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How to Draft Like a Fantasy Football Expert

Whether you're new to fantasy football or just brushing up on the basics, these nuggets of wisdom will help you draft like an expert.

Playing fantasy football is increasingly the one trait all sports fans have in common, with seemingly everyone getting in on what has turned into much more than a hobby over the last 10 years. Still, there are new people signing up every year, whether they're starting new leagues or joining old ones. If that describes you, understand that you're not alone if you're intimidated by the prospect of trying to win a fantasy league. We're here to help turn that intimidation into confidence. Here are 10 tips that should help you go from fantasy football beginner to expert by the end of this column.

1. Use tiered rankings and average draft position

Ordinary rankings will mislead you if a bunch of players have almost the same projection. Let’s say, for example, that Matt Ryan ranks as the QB6 and Andy Dalton as the QB13. Pretty huge gap, right? Well actually, Ryan's projection is 292 points and Dalton's is 284 points—a difference of only 0.5 points per game. On top of that, Ryan’s average draft position is in the fifth round while Dalton’s is in the 11th round. Yikes.

2. Beware the telltale signs of an early-round bust

When you look back at early-round busts over the past few seasons, a few shared traits stand out among the disappointments. Poor quarterback play. Poor offensive line play. Injury concerns. Aging concerns. One year or less of production that measures up to average draft position. Todd Gurley, for instance, had three of them in 2016 (quarterback, O-line, less than a year). Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, DeAndre Hopkins, and Allen Robinson had two apiece. One sign in isolation usually isn't a big deal, but two or more should start to raise eyebrows. By far, poor quarterback and offensive line play have been the most difficult to overcome.

3. Wait on a quarterback

Matt Ryan came from outside the top 15 in average draft position last season all the way to a QB2 finish. Kirk Cousins, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and Blake Bortles all have at least one top-five seasons since 2013. Aaron Rodgers? Tom Brady? They're great. But picking a top quarterback in the second or third round caps your upside for that part of the draft. A QB1 can't finish better than QB1, you know? But someone like Dez Bryant, the WR9 by average draft position, has upside to improve eight spots. And as a receiver, Bryant isn't limited to one lineup slot like a quarterback. Even if you have another top-10 receiver, he still helps you.

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4. Plan around middle-round value

Back to those tiers again. Your largest tier of middle-round value can inform your early-round strategy. Let’s say you’re drafting at the turn in rounds one and two and project the available backs and receivers for similar value. Your largest middle-round value tier is WR12–WR30. On average, those wideouts go from rounds three through six. Let's also say you don’t like the RB value at the turn in rounds three and four, and five and six. Since you know you can draft up to four receivers in those four spots, you decide to go RB-RB with your first two picks. That, my friends, is how you take a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down approach.

5. Draft tight ends attached to a top quarterback late

Tight ends who catch the rock thrown by the league’s top quarterbacks go overlooked time and time again in fantasy. Julius Thomas was TE3 in 2013 with Peyton Manning. Coby Fleener was TE6 in 2014 with Andrew Luck. Ben Watson was TE7 in 2015 with Drew Brees. Antonio Gates was TE10 and Hunter Henry was TE11 in 2016 with Philip Rivers. Fleener, Gates, Jack Doyle and Austin Hooper, among others, all go outside the top 12 at the position in a typical draft this year. The NFL’s top quarterbacks put up some of the most bankable year-to-year numbers in the league. Drafting their tight ends allows you to benefit from that consistency on the cheap.

6. Let targets and touches drive your late-round decisions

Targets and touches both correlate to fantasy points. And I’m pretty sure getting cheap fantasy points in the late rounds correlates to winning.

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7. Draft a kicker and defense with Week 1 in mind

Even the best kickers and defenses don't score many fantasy points on the road, or as the underdog. But mediocre ones put up top-notch numbers at home, as favorites, or both. You know what to do. Draft both positions based on Week 1 matchup. Then continue to add/drop (known in the fantasy world as “streaming”) based on matchup throughout the season.

8. Don’t worry about bye weeks or players on the same team

Avoiding players with the same bye? Unnecessary. Byes don’t start until Week 5, and a lot can change in five weeks. Avoiding players on the same team? Also unnecessary. Sure, there's correlation between teammates. But that's good. Remember, you want exposure to good offenses. And besides, a fantasy owner in a 12-team league starts with an 8.3% chance to win. There's a lot more upside than downside to taking on some risk.

9. Don’t overrate/underrate players based on last year’s stats

Touchdowns are liable to fluctuate in the short term but will end up regressing to the mean in the long term. Tevin Coleman, you may remember, was going in the 10th round last season. Then he scored 11 TDs on 149 touches. Now he goes in the sixth round. He deserves some of the bump, but a big part of the rise owes to drafters being fooled by his touchdown rate. Coleman is a regression candidate in 2017, and is the posterchild for putting too much emphasis on last year’s stats.

10. Participate in mock drafts

In his 2008 bestseller “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell illustrates that repetition breeds skill. So, always be mock drafting. It's perfect for wasting time at work in convenient increments. Aim to do at least two mocks. One before your initial draft prep to get a sense of what you’re up against, and the other as a test run near the time of the actual draft.