Winning your local fantasy football league is the basic motivation for those who play fantasy football. Adding a trophy to the mantle is nice. Collecting prize money is even nicer, but the most important thing with your local league is bragging rights.
I’ve discussed the basics of football, for newbies and those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game. Most people reading this site are intermediate or advanced fans, but I wanted a gateway to football viewing.
I’ve written a guide to starting a fantasy football league. This was designed for those who wanted to get into the hobby, but didn’t know how.
What I haven’t discussed is how to win the championship in a fantasy league. It’s good-and-all to compete, but the real fun is winning the league and knowing you were the best that year.
Today, I present the blueprint for winning your fantasy league. It’s 9300+ words of fantasy football goodness. I’m hoping this becomes the I Ching of fantasy football, but maybe I should save that title for the ebook I’ve always wanted to write on this subject. Failing this becoming an instant classic, I at least hope you bookmark this page and keep it as a handy reference throughout the season.
Part 1: Draft Preparation: Rankings and Mock Drafts
The fantasy football draft is the single-most important day of your season. They say in baseball that you can’t win the pennant in April, but you can sure lose it. The same can be said of a fantasy football league’s summer draft. While you can have a great draft and still lose, you can’t have an awful draft and still win. Once that ship has sailed, it has sailed for good. You might be able to mitigate the damage a bit, but few are going to trade for a collection of bad players, and free agency can only help so much. Ace the draft.
Nailing the draft takes preparation, the ability to project the likeliest possibilities, and a certain amount of luck. The luck is to have players fall to you. Sometimes, the players you don’t draft are as important as the player drafted. For instance, many years ago, my co-owner (Shane, our Social Media Director) and I had targeted Freddie Jones of the Arizona Cardinals as our breakout tight end candidate. We had waited a while on drafting a tight end and the crop of talent was getting dangerously thin. Because we were sitting on a houseboat at the draft, a fellow owner overheard us discussing Freddie Jones. Sure enough, he drafted Jones the pick before we selected. Angry and cursing about our smart-alec rival owner, we looked down the list and decided, “Okay, we’ll take a shot at this Antonio Gates.”
Obviously, that worked out well. Luck plays into drafts by having other owners make really stupid moves ahead of you, sometimes when you wanted to make that stupid move yourself.
Most of fantasy football is skill-based. If you are prepared and make calculated, logical picks, you should be one of the contenders each year in your local league. That won’t assure you’ll win, but it puts you in a position to win. If you continue to work the trade desk and grind at free agency, you’ll win more than your share of December fantasy contests. As I always say, be Mr. December and not Mr. August. Though I say that, it helps to be Mr. August, too.
Player News: Information Collecting Tips
Mainstream sports news services are a mixed bag. Yahoo Sports has a number of good blogs which help you keep up with the daily news and make sense of it all. I read through the NFL.com box scores religiously in the preseason.
I take every stat with a grain of salt, because it is easy to fall prey to confirmation bias.
ESPN Fantasy Football is a lot like most other stories on ESPN.com: they seem there to get clicks. While I’m doing a disservice to good writers who put time and effort into their craft, if we’re painting with a broad brush, ESPN’s editors want sensational headlines to draw attention. Their writers do have access to many NFL personnel, so if you want to wade through the material (especially on The Insider), you can find good information. Of course, NFL front office personnel are masters of misdirection and spin, usually to throw off their opponents.
Tout services or their equivalent provide a service. DraftSharks is a favorite of mine. While DraftSharks oftenn has barmy player projections, you can tell their staff has a passion for what they do and they always make a good, logical case for their opinions. Sometimes, they are way off, but sometimes their projections are brilliant. If you want touts who think outside the box, try DraftSharks.
Fantasy Owner Forums
The Huddle is both a fantasy football projection service and a fantasy football community. Their forums and message boards have a ton of activity, where you can keep up with latest player news and what the “average fantasy football owner” is thinking. Most years, each NFL city has a fan posting their opinions from training camp. While the quality of such reports is spotty, I’ve found hidden gems you won’t find in any packaged news service. They have general talk and a Q&A message board for those wanting start/sit advice and trade advice.
Keep Track of Depth Charts
It can be difficult learning the exact NFL depth chart in the preseason. If you want depth chart information, Walter Football Services offers depth charts for all 32 NFL teams which is updated throughout the year. Once again, I would take this information with a certain grain of salt. While most of it is going to be fairly accurate (and very up-to-date), I have found major discrepencies before. By their very nature, Walter Football is going to be wrong, because NFL coaches sometimes don’t know who the Week 1 starter is going to be. Many NFL teams don’t update their official depth charts until after the 53-man roster cuts, which is why training camp and preseason is such a mystery. Since that is the time of draft preparation for fantasy owners, it’s a dilemma. The Huddle offers free depth chart information. I suggest you use both as a cross-reference, or find two or more references to double-check any information you have. There is no “one source”.
The reason you want to check this stuff is NFL position pecking orders are fluid. Not all of them are fluid, but a significant number are. If you don’t keep track, you’re all-but-wasting draft picks on backups, when you think you’re getting a starter. Worse, if you draft a 2nd-stringer you think is the 1st-string player, you are likely to leave that position dangerously thin when you go on drafting in later rounds.
The Value of Mock Drafts
Mock Drafts are important ways to get a feel for your upcoming fantasy football draft. The idea is to project what your opponents are going to do and figure out who or what might be waiting for you at your draft pick. This is highly speculative and almost never correct, unless you’ve played against the league membership many years, they are very predictable, and you have uncanny talents of mocking up a draft. Still, it is a good way to get a general idea of what to predict. This is a little airy, and something I do less than I did as a younger man. It has value, and many FF sources agree. Let me give an example.
