Fantasy football draft strategies come in all different forms, since you might be in a redraft, a keeper draft, or an auction league. Even if you are in the standard redraft league, you’re draft strategy is going to change according to the scoring rules, the roster size, and how free agency is transacted in your league. Often, draft strategy is changed according to where you pick in the first round of the draft.
Since strategy changes according to your position in the draft and which round your draft has entered, I wanted to include a number of draft strategy options and draft tactics you can use to increase your chances of having a great season. While I can’t promise you’re going to win your league with these draft strategy tips, I will say that you’re likely to compete for the playoffs and have a chance to be there when the dust settles in the end. Having a good fantasy football draft strategy is about maximizing your odds of getting good players, shifting the probabilities to your advantage. Luck always plays a factor in fantasy football.
Latest in Fantasy Football Draft Strategies
Since the early years of the 2000’s, changes in the National Football League have required adjustments in fantasy football draft tactics. In the late-1990’s, you were crazy if you didn’t draft a running back in the 1st round of a fantasy draft, and you were flirting with danger if you didn’t draft a runner in each of the first two rounds of the draft. Running backs were the most consistent performers, and the team with 2 or more productive, consistent RBs were the ones constantly winning their league titles. Several changes have taken place since then.
NFL Pass Interference Rules
Before the season, the NFL decided it would change the way officials would call pass interference. The rule had long called for flags on contact more than 5 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. In reality, officials would not call incidental contact fouls or what they would call hand-checking in basketball, because they felt the severity of the penalty outweighed the offense and these tactics had little effect on a play most of the time. But the NFL front office chose to crack down on interference, though the rule was not rewritten. All touching by the defender beyond five yards would be flagged.
This simple change in the way games would be officiated had a huge effect on the NFL game. It became harder to be a defender than ever. Offensive scoring went up. The passing game became a much bigger part of NFL football in the wake of the new ruling. Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino’s 20-year-old single-season touchdown record for a passer, posting 49 TDs to Marino’s 48. Tom Brady surpassed Manning by passing for 50 touchdowns. Drew Brees came 15 yards short of breaking Dan Marino’s all-time record for yards thrown in one season.
All of this is an indication that NFL passing games have gone into high gear since the interference rule enforcement was tightened. In the five years before the new policies were instituted, quarterbacks like Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer had won Superbowl titles. Since the new policies came into being, the quarterbacks who have won Superbowls have been Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger (2), and Aaron Rodgers. While some might debate the relative merits of Eli Manning or even Ben Roethlisberger, the picture is clear–quarterbacks rule more than ever in NFL football. By extension, their receiving corps also rule (statistically). You might say that QBs always ruled, even in the 1990s, but the dominance is now enough that it affects the way fantasy football players are drafted.
Running Back by Committee – Platoon RBs
Maybe it wouldn’t be that way, if it weren’t for the fact that NFL teams have moved away from the workhorse running back. These days, the number of RBs who spend the whole game on the field have dwindled to a very few. If teams don’t have a dominant running back, they prefer to have one runner for 1st and 2nd down (or running downs) and another runner for 3rd down (or passing downs). Many teams, even those with quite successful running games, split series between running backs. The result is that you’ll find few stud running backs in fantasy football these days and more platoon situations. While the platoon runners can give you big totals one week, they might give almost nothing the next week, depending on who has the hot hand and what situation his team is in. If you have a primary running back and his team gets behind, he might be on the field a handful of plays.
In these days, you might not get the RBBC, but the running back platoon means you’ll have an inconsistent running game throughout the year. Not only do you have wild ups-and-downs throughout the year, but this makes handcuffing running backs problematic. Who becomes the primary ball-carrier when the starter gets hurt: the 3rd-down back or the 3rd-string back? More often than before, you’ll find yourself handcuffing the wrong RB half the season, only to find his real replacement is someone else.
Drafting Strategies for RBs
So am I saying that you draft quarterbacks and wide receivers in the 1st round?
The answer is no, at least if you have a pick in the first half of the 1st round. Though the numbers are smaller, you’ll still find a handful of running backs who are still every-down runners. That handful still become the most invaluable players you can have on a fantasy football team, so it becomes a huge advantage to add these men to your roster. But once you get out of this small number of indispensable players at the bottom of the 1st round and throughout the 2nd round, the decision isn’t nearly as clear.
Once you get into the running backs who are solid, but on lesser offenses, or who have been beaten up in recent years, you have to become leery of them. For instance, Maurice Jones-Drew has been a Top 5 runner for several years now. But he’s coming off a surgery in the offense that leaves him with a bone-on-bone knee structure, while the Jacksonville Jaguars are losing Mike Sims-Walker and gaining rookie QB Blaine Gabbert. The Jags were no offensive juggernaut last year with veteran David Garrard under center and it’s still questionable who the QB is going to be. These are a lot of question marks.
