the draft order is reordered, so you don’t get stuck with the same picks throughout the draft. Either can be automatically generated online, usually on the league management website you use. In either case, I suggest you only do the NFL-style worst-to-first in keeper leagues.
- Auction League – An auction league does not use a draft at all. Instead, it uses an auction to assign players. You start with one owner and they throw out the name of an NFL player. Bidding begins with dollars from an imaginary salary cap. (Real salary caps are known to have been used.) Bidding continues until an owner wins the bid. That player is assigned to that owner’s roster. In a clockwise fashion, the next owner throws out a player to be bid upon. This continues until all rosters are full.
- Redraft League – This simply means that the player pool is for one year only. At the end of the 2015-16 NFL season, all players go back out into the player pool to be redrafted next year.
- Keeper League – This means that teams can keep some players from one year to the next. The number of keepers is usually limited from 1 to 5, usually comprising the best quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends a franchise has. In my experience, the star running backs and wide receivers have a premium placed on them.
- Dynasty League – The dynasty league is like a keeper league, but teams can keep all the players they want. The idea is you can build a team much like they do in the NFL, with players staying on the team for years. Dynasty rules might allow perpetual keepers or a contract length. For instance, I play in a league which allows you to sign new additions to contracts up to 5 years in length. Then, they become free agents again.
- Empire League – The rare empire league works just like a dynasty, except for one rules change. It is a winner-take-all format. Also, the prize money is not paid out the first time someone wins the championship. Instead, entry fees continue to build, year-after-year. Only when a franchise wins the league title twice do they win the empire league. At that point, they collect all the winnings. Every player goes back into the draft pool and the empire league starts over again.
- Salary Cap League – Even without the auction format, you can impose a salary cap structure on a league. This is assigned either through draft position or previous stats, but the cap figures need to be hammered out in advance.
Rules and Bylaws
The rules of the league are important, because they affect scoring, how trades work, the waiver wire process, and how the playoffs are set up. Also, they determine how much power the commissioner has.
This might sound like minor considerations, but they have a tremendous effect on how the game is played and how much fun everyone has. The more thought you put into the game mechanics, the better it is.
Now, I’m a stickler when it comes to having the rules nailed down. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but one league I had has a 20+ page rulebook, to cover every possible situation. Some of the new guys in that league laughed at the obsession it must have taken to write such a thing, but when it came time to start their own league (of which I’m a member), a couple of them ported over the rules to their new league, too. I found that funny, but what I really like is having every situation covered and having those rules agreed upon in the preseason, so new rules aren’t created in the middle of the year, when people know how the decisions affect their team.
Most leagues are not quite as obsessed, though I played in another league which was founded by a lawyer. His rulebook was a masterpiece of logic and precision, and everything ran smoothly. He was the commissioner, and everyone trusted that he received no advantage whatsoever from being the commish. That can be a huge problem in some leagues, which is why I suggest part of the bylaws discuss the commissioner’s specific authority–much like the U.S. Constitution is specific about the federal government’s authority.
Remember to be specific about what the Commissioner’s duties, responsibilities, and powers are. The commissioner is the key to league integrity. As silly as it sounds, you need to stipulate powers and restrictions for the commish, just in case he’s not trustworthy.
What Should the Bylaws Contain?
- Complete Scoring System Rules
- Free Agency
- Trades Oversight
- Trade Deadline
- Starting Lineup Deadline
- Abandoned Teams
- Commissioner Authority
- Playoff Rules
A league’s scoring system is a major factor in how you build your strategy towards drafting and player acquisition. When fantasy football started, leagues were touchdown-only. League managers had to total scores from the box score in the newspaper, so scoring touchdowns was easiest.
The more energetic league owners preferred scoring based on “performance”, meaning the yards players compiled. Thus, performance leagues gave 6 points for a touchdown, but also gave 1 point for 25 yards passing, 1 point for 10 yards rushing, 1 point for 10 yards receiving, and so on. (Equations vary, but the 25/10/10 system was common.) Performance scoring assured running backs that ran 80 yards and got tackled at the 1-yard line had something to show for their trouble.