To get more scientific mock draft information, read the “Average Draft Position” information at a fantasy football league management website like “My Fantasy League”. MyFantasyLeague posts an ADP list for the thousands of real online drafts they’ve had in a year’s time. These are customizable, so you can set the parameters for specific scoring systems, specific time periods, and other such factors. When preparing for August drafts, I suggest setting the parameters only for August fantasy draft, or drafts which took place after July 15. The idea here is to avoid skewing the results by mixing in data from just after the NFL Draft, when rookie reports are always rosy, or after the OTAs, when several players have gone out for the season with injuries. The more recent, the better. To find the ADP List, go to myfantasyleague.com, input a league name (any will do), and then find on the top righthand corner of the homepage the dropdown icon which says “ADP”.
Cross-reference these lists with online fantasy football projections and cheat sheets, which are offered by countless websites. Over your first few years of play, find a handful of websites you trust to provide good analysis. Make these your go-to sources for yearly NFL player rankings. Most have printable cheatsheets, so simply print-off the player ratings by position to see what the experts claim. This should not be the end-all of your research, though.
I advise owners to make their own amendments to such lists. Of course, you’ll want to put a red line through the players who go on Injured Reserve. But every owner has NFL players they like and dislike. Creating your own list allows you to customize your own preferences, so you don’t sit there on draft day knowing the next player on your list is a guy you swore you would never draft again. In such cases, removing the player altogether is a good idea, though I’m a completionist and I prefer to keep them on the list, so I can mark them off when drafted, to account for them. If that is nonsense to you, delete hated players from your personal draft sheet or pick list.
Read Lots of NFL News
Whatever you do, as you prepare for your local league draft, you want to read plenty of breaking news and updates. Imagine the NFL to be like ever-shifting sand. Injuries alone make situations pivot 180-degrees from the way they were the day before. Stars are made overnight, and stars burn out quickly. Few NFL players have truly long careers, and most of those guys are quarterbacks and field goal kickers.
The KFFL “Hot Off The Wire” page is a long-time news source aggregator. The KFFL aggregates news stories from other trusted sources, thus making for a handy way to get bulk news quickly. This is even handier for DFS players, because it has separate feeds for NFL football, NBA basketball, NHL hockey, MLB baseball, and NASCAR racing. These days, KFFL is owned by USA Today, so it is a trustworthy and well-run sports aggregator.
You want to walk into your local draft with the full story. You don’t want any surprises, especially if it’s a league where they don’t give you helpful tips if you make a bonehead move (and good leagues don’t give do-overs). You want to be the most informed person in the room, who knows every single player being drafted. Make it your goal to have an evaluation on every single of the 200+ NFL players drafted onto your team, even if the evaluation is “Oh, that’s the Bills’ 5th receiver. What a stupid pick.”
To get the full story, you want at minimum to (1) read the daily news from a mainstream sports site, (2) read the daily updates from a top fantasy news aggregator, and (3) get updates from one or more fantasy football tout services. Subscriptions to such sources are about $40 a year, and are well-worth the investment. Ratchet-up your reading in August of each year, especially in the couple of weeks prior to your fantasy draft. And check for news on the morning of the draft, too. Heck, these days, have text alerts sent to your smartphone.
Part 2: The Basics of Fantasy Football: Evaluating the Player Positions
Now that you have the basics of data-gathering, let’s discuss player evaluation. I want this to be a guide for complete novices, so I want a quick rundown of the player positions. This is meant for people who have never played, so intermediate owners should skip down to section 1B.
- Running Backs
- Wide Receivers
- Tight Ends
- Team Defense: DEF/ST
- Individual Defensive Players: IDPs
- IDP Linemen
- IDP Linebackers
- IDP Defensive Backs
How to Draft Fantasy Quarterbacks
- Franchise Quarterback – This is the obvious starter, a player the team expects to lead them to the playoffs and, ultimately, the Super Bowl. These guys have the green light to throw the ball a lot–and put up big fantasy numbers.
- Backup Quarterback – Unless you are the Joe Montana Era San Francisco 49ers, most NFL team’s backup QBs are flawed, though talented. One NFL GM said he hoped he would find a backup QB who could go .500 while the starter was out. Some of these pop in fantasy, but most are duds.
- Bus Driver – Someone who hands the ball off, dumps the ball off in the passing game, and throws it deep only on play-action passes. Their goal is to manage games and not have turnovers. Avoid these guys in fantasy.
- Running Quarterback – Young QBs sometimes break out with a year or two as a running quarterback. Then the GM freaks out about potential injuries and they coach it out of a player. They build up big running stats and can be fantasy studs, but only in short bursts. Ride them in redraft leagues, trade them in keeper leagues.
If you’ve watched the NFL or NCAA football, you know how important quarterbacks are. NFL teams without a franchise quarterback are doomed to inconsistency, if not outright mediocrity. They simply can’t function without a proven passer.
Throw out that logic in fantasy football. The quarterback is the 3rd or 4th-most important position. Running backs and receivers are the engine which runs a fantasy football roster. Quarterbacks are nice to have, but you can survive and recover if you come out of the draft without a top QB.
That isn’t to say they’re not important. One or two teams every year either compete for the playoffs or rise above the rest of the teams mainly because they have that #1 passer that year. Most of the time (in most scoring systems), the QB is the top scorer.
