When preparing for a fantasy football season, it always helps to know which strategies have been successful in the most recent seasons. I have talked a lot in our wrap-up columns for the 2014 season about how any strategy can work if you find the right players. That is undoubtedly true, and player evaluation should be central to any draft strategy.
At the same time, certain strategies can more frequently guide you toward those right players. This season, a few different strategies were in vogue. There was the zero-RB technique, which stressed loading up on wide receiver talent, grabbing an elite quarterback or tight end if the opportunity presented itself, and then shifting to running backs in the middle and late rounds. There was the late-round quarterback, which placed a premium on the best available flex players for the first 6-to-10 rounds, before finally grabbing one or two quarterbacks who you can deploy based on matchups. Finally, there was a strategy I personally love: targeting expected potent offenses, and loading up players from those teams.
Evaluating how each of these strategies -- which will surface once again next summer -- performed in 2014 can provide a boost heading into next season. To determine the success off each strategy, we will use average draft position for three different areas of a 12-team league: early (picks one through four), middle (picks five through eight) and late (picks nine through 12). “Early” translates to an average draft slot of 2.5, “middle” to 6.5, and “late” to 10.5. It’s important to remember that the teams presented for each slot are simply options that would have been realistic in a typical 12-team draft.
This strategy is the necessary reaction to the initial action of the NFL shifting to a pass-dominant league. In general, running backs are more fungible than they’ve ever been. For every Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray, there are 10 Montee Balls, ready to be replaced by 10 C.J. Andersons. Bust rates for running backs taken in the first few rounds are also typically higher than that of wide receivers, quarterbacks or tight ends. There is no such thing as an RB2 or low-end RB1 without question marks heading into the season. If there were, the running back pool would be teeming with elite RB1s, and we know that not to be the case. Zero-RB seeks to take advantage of this reality by eliminating the uncertainty with high-priced running backs, and instead focusing on building a team centered around elite talent at receiver, quarterback and tight end. Then, when many other owners are trying to fill in those positions, an owner who went the zero-RB route would start plucking backs with obvious drawbacks, yet high ceilings.
Early: Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffery, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Joique Bell, Kendall Wright, Fred Jackson, Mike Evans, Carlos Hyde, DeAndre Hopkins.
Middle: Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Andrew Luck, DeSean Jackson, Joique Bell, Greg Olsen, Pierre Thomas, Sammy Watkins, Lamar Miller, DeAngelo Williams.
Late: Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Andrew Luck, Cordarrelle Patterson, Joique Bell, Greg Olsen, Steven Jackson, Darren Sproles, Rueben Randle, Jeremy Hill.
As designed, you would have been deep at receiver regardless of where you picked in the draft. While it seems like the key to this strategy is hitting on your running backs, it’s actually making the right splash at quarterback and tight end. In addition to guys like Lamar Miller and Jeremy Hill, Mark Ingram was also a profitable, late-round running back, and that says nothing of waiver-wire studs like Justin Forsett and C.J. Anderson. Aggressively pursuing waiver-wire backs is another key element of zero-RB.
This, of course, is not a new strategy. Fantasy football owners have been waiting to grab a quarterback for years now. It remains a viable strategy, even as players like Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning have put more distance between themselves and the average player at the position. While the elite quarterbacks are better than they’ve ever been from a fantasy perspective, the rising tide of passing in the NFL has also lifted the ships of players like Matt Ryan and Tony Romo.
The one way in which this strategy has shifted is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re loading up on running backs early. Instead, you’re simply targeting the best available flex player, be it a back, receiver, or, in some cases, a tight end.
Early: Matt Forte, Antonio Brown, Randall Cobb, Shane Vereen, Michael Floyd, Joique Bell, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Evans, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger.
Middle: Marshawn Lynch, Jordy Nelson, Keenan Allen, Rashad Jennings, Torrey Smith, Jeremy Maclin, Russell Wilson, Martellus Bennett, Mark Ingram, Ben Roethlisberger.
Late: Dez Bryant, Arian Foster, Ryan Mathews, Cordarrelle Patterson, Joique Bell, T.Y. Hilton, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Mark Ingram, Jeremy Hill.
This is going to leave an owner with depth at running back and receiver, but those still remain the places where you have to do your best drafting. Regardless of where you took a quarterback, a productive one was ultimately going to fall into your lap in 2014. If you landed Wilson, there’s a great chance you won your league. Players like Roethlisberger, Cutler and Rivers were productive enough from week to week to make you competitive, especially if you did a good job selecting your flex players. Our basic construct here didn’t even allow for drafting someone like Romo, but he was a strong late-round quarterback, as well. It’s going to be a long time before this is not a worthwhile strategy in fantasy football leagues.
Targeting good offenses
Environment is crucial for any player in the NFL. While talent can take someone a long way, they ultimately need to be with a team that gives them the opportunity to capitalize on their own ability. Just ask Larry Fitzgerald. Or Sammy Watkins. Or LeSean McCoy. All the talent in the world isn’t going to help you if you’re playing with a bad quarterback or you’re stuck behind an offensive line that has been decimated by injury.
That’s why it makes all the sense in the world to invest in good offenses. This strategy doesn’t stress the individual players or their positions. Just make sure you are constantly grabbing players who have key roles in high-powered offenses. Heading into this season, every fantasy owner would have listed the following offenses among the best in the league: Denver, Green Bay, New England, Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia and Dallas. What would your fantasy team look like if you simply tried to get players from those real-life teams, understanding that you’d realistically have to go off-script from time to time?
Early: Matt Forte, Randall Cobb, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Emmanuel Sanders, Tony Romo, Terrance Williams, Mike Evans, Lamar Miller, Terrance West.
Middle: Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Rob Gronkowski, Rashad Jennings, Joique Bell, Jeremy Maclin, Jay Cutler, Carlos Hyde, Mark Ingram, Ben Roethlisberger.
Late: Dez Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Mathews, Roddy White, Joique Bell, Emmanuel Sanders, Martellus Bennett, Mike Evans, Mark Ingram, DeAndre Hopkins.
This is my personal favorite strategy. You’re definitely going to have to take someone who isn’t on one of your designated teams from time to time, but there was almost no bad way to be invested in the eight offenses listed above. Sure, you could have ended up with Jimmy Graham, Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker, Darren Sproles and Terrance Williams, but that’s a doomsday scenario. Just look at the players those teams contributed to the fantasy community: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, C.J. Anderson, Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte, Mark Ingram, Joique Bell, DeMarco Murray, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Jeremy Maclin, Dez Bryant, Rob Gronkowski, and Martellus Bennett. The only one of those players who didn’t turn a profit was Megatron, and his owners were happy with him when he was healthy.
All three of these strategies will once again be in play in 2015. They can all work for you, so long as you zero in on the right players. Having said that, targeting the league’s best offenses does the best job of building a team within the range of possible outcomes.