You can't win a fantasy league in the first few rounds of the draft. You can lose it by ending up with busts or players who get injured, but in general, you can't separate yourself much from the pack when everyone is choosing potential stars who are known commodities. You set a foundation for success in Rounds 1-4, but you can truly win your league in Rounds 5-10, the crucial middle stretch of your draft. This is where you can find the players ready to jump into the elite core at their respective positions and start making some serious gains on your leaguemates.
Last year's middle rounds gave us Vincent Jackson (72 catches, 1,384 yards, eight touchdowns), Eric Decker (85 catches, 1,064 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Frank Gore (1,448 total yards, nine touchdowns). In 2011, players such as Jimmy Graham (99 catches, 1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns), Cedric Benson (1,067 yards, six touchdowns) and A.J. Green (65 catches, 1,057 yards, seven touchdowns) heard their names called somewhere in Rounds 5-10. Yes, you have to hit on a few stars in the early rounds if you have any hope of winning your league. But the person who raises the championship trophy in December will undoubtedly have unearthed a few more stars in the middle rounds, making this a key area of study for fantasy owners.
Here's a three-pronged approach for navigating the middle rounds:
1. Have multiple plans of attack. What you end up doing in the middle rounds will depend in part on which players you end up drafting in the early rounds. If you end up with three running backs in the first four rounds, you'll want to focus on other positions in the middle. If you go the WR/WR route with your first two picks, you'll need to go heavy on running backs in this section of the draft. Of course, you can't know exactly what you're going to do with your first couple selections until you actually do it. That's why you need to have a few roadmaps ready for the middle rounds. You don't want to be frantically looking over your cheat sheet in the fifth or sixth round after Rounds 1-4 unfold in unexpected fashion.
2. Know when it's time to get a quarterback. Unless you took Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning, you will be grabbing your starting quarterback somewhere in the middle rounds. Quarterbacks go deeper than ever this year. Our own Top 300 ranks Tom Brady seventh, Robert Griffin III ninth, Matthew Stafford 10th and Tony Romo 11th. Personally, I'd be happy with any of them as my starter. However, it starts to get dicey after that, with the likes of Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Andy Dalton. As such, I'm making sure to get Romo, at worst, as my quarterback. In this situation, you're always better off being safe than sorry. Know the lowest-ranked signal caller with whom you'd be comfortable as a starter, and make sure you lock up him or someone you rank higher. Otherwise, you'll be forced to spend two picks on fringe starters, and that's a recipe for disaster.
3. Put in the research and aggressively target the players you want. To be sure, the middle rounds feature plenty of players who will not only fail to make the leap, but who will fall short of expectations. For every Eric Decker, there's a Jermichael Finley. For every Jimmy Graham, there are three Michael Turners. This is where the diligent work you're putting in this draft season will come in handy. Know the guys you trust and the ones you don't. For me, I will pursue Montee Ball, Wes Welker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Williams, while avoiding guys like Greg Jennings, Eddie Lacy and Tony Gonzalez. Your lists might look different, but the important thing here is that you have a list and you know which players you want rounding out your starting roster. Don't be afraid to reach for your targets, either. Getting good value is very important in fantasy drafts, but there aren't any prizes given for best value pick at the end of the year. Trust your analysis, and understand that if you pass on a guy because the industry tells you it's "too early" to take him, he may not be there when the draft rolls back around to you.