That’s one of the reason he’s not as important: the position isn’t as scarce as running back. Think about it. In a 12-team league, you have 12 starting quarterbacks. Name the star QBs in the NFL right now. You can probably name 8 or 10 really, really good players. Even then, there’s another 5 to 10 who might be inconsistent, but any given week can score big points. Even a few lousy “real world” passers are pretty good in fantasy football. When I get to the RBs and WRs, I’ll discuss why the pickings are scarcer of elite talent there. For the time being, just believe me that the quarterback is not the most important player you’ll draft.
Another reason QBs are not as important come draft-time is they are easier to get in trades. Back in the old days, there always seemed to be one schmuck at the local draft who would select two QBs in the top 5 rounds. “When someone needs a quarterback, they’ll have to come to me,” he would say. Then the season came ’round and his team sucked, because he was drafting a starting RB or WR where he should have been drafting a backup quarterback. No one really needed a quarterback bad enough to trade for him.
Which brings me to my point: you can’t trade quarterbacks for full value. All the other teams in the league always think they have a guy who is “almost as good”. Whatever you spent on that passer…it is not going to be what you get in a trade. In fact, it will be far worse. And if you’re desperate for QB play (and it happens), you’ll be far better stocking up on runners and receivers and trading one of those guys for the passer you need.
Reasons Not to Draft QBs High
- QB Talent Pool is Big Relative to Starters.
- Other Positions are More Important.
- You Get 50-cents on the Dollar in Trades.
Basic Guide to FF Running Backs
- 1st-&-2nd Down Runner – He gets 15 to 20 carries a game and has a reputation for durability. He might leave the field on third down, usually because he’s not shifty or fast enough to be a threat in the passing game (sometimes because he sucks at blocking). These players usually get goal line and short yardage touches. Their high value of carries means they have the potential for big totals, but they are touchdown-dependent for top fantasy football scores. If they don’t get TDs, they might end up with 87 yards on 21 carries and you only see 8 fantasy points. If you aren’t playing in a PPR league, they are still quite valuable.
- 3rd Down Running Back – In point-per-reception league (PPR), these players can be studs. Their main job is to catch the ball on dump-offs, swing passes, and occasional crossing patterns. Players like Darren Sproles, Dion Lewis, and Danny Woodhead have starred in recent years in this role. Theo Riddick is another sneaky-good fantasy play, for this very reason. They won’t get 20+ carries. They might not get many touchdowns or goal line carries. But they’ll be consistently solid.
- Workhorse Running Back (“1st Round Runner”) – This player should be a combination of the two players above. If a running back is a workhorse who gets lots of receptions, then he is going to rule in fantasy football. These guys are studs you can plug-and-play anytime. Draft their backup and hope you never have to play them. Players like LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, and Demarco Murray (with the Cowboys) fit this role. They end up Top 5 runners, maybe Top 10 runners, and carry you to a league title.
- TD Wolf – A player who only comes into the game on goal line and short yardage situations. He might score a touchdown or two, but isn’t likely to put up big yardage stats. Fantasy owners hate these guys, because they kill the value of the starters.
Backup Runners – More and more, the 3rd-string runner is a viable option as a fantasy draft pick. On a team with plodding early-down runner and a third-down back, the 3rd-string running back is often the primary backup (in case of injury). This player, often a young talent, sits over on the sidelines all year, waiting for action. Often, he doesn’t get into games until midseason, when defensive players are worn down. Suddenly, this guy looks like the next Jim Brown for a half-a-season. These guys often help win fantasy leagues, then fall back into obscurity the next season. (see: CJ Anderson in 2014, Zac Stacy in 2013, Stevan Ridley in 2012, Michael Bush in 2011, and so on.)
Running backs have been the traditional workhorses of a fantasy football championship team. At one time, everyone tried to draft two running backs in the 1st and 2nd round, back-to-back. This was the RB-RB philosophy. With changes in NFL pass interference rules and subsequent offensive scheme changes, that philosophy has gone out of style somewhat.
NFL teams devalue the running back position as they look for team leaders in the passing game. Also, running backs get in collisions more than any other position, so attrition is higher on them. The “running back by committee” or RBBC is now a key factor in many NFL offenses.
All of this has led to the “zero strategy”, the philosophy that you should avoid drafting runners high, while stocking up on elite wide receivers, elite tight ends, and elite running backs. The idea is there are fewer stud runners in the NFL. Also, there are more backup runners and third down backs who get 30% to 40% of the touches in NFL offenses. With the point-per-receiption scoring system, these backups are often as valuable (or more so) as the starting ball carrier. Add studs at the positions with less injuries, then add a stable of runners from a collection of nice potential starters and solid backups in the mid-to-late rounds. This strategy wins sometimes, so zero strategy is a viable way to draft.
I do not recommend it as a default strategy, especially for newbies. If you don’t know what you’re doing, this is going to end up in a disaster. The NFL preseason is deceptive. Half of what you see means something, and half of what you see means nothing. If you try to draft sleepers based on what you read in training camp and see in preseason games alone, this is going to be a disaster.
Here’s the thing: the scarcity of top runners make getting production at your RB position more important than ever. Unless you starting lineup rules have reduced the RB position to one starter (with flexes/wildcards likely), then you need runners to win a title. Year after year, the best contenders are still the owners who have the best running back corps. They might compete against a team with top QB-WRs in the finals, but most of the playoff teams are going to be solid at runner. Given there are so few solid ball carriers, it means that the quickest way to the playoffs is still through the RB position.
