With the Hall of Fame Game last weekend and the pre-season schedule in full bloom this weekend, the upcoming football season is drawing ever closer. At this time of year it is good to go back to the basics and really focus on the skills and strategies that separate great fantasy football players from those who are mediocre.
One of the most basic things we can discuss is all of the various ways people have talked about how to draft a football roster over the years. You even see the winds shifting from time to time in the expert community about what strategies are most effective each year.
Not that many years ago the prevailing wisdom was to always draft running backs with your first two picks and then go after wide receivers, maybe mix in a quarterback. Over the past few years that has really changed and we are regularly seeing the top quarterbacks and wide receivers being taken in the first and second round.
And this year... *gasp*... we may even have a tight end in the first round.
So, I've been thinking about this and why it is so. Why was it so smart to grab RB's and then WR's a few years ago but now people are prioritizing studs at other positions?
The answer - there are two schools of thought:
1. Supply and Demand
2. Risk and Reward
Allow me to explain. Roster makeups for fantasy football teams vary wildly, but let's go ahead and say that the configuration for our sample league looks like the list below, which is a pretty common setup:
1 x QB
2 x RB
2 x WR
1 x Flex (RB/WR)
1 x TE
1 x D/ST
1 x K
Across a league of 32 NFL teams there are 32 "starters" (I use quotations because of different packages and other considerations) at RB, QB, TE, D/ST, and K. There are 64 "starters" at WR. And truly, in our more pass-happy league these days that number might be closer to 96. Most teams run three wide in many of their offensive sets, foregoing the fullback or splitting out the tight end.
To be sure not all of these guys are fantasy-worthy, but let's look at these numbers from a supply and demand standpoint.
Let's say you have a 12-team fantasy league. In that league you are going to want one solid QB, three strong RB's, three good WR's, one quality TE, plus your D/ST, a K, and a bunch of guys to fill out your bench. I realize I listed a total of six guys at RB and WR for five starting positions (including Flex), but the fact that you need five starters makes bye weeks and injuries a much bigger deal... you'll need six studs (and a strong bench) for those five spots.
So, the top 12 quarterbacks out of 32 NFL real-life starters will start in your league week to week. Same for TE's. Same thing at D/ST and Kicker. That works out to 37.5% of the NFL starters at QB and TE (and also D/ST and K) getting the start in your fantasy league each week. I'll be the first to admit that having one of the best at these positions is an advantage, but not nearly as much as you might think. With the very best options you are talking about a sizable difference at the expense of a sizable difference at another position. When you get to the second tier their just isn't often a big difference between those guys and the third or even fourth tier with scoring being largely matchup-dependent. Often QB #5 and #12 are only separated by a small margin each week. Why not take assets that are more scarce early in your draft and wait until later in to grab a QB and a TE in the #10 range?
We've talked about this here to some extent and I've outlined multiple strategies for quarterbacks, but my standard plan on quarterbacks is to take two back-to-back in the mid-rounds after I have my running backs and wide receivers taken care of. I got Matthew Stafford in just about every league last year doing this. It was pretty common in 2011 to be able to go with Sam Bradford and Stafford in rounds 7/8 or even 8/9. Obviously one was a bust and one was a massive hit. This year I'm thinking maybe Josh Freeman and Jay Cutler... something along those lines. I'm also seeing guys like Roethlisberger, Griffin, Schaub, and Palmer available in those rounds or later. I'll be happy playing the matchups with any two of those six guys.
Okay, now let's turn our attention to wide receivers. In our scenario, this league will need 36 of the 64-ish real-life NFL starting receivers. So, about 56% of the starting NFL wide receivers will start week-to-week in your league. Starting to get more scarce, isn't it? There's still a fair amount of depth at WR and a lot of breakout candidates that you can grab late, but you can see why there is sometimes a premium placed on a proven WR.
At running back, the supply and demand situation gets crazy... Your league needs to start 36 of the 32 NFL "starters" each week. Let that sink in. If there is one quality running back per NFL team on average (and, yes, I realize that it's more like 40 or so with committees, but you don't want a lot of those guys anyway) then this league is over-subscribed. The league needs 112.5% of the available resource in the starting lineup each week. And that's before the bye weeks hit.
Sobering thought, huh? And now you know why all of the experts used to universally say that you absolutely must go RB-RB in the first two rounds.
And, also, you now know why so many backup running backs that aren't any good get started in your fantasy leagues. Bad running backs get starts all over your league from time to time, but they get every-week starts by the person that went QB-WR-TE with their first three picks.
With the philosophy changing for so many people recently the good news is that many of the top RB's are slipping in drafts. In one of my money leagues last year I got Ray Rice at #9 (nine!) and grabbed Darren McFadden in the second round. Crazy! I won the league. (That was one of the leagues that I took Stafford late.)
However, I did say there are two schools of thought on this. Which brings me to the point about Risk and Reward and why drafting philosophies have changed. I drafted Run DMC in the second round in that league and he got hurt. (Of course he did... but 16?!) Lots of RB's get hurt. It's much more risky to take a running back early than just about any other position.
Besides, who would you rather draft at #4 overall this year - Ryan Mathews or Aaron Rodgers? Yep. There's something like (I'm picking a number from the air here) a 40% chance that Mathews gets hurt and probably 10% that Rodgers misses significant time. After all, as the saying goes: You can't win your league in the first round... but you can lose it.
But let me just say for the record here that playing it safe will guarantee you to have a relatively fun and competitive year, but you won't dominate and your chances of winning it all will be primarily luck-based. True, there is a ton of luck in fantasy football anyway and there is a slight chance that you may win your league on luck.
Frankly, I'd rather take the scarce resource early, draft bench backups early, and roll with making my own kind of luck. Now is the time to jump in and be able to consume the concepts in "The Program" as you prepare for the draft. The Program is designed to give you an immediate boost in all three phases of fantasy football: preparing for your draft, executing on draft day, and managing your team in-season. It will give you and immediate boost in competitiveness and will help you to evolve into a truly elite fantasy football player. Check it out here.