Fall means Fantasy
It’s the third week of August. The summer is slowly starting to wind down, the weather isn’t quite as oppressively hot, Back-To-School sales are starting, and more importantly, over 40 million people have already or will be drafting their Fantasy Football team.
Me personally, I have at least five leagues every year, with different groups of friends. Next week, I will be drafting with my friends from high school in our league’s 8th season, in a league I have won three separate times. It’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and establish bragging rights for the next year.
I’ve wanted to do a fantasy football article ever since the site was redesigned in May, but as we’ve seen lately, any strategy-based articles that are specific to the current season have to get re-written every day with all the injuries piling up. ESPN’s ADP (Average Draft Position) tracker changes more than the stock market. If you’ve already drafted, you’re probably cringing every time Adam Schefter is on Twitter as he could be reporting an injury for your guy next.
That said, let’s get into some basic to intermediate pillars of fantasy football strategy. Sometime next week I’ll do a traditional sleepers/busts column.
You can’t win your league on draft day, but you sure as hell can lose it. One of the most common mistakes I see is having no strategy going into the draft. People just wait for their turn and pick who they think is the best available player by the default ranking of whatever site they’re playing on. A little bit of research goes a long way. Know the difference in value between a guy like Jimmy Graham (a young Tight End who is very involved in the Saints offense, who is a lock for 80+ catches and 1,000+ yards assuming health) and Andre Johnson (an aging wide receiver on a run-first Texans team who has injury concerns). Because they’re being drafted within a few picks of each other. Graham, I actively want, Johnson, I wouldn’t touch unless he fell to the 5th or 6th round.
Know what the draft order is, and realize that if you’re at the beginning or end of each round, you can have up to 20 or 24 picks in between. You may be forced to sit and watch as a lot of good players go by, especially if someone starts a run on a position. Every slot in the draft has its advantages and disadvantages. Mock drafts help a ton in this regard.
You need to have a plan of what type of player you want at each position. In a standard league, you start one QB, two RB, two WR, one TE and a flex player (usually any RB/WR or TE in some cases). Make sure you have these seven players before doing silly things like getting a backup QB or TE, or even worse, defense or kickers. Have an idea of how the draft will go by looking at mock drafts, and seeing the type of player you’ll get if you draft two RBs first, a RB then a WR, etc. Try all combinations and see what the team looks like.
Last year, Quarterback was hotter than ever, and in some leagues up to four QBs were taken in the first round, because that position was seen as having a couple elite producers and a bunch of also-rans. Turns out in 2012, there were about 7 quarterbacks that could have led your team.
The popular drafting strategies change like the popular songs on the radio. This year, there’s a widely perceived idea that running backs are scarce, or more accurately, “safe”, elite running backs who play on all three downs are scarce. As a result, people are going after RBs early and often. There may not be a non-running back drafted in the first ten picks of your league. If you’re taking Aaron Rodgers first overall, you won’t have a running back until the end of the second round, and at that point you may be forced to say horrible things like “I’ll take David Wilson”. Be aware of the value of each player based on other players at that position. There is a HUGE difference between the #1 running back and the #10 running back when compared to the #1 quarterback and the #10 quarterback.
There is almost zero advantage to drafting a kicker or a defense before the last couple rounds. Elite defenses from the year before are rarely as elite the year after due to schedule changes and personnel changes, and the “elite” defenses command a higher price (usually 8th-10th round). The Seattle and San Francisco defenses are being drafted around the same time as guys like Pierre Garcon and Ahmad Bradshaw, two starting players who can help your lineup way more. The difference between the points that one of those guys will score when compared to later round players is far greater than the difference between the #1 defense and the #12 defense drafted. And if you have a way of predicting which field goal kickers will get more opportunities, please share with the class. I try to pick kickers that play in a dome half the year and have a history of kicking long field goals successfully.
Do NOT worry about bye weeks. Draft the best available player. I see people pass on good players because they don’t want three guys on bye in week 8. By week 8, the league will look very different, there will be players to pick up, and you need to worry about winning the first seven weeks before getting to week 8.