To stockpile RBs, then, you have to be smart and pinpoint the precise time to draft runners. If you waste high picks on lesser talents, you’ll lose. If you wait too long to draft starters, you’ll lose. If you do all the right things and injuries happen, you’ll probably lose. Bad luck happens. To maximize your odds of winning, you’ll need to use “Value Drafting”.
Value drafting is getting the best player available. If you have the first pick in the draft, add the elite runner you know won’t be sharing carries. If you have the 12th pick in the draft, then maybe you should consider WR-WR. But if everyone in the 1st round is using zero strategy and a stud runner (or two) falls to you, pull the trigger on the RBs.
Also, to twist an old phrase a bit: draft RBs early and often. When you see a value pick at the running back position, pull the trigger. Draft other positions if obvious studs are sitting out there, but if a good runner falls, draft him. The relative value of the pick is going to depend on the part of the draft you’re in: high round, middle round, or low round. Whatever the case, keep stockpiling talent. Build a deep bench with several contingency plans, knowing all won’t work out. If they do, you’ll be able to trade them; I promise.
Keep in mind that the 2nd-most common player on championship rosters last year was C.J. Anderson, who was the 3rd-string RB with the Denver Broncos at the start of the year. CJ Anderson had to see Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman get significant injuries, before he got to start. Those who added him late in drafts or early in free agency reaped the benefits. Keep adding potential sleepers late in drafts, because they might be the next CJ Anderson.
One final thing: sometimes you might need to draft your own starting runner’s primary backup a round earlier than the sheet says you might. This is called “handcuffing” your running back. You handcuff the likeliest backup to your more valuable RB, knowing if an injury happens, you still have a starting runner. Understand you’ll want only guys you think are going to flourish, but also understand that any starting RB is better than none. Handcuffs are insurance policies on your most valuable assets.
Value Drafting at the RB Position
- Draft Studs Early, if They Are There.
- Stockpile Talent, so You Have Contingency Plans.
- Handcuff Key RBs as an Insurance Policy.
- Remember Depth is Very Important at This Position.
Fantasy Football Wide Receivers: All You Need to Know
- Big Play Receiver – A big play receiver mainly runs “Go” routes and post routes: long patterns designed to make big plays. A lower percentage of these are completed, though they do sometimes draw long pass interference penalties (which is no use to fantasy owners). The big play receiver is inconsistent, so you don’t want to start them every week. These are bye week and injury fill-ins. They’ll have a huge total once a month, but you’ll end up 1-3 for that month starting them all the time. These are emergency starters.
- Possession Receiver – These players run short in-and-outs and crossing patterns. They go over the middle and take the pounding by safeties and linebackers. They catch the ball in the flat and try to break a tackle. They aren’t expected to make many big plays, usually because they aren’t as fast. But they get a higher volume of targets, which is important. Especially in a PPR league, the possession receiver is valuable. Eric Decker is a good example of this type of receiver. Keyshawn Johnson fit this category.
- Slot Receiver – This is a special type of possession receiver who has become especially valuable in recent years. After the 2004 NFL season, the owners changed the rules so the referees called more pass interference penalties. This opened-up the NFL game, so smaller, shiftier players were more viable offensive weapons. It’s no coincidence that slot receivers like Wes Welker and Cole Beasley have become weapons in recent years (or Sproles/Woodhead as scatbacks). The slot receiver can add up a high volume of targets, so they can be more valuable than they would seem. They often are prone to injury, because they are little guys getting hit by big linebackers often. Victor Cruz was a lethal target as a slot receiver, but he was less effective when he went to the outside. And he was injury prone, like Welker became later in his career.
- Franchise Receiver – The stud, blue chip, FF championship-winning receiver is the player you want. If at all possible, you want to draft wide receivers who are combine elements of the big player receiver and the possession receiver. These guys get a lot of targets, but they’re big and durable. They are also fast and can jump for jumpballs, so they make big plays down the field. And when the team gets into the red zone, they become prime targets. The list of these players is legion: Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, and Odell Beckham are just a few. Back in the day, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss fit this category.
Wide receivers are the great wild card in fantasy football. Any given week in a PPR league, the wideout can dominate the action with relatively few big plays. Getting the best pass-catchers are an artform, though. One reason the zero strategy came into vogue is the fact there is a little more science than art to drafting receivers.
The franchise receiver fits a mold. If he is big and fast and leaps real high, then he’s probably the franchise receiver you want to draft high. He needs to be the player who gets the most targets on his team. If he doesn’t, then he needs to be on a team so high-powered that you don’t mind him playing second-fiddle: the 2013 Denver Broncos or 2014 Indianapolis Colts. If you’re drafting high, you want to add these players.
A few exceptions exist, which is why there is a certain art to drafting franchise receivers. For instance, Antonio Brown is not quite 6-feet tall, but no one would argue he isn’t a franchise receiver. I thought he was the best in the NFL in 2014, even considering ODB. Antonio Brown is the exception to the rule. For the most part, you want to target the team’s obvious #1 receiver, who looks like an Adonis and plays like TO in his prime. He might be a little crazy, but you’ll love his antics when he’s leading your fantasy team to the league title.
The key stat is “Targets”. Find the players who get the most targets in a game. That means the quarterback threw them the ball, whether he caught the ball or not. Yards-per-catch and touchdowns are going to vary between players, but if you get a player who consistently gets more targets than your opponent, you have a good chance to win. Targets are opportunities to produce. It’s like drafting a running back who gets 20-carries-a-game instead of 10-carries-a-game. It’s like drafting a QB who throws the ball 10 more times a game than his opponent. You just have more chances to score fantasy points.