Do you draft Maurice Jones-Drew lower in the 1st round (assuming he falls), or do you find a younger runner, or do you grab a #1 wide receiver like Andre Johnson?
Similarly, do you assume Stephen Jackson, who had major injury concerns a few years back and has always taken a lot of shots with that big frame of his, gets one more year of big production? Again, maybe it’s better to draft a more dependable wide receiver, who aren’t considered old at age 28 or 29.
Good Runners Are Easier to Find in Middle Rounds
One other thing stands out. Because of the greater number of platoon running back situations, I’ve found that you can find better RB potential in the middle rounds than you would have 10 years ago. Sometimes, the guy who’s listed at #2 suddenly becomes a 1A type runner and you’re getting 3rd or 4th-round value by drafting a backup runner in the 7th or 8th round. The word “backup” doesn’t have quite the same meaning it had ten years ago. This dynamic has allowed runners like Jonathan Stewart and Ahmad Bradshaw to become major difference makers in fantasy football seasons in recent years, even when the starter isn’t injured.
The point being: it’s now sometimes better to draft stud receivers and quarterbacks in the 2nd to 4th round, knowing you can get running backs with almost the same upside and touch totals in the 6th through 8th rounds. So it sometimes becomes a better play to secure a stud running back and a couple of can’t-miss stud wide receivers before speculating on iffy running backs in the third and fourth round.
Each year is different and each draft is different. People who took a change on LeSean McCoy in the 2nd and 3rd rounds last year were highly rewarded. You won’t find a cut-and-dried rule, but the point is, drafting runner-runner or even RB-RB-RB isn’t a cut-and-dried rule, either.
Where to Draft Quarterbacks
In the recent years, I’ve seen fantasy football owners draft top quarterbacks in the Top 5 picks of the draft. In all of these cases, despite drafting players like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in their huge years, these teams still came to tragic ends. This tells me it’s still an insane idea to draft a quarterback high in a draft, no matter how much production he offers. The opportunity cost is just too great.
Now you might argue that the people who tend to draft Aaron Rodgers 5th overall tend to be the people who make huge mistakes in rounds 2 through 6, and I’d probably agree with you. Seldom do I see one of the veteran league owners who makes out his own detailed draft card draft Rodgers or Brees that high. Frankly, I’d like to see someone try that as an experiment, though I don’t want to be the one who tries.
The fact is, the big stats that fantasy quarterbacks post is still a mirage beckoning the unwary fantasy football owners to disaster.
The big statistical years draw the owner offsides and he drafts the fantasy QB too high, because the difference in Rodgers numbers and those of the #5 or even #10 quarterback still aren’t as wide as the difference between, say, Arian Foster and the #5 or #10 running back last year. Of course, Arian Foster was being drafted in the 4th to 6th rounds last year, depending on when you drafted, but you get my point. Because top fantasy quarterbacks score more than ever before, you can afford to wait a few rounds and still have a pretty good chance (even better than ever) of drafting a complete stud high in the drafts. Despite the records falling by the wayside, I still suggest you draft a stud fantasy wide receiver before a stud fantasy quarterback.
Fantasy Football Drafting Tips
That equation might change, if your league never employed the point-per-reception rule for catches or has exotic scoring rules for quarterbacks (or multiple QB starting positions–I’ve seen it). You can always find a league where a highly unorthodox fantasy football draft strategy will work best. But for most owners, I’d suggest you draft running backs high until you run out of dependable, every-down RBs, then draft a wide receiver or two. Grab one of the Top 8 QBs when enough have gone off the board, mixing in at least one other high-end RB pick in the first 5 rounds.
Don’t worry as much about tight ends as a few years ago, because you’ll find more productive tight ends than ever before, so don’t draft one in the Top 5-6 rounds, at the very least. Instead, keep mixing in platoon running backs with upside and a handful of solid receivers. One thing is that, more than ever before, solid 2nd receivers have become big-producers on a one-year basis, so stockpiling the position makes sense.
While you never know what’s going to happen when the season begins (due to injuries), you want your fantasy football draft strategy to stack the odds as much in your favor as possible. Build a solid roster up and down, maximizing your picks by selecting players when the talent is flying off the board, and you’ll have the best odds of fielding a championship contender. Remember, keep building depth and talent throughout the season in free agency, hoping to pull off that one big trade or two which creates separation later in the season, when all that depth you built won’t matter as much.