High-performance leagues came into existence when people decided to add factors like points-per-reception (PPR). Technically, a league which awards points for receptions is called a point-per-reception league. High performance suggests that a whole suite of performance-based stats are going to be considered, with the idea that some of the luck factor is taken out. In any system, TDs are how points are acquired quickly. Still, high-performance might offer bonus points for yardage plateaus (100 yards, 125 yds, or 150 yds). It might offer PPR, or it might take points away for fumbles and interceptions. It might use the IDP concept, then award points for tackles, assists, sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, and interceptions. Name an NFL stat and it can be turned into a fantasy football score.
Traditionally, “Team Defense” is the defensive component of a scoring system. The defense gets points for points allowed, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, and defensive touchdowns. Often, it is added together with a Special Teams unit, so punt return TDs, kick return TDs, block punts, and blocked kicks might be counted. Some leagues offer points for yards allowed stats. If a league is a real sticker, defenses which give up a lot of points (usually 35 or more) might get points-off their score. For the defense-special teams combo, you’ll see the designation DEF/ST.
Individual defensive players (IDP) came later and many owners think it enhances their viewing experiences. Team Defenses start off with a bunch of points and you usually see them dwindle over the course of a game. An IDP starts the game like an offensive player, with zero points, and see their score rise as they get tackles, assists, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, or the rare touchdown. It’s an active kind of viewing and it adds more crunch to the scoring system. I prefer IDPs, but there’s a definite strategy to picking Team Defenses, too.
Again, the scoring system directly affects strategy. Running backs like Bryan Westbrook and LeSean McCoy are much more effective in PPR leagues. Matt Forte was good in any league, but really good in PPR leagues. Danny Woodhead is an every week starter in a PPR league, but might not warrant a start most of the time in a league without that rule.
Also, PPR scoring means wide receivers and tight ends take on a greater importance. They are more consistent, and therefore can be drafted higher in fantasy drafts. Zero strategy drafting would not exist without the point-for-reception game mechanic.
The size of your roster is important, because it determines strategy on sleeper picks and handcuffing. Also, it affects the size of the free agent pool. You’ll hear tout services discuss “deep leagues” or “deep rosters”, which simply means leagues which have large benches.
I’ve played in leagues with a 14-team draft that stipulated 2 QBs, 3 RBs, 3 WRs, 2 TEs, 2 PKs, and 2 Defenses. The league had 8 starters, so your bench was limited to 6 players. That leaves a huge free agent pool, but restricts player moves on running backs and receivers. While there was a certain strategy to navigating bye weeks, I found such a system rewarded luck and had almost no room for foresight and strategy.
I also in a league with a 53-man max roster limit. It’s a 16-team IDP league and a dynasty league with a 21-man starting lineup. Such a league rewards owners who make good projections on backups, rookies, and 3rd-string players. The free agent pool becomes non-existent towards the end of the season. While I enjoy building a team through long-range planning and foresight, it sometimes becomes frustrating having no free agents to add.
A standard league is a 12-team, 20-man roster (in a Team Defense league). The 18-man roster is also popular for 10-team and 12-team leagues, leaving a bit larger free agent pool. The 20-man roster allows for the addition of handcuff running backs and a few deep sleepers. The 18-man roster means you’ll have to choose between handcuffing or adding as many sleeper picks, but you’ll have more options when the season starts.
In IDP (individual defensive player) leagues with multiple IDP starters required, a 30-man roster is reasonable. I play in an IDP league with a 40-man roster, but that league also has spots for head coaches and punters (no joke). As it’s a dynasty league, the bigger roster limit also allows for a bit more projection when it somes to long term selections. The balance seems about right, and free agency isn’t a total waste.
B. The Fantasy Football Season
The weekly starting lineup deadline determines when Start/Sit decisions lock for the week. In the old days, lineups were locked with the first kickoff of the week, even when Thursday games happened.