In evaluating, don’t pay as much attention to last year’s touchdown stats. Now, TDs are important, but their variance is high from season-to-season. If you have an obvious stud like Julio Jones who has consistently shown the ability to score TDs, then you should consider such things. But touchdowns are game-dependent and situation-dependent. No doubt, some owners downgraded A.J. Green because he didn’t score much in 2014, but they were wrong to do so. Touchdown totals ebb-and-flow, so don’t pay as much attention to that.
Tips for Drafting Elite Wide Receivers
- Try to Draft 2 “Franchise Receivers”.
- Add Possession Receivers When Franchise WRs Run Out.
- Focus on the “Targets” stat.
- Don’t Pay as Much Attention to Touchdowns.
The Art of Drafting Fantasy Tight Ends
- Pass-Catching Tight End – These are the players to target in fantasy football. If you hear a tight end can’t block very well, that’s a good thing (for the most part) in fantasy football. Jimmy Graham is criticized for his blocking. So is Antonio Gates. Tony Gonzales, Shannon Sharpe, and Ben Coates were derided for their blocking. If they can block well enough to stay on the field, then you’re really looking for someone with a bit of the speed, quickness, and hands of a wide receiver (but in a bigger frame). You don’t get fantasy points for pancake blocks. Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten are good examples of players who can do both, so blocking and pass-catching are not always mutually exclusive.
- Blocking Tight End – Conversely, blockers do you no good. These are usually the 2nd-string and 3rd-string tight ends, depending on the offensive scheme. The blocking tight end is the equivalent of the touchdown wolf at running back: they’ll only get points when they score a touchdown. Only start these players when an injury or emergency happens.
- H-Back – In certain offenses, teams get rid of the fullback position and instead use an h-back. The h-back player is a hybrid tight end/fullback. The players who fill the position tend to be tweeners themselves, in terms of size: not as tall as a tight end, but bigger than a fullback. Since this position isn’t common enough to warrant its own position, it is classified as a tight end. Former Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley is a good example of an H-back.
Tight ends in NFL fantasy football are important, because it’s almost like being on a power play for the teams who get production from the position. That is, if you draft Rob Gronkowski and can still field a team full of solid QB-RB-WR starters, then you’re often playing 8 players against 7 players, if the other team’s tight end isn’t that great. The trick becomes finding a way to either (1) draft Gronk in the second round or higher and still add top talent at other positions or (2) find a tight end who is highly productive in the lower rounds. It’s a dilemma owners have to face, and one for which you need to develop a strategy or philosophy going into draft.
The odd thing about tight ends is there are usually 2 or 3 elite players every year, and then a glut of somewhat productive guys at the position. If you don’t add one of the sure studs, then you might as well wait to draft one (or two) of that glut in the middle rounds. In this case, you need a handful of TEs you’ve targeted.
If you don’t draft one of these players high, you can sometimes pick up a solid tight end in free agency. The only problem with this is it isn’t a constant thing and you have to hit on the right players. The most common way to do this is through injury, because owners don’t handcuff backup tight ends. When Jordan Reed was injured with the Skins last year, Niles Paul filled in nicely. When Dennis Pitta was injured, Owen Daniels was productive. Neither of these could have been depended upon, but occasionally a free agent TE is productive.
Rarely, one of these players come out of nowhere. Gary Barnidge is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The 30-year old Gary Barnidge was a block tight end coming into 2015, with about 250 yards receiving and 2-3 touchdowns in a 7-year NFL career. But Barnidge and Browns starting QB Josh McCown were college teammates and they seem to have retained that chemisty. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Gary Barnidge was Top 5 tight end. NO ONE predicted his emergence.
It’s pure luck when you hit on these guys. For instance, I grabbed Gary Barnidge in free agency in two leagues in 2015, and both were pure luck. In one, I had Gronk, but he was on an early bye week. I added Barnidge as a one-week filler off of one or two good results. But the good results just kept coming. In the other league, I had Antonio Gates on suspension, Ladarius Green with a concussion, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins out for 6 weeks. I was desperate for any TE and took a flier on Barnidge. Now, I’m starting him as a flex in both leagues.
Finally, with the trade of Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks, the only player capable of replacing Rob Gronkowski at the top position is no longer elite. With Graham in Seattle, either draft Gronk high or wait another 5 rounds (at least) to add a tight end.
Quick Advice on Tight Ends
- Draft Gronkowski or Wait Awhile.
- Depth at Tight End is High Right Now, b/c of the Passing Rules.
- Matchups against Good Pass Rushing Defenses are a Wild Card, b/c the
- TE might be required to stay in and block, or might get a lot of dump-off passes.
The Secret of Drafting Field Goal Kickers
I’ll give my rule-of-thumb for drafting kickers. One, avoid kickers on bad teams with terrible offenses. Two, avoid kickers on good teams with great offenses. In the former case, your kicker won’t have many scoring chances in a game. And when the team is behind late in games, his team will stop trying to score field goals. In the latter case, all your PK is going to do is kick extra points. Field goals are where success is at.
What you want is to find the sweet spot on offense. You want an offense good enough to drive down the field, but not good enough to score touchdowns. You want plenty of stalled drives. Usually, teams with good passing offenses and poor running games fit this bill. As you get near the goal line, the room for receivers to maneuver gets smaller. Unless you can run the ball in, such offenses often stall out.
