- In order to master your fantasy football draft, you must build from the bottom-up to take advantage of value down your draft board.
In a 12-team PPR league, or any fantasy league for that matter, the goal is this:
Gain weekly access to as many startable games as possible that will be predictable beforehand.
Supply and demand necessitates a different approach at the positions that require only one starter than at RB and WR. The one-starter positions are more clear cut, and it’s helpful to have an idea of what you’ll do there before looking at RB and WR.
QB/TE approach: Draft a stud or wait
Most of the QBs and TEs who finish in the top-12 over a full season are still no better than a 50/50 bet to put up top-12 numbers in a given week. If you own one of them, you’ll end up either starting them during a bunch of bad games, using two roster slots on a platoon, or adding and dropping based on matchup. It’s not worth paying prime draft capital for any of those outcomes, so you only need two tiers:
• Tier 1: Players you can reasonably project to put up top-12 numbers almost every week.
• Tier 2: Everyone else.
What grouping players into tiers does is illustrate when you can safely wait on a given position because more similar options exist. Most QBs and TEs will fall into Tier 2, which dictates a barbell approach where you’d wait until very late in the draft unless you drafted a stud.
Let’s apply the strategy, starting with QB.
Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, and Dak Prescott were the only QBs to put up top-12 numbers at least 70% of the time last season. Going into this season, Luck’s health is a question mark, Ryan may regress from last season’s outlier, and Prescott doesn’t have the track record to be confidently considered matchup-proof, leaving Brady and Rodgers as the only QBs worth drafting early this season.
But how early is too early? The answer to a question regarding when to take a particular player will always depend on three things: Projected points, starting lineup requirements and average draft position.
Value based drafting is a rankings formula that takes a player’s projected points and subtracts projected points of the baseline starter at his position to account for positional scarcity. The more RBs, WRs, and/or TEs you have start each week, the less valuable a QB becomes. For example, in a 2RB/2WR league, 4for4’s value based rankings have Brady ranked No. 15 and Rodgers No. 23. But in a 2RB/3WR/FLEX league, they’re both 20 spots lower. (For those new to PPR, also note that by giving extra points to positions that get receptions, PPR scoring devalues the QB as a whole relative to standard.) Since Brady and Rodgers are usually drafted by the early-third round regardless of league settings, it limits their appeal in leagues with larger starting lineups.
Nevertheless, the cool thing about using value based rankings and average draft position together is they allow you to be flexible and still make a smart decision. So let’s say you really want to go the stud QB route in a 2RB/3WR/FLEX league. Well, those same value based rankings that grade Brady and Rodgers as fourth-round values also grade Keenan Allen, Tyreek Hill, Michael Crabtree, and Larry Fitzgerald with second-round values—but none have an ADP earlier than the late-third. Since you only have two Tier 1 QBs and multiple WRs in the equivalent value tier will be available later, you can draft your Tier 1 QB early and still recoup the value.
What tiering does at the one-starter positions is steer you away from middle-round picks that aren’t going to give you many more startable games than late-round picks for one reason or another. Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, for instance, are notoriously liable to have disastrous performances on the road (as are most QBs). Meanwhile, in addition to Prescott, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, and Carson Palmer will all have their fair share of big weeks, yet at least five of them will be drafted outside the top 12.
And if you somehow miss out on one of them due to a run on backups, no sweat; just play matchups. Daily fantasy players will already be familiar with this, but QB fantasy scoring has a positive correlation to the projected point total of his team as implied by the betting odds. For example, with a spread of -3 and an over/under of 48 as of this writing, Sam Bradford’s Vikings have an implied total against the Saints in Week 1 of 25.75—over 5 points higher than their 2016 average, and one of the highest of Week 1.
TE demands the same approach as QB. Multi-year data shows that TEs score nearly two-thirds of their TDs when their team is either at home, the favorite, or both. Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen comprise Tier 1 this season, but a lot of viable Tier 2 options are routinely drafted near or outside the top-12: Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Coby Fleener, Antonio Gates, Austin Hooper, Jared Cook, and Jason Witten.
