For most fantasy football players, each new season means drafting a new team. Maybe it’s your work league or you play with your old college buddies. Maybe you love football, or you just have a social obligation and want to get this over with as quickly as possible. No matter the reason, you should always have a plan going in. It can take five minutes or it can take five days of planning. Whatever your commitment, there are always some reliable strategies that you can lean on.
My personal rules begin with not drafting a quarterback early, waiting until the second to last round to grab a defense, and then grabbing a kicker in the very last round. Beyond that, we should look at each year individually, and we should try to have some idea of what to expect at our pick. In a snake draft—the most common format—you can look at where your picks are coming, and then plan out who to target. Sure, someone might go early or a better player might fall. However the draft shakes out, I always have a general plan. I currently play in a snake draft dynasty league (we keep the same team from year to year, adding on rookies), an auction keeper (players are bid on and kept for a few years at a time) and a few snake redraft leagues (what we are discussing here today). I am going to lay out round by round how I like to pick, and other options you can consider depending on your style.
Safety over Ceiling Early
In the early rounds, it is important to lock down reliable talent that will likely be there for you all year. This means running backs and wide receivers (with a couple tight ends in the mix) who have proven their worth and health, or riskier players who have greatly fallen. I like Ezekiel Elliott much more than Dalvin Cook or Le’Veon Bell this year because he feels much safer to me. I know Zeke will get his carries, and I know he’ll score so long as he doesn’t run into injury. Dalvin Cook has dealt with injuries for two straight years and now enters year three—am I sold he’ll stay healthy? Not so much. Le’Veon Bell has had health issues himself and enters a new offense that likely won’t be as fruitful as the Steelers were. Fairly, Zeke goes in the first four picks while Le’Veon Bell and Dalvin Cook go around picks 13-17 which tells us the market sees the difference.
Using a receiver example, Amari Cooper is the projected 12th wide receiver, Adam Thielen is 13th, and Stefon Diggs is 14th. I like targets as a measure of consistent value, and Cooper had four games with 5+ targets in 2017 and 8 in 2018. In comparison, Thielen had 13 such games each of the last two years while Diggs had 8 and 9. This isn’t the only data I’m looking at, but it reminds me that Cooper has a history of disappearing, and I’m not sure I can trust him on a weekly basis. Personally, I would take Thielen and Diggs over him every time, and they are “cheaper” anyways. Remember in the first 4 rounds that you want to trust every player you pick to actually be there, even if the ceiling is a little lower. (Cooper had a 200-yard game in 2017 but also 8 games with under 50 yards)
Use the “Tier” System
I don’t typically obsess over my rankings in a given year. Maybe I’ll mess up a pick somewhere as a result, but I just can’t be bothered to put 200 players in a particular order. However, I do have tiers in my mind of how I roughly view guys. For running backs, my top tier is Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey. That’s it. Every running back below those four is worse in my mind, so I treat them as lower. The next tier for me is Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Joe Mixon, and Todd Gurley. I find each of these players to be slightly riskier or to have a slightly lower ceiling than the top group. I’d still take any of them as my top running back, but there is a bit of a value drop. After this group would be James Conner, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette, Damien Williams, Aaron Jones, and Marlon Mack. This is about the end of the guys that I would want to have as my top running back, and the risk factor either goes up with each, or the ceiling once again drops. Conner has only had the job for one year and has talented backs behind him. Cook and Fournette seem like serious injury risks despite their obvious talents. Chubb will be playing with Kareem Hunt after 8 games, which could cost him touches, and Mack isn’t a great pass-catcher despite being in a great offense. It helps me to know these tiers before drafting because I know how quickly to act. If Gurley is the last tier 2 guy remaining and I need a running back, I should act now. If Gurley just went, the large tier 3 gives me time to wait for now. Tiers are an easy way to make valuing your options easier on the fly.
Fill your WR, RB, Flex, and TE spots before QB
Quarterback performances are typically not repeatable from year to year. Believe it or not, this includes the greats: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. Guess how many quarterbacks have ever repeated as the number one multiple years in a row. Got an answer in your head? Only Daunte Culpepper and Aaron Rodgers have done it since 2001. The average quarterback reverts back to being 15th best the next year (on average) and they lose an average of 4.5 points per game in scoring. Quite simply, when someone rips apart the league, everyone takes notice and plans for them. They start to lose their value and are not worth the expensive pick they would cost. Currently, Patrick Mahomes is going at the end of the second round. This costs us a premium running back or wide receiver, and it probably won’t pay off.
The other reason we wait is that only 15 or so quarterbacks are drafted in a typical one-quarterback league. This means that if you drafted no quarterback, you have 17 starters to choose from each week for free. There is no other position with such luxury. So, stay away from quarterback early. By early, I mean at least the first 7 rounds…long enough for you to grab 3 running backs, 3 wide receivers, and a tight end (or whatever mix you choose). Personally, I wait until round 10+ and grab a ‘boring’ name…Philip Rivers or Matthew Stafford for example.