Most leagues saw that as unworkable, because injured players remain questionable (50/50) to play up until Inactive Lists are announced on Sunday morning.
The majority of leagues preferred a deadline at 1 pm Eastern, or a little before that time, when the early Sunday kickoffs happened. Improvements on this system have occurred in the past 10 to 15 years, though.
These days, most league management sites allow start/bench decisions right up to kickoff of a game, for each game of the week. I prefer this, and suggest it to league managers. You can have a player lock at kickoff of their game, whether it’s the 4 o’clock Sunday games, Sunday Night Football, or Monday Night Football. This provides owners with the maximum flexibility. If an owner is smart with handcuffing players, they can have a backup option ready to go even on a Monday night kickoff.
Another rule needs to be written involving abandoned teams. The question is, what does the league do if an owner abandons a team: get a new owner, having the commissioner set a lineup, or let it ride? Also, what defines abandonment? My main league says two weeks with no lineup set or two weeks with bye week/injured players started constitutes team abandonment. You’re out of the league and we’ll find a way to get a real lineup inputted each week, for the integrity of the league.
How Trades Works
Fantasy football trading is a key aspect of the game. Leagues need trade talk, because it keeps owners engaged and hopeful. I’ve played in leagues where the ownership wasn’t much interested in trades or even the rules discouraged it; those leagues aren’t much fun.
Most trade offers come to naught, but it’s fun to negotiate. Also, trading can help teams get into the playoff chase, while it helps contenders get that one last piece they need for a championship. Legitimate trades can be made, when both teams have a need at one position plus an abundance of talent at another position. This can be a win-win scenario. And if one owner has a superstar and little other talent, while another owner has solid depth on their bench, then a superstar-for-multiple stars trade also makes sense.
All that being said, leagues need to have a system in place to police such transactions. Nothing is worse than to have a buddy trade which destroys league balance, because two teams agree to pool talent. A common scenario is to have two team owners who are friends or family. One owner builds a contender. The other owner doesn’t get so lucky, and they fall out of contention. When this happens, some less ethical owners decide to stack teams. Almost any fantasy squad is going to have one or two stars, so the two owners collude to move a star onto the contender. If no system is in place to oversee such nonsense, then a perfectly good league can be ruined by collusion. When big money is involved, it can destroy friendships.
I suggest giving a league manager or commissioner the ability to strike down such trades. It’s next to impossible to design rules to ban specific types of trades based on stats alone. Veteran owners know an unfair trade when they see it, but it’s hard to define why. A commissioner or group of owners must make these hard decisions about unbalanced trades, while restrictions on their powers must be in place to assure they don’t abuse that authority. It’s a fine line and best handled by getting high-quality owners who don’t engage in such nonsense. That means you don’t ask back owners who try to collude.
When you consider rules for trades oversight, you have a number of options. Does the commissioner decide if a trade is fair, does a trade committee decide, or does the league vote? I suggest having the commissioner as part of a committee of owners who decides such things. That way, the commissioner isn’t put on the spot himself. It can be a lonely place being the league manager who makes an unpopular, if right, decision. Having a committee provide oversight helps. Also, this means the commish can’t abuse their power, unless he or she gets other commissioners to go along with the corruption. If that’s the case, then the non-corrupt league membership will need to find a new league.
People might find it obnoxious to have some little council rule on everything in a league. I propose restricting the authority of such groups, too. In my main league, we have a Trade Commission. This group is not convened for every trade. Instead, when a trade is agreed-upon, it is posted to the league’s Message Board. Other owners have a certain amount of time–12 hours to 24 hours is good–in which they can ask for a review. Only the iffy trades get reviewed, and everyone has an equal chance to initiate the review process.
Other leagues post a poll and have a straight-up vote. This works in leagues where the owners are honest. A simple majority vote decides whether a trade is legal. In leagues where the membership is a little more cunning or antagonistic, such votes can involve faction politics. I’ve seen leagues which have two voting blocs, like Republicans and Democrats, with a few independent voters or wild cards deciding how a trade decision is made. It’s silly, but true.
