There is more than one way to build a championship fantasy team. Two owners playing in two different but identical leagues can share zero players and win a title. Despite that, there are a few tactics every fantasy owner should deploy—no matter his or her overall strategy—in every draft, regardless of draft slot, league size, scoring rules or any other factors.
Wait on a quarterback, unless…
Most fantasy owners have finally learned that they should wait on the quarterback position in drafts. Aaron Rodgers has the highest ADP among quarterbacks, and he’s coming off the board in the middle of the third round in a typical draft. That’s still too high, but it suggests that the average fantasy owner understands why the most important position in real life takes a backseat in the fantasy game.
If you’ve still yet to learn that lesson, consider the following. Russell Wilson, the No. 1 quarterback last year, scored 22.2 points per game. Dak Prescott was the No. 13 quarterback, or the first one outside the season-long starting class. He scored 17.1 points per game, or 23% less than Wilson. Todd Gurley, meanwhile, outscored the top-scoring non-starter at running back, Frank Gore, by 58.1% points per game. Antonio Brown outscored the top-scoring non-starter at receiver, Chris Hogan, by 42.9%. There’s far less value over a replacement player at quarterback than there is at running back and receiver.
Additionally, remember that you only need to start one quarterback, and few fantasy owners carry more than two in a traditional league. That means that there are more potential starters available on the waiver wire every week, the cost of which is the most expendable player on your roster. The quarterback pool deepens every year, with players like Alex Smith and Prescott ranked outside the top 20 by ADP. In short, it is easy to find quarterback value every week of the season, no matter where you draft your nominal starter. The top quarterbacks may score the most points of all fantasy players, but they provide the slimmest advantage over their position’s average. That’s why Rodgers, the best player in the league, shouldn’t be a consideration until later than his real-life status would suggest.
But when should even the most fervent late-round quarterback zealot consider taking one of the top passers? Surely at some point Rodgers, Wilson, Tom Brady and other players of their ilk become worth the investment, especially if an entire league is taking a measured approach at the position. This year, the No. 25 running back, which takes us outside RB1 and RB2 classes, has an ADP early in the fifth round. The No. 25 wide receiver’s ADP is about a round later. If Rodgers is available there, I’d be comfortable giving up the late-round quarterback strategy. I’d consider Wilson and Brady, as well, but the discount would likely have to be a bit deeper for me to tap either of them. Other than those three, the potential payoff is simply too slim and quarterback value in too great of abundance to justify taking one in the early or middle rounds.
Target offenses, not just players
The Patriots, Saints, Steelers, Chargers and Chiefs were the top-five teams in total offense last year, while the Rams, Patriots, Eagles, Saints and Jaguars comprised the top five in scoring. Those eight teams produced seven QB1s (all of their starters, other than Blake Bortles), seven RB1s—including the top six in both standard and PPR scoring—five WR1s, three WR2s and the top-three tight ends. There was almost no bad way to invest in one of those eight teams, which is why fantasy owners should invest in particular offenses as much as they target specific players.
Here’s another way to think about it: Only one owner in your league can have Todd Gurley or Antonio Brown or Alvin Kamara and every other player in the NFL. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get any of them, especially in a draft where you’ll need a high pick to secure their services. You can, however, guarantee that you get a line into one of those offenses, which should again be among the most explosive in football, if you enter your draft or auction with that mindset. You may not get Gurley, Brown or Kamara, but you could come out with Brandin Cooks, Ben Roethlisberger and Mark Ingram. Or maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have one of the first picks in your league, allowing you to team Gurley with Juju Smith-Schuster and Drew Brees. It’s a way to invest directly in the best offenses, and indirectly in all of their players.
A few teams come out of nowhere every season, but we can predict with good certainty the offenses that will be among the league’s best. No one was surprised to see the Patriots, Saints, Chargers or Steelers among last year’s top offenses, and there was good reason to believe in the Chiefs and Eagles. On top of that, take a look at last year’s top-five offenses by yardage and scoring again, and consider the teams not on it. Green Bay. Seattle. Minnesota. Carolina. Any reason to think those offenses will be strong this year? When in doubt, trust the teams with good quarterbacks. They’re at the head of the league’s best offenses, and will lead their teammates to the yards and touchdowns that are the lifeblood of fantasy scoring.
Don’t worry about positions until the middle rounds
In nearly all fantasy leagues, there’s no bottom-line difference between rushing yards and touchdowns and their receiving counterparts. A running back who runs for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season gets you the exact same amount of points as a receiver who racks up 1,200 yards and 10 scores through the air.
What hasn’t always been true, though, is the diffusion of talent across the running-back and wide-receiver positions. Running backs have a monopoly at the very top of the draft board, but after those first few players come off the board, the positions are relatively even. In fact, year after year receivers bust at lower rates than backs. Additionally, with most fantasy leagues including at least one flex spot among their starting requirements, the typical fantasy owner needs to find at least six backs and receivers every week, with at least two from both positions.
Given all that roster flexibility and the co-equal status between backs and receivers, fantasy owners can pay less attention than ever to positions early in drafts. All you should be concerned with in the first few rounds of your draft is securing the services of as many stat compilers as possible, regardless of their position. Now, of course, you’ll have to fill out your starting lineups, meaning you can’t ignore running backs or receivers forever. Still, you can always backfill holes throughout the season. What you can’t do nearly as easily, though, is acquire a team-altering back or receiver, and you can never have too many of them. It would be a shame if you eschewed the chance of adding one because you felt you already had too many players at that same position.
Be prepared to reach
Average draft position is one of many tools that a savvy fantasy owner should be ready to use on draft day, but it shouldn’t serve as a roadmap. ADP helps owners narrow each palyer’s expected draft-day price to a range, but thinking of it as gospel will sabotage your draft. Even the best ADPs may come from drafts that don’t follow your league’s scoring system. They may not pull from leagues that match your roster parameters. And, of course, they won’t have the same owner composition as your league.
One of the most common mistakes made every year is exchanging free will for servitude to ADP. All too often a fantasy owner will like a player and ultimately be right about him, but miss out on having him on his or her team because his ADP was half a round later. If you’ve put in your work and you believe in a player for good reason, pay little mind to his ADP. Be prepared to reach for your guys.
Understand that I am not advocating taking a player with, say, an eighth-round ADP in the fourth round. If that same player is available in the sixth or seventh round, though, don’t let his ADP get in the way. Few fantasy owners have regretted reaching a round or a round-and-a-half for a player they like. Many, however, have kicked themselves for slavishly following ADP, only to watch that player go off the board before their next pick.