Develop an opinion on Tight Ends
People tend to be passionate about either taking a tight end early or waiting until the bitter end and grabbing whatever schmoe is left. I think both strategies have their value, so I’m not going to debate it here. What I will say, though, is to know your tight ends and where they will go. Travis Kelce feels like he is alone at the peak of the mountain, and he goes around the early second round. It’s a huge price, but many will argue it’s worth it since no one else has the same balance of skill, reliable QB, and explosive offense. George Kittle and Zach Ertz are 1b and 1c to Kelce, and both usually go around the late 3rd. O.J. Howard follows around the early 5th round, Hunter Henry goes in the late 5th, Evan Engram in the mid 6th, and Eric Ebron in the late 6th. If you aren’t sold by any of these names yet, then know your final cutoff. Know the last guy on your list, and make sure you don’t drop below him. For me personally, the drop-off happens at around tight end 13 (Austin Hooper, Trey Burton, and Delanie Walker) and I am probably spending a 9th or 10th round pick on the position just to be safe. If you draft a top tier tight end, don’t worry about taking a backup…whatever is left will suffice for the one week you need them.
I already stressed not taking a quarterback early, but now we’ll talk about high upside options. Quarterbacks have a “cheat code” in that their rushing yards are scored just like those of a running back. The advantage here is that quarterback scrambles tend to grab more yards at a time, so you lock down an extra point with every 10 yards. Mitch Trubisky, who is going in the early 13th round, rushed for 421 yards last year (42.1 points). Lamar Jackson goes in the mid 12th and rushed for 697 yards despite starting only 7 games. Josh Allen played in 12 games, rushed for 631 yards, and goes in the late 11th round. I’m not saying these players will all become MVP candidates, but each offers a safe weekly floor and ease is basically free in your league.
In addition to scrambling quarterbacks, there are always plenty of “safe” players that go late because they are boring. Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz are going in the 7th. Philip Rivers and Kyler Murray are going in the 8th. Jared Goff and Cam Newton are taken in the 9th, and Tom Brady is usually there in the 10th. There is value everywhere! I will warn here that you should watch your league. Amateur leagues tend to jump early on QB, so don’t wait too long. Also, some players will take two guys (despite their limited roster spots) and this needs to be monitored. Just adapt and act a little earlier if necessary. Remember that there are probably 20 decent choices, and they all have a chance to help you succeed.
Defense/ Special Teams and Kickers
Remember how I told you that quarterback success did not repeat from year to year? Defenses are even worse. I looked back at the top scoring defense from every year since 2001, and I looked for repeat performances. I wanted to see teams who succeeded multiple times in a row. Well, it hasn’t happened since 2001. No team has been the #1 fantasy defense two years in a row. In fact, the average defense regresses to 16th the next year. What about the #1 ranked teams though before the season? Surely we are better at picking right before the season starts. Nope. The preseason #1 defense is drafted in the middle of the 8th round and finishes 16th overall on average. We are so bad at predicting defensive scoring that the expert favorite finishes perfectly average. The best finish since 2007 was 4th. So, we are again happily paying a premium for nothing. I know the Chicago Bears defense looks like a monster. It has so much talent and there is no way it fails, right? It probably will. Just remember that there are still great names in the 8th round (Christian Kirk, David Njoku, one of the quarterbacks) and a defense is not one of them. One year ago, the Jaguars were “a monster” and now they are going 3 rounds later. Also, they finished 19th last year.
Late Round Fliers
Okay, so we spend our last 2 picks on the defense and kicker. What about the late picks before that? Let’s say for argument’s sake that you have a 15 round draft. You have one quarterback, 1 tight end, one defense, and one kicker. That leaves 11 spots for everything else. Most likely, you grab 6 running backs (more injury risk) and 5 wide receivers. How do we fill out the later spots though? Should we value stability, like early in the draft, or upside? Late in the draft, go upside all the way. These are picks that we don’t expect to be home runs. Some of them may be off our rosters in a week in favor of waiver wonders. That’s perfectly fine. Each late pick should essentially be a lotto ticket. Let’s look at some ADP choices…Golden Tate or Keke Coutee in the 11th? Coutee is young and talented, and he could have a big role in the Texans offense. We know what Tate is, and that offense doesn’t look promising this year. Do you want Justice Hill or Dion Lewis in the 13th? Hill looks like an explosive rookie and could have a big part in the Baltimore offense if anything happens to Ingram. Lewis was mediocre in Tennessee last year, and he looks to have less of a role–even if he is a safe pass catcher. Sure, Coutee and Hill could both flop. However, they have the upside for much more while we know what Tate and Lewis offer us: not much.
Wrapping up (TLDR)
Wrapping up, I want to state each piece of advice once more:
- Spend the first 7-8 picks on running backs, wide receivers, and at most one tight end.
- Early in the draft (at least rounds 1-4), pick safely. Later on (starting somewhere around the 5th or 6th), add on risk for upside.
- Know your tiers (each position should have its own) and use this to compare values between positions.
- Wait on quarterback (until at least round 7), defense (until your second to last round), and kicker (last round)
If you want to practice drafting, I highly recommend this Draft Simulator: click here
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports