August 16, 2007

I first wrote about my fantasy football draft strategy back in 1995. In nearly every year since, I'd updated the article, but 12 years later I think it's time to start anew. The basic strategy I've employed in nearly every fantasy draft since 1988 hasn't changed much at all. There have been wrinkles added here and there, primarily due to specific fantasy scoring rules or due to the ebb and flow of talent at key skill-position players in the NFL. But any way you look at it, the gist remains the same. The "STUD RB" Theory is a proven winner for more than a decade, and I still swear by it. Other fantasy "experts" preach different strategies such as Value-Based Drafting System (VBD) or a STUD WR Theory. But if you take a detailed look at the odds of success, you'll find that nothing compares to drafting STUD RBs early and often. Let's take a detailed look at the theory itself and you'll see what I mean.

First, the primary rule of the "STUD RB" Theory is to grab a top-notch fantasy-producing running back with your first draft pick and another in the second round. The choice of running backs is simple. In most fantasy leagues, the running back position produces the most consistent high-scoring players in the game. Unless your league has very unusual rules, that statement still holds true today. How does a running back do it? A featured back in the NFL will touch the ball 20-plus times each game.

Unlike starting quarterbacks, who touch it just as often, featured running backs are somewhat a scarce commodity. Some like Tiki Barber, Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin have recently retired. Then there are the teams that choose to use two-back systems, such as New England, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Denver, Oakland, Dallas, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. Some of these teams will switch to one primary back in 2007, but only a few of them will do so. That leaves only about 22-25 teams with a solid primary ball-carrier. With most leagues requiring fantasy teams to start at least two running backs each week, owners who manage to grab two of those top 22-25 running backs will have a significant advantage over their competition.

What about leagues that include a point-per-reception rule? Does that alter the STUD RB Theory? Should you draft a top wideout before your second RB? In most cases I'd still say no. However, if you near the tail end of one part of the draft (assuming you draft in serpentine fashion) and the wideouts are going fast in the second round and you can easily grab a STUD RB early in the third round, then taking a wideout late in the second isn't such a bad idea. How does this rule effect the RBs themselves? Basically, it enhances the value of those backs who catch more than 40 passes each season. Players such as Brian Westbrook and Reggie Bush should be moved up on your rankings list, likely making both of them top-10 RB choices, Westbrook for sure. But the gist of the STUD RB Theory remains the same no matter the scoring system (99 percent of the time). Simply put, you really can't go wrong with drafting two STUD RBs in your first three picks, and/or three STUD RBs in your first four.

With the internet explosion since 2000, more fantasy football players know just how important RBs are to the game. As a result, most fantasy owners are following this theory to the letter. What happens in most fantasy drafts with experienced owners? Nearly EVERYONE drafts a RB with his or her first pick. But that's OK. The secondary rule for hardcore STUD RB Theorists consists of drafting a THIRD RB before the fifth round of your fantasy draft. This is an especially important part of the theory if your league not only starts two RBs but also employs a flex player (RB, WR, or TE). Nothing can be more intimidating that starting not two, but THREE top-25 RBs every week of the fantasy season.

Nine years ago, I mentioned that all starting quarterbacks in the league have similar chances to produce solid games. Is that still the case? Well, Mr. Peyton Manning changed all that three years ago by tossing nearly 50 TD passes. But even Manning is human, as he came back to the pack with only 28 and 31 TD passes over the past two years.

However, scanning the league in 2007 finds some surprising facts about the quarterback position. There are many more quarterbacks with questions than in years past. After Manning, you have Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Marc Bulger and a recovering Donovan McNabb. Then you have a steep drop to the next tier with Jon Kitna, Matt Hasselbeck and company. After grabbing two (or three) RBs, it's important to do your best to grab one of the top six QBs listed above. In most cases, you'll be able to grab one or two top-20 wide receivers first, but you might be forced to take a top-six quarterbacks earlier than the fifth or sixth round if all the TDs scored (including passes) are awarded with 6 points. In that situation, quarterbacks are weighted a bit heavier than usual.

The goal of the STUD RB Theory follower is to enter the seventh round of the fantasy draft with three STUD RBs, a top-six QB, and two top-20 WRs. One caveat is the tight end position, where Antonio Gates is clearly the class of the league. Instead of drafting your top wideout (most likely in the third round), if Gates is still on the board and you play in a TE-required league, then grabbing him is good advice. But if you don't get Gates, there's no need to panic. There are plenty of quality players at the tight position, as well as other positions in the draft. What do I mean by quality?

As I said many years ago, a good reason to delay drafting wide receivers or tight ends is the readily available quality players at these positions later in your draft. When considering wide receivers, other than a select few (e.g. Reggie Wayne, Torry Holt), most are a dime a dozen. As in years past, there are always top-notch quality receivers who will be overlooked due to mediocre or injury-plagued seasons the previous year. In 2007, these players include Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, Hines Ward, Santana Moss and Darrell Jackson. Most of these types of receivers should be available for drafting in the fourth round or later. As for tight ends, Gates is likely to be drafted in the second or third round, but there are plenty of quality TEs that can be had later, often in the seventh round or later, such as Jeremy Shockey, Alge Crumpler and Chris Cooley. The key to remember here is there are simply more quality fantasy receivers (both WRs and TEs) in the league than running backs. Drafting for value and targeting quality players just makes common sense AFTER securing your STUD RBs.

Looking at the other positions (kicker and defense), the key here is to continue to do your best to draft quality players at low cost. When considering a place kicker, there is still no reason to waste a draft pick on this position until the 14th round or later. Go ahead and let that competitor take Adam Vinatieri or Robbie Gould with his 10th-round pick. These two kickers are good, but are they really that much better than most kickers? No. I'd rather take Jeff Wilkins in the 15th round or David Akers in the 18th round.

The key here is to draft a kicker whose team has a good offense, but not too good of one. You should look at teams that move the ball well between the 20s, but bog down near the goal. Teams like Philadelphia (Akers) and Baltimore (Matt Stover) are good examples. When looking to draft a team defense, look for quality teams with easy schedules, especially late in the year when you will need them the most. Once again, let that competitor draft Chicago in the eighth round. Concentrate on drafting lesser high-profile teams that emphasize and rely on the run and their defense to win games (like San Diego or Miami). Usually, you can grab these types of teams in the 11th round or maybe even later.

In 1998, I said the key to drafting rookies is to NOT draft them early. Has that changed? For the most part, NO. Only the select few such as Edgerrin James, Randy Moss and last year's wonder Marques Colston have made instant significant impacts in the NFL. Notice that a rookie need not be drafted in the first round to make noise his first season. When considering talented rookies for your fantasy draft, SITUATION is the most important factor when ranking rookies in the grand scheme of formulating draft sheets. While it's still a good idea to wait until later in the draft to grab most diamonds in the rough, there is no longer a set rule to avoid rookies until round 10 or later.

For 2007, there appears to be a few examples of rookies who appear to have a decent chance to become immediate fantasy producers. They include RB Marshawn Lynch (Bills), RB Adrian Peterson (Vikings), RB Chris Henry (Titans), RB Brandon Jackson (Packers), WR Calvin Johnson (Lions), WR Robert Meachem (Saints), WR Dwayne Jarrett (Panthers) and TE Greg Olsen (Bears). From this group, Lynch, Peterson, Jackson and Johnson are likely to be mid-round fantasy draft picks, with the rest drafted in the latter rounds.

The best approach to take with regard to most rookies is to draft them late. The key to a smart draft is to target specific sleepers and wait as long as possible before selecting them to fill depth positions on your team. Examples of veteran players that I was able to snatch up in the latter rounds of fantasy drafts last year include: QB Jon Kitna, RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Mike Furrey, WR Jerricho Cotchery and TE Desmond Clark. There are always examples where veteran players like these are left to rot on the draft board while fantasy owners take an unproven rookie in the wrong situation.

One final point, make sure to give your rookies ample time on your roster to develop. Don't be too disappointed if those you draft don't pan out immediately. One or two of them could come on late in the season and make a big fantasy impact come playoff time, as TE Tony Scheffler did last year. Patience can often be the key between making the playoffs and winning the whole ball of wax.

In dealing with bye weeks, the basic advice to follow is simple. There are seven weeks with teams on a bye -- from Weeks 4 through 10. When drafting players, fantasy owners need to do their best to avoid drafting backups with the same bye week as their starters. Of course, most of the time, this can't be avoided, but it's always important that in any given week, a fantasy owner NEVER PLAYS SHORT. In other words, always make sure you have enough players on your roster actually PLAYING in any week of the season so you aren't forced to take a ZERO at any starting position.