I hate when writers dismiss a position entirely. That being said, don’t sweat the field goal kickers. Most scoring systems do not offer enough points to make PKs important. Even if they did, results are so unpredictable that you would have a hard time picking the right elite place kicker.
Tips for Drafting Field Goal Kickers
- Draft Kickers on Average NFL Offenses.
- Don’t Sweat Adding Them in Drafts. The Top 10 Chances from Year-to-Year.
- Never be the First One to Draft a Kicker.
Guide to Drafting Team Defenses in Fantasy Football
Know your scoring system when it comes to drafting defenses. Team Defense is another of those positions which helps, if your scoring system provides solid points for defensive stats and you hit on the right unit. Some leagues water-down the TM DEF stats so bad that they’re all basically the same, unless one gets a defensive touchdown or sets some kind of record for sacks. Other fantasy leagues offer big points for “Points Against” and “Yards Against”. If they do, then drafting a top defense becomes important.
The problem is, NFL defenses can be unpredictable from one season to the next. Units change personnel and coordinators. Injuries happen. Divison opponents change their coaches and personnel, getting better or worse. The NFL schedule changes every year, so the opponents list can get better or worse.
Even changes on an NFL team’s offense can change the defensive stats. For instance, the Houston Texans were a Top 3 fantasy defense in 2014, because Arian Foster was on the field and churning out big statistics. Deandre Hopkins had emerged as a big play and a possession receiver. The Texans’ offense did well enough to keep their defense off the field and rested. In 2015, Arian Foster is on IR and the running game has suffered. The Texans’ quarterback situation is so bad that it affects Hopkins effectiveness. The defense is on the field all day and giving up more points. The defense is middle-of-the-pack at best.
For these reasons, I seldom draft a defense high. Unless you think a unit is going to be the 1985 Chicago Bears Defense or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens Defense, don’t be the first one to select a DEF/ST. Even then, you’re usually going to be wrong on that assessment. Owners are tempted to see the Seattle Seahawks these last few years and think their defense is safe to draft high, but here they are 4-4. While the defense has been solid at time, its scores don’t warrant the tradeoff of drafting them many rounds higher than other defenses.
Most leagues come with an NFL team’s defense with its special teams units (minus kicking scores) for the purposes of scoring. Essentially, if a kick return or punt return goes for a touchdown, the Team Defense gets the points. If this is the case in your league, you’ll need to factor in the kicking game. For most teams, this is negligable. For teams with a top KR and punt return specialist, this can be an important factor. Tyler Lockett makes the Seahawks Defense better in such leagues. Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs made their DEF/ST better in years past.
Tips for the DEF/ST Position
- Make Decisions Based on Your League’s Scoring System. This is Especially True with Defenses.
- Wait to Draft Your Defense. This Position Has a Lot of Volatility.
Look at the Strength of Schedule. This Changes Dramatically Year-to-Year.
- Pay Attention to Elite Kick Return and Punt Return Specialists.
Individual Defensive Players: IDPs
Some leagues do not use a Team Defense. Instead, they use individual defensive players or “IDPs”. The IDP position is one of those positions which has a highly diverse set of scoring parameters. If each team only has one IDP, I wouldn’t sweat the position too much. If leagues allows you to start any IDPs, then pick players by in this order: middle/inside linebackers, safeties, outside linebackers, cornerbacks, defensive ends, and defensive tackles. I’d stick with the LBs and safeties, if they let me.
The reason is say that is the tackle stat. If your league tracks tacklers, that statistic is a lot more consistent and predictable than sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, and interceptions. Those are key statistics for IDP scoring. Some leagues also has assisted tackles, passes defended, quarterback hits, and tackles-for-losses. When you compare all of these, more tackles are made than all the rest of the stats combined. A good middle linebacker is going to have 100 solo tackles and 30-50 assists. A good pass rusher is going to make 15 to 20 sacks at most. A good defensive back is going to have 5 to 10 intereptions in their best season. Defensive touchdowns are even rarer.
IDP drafting is counter-intuitive. Most of the time on offense, you want players from the best teams with the high-powered offenses. With linebackers and safeties, you want players from the worst teams with lousy offenses. The reason is opportunity. Think about it: a linebacker on a bad team might be on the field 70 or 80 plays in a game. That’s 70 chances to make a tackle. A linebacker on a good team might have 10 less plays a game to make a tackle. Linebackers on teams with a good running game are even worse, with perhaps 15 to 20 less opportunities per game. If you have two similar linebackers, it’s a numbers game: the player on the bad team is simply going to put up bigger stats.
IDP Linebackers: MLB, ILB, and OLB
For that reason, you want to start as many linebackers as possible. You want the inside linebackers, if possible. These players are in the middle of the field and their job is to range sideline-to-sideline to make tackles.
The middle linebacker is protected by the two defensive tackles, who take on blockers and allow the player in the middle to tackle the running back. Examples of top MLBs include Luke Kuechly, Sean Lee (before moving outside), Kiko Alonzo (in Buffalo), Paul Posluszny (before moving to 3-4), and Ray Lewis (before doing the same). Brian Urlacher was an MLB. So was Patrick Willis, until the Niners moved to a 3-4 scheme (more on that later).
Inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are also meant to make tackles, especially the “Will” OLB instead of the “Mike” OLB. “Mike” stands for strongside inside linebacker. The strongside implies one more blocker is on his side of the field, so his job is to take on that blocker and free up the Will to make the tackles. “Will” stands for weakside inside linebacker, and his job is to roam free and plug any holes up the middle. Often, those holes have ball carriers in them. The “Mike”/”Will” dynamic is one you can exploit. The Mike LB is usually the playcaller for defense. He gets the press and is considered the leader. Casual fans are likely to draft the Mike, while you can snatch up the Will LB and get more production. It’s the different in drafting Patrick Willis (Mike) or Navarro Bowman (Will). Willis got the press; Bowman got the tackles. [Aside: Both were good, but it was the difference in a Top 20 LB and a Top 5 LB.]
Outside linebackers usually get fewer tackles, so they are less productive and less consistent. That being said, the combine tackles with sacks, so the OLB can be productive (Lance Briggs was highly productive as an OLB).
When you draft OLBs, you want those who play on the weakside, because they have more room to play. That means the Weakside Linebacker (WLB) on 4-3 defenses and the Jack Linebacker on 3-4 defenses. The last of the four 3-4 linebackers you want is the “Sam”, because he’s covered up. This corresponds to the Strongside LB (SLB) in the 4-3 defense.
IDP Linemen: Defensive Ends and Defensive Tackles
Defensive linemen are among the most inconsistent players in all of football. Often, their defensive schemes are set up to have them take on blockers, setting up others to make the tackle. Their tackle stats are likely to be sporadic, somewhat of a by-product of the situation, like a good offensive rebounder in the NBA, whose entire offensive stats sheet comes from putbacks. Defensive tackles are especially prone to this dynamic.
Defensive ends are a little more high-scoring, especially the right defensive end. Locate the starting RDE on each NFL team and research him, because he’s likeliest to be productive. If you have to start a defensive lineman or two, you want them to be right defensive ends.
A handful of left defensive ends (LDE) and defensive tackles (DT) are going to be consistent, but they are few and far between. Aaron Donald, Kyle Williams, and Ndamukong Suh are examples of exeptions. Before his injury, Geno Atkins was a solid DT starter. Avoid nose tackles (NT) the most, because their job is to take on double-teams at the point of attack. IF they’re doing their job right, they won’t be making many tackles.
IDP Defensive Backs: Safeties and Cornerbacks
If you need to start defensive backs, I recommend looking at the strong safety position. The strong safety is the closest thing to a linebacker on the field. He usually plays near the line of scrimmage, covering the tight end on many plays. Sometimes, he’ll take on the slot receiver or the running back out of the backfield, but usually, he’s on the tight ends. If not, he’s at the line of scrimmage, adding an 8th tackler against the running game (the strong safety is #8 in the 8-men-in-the-box phrase). In many cases, he’s a biscuit away from being a linebacker, and he plays like it. His tackling stats are usually good, especially on bad teams. Troy Polamalu is a good example here.
The free safety in some NFL defenses is somewhat interchangeable. The term “free” usually means he is free to roam the backfield, providing double-coverage on the most dangerous offensive threats. That usually means he double-teams the other side’s best receiver. He is the last line of defense, so he often double-teams any receiver running a deep pattern. The point being, he is more likely to be providing deep coverage help far away from the line of scrimmage, and won’t make as many tackles. Some of these players are elite, such as the recently-retired Ed Reed. Even at that, Ed Reed had some NFL seasons in which he was an All-Pro, but didn’t have good fantasy stats.
Cornerbacks are more viable than they were 10 seasons ago, because of the new NFL rules. Some NFL offenses throw the ball 70% of the time, and try to get the ball to their wide receivers for big plays. This puts the cornerback on an island. Those who are sure tacklers can be solid fantasy contributors. That beings me to a point: you don’t want the elite corners.
That might sound counter-intuitive, but it isn’t. Think about it: quarterbacks are going to shy away from elite cornerbacks. They’ll pick on the lesser corners, while the elite players go without as many opportunities to collect stats.
The trick with cornerbacks is to find player bad enough that NFL passers are going to target them, but not so bad they get replaced. The best fantasy cornerbacks are found in a sweet spot. You want a player who is vulnerable, who is a sure tackler, and who has the coaches’ confidence. Finally, corners on winning teams are valuable, if they meet the traits I just spelled out. These teams are ahead late in games. The other team is trying to catch up, so they are likely to throw the ball and stretch out the game more. And your guy will be making tackles, and in a position to get key interceptions.
Part 3: Free Agent Adds: Working the Waiver Wire
- Free Agent – In fantasy football, this is an NFL player who isn’t on a roster in your league.
- Waiver Wire – How free agents are assigned to fantasy teams throughout the season. Several options exist: priority list, first-come-first-served, blind bidding.
So you made it through the draft and now have a solid team. That doesn’t mean your job is finished. Inevitably, no matter how much work you and your rivals did, you’ll miss some breakout stars. Injuries often account for free agents becoming relevent (but not always). Whatever the case, talent can be found on the waiver wire.
Free agency helps you supplement your team’s depth, find valuable matchups for spot starts, and occasionally find a blue chip scorer. The waiver wire should not be neglected. In 2014, Odell Beckham Jr. and C.J. Anderson were likely picked up off the waiver wire midseason. They were #1 and #2 among the players most often found on championship fantasy teams in 2014.
[Hint: I know this lesson all-too-well. In my main league, my 11-2 and #1 seeded team played a 7-6 and #6 seeded team in the playoffs. He had added both Anderson and ODB midseason, and his team was simply better than mine in Week 15. He bounced me from the playoffs, beat seeds 1-2-3, and won the league title! And all because he was better on the waiver wire.]