One other considering is when the trade deadline is going to be. When is the last day for trades each year? This is important, because you want a balance on making moves and keeping bad teams from making “buddy trades” when they’re out of contention. Some have the deadline midway through the regular season, like the NFL. Others place it a month before the playoffs start, to end it before the holidays and to assure non-contenders don’t mess things up too badly. Others let it go all the way up to the end of the regular season. One possibility is to make a stipulation which bans teams from trading after they are mathematically-eliminated from the playoffs. This works in redraft leagues, but is not nearly as helpful in a keeper or dynasty league, where it might make sense for a team to build for next year (like in Major League Baseball).
The Waiver Wire: How Free Agency Works
“Free agents” are NFL players not on any of the fantasy team’s rosters. They are free to be added to a roster, according to certain rules. Free agency can be handled in several different ways.
It can be first-come first-served, meaning the first player to hear about injury updates or suspensions can run to the league site and pick up that player’s backup. If a player is promoted, the first person online gets the new starter.
This is the simplest way to handle free agency, but not the fairest. It rewards team owners who are obsessive. That’s fine in an elite league, but with casual owners aboard, it weights the odds way too much in favor of the obsessed. Ironically, I’ve found the casual leagues tend to adopt this laissez-faire attitude most often. Among the fantasy football community, leagues which use this option are not considered 100% legitimate.
The “waiver priority list” is another option. This assigns priority to the teams with the worst record. In a modified form, the teams with the bad record might have priority, but a transaction might drop a team to the bottom of the list. The priority list sounds good, but I don’t like it. Here’s why. The worst teams in the league might need help, but they often won’t take the help offered.
If your league’s bad teams don’t engage in free agency, it allows the best free agents to drop to the teams in the middle of the pack. Especially later in the season, the pecking order becomes fairly static. Thus, one of the playoff contenders has a built-in advantage against the rest of the playoff teams. The bad teams aren’t helped (if they’ve given up), while an average team gets an advantage throughout the year. I’ve seen the waiver priority list punish too many teams that had a good draft to like it very much.
Another option is a blind bid auction. Blind bidding gives each team a salary cap or “free agency points” to assign to free agents throughout the year. Each team gets the same amount to spend. They allot them in blind bids each week of the season, adding new players in a fair and balanced way. It adds skill to the game, because it requires resource allocation, a form of strategy. Most online league management sites now support blind bid auctions these days, so the process is fair and the commissioner cannot see the bids beforehand.
The playoff rules determine a couple of things, including which teams qualify for the playoffs. Have rules about how many make the playoffs and how teams qualify. Also, have several different tiebreakers, so it’s not done with a coin toss.
The playoff rules also determines how does seeding in the playoffs work. In most leagues, it’s determined by record (or total points) among division winners, and then record (or total points) among wildcard teams.
Seeding determines which teams play one another in the bracket. I have seen many variations of bracketology. In fact, in one of my leagues, once the seeding is determined, the top seeds get to select their opponents from among the wildcards or lower seeds. It’s a fun way to instill light-hearted grudges and rivalries in the contest. It helps trash talking, especially if the underdog wins.
Who is paid what. This should stipulate either a winner-take-all format or payouts for the 1st-2nd-3rd teams, which is often handed out at 50%/30%/20%. Countless payout structures exist for handing out winnings.
Not every league has entry fees and payouts. Some leagues compete for pride or bragging rights. Some have a league trophy which is highly-valued. Some offer a plague, or some other enticement. I’ve seen a football helmet mounted on a wooden stand. I’ve seen straighjackets and other such paraphernalia. Leagues can get quite inventive.
Many leagues offer prize money and a trophy, so people have something to show for their troubles once they spend their winnings.
Founding a Fantasy Football League
Once the title game is over and winnings are paid out, the fantasy football season is over. All you can do is wait another 6 or 7 months, until the next draft happens.