Is there going to be a point where it feels risky to take a potential bust at RB or WR over a decent QB or TE? Sure. But it’s actually a lot riskier not to for that exact reason: a few will probably bust. If that happens, you’re losing startable games that were predictable beforehand. But if your QB or TE busts, it’s not as big of a deal; just pick up the one with the best available matchup each week. And one of the benefits of loading up on startable RBs and WRs is they make for valuable trade chips, so if you want to acquire a better QB or TE down the line, you’ll have the means to do so.
RB/WR Approach: Leverage value on the board
While PPR more or less equalizes the scoring potential of RBs and WRs, more WRs are liable to post high point totals. Over the past three seasons, an average of 26 WRs have outscored the RB12, and an average of 46 WRs have outscored the RB24. But that information alone doesn’t dictate strategy; it all depends on the value tiers in a given season.
For example, in 2017 there’s not much separation between WRs being drafted as WR2s and those being drafted as WR3s. The 4for4 WR projections have the WR11 and the WR30 separated by only 26 points (1.3 per player), followed by a 17-point drop-off from WR31–WR34. But while some of the WRs in the WR11–WR30 range get drafted in the second or third round on average, nearly half of last until the fifth and some go as late as the seventh. Meanwhile, the same can’t be said for as many RBs being drafted in this range. There is a lot of talent there, but also availability concerns (Ezekiel Elliott), durability concerns (Ty Montgomery), committee concerns (Ameer Abdullah, Mark Ingram, Bilal Powell, Tevin Coleman), job security concerns (Carlos Hyde, Spencer Ware, Mike Gillislee), and unproven rookies with roles not yet cemented (Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon).
Your draft approach, then, would revolve around scooping up WR value in rounds 4–6.
Many fantasy players go wrong with opening-round strategies such as Zero RB (WR-WR-WR, etc.), RB heavy (RB-RB-RB, etc.), or even balanced (RB-WR-RB, WR-RB-WR, etc.) because they’re looking at things only from a top-down approach, letting a predetermined opening-round sequence dictate picks in many of the ensuing rounds without first taking into account where value further down the board is. But to really master fantasy drafting, you also need to take a bottom-up approach, where you let your early-round decisions be informed by what kind of value will be available in the middle and late rounds.
For example, in 2017 no strategy alone should override taking one of Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson with the first two picks in PPR. At the same time, you’d also have to be pretty bullish on a particular RB to bypass Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, or Julio Jones with picks 3–5. In both of these cases, you’re considering not only the middle-round WR value, but the irreplaceable value at the top of the draft board.
But from the sixth pick on, things open up more; the WR value in rounds 4–6 becomes the predominant value pocket on the board. You want whichever strategy you’ve chosen to work with the value on the board. You could go RB heavy and pick two from the tier of LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, Jay Ajayi, Jordan Howard, DeMarco Murray, and Todd Gurley in an attempt to separate yourself from the pack with two elite top-five RBs and a WR corps worth more than its draft capital. Or you could go Zero RB from rounds 1–6, but instead of drafting all WRs, draft studs at QB and TE early, since you know middle-round WR value will still be there for the taking.
As the draft wears on, keep in mind the goal of finding predictable players. Predictability at RB and WR stems from volume. At RB, many times drafters undervalue early-down RBs like Terrance West in PPR because they don’t catch as many passes. But early-down RBs tend to flourish in predictable situations, like when their team is the favorite. On the other hand, someone like Chris Thompson catches a lot of passes, but he’s difficult to predict. At WR, deep threats like DeSean Jackson or Ted Ginn will have their big weeks, but won’t be as predictable as a No. 1 receiver like Cameron Meredith or Kenny Britt.
DST/Kicker Approach: Draft for Week 1
Startable games that will be predictable beforehand are probably easiest to come by at DST and kicker because most fantasy owners don’t swap out these two positions as much as they should. Both of these positions’ fantasy success is correlated with favorable betting odds, you can draft solely with Week 1 matchup in mind.
And remember: Any strategy can work ... as long as your underlying approach is sound.