Fantasy football draft strategy: How to crush your dynasty draft
In case you missed it earlier this week, Brandon Marianne Lee did a fine job summing up the fundamentals of a standard fantasy football draft. While today’s piece focuses on drafting in a dynasty format, many of Brandon’s basic principles still apply. However, there are quite a few concepts and strategies that are unique to dynasty, and we’ll get into those below.
Know how your league operates and how you’ll operate
While there are all kinds of variations, the gist of dynasty leagues is that you’ll carry over all or most of your roster from one year to the next on an indefinite basis. There is an initial startup draft and then each subsequent year there is a shorter draft for incoming rookies, which generally flows round-by-round like the actual NFL Draft as opposed to snake format. Rosters are often larger than redraft leagues, and trades can happen throughout the offseason, all of which means that like the NFL, in dynasty there is no true offseason. Our rookie scouting reports and NFL Draft Guide are invaluable resources.
In order to come up with a plan for your draft, make sure you know all of your league settings and ask questions. One dynasty league I play in isn’t much larger than most standard leagues – 20 spots and two injured reserve slots. Sometime in mid-summer, rosters are trimmed down to a maximum of 16 (an owner who has acquired additional draft picks can trim further), and then before the season we have a four-round rookie draft that also includes any veteran free agents left in the waiver pool.
How an owner drafts hinges on his or her situation. Is it the startup draft of a first-year dynasty league? Are you taking over a crappy team a previous owner bailed on? Is your roster mostly old or mostly young? Is your squad championship-ready, or bottom of the barrel and needing a rebuild?
Keep your thumb on the market
It’s not just a cliché: dynasty leagues truly are a year-round endeavor. As a dynasty league owner, you began scouting and shaping your rookie draft board before the NFL Draft, then made tweaks throughout OTAs, and are now ramping up those efforts by fine-tuning your board each week throughout training camp and preseason as position battles continue to sort themselves out. A fantasy owner in redraft leagues can simply check in during the week of his or her draft and put together a draft board with the most current data. But in dynasty leagues where rosters carry over and trading remains open throughout the offseason, it’s important to keep pulse of up-to-date ADPs and know who is rising and falling in value.
To that end, I find that grouping players into tiers gives me the best visual of what the market looks like across positions. And if your annual “rookie” draft includes veteran free-agent leftovers from the previous season, it’s especially vital to know all of the available names and incorporate them into your tiers. Situations and circumstances change from year to year – sometimes drastically – as players wind up changing teams, getting suspended and suffering injuries (or returning from injury). Don’t be that person who bangs the table when Sammie Coates gets drafted by a competitor simply because you didn’t realize he was in the draft pool.
Talent trumps perceived opportunity
Just like the adage from redraft leagues that states “you can’t win your fantasy league in the first round, but you can lose it,” the same applies to dynasty drafts. The early rounds of a dynasty draft are not for getting cute or filling immediate roster needs. This is the time to stay true to your board and remember that players, coaches and schemes change every year. After all, you spent the previous several months poring over analyses and compiling information on draft prospects.
When in doubt, prioritize talent and upside over current situation and need, because the cream will eventually rise to the top. Think Bishop Sankey, whom many pundits had rated behind the likes of Jeremy Hill, Carlos Hyde and Devonta Freeman leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft. But the Titans curiously made Sankey the first running back selected, and with a wide open backfield, the fantasy community largely took the bait. In fact, he went fifth in my dynasty draft that year, and the owner (not me, I swear) has yet to live it down.
So if, for example, you’re on the clock in Round 1 and are already loaded at WR, don’t pass up the opportunity to draft another one if that receiver is the best player available. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, in dynasty the general rule of thumb is to own the top talent first and foremost, regardless of position. You can worry about achieving roster balance later, whether by trade, free agency, an injury replacement, depth chart promotion, etc. As your draft progresses toward the final rounds, go ahead and take that sleeper backup TE or bye-week QB fill-in to fortify your lineup.
Look through a three-year lens
The question I ask myself before executing any transaction in dynasty is, “How will this impact my roster three years out?” For example, while it’s important to stay up to date on injuries and suspensions and the like going into a dynasty draft, even a significant injury won’t have much impact on how top-tier rookies are valued. Anyone who shrugged off Todd Gurley’s knee injury in the first round of rookie drafts last season will agree, and that’s why I don’t particularly care how soon Josh Doctson returns from his current Achilles injury.
