Fantasy football draft strategy: The fundamentals

Brandon Marianne Lee takes it back to the basics with a rundown of the best tips and approaches for a fantasy draft.

| 11 months ago
(Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

(Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

Fantasy football draft strategy: The fundamentals

This is the best time of year for those of us that love fantasy football. The teams are practicing, our research is coming to fruition before our very eyes and surprise talent pops up on the newswire every day.

Over the years, fantasy football’s popularity has grown at an exponential rate. In 2007, only 13.3 million people played fantasy sports. Today, 42.8 million partake. While the number of players grew, so did the number of people analyzing the game. And when more people study fantasy football, more people come up with theories and strategies. The game seemingly gets more and more complicated.

But at the end of the day, fantasy football is all about scoring more fantasy points than your opponent. It’s that simple. Fantasy football is about news and numbers. If you understand stats and keep an eye on the news, you will go far.

Every strategy out there has evolved into an undefined misnomer.

How long do you have to wait if you want to go “late-round quarterback?” “Zero-RB” obviously doesn’t actually mean you go without any running backs, but in what round can you start drafting ball carriers without abandoning your strategy? How do you measure upside and floors? When is drafting for upside just plain wrong because I miss out on proven talent?

Tough questions. Each draft is different and each league has its own settings, but here are some quick and dirty tips that will help any fantasy player get back to basics and get back to focusing on winning rather than employing the coolest strategy on draft day.

Read your league settings

Twice. And then press print. Yes, use actual paper and print out your settings. Have them right next to you when you draft. If your league gives tight ends a boost with 1.5 points per reception, take note. Do you get 0.5 points per carry? For both the running backs and quarterbacks? Hello, Russell Wilson and Adrian Peterson. If you think this is a simple and condescending reminder, you are wrong. I’ve done double-digit drafts already this season, each with multiple members of the fantasy community, and every single draft had at least one person in it that didn’t read the league settings and later complained about it. Complaining isn’t an option. Get it together. Print it out. No excuses.

Draft in tiers

The majority of questions I get on Twitter and my radio shows is whether or not a person should draft player A or player B. Unfortunately, nine times out of 10, the two players play the same position. In reality most people have a tough time discerning whether or not a wide receiver is a better value than a running back. They wonder if waiting until the fifth or sixth round is still a value for a top-tier quarterback. When you draft in tiers, the visualization of where each player should get drafted, regardless of position, will win you the draft. The Pro Football Focus Draft Master tool has a tiered draft sheet. We call it the “draft board.” Again, use a printer. Cross players off who are taken and highlight the players you draft. By hand. That’s the best way to stay present and steer clear of knee-jerk decisions.

Before you make your pick, look down your board

Stop worrying about “reaching.” Who cares what the other people in your league think of you? Instead, look down your cheat sheet and consider the amount of spots you have between picks. For instance, if you are pick 11 out of 12 and you have two picks after yours until it comes back to you, then look at the next three players at every position. Anyone in that range is acceptable and not reaching. Get the person you actually want on your team. This is especially important when you’re on the turn and there are 22 picks until it comes back to you.

Draft players you will actually play

In other words, draft someone you believe will be a top-12 talent at QB and TE, top-24 talent at running back, and top-36 talent at WR. If you don’t think a player is capable of putting up that kind of production, pass on him. This does not mean that the player will necessarily end up as a top-24 running back, but rather that you believe that player is capable of putting up top-tier numbers when you play him. Right now both LeGarrette Blount and C.J. Prosise are going in the ninth round. Contrary to what many other fantasy analysts might say, Blount is a guy with top-24 potential. Bill Belichick is rather overt about exploiting weak defensive lines when he has the chance, so I would rather stream Blount than hope the Seattle Seahawks figure out a pass-catching, running-back-by-committee situation that will make Prosise a viable fantasy starter.

Upside means a potential fantasy starter

Upside is the potential of a player being able to outperform his ADP or salary. Honestly, if the upside is still an inconsistent player you’ll never start on your fantasy team, that’s not good enough. I believe Will Fuller has upside as an NFL player, but I do not think he has upside as a deep threat on a team opposite DeAndre Hopkins with Brock Osweiler throwing the ball, especially since I believe the Texans will want to run with Lamar Miller as much as possible. Right now Fuller is going in the 14th round. He’ll probably outscore his ADP, but again, he won’t be a reliable fantasy starter, regardless of the circumstances. In that same round I can get Rishard Matthews, and even though I believe Fuller will score more points at the end of the season, I also believe that Matthews is more likely to become a WR1 on the Titans and evolve into a viable starter midway through the season. Therefore, when it comes to team composition, Matthews actually has more of a relevant upside, so I’ll draft him instead.

History repeats itself

The amount of draft strategies and analysis out there is staggering. People avoid quarterbacks, running backs, even wide receivers at the beginning of the draft. Here’s a hot take: great players usually stay great, or at least pretty darn good. I know, the truth can be super boring. Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have been top-10 fantasy quarterbacks in each of the last four seasons. Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford have been top-10 quarterbacks in three of the last four years. Those are seven pretty sure things right off the bat. Of the 22 wide receivers who went for 1,000 or more yards in 2015, 13 of the players had reached the milestone previously and two were rookies. The year before that, 13 of the 21 receivers that went over 1,000 yards had done it previously along with three rookies.

Google every single player before you draft them

I don’t care if you’re picking Antonio Brown with the first pick, google him. People get hurt during the preseason and at practice. Players will lose their starting position. I know someone who drafted Kelvin Benjamin within the hour of him tearing his ACL last year. Don’t be that person. Technology gives you no excuses.

This is a stat-driven site, but sometimes you need to go with your overall football knowledge

I started playing fantasy in 2008 after college. In my first draft I decided to draft Kurt Warner in the final rounds. Everyone let out a laugh and one of the guys said, “You know he’s not the starter, right?” I said, “Well, this may be my first fantasy league, but I know football. Kurt Warner is a better quarterback than Matt Leinart and I feel fine about this pick.” Well, Ken Whisenhunt literally named Warner the starter the next day and I finished in third place my first time out of the gate. Especially at the end of the draft, pick up the players that you believe in.

Unless you’re drafting a best-ball league, you will need a waiver wire game plan

Obviously you can’t have the No. 1 player at every position. Many players are going WR-heavy early on in their drafts, with the expectation that they will use the waiver wire to pick up running backs throughout the season. Picking a late quarterback and streaming all year is another popular strategy. Personally, I like to pair my quarterbacks and then play the matchups on a week-to-week basis. I play with a lot of streaming believers and I have no interest in racing everyone to get the best projected quarterback of the week. Instead, I use my waivers to build my running back and wide receiver depth. I also don’t like using waivers for tight ends, so I usually go for a top-five option and draft a backup with upside. I don’t want to deal with than position at all. You will have your own sets of needs, but draft with your waiver wire strategy in mind. Looking towards the end goal will give you a focus and will be your first step towards winning a championship.

Brandon Marianne Lee is a PFF Fantasy contributor, a SiriusXM host, co-founder of Her Fantasy Football and was a finalist for FSWA's Newcomer of the Year in 2014.

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