In the first month of the season, about 80% of the best deals are going to be found. Scour the waiver wire in Week 3 and Week 4 and this is a prime time to improve your lineup. People jump the gun in Week 2 free agency, overemphasizing the value of Week 1 results. Sometimes, a player comes out in Week 1 and is an obvious value. Most of the time, it’s a one-week aberration. After 2 or 3 games of results, it’s a lot more accurate to project results.
The process should continue throughout the season. Injuries open up possibilities. Rookies, 2nd-year, and 3rd-year players sometimes break out midway through the year. Sometimes, they get a promotion due to lack of production from the veterans in front of them. But mostly, injuries create situations that no one could have predicted throughout the year. As long as you are in the race, you should work the waiver wire.
If you have an elite starting lineup, you might want to stand pat. If you are in a deeper league, working the waiver wire still helps. Build from the bottom up, always improving the bottom half of your roster. You want elite backups ready to go in case an injury happens. Adding top free agents also denies elite players to your opponents. Corner the market on talent, if you can.
Finally, remember to shore up your own positions when possible. You might hear rumblings that your star running back’s backup has been replaced. Sometimes, you’ll need to add a new handcuff, or double-up on the insurance policy.
Waiver Wire Tips for Fantasy Football
- Work It Heavily in the 1st Month of the Season, When Stars are Breaking Out.
- Follow Injury News and Make Free Agent Moves Accordingly.
- Strengthen Your Roster by Building from the Ground Up. If You Can Improve Quality at the Last Roster Spot, It’s Worth the Effort.
- Keep Track of Your Stars’ Backups. Add Late-Breaking Handcuffs if the Situation Changes.
Part 4: Fantasy Football Trades
Trades are the most complicated aspect to fantasy football. Trades have a social aspect that no other part of the fantasy sports has. It’s a sales job. You have to be a good salesman, yet willing to take risk yourself. You need good things to sell, but have a solid idea of the goods you want in return.
Good traders in fantasy league need to be realistic, to have a sense of what is acceptable and what isn’t. Therefore, you need to step into the role of the other team owner, to figure out what it is you have that they think would help them. Then you have to decide whether that asset is worth giving up–worth the risk–or whether the price is too high. Even more complicated, you have to give up as little as possible, while pleasing not just the other owner, but whatever trade authority oversees these transactions in your league. Thus, you’ll need to keep in mind the wider impact on league balance, and whatever social obstacles you might face if it’s an iffy trade. All in all, you need to maintain a good reputation as a solid trader, because you’ll be wanting to make trades with these same rivals next year, too.
Of course, nothing is going to work if you have nothing worth trading. Make a realistic assessment of what teams might want. Offering up a couple of pieces of waiver wire fodder, a backup receiver, and an elite field goal kicker is not going to get you a stud player. Usually, trades only work if you have an excess of talent at one position (and need talent at another) and your trade partner has an excess of talent at the position you need (and can benefit from trading for your player). This isn’t always going to be the case for bad teams, unless it’s a keeper league and you trade your one star for draft picks next year.
But let’s dismiss the talk of a better team becoming an average team: this article is about winning the league title. If you are a legitimate contender, then you have assets to trade. In those cases, you can improve your team by tightening up your starting lineup, converting two or more talents into one mega-talent. Which brings me to a point: win the trade with the best player being traded.
As a rule of thumb, you want to add the best player in the trade. This is how good teams get better. Adding another elite player to your starting lineup is how you add points to your weekly totals immediately. And as the season goes along, depth matters less. Trading solid contributors for a blue-chip stud becomes a good idea as the end of the season gets nearer. Think about it: you have fewer weeks in order for one of your stars to suffer a debilitating injury. That means the risks are less that lack-of-depth is going to hurt you.
At the same time, a borderline playoff team with a big stud and holes in the rest of the starting lineup might be in a position where a trade works for him or her, too. The other owner can take the risk that one of the replacements you trade him is going to get hot for a month.
Let’s say your trade partner has an elite Top 10 receiver. You start an solid Top 25 receiver each week, but want to add punch to the lineup. You also have a little bit of legitimate running back depth and your trade partner has had an injury or a season-long issue at RB. You might be able to convince the other player that the Top 25 receiver will be almost as good (or as good) as the Top 10 receiver for a month, while he can also improve his running back position. In that case, a trade is possible and makes sense for both teams. If you can add a third viable player to the offer, it might put you over the top. And you still win the trade, because you get the best player in the swap.
Fantasy Football Trading Hints
- Make Realistic Trade Offers.
- Assess Your Team’s Assets Objectively.
- Assess Your Trade Partner’s Needs from Their Point-of-View. Ask, “What would I want in a trade if I had this team?”
- Trade Near the Trade Deadline, When Depth Is Less of a Factor.
- Acquire the Best Player in the Trade.
How to Win a Fantasy Football Championship: Get Lucky
If you follow the blueprint above and avoid too many injuries, you’ll have a contender. At that point, you’ll need a little bit of luck to win the league championship. That means having your players post average-to-excellent weekly totals come playoff-time. That means matching up against opponents whose players don’t have career days. It means avoiding in-game injuries to your starters in the playoffs.
Do all of that and you’ll be hoisting your league’s trophy or plaque. You’ll cash the big check from your high roller league. You’ll having the bragging rights at next year’s draft, and forever be able to see you won the Fantasy Bowl and were the league champ one year. Once you do, read through this gameplan again to learn how to repeat as a fantasy football title holder.