If you want to win at fantasy football, you have to minimize luck and maximize creativity, and that all starts with your draft strategy.
If you follow the same boilerplate template used by the majority of fantasy football owners out there, you are bound to be just another face in the crowd, clinging to the hope that your players stay healthy for a full season and that they are integrated into their NFL team’s game plan on a weekly basis.
I’m going to introduce you to my fantasy football draft strategy, one I’ve been using for years which has produced much success, including a championship as recently as 2016.
I can sum up this strategy in one simple phrase: strength in numbers.
Before we begin, here’s what you need to know about this strategy:
- This strategy is catered specifically for PPR leagues, but it still holds value in standard scoring systems.
- It works for the vast majority of leagues out there that use typical scoring options for quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers and defenses.
- It works for most league sizes between 10-16 teams.
Are you ready to dive in? Here’s how it works:
- We’re going to completely neglect kickers.
- We’re going to minimize the value of the team defense.
- We’re going to resist the temptation to go after the top quarterbacks and tight ends no matter how alluring they might be.
- We’re going to consistently take swings at running backs and wide receivers as if we were chopping down Redwoods.
Let’s go through each bullet point one by one.
Neglect the kickers
Contrary to modern culture, I love kickers. I have a special fondness for them because I played the position for 10 years. But with all due respect to my brotherhood, they might win NFL games but they are not going to win fantasy football championships.
Unless you play in a ridiculous 20+ team fantasy league, there is very little statistical advantage between the top-scoring kicker and, oh, let’s say the 12th-scoring kicker. And not only are they so closely ranked together in total points, but they are notoriously difficult to predict from year to year. Even New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, who had been the top fantasy kicker for years, had a rough 2016 and fell down the ranks to about 9th-best.
Do NOT draft a kicker until the very last round of your draft. And certainly don’t draft more than one. Any higher and you’d be wasting a shot at selecting value at another position.
Minimize the value of the team defense
Similar to kickers, team defenses — from a fantasy perspective — are both difficult to project each year and often finish close to one another in scoring. There is more value in them than in kickers, however, so we’re not going to wait until the final rounds to take one.
But team defenses do not have more value than quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers or tight ends, so we are going to wait until at least those positions are filled before we snag a defense.
When selecting a defense, focus on statistics from the previous season such as time of possession, plays from scrimmage, and third-down conversion ratings. You can get access to these on NFL.com.
It might be tempting to look at defensive touchdowns scored, fumbles recovered, sacks and interceptions, but those stats are so fleeting from year to year. We’re looking to see which defenses get off the field quickly and stay fresh throughout the game. Those are the ones more likely to take advantage of offensive miscues.
Resist top quarterbacks and tight ends
I know, we’ve all been there before. We find ourselves picking at the middle or end of Round 1 and a lot of the best running backs and wide receivers have already been selected. What are we supposed to do? Follow the run on those positions and get an inferior player? Or should we take the best quarterback or tight end at that point to gain an advantage?
I know that the latter sounds like the smart move. And it’s pretty tempting to snag guys like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce, knowing that they are typically better than most of their competition.
But in the case of these two positions, you can still get quality players later in the draft that wind up being terrific value picks.
Let me give you an example:
In 2016, I selected Matt Ryan in the 8th round and picked up Dennis Pitta off the waiver wire. As you know, Ryan was selected as league MVP and Pitta led all tight ends in receptions. My backup quarterback was Jameis Winston (7th in passing touchdowns, 12th in passing yards) and my other tight end was Kyle Rudolph (3rd in receptions, 3rd in touchdowns, and 4th in yards, all amongst tight ends).
You will find value at these positions later in the draft. It just comes down to properly identifying them.
Take swings at running backs and wide receivers
So, by now, you’re asking yourself: if I’m holding off on a kicker until the last round, I don’t draft a defense until my skill positions are all filled, and I don’t bother going after the top quarterbacks and tight ends … what is left? Just running backs and wide receivers?
And you’re going to take them early and you’re going to take them often.
In my 2016 championship season, my second-round pick was Adrian Peterson. He who played in just three games and averaged 1.9 yards per carry.
How did I survive after such a wasted high pick? Simple: I had a ton of depth.
Your goal in your fantasy draft is to get as many No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers as possible and as many combined touches for running backs as you can find. And by touches, I’m talking about rushing attempts and receptions out of the backfield.
You are going to miss on a number of players. That is a given. There is no perfect general manager who hits on every pick. Case in point: I missed on Peterson, Jeremy Maclin, and DeVante Parker, but I hit on Ryan, Rudolph, Melvin Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper, Delanie Walker, and Michael Thomas.
If you fling enough crap against the wall, some of it’s gotta stick.
Remember, we’re going for strength in numbers here. Your job is to land significant depth at running back and wide receiver to the point that you have an embarrassment of riches.
You should have owners telling you after the draft, “Man, you’re deep at running back and wide receiver!” And if they question the strength of your quarterbacks and tight ends, fear not. That is normal behavior. You’re going to surprise them when you find a value pick who puts up modest numbers and isn’t too far behind their “highly-coveted” quarterbacks and tight ends.
So how do you know when to draft a quarterback or tight end? I would wait until Rounds 7-9 before drafting anything other than a running back or wide receiver. At that point, you should have at least 3 or 4 starters at both running back and wide receiver and will then be able to select a couple solid, mid-range quarterbacks and tight ends, along with your starting defense.
And meanwhile, when you’re busy picking up quality starting quarterbacks and tight ends, the other teams in your league are scraping for lower-level backs and receivers.
You’ve gotten the edge on them and have some serious value in your strength in numbers.
As always, look for players with upside before taking broken down veterans. I took a swing on three rookie receivers in Thomas, Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd. Shepard was decently productive, Boyd was weak and I dropped him early, but I struck gold with Thomas and reaped the rewards because of it.
I’m not going to lie to you. When you do this strategy, you’re going to feel a bit anxious. When you see quarterbacks flying off the board, you’re going to feel the temptation to reach for one. When you realize all the best tight ends have been taken, you’re going to feel regret. And when you see the top kicker or defense sitting on the board at your pick somewhere in the mid rounds, you’re going to have a passing thought go through your head like: “Hey, I can steal this guy right here and have a weekly advantage over every team in the league!”
Am I right? It’s happened before, hasn’t it?
These feelings of anxiety will be normal, believe me. Even as I employ this strategy every year and I know of its success rate, I still shift uncomfortably in my seat as I watch the quarterback and tight end depth charts dwindle. Those are normal feelings that every owner feels.
But being normal means being average and being just like everybody else. And being average sucks. We want to be special, and we’re not going to get that way doing the same things that everybody else does.
Good luck to you in your draft, and remember to keep flinging crap against that wall in the form of running backs and wide receivers!