Subscribers often ask me whether bye weeks are really important when drafting your first six players. My answer to that remains NO. You should take the best player available to fill out your starting roster and pretty much ignore the bye weeks. Why? Look at the big picture. If your top two STUD RBs are off the same week (i.e. Joseph Addai and Travis Henry have byes in Week 6), then you will suffer that one week, but providing they remain healthy, you'll have both studs starting every other week of the season! What's one loss in the big picture of things? Of course, there is one basic rule that hasn't changed: If your league only allows for two players at one position (i.e. kicker), then always make sure they are not off the same week. Otherwise, you will be playing shorthanded in those leagues that don't have carryover rules.

Another topic that must be discussed has come about since the devastating injuries to Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson in 1999; Duce Staley in 2000; Fred Taylor, Jamal Lewis and Edgerrin James in 2001; Dominic Rhodes and Correll Buckhalter in 2002; Marshall Faulk and Clinton Portis (late) in 2003, Priest Holmes and Chris Brown in 2004; Deuce McAllister and Ahman Green in 2005; and Shaun Alexander and Clinton Portis (late) in 2006. The effect of INJURIES to the "STUD RB" Theory.

Simply put, injuries are a fact of life. They will happen, and there's nothing anyone can do about them. Unfortunately, injuries were magnified in three of the past eight seasons because they struck down several top fantasy RBs in the league for much of the season. While injuries won't disappear, odds have shown that these types of injuries likely won't plague this year's top RBs, much less strike them at the start of the season.

Due to these past injuries, I can't tell you how many times I heard fantasy owners say that they would never follow the "STUD RB" Theory again (especially last season with Alexander). That would be a bad move in my opinion. While owners may not be able to win a championship based solely on their draft, they surely can lose it, and I'm not talking about injuries to their top picks. I can't stress enough that drafting RBs with your first two picks is not the only rule of this theory. Flexible drafting in the early rounds to adjust to your competitors, drafting for quality and value in the middle rounds, and drafting for depth with sleepers late are the key portions that make up a successful "STUD RB" draft.

Once your draft is over, don't fall into the trap that your STUD RB team will kick butt and you won't have to make any adjustments or player moves throughout the season. If those nasty injuries strike, DO NOT GIVE UP. Do your homework and be quick on the draw with regard to free agency in your league. You can bet those owners were smart and quick enough to stake early claims to Leon Washington, Ron Dayne, and Reche Caldwell, who made an impact in their fantasy playoffs last season. Remember, where there's injury, there's opportunity. Often it's those fantasy owners who look upon these situations as opportunities to improve their team (or fill a hole), who become the big winners in their league. Don't ever give up. If you do, why play?

In closing, some quick rules, that I still stand by today, which everyone should adhere to during the draft:

• Don't draft too many players from your favorite team. That is a sure-fire way to build a loser.

• Don't draft backup players (with the exception of a third RB) at one position before you have drafted your starting quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers.

• Don't EVER draft straight from a fantasy magazine's cheat sheet. Most fantasy veterans know better, as the information in many magazines are months out of date.

• Come to your draft prepared! Have your own personal cheat sheets with top 30 quarterbacks, tight ends, place kickers, and defensive players/teams lists as well as top 80-plus running backs and wide receivers lists. You may also want to create a top-40 overall player rankings list if you are that confident of whom you want in the first four rounds (10-team league), and scan a copy of the latest Average Draft Position (ADP) Chart.

• Always make sure you have access to the NFL regular season schedule.

I also recommend that you keep track of all your competitors' picks (I know it's a lot of work), especially if you are drafting near one end of a draft round. You can then keep a handle on which players the owner sandwiched between your two picks has and what area his needs rest in and draft accordingly. For example, it is the fifth round and your pick. You know the owner with the two picks before your next pick has already selected a QB and you haven't. However, he has not taken a wide receiver yet. Thus, there is a good possibility that he will use one of his two picks on a receiver. It would then be wise to select a wide receiver (if there's anyone you like available) before his picks and wait until your next pick to consider a quarterback. Finally, in Drafting to Build a Winner (no matter what year it is), use common sense, don't panic, trust your instincts, and have fun!

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