If you’ve been watching football for any length of time you’re way ahead of the game and may already have formulated an opinion on every player on the board. You may know David Wilson isn’t good in pass protection, may not play all three downs and is being way overvalued at his current ADP of 38 overall. If not, read everything you can. Read mock draft articles, sleeper/bust lists, go over career stats for some of the high profile players to find trends. This will teach you subtle but important ideas. Like, most running backs start to decline around age 30 (like Steven Jackson), but running backs can also improve their stats greatly when moving from a bad team to a good team (also, like Steven Jackson). It is then up to you to process all this information and come up with a strategy.
And please, at least check for an injury before you pick someone. Just last night, prospective Pittsburgh starting running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a foot injury and will be out at least 6 weeks. He hasn’t moved down in default rankings yet because the information is fresh. With the internet being a constant 24/7 news cycle, use it to your advantage.
DURING THE SEASON
At this point, everyone has their team and you’re setting your lineup each week. Make sure to take at least a minute on Sunday to check your starting lineup for injuries and bye weeks. Marshawn Lynch suffered a back injury in warm-ups ten minutes before a game 2 seasons ago and didn’t play. A zero is absolutely devastating to come back from. Most of the sites that people play on have news items right next to their player names, so you don’t need to go far for the information.
The best way to keep up with your team is to watch as much football as possible. If you look at the waiver wire one week and see a player who scored 14 points the previous week out of nowhere, you may be tempted to pick them up. If it turns out that they scored no more than 3 points in any other week, and the 14 points came from a single 80 yard touchdown reception, that player is much less likely to repeat those numbers.
WAIVERS AND FREE AGENCY
Be careful how you use your waiver wire and free agency. In previous years, Cam Newton, Michael Vick, DeMarco Murray and dozens more have been either undervalued going into the season or thrust into a starting role because of an injury, and unless you have the #1 waiver priority, you’re not getting the player. Each week, your league will award waiver wire pickups based on your waiver order, and then all unowned players are free agents who can be picked up at any time. When you make a waiver claim, you immediately move to the bottom of the list and could be out of the running for the next hot pick up. If you use a waiver claim on a kicker who happened to kick 5 field goals last week or a defense that scored 30 points against the Jaguars last week but is playing the Patriots this week, you’re wasting the claim.
Don’t micromanage or overanalyze your team. Too many people rushed to the waiver wire last year after the Wednesday night opening game between the Giants and Cowboys because Kevin Ogletree caught eight passes for 114 yards and scored two touchdowns for 23 fantasy points. Over the final 16 weeks of the season, Ogletree scored 38 TOTAL points. Always be careful about one-week wonders or guys who benefitted from a star receiver’s double coverage or a one-week injury.
Conversely, don’t overreact to one week where Calvin Johnson catches 3 passes for 22 yards and trade him for Montee Ball. Even studs have a bad week. Watching the game is essential to this process. If your stud’s team only has the ball for 35 offensive plays all game and has 4 turnovers, your receiver never had a chance. This is also an opportunity to “buy low” if an owner is frustrated with their team for the wrong reasons. The flip side to this is “sell high”, where if you get a good trade offer for a player who had one good week, trade them if you don’t think they’ll have any value going forward.
If you start off poorly, the worst thing you can do is give up by week 4 or 5. If you drafted poorly, be more active in free agency and try to trade for positions you’re weak at. There are some years where there’s nothing you can do for your team, injuries and poor seasons happen all at once and you end up going 3-10. That doesn’t mean you can’t try researching players, take chances on young guys and if nothing else, get ready for next year.
If you start off great and are planning for the playoffs by Thanksgiving, start seeing which backups and bench players you can get rid of in favor of good players that may be coming back from injury that have been dropped, or defenses with favorable matchups down the stretch. Just don’t go blowing up your team entirely.
When it comes to setting your lineup, don’t get cute. If you drafted Tom Brady, you’re playing Tom Brady every week that he isn’t on bye. If he’s playing the 49ers and Alex Smith is playing the Raiders, don’t get tempted by the fact that Brady has a bad matchup and Alex Smith has a good matchup. Play your studs. You would rather lose playing your best players than lose by outthinking yourself and tinkering too much. For those of you that watch FX’s series The League, don’t pull a Ruxin.
At the end of the day, fantasy football is supposed to be fun. The money and trophy are great, but the opportunity to have a rooting interest in games you ordinarily wouldn’t watch and above all the chance to stay in touch with old friends (and then crush them in the championship) is the reason I play.