To the point of roster balance, it’s fine to come away from an initial dynasty startup draft and concede that your squad might not be championship caliber right out of the gate. In fact, such an honest assessment means you’re already committing to the long game, to building sustained success year after year. Of course, when your squad is a legit title contender, the here and now comes more into focus.
Three years also happens to be about how long I’ll give a rookie to “break out” before moving on. Compared to redraft leagues, in dynasty the evaluation period for a rookie more closely resembles life in the NFL. It’s often prudent to avoid drawing definitive conclusions on a player until at least Year 2, and that may stretch into Year 3 if a player’s evaluation period was stalled by injury, or perhaps it took until then to ascend to a starting gig. While the larger roster sizes in dynasty leagues afford such patience for owners, the same rules apply if you’ve been watching an unowned player from a distance. For me, that player I earmarked last year was Tyler Eifert, whose market had cooled after an injury-shortened second season and was there for the taking at 3.09.
Sometimes, like in the unfortunate case of Marcus Lattimore, a decision to move on becomes apparent sooner. Jaelen Strong will get his second season to show me something, and then we’ll see how DeAndre Hopkins’ contract situation plays out. Just remember the Rueben Randle Rule: don’t hold onto your “breakout” candidate if it hasn’t happened by Year 3.
Strive for age balance
Whereas the term balance refers to positional balance in redraft leagues, in dynasty we need to be mindful of balancing age. Savvy dynasty leaguers can reel off the current age of just about any fantasy-relevant player at the drop of a hat. In terms of strategy, some dynasty leaguers enter each year in “win now” mode (even the startup season) and will eschew raw young prospects requiring patience as they develop. Others lean toward a “win later” mentality and will set a hard cutoff when it comes to owning players up to a certain age.
A strong dynasty roster will typically fall somewhere in the middle of the age spectrum, as opposed to an unbalanced roster with predominantly young or old players. While sustainability is the name of the game, understand that trusty veterans like Brandon Marshall or Jonathan Stewart can provide valuable insurance and bridge the gap until your next shiny draft pick is ready for weekly starting duties.
As mentioned we’re not drafting for need, we’re planting seeds for later. Think third-year WRs, or RBs positioned as the heir apparent behind a starter who is on the downslope or headed for free agency. So, my goal each year is to have my starters just entering their prime, and that’s my mindset when I enter a dynasty draft. When I drafted Marcus Mariota at 2.09 last year and then traded for Ben Roethlisberger during the season, it was with the intent of having Big Ben hold down the fort for another year or two, or to fetch something in trade if Mariota rises fast.
Know the trade market in your league
On draft day, be open to trading down if the opportunity presents itself, and know your price ahead of time. None of us bats 1.000 when it comes to drafting, so picking up some extra lottery tickets is a worthwhile strategy when the pot is sweetened to your liking.
Some other odds and ends on dynasty trades before, during, or after the draft:
- Pay attention to other trades in your league so you have an idea of how certain players and positions are valued. If you purchased our draft guide, you’re already aware that the total point production of the top-20 WRs has increased 9.4 percent over the last five years, compared to an 18-percent dip for the top-20 RBs, who also have a shorter dynasty shelf life. Does someone in your league still value RBs like it’s 2010? Are you in position to flip one for a first-rounder and get another lottery ticket for the next Odell Beckham Jr. to plug-and-play for the next decade?
- I’m not much of a believer in handcuffs, but I am in owning other people’s handcuffs. DeAngelo Williams was a fine trade asset last year, and former SPARQ beast Jerick McKinnon has remained on my roster for that same reason. If Adrian Peterson’s owner won’t meet my price, I’ll just hang on to the “Jet” until his time comes.
- We discussed not drafting for need, so don’t sweat it if you come away from the draft overloaded at one position but short at another. Instead, get right to work scouring everyone else’s roster to find a trade partner with matching needs. With future draft picks also in play, it tends to be easier to make trades in dynasty than in redraft (the NFL free agency period is also an opportune time to swing a trade, before the NFL Draft impacts values across the league).
- The buy-low/sell-high concept takes on greater importance in dynasty, which means your ability to scout and to understand data and trends is also of greater importance. Whose stock is about to rise or fall? Do you believe in Jeremy Langford? Better yet, does someone else in your league?
- As in DFS, stacking a QB1 with his top pass-catcher can be fruitful. But with long-term implications in dynasty, be wary of chasing something that isn’t there. My Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson pairing (est. 2010) never quite materialized as I had hoped, nor did my decision last year to trade for Martavis Bryant after acquiring Roethlisberger.