There are plenty of good reasons to play fantasy football but, in the end, the whole idea is to win. You've just been flooded with stats and information on more than 200 players along with every NFL defense. So now what? Well, as you set out on the task of putting your dream team together, it's only fair that we share a few hard-earned secrets, strategies learned over more than a decade of fantasy football experience. Will these six tips guarantee that you become the dominant force in your league? No. But ignore them at your own risk.
Know your league's rules
The most basic piece of advice is the one most often ignored: All fantasy leagues are not the same. How do you expect to draft a competitive team if you don't know what you're drafting for? Here's an example: If you're in a league that rewards touchdowns much more than yards, you might want Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, who last year scored nine TDs--six on receptions--yet rushed for 100 yards only twice. He was a good pick in TD-oriented leagues but had much less value in leagues that awarded big bonuses for 100-yard games.
Forget last year
Many people depend on the previous season's stats as the only basis for their draft preparation. But with widespread parity, free agency, injuries and coaching changes, there's only one guarantee about an upcoming season: It won't be anything like the one before. So a player who had modest stats might have a breakout year if he has more talent around him or if his team changed its offensive philosophy. Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller is a prime example. In his first two seasons he had pedestrian stats (3,819 yards and 20 TDs in 27 games) partly because there wasn't much skill at wide receiver. However, with the addition of free agent Derrick Mason and rookie Mark Clayton, Boller should be a weekly fantasy starter.
Take a chance on a second-stringer
Instead of wasting one of your final picks on a low-level starter, select a highly-rated backup, particularly at running back or quarterback. For instance, look at the 49ers' rushing situation: Veteran Kevan Barlow enters the season as one of the lowest-rated starting backs, but talented rookie Frank Gore has a 50-50 shot to be the team's top rusher. Place your bet on Gore. That sort of battle was played out in Dallas last year, when rookie Julius Jones began the season behind Eddie George. Assorted injuries sidelined Jones for all but one of the first nine games. But once he got healthy--and with George showing little of his old flash--Jones picked up the bulk of the workload and piled up 803 yards and seven TDs over the last seven weeks.
Pay heed only to the first half of preseason games and ignore all preseason stats
Most of the guys playing in the second half of a preseason game are fighting for the last few roster spots and won't survive the final cut. Numbers become inflated as subpar players hit the field, so be wary of preseason sensations who may never see the field when it counts. Don't get overly excited by your "discovery." And don't forget that one team might approach a preseason game differently from another.
Important information, however, can be gleaned when the first-stringers are in the game: What receiver is being thrown the ball on third down? Who's getting the carries at the goal line? Do players coming off injuries look recovered?
Beware of byes on the schedule
If you were to draft a team consisting of Jones, quarterback Marc Bulger, running back Tatum Bell and receivers Torry Holt and Eric Moulds, you'd be ecstatic, right? Except in Week 9 this season, when the teams of all those players have their byes. Bring an NFL schedule to your draft to avoid selecting players with the same bye week--or you may find yourself giving away an entire week.
Draft some fantasy reserves before filling out your starting lineup
Always draft the best available player, regardless of position. Losing players to injuries is a certainty. With strong backups at a position such as running back, you not only protect yourself but you also can deal with a team in need at that spot, often acquiring a player much better than one you would have drafted.
Also remember: Midrange wideouts are a dime a dozen, so take a back like Reuben Droughns, Najeh Davenport or even Maurice Clarett--all probable fantasy reserves--before you take receivers such as Peerless Price, Keyshawn Johnson or Johnnie Morton, all of whom should be available near the end of the draft or even in free agency later on.