Jeff Ratcliffe's ultimate fantasy blueprint
Before I started working in the fantasy industry, I was a good fantasy player. Good, but not great. Sure, I did all of the research before my drafts and stayed on top of news – which was no small feat back in the late-‘90s and early-2000s – but there was something missing. Something wrong. Something off. I just couldn’t get over the hump and win fantasy leagues. We’re talking a decade-plus without hoisting a single trophy. I was like the Washington Generals of fantasy football.
It got so bad that on my wedding day, my best man gave a 15-minute speech that focused solely on my complete inability to win in fantasy football. I’m not kidding. He regaled the guests with stories of my many misfortunes including losing by a point when Brian Westbrook kneeled on the one-yard line against the Cowboys in December of 2007. There isn’t a gif or emoji in the world that could accurately sum up how I felt when he didn’t go in the end zone.
But you know what? It wasn’t Westbrook or any other NFL player that was to blame for my lack of trophies on the mantle. That was all my fault, and the main culprit was my draft strategy and roster management tendencies. See, I tended to draft high-floor fantasy options who were safe. But in drafting these safe players, I was essentially safely losing my league.
Go big or go home
You can’t be afraid of striking out. It’s going to happen, especially in fantasy football. But if you don’t swing for the fences with high-upside players, you limit your chances of taking down the league title. Fourth place is no better than last place, so you might as well go for the gusto. That means drafting players with the highest fantasy ceilings.
Right now, Duke Johnson and Frank Gore are going at essentially the same spot in terms of ADP, so you can have your choice of either player. Gore is entering his age-33 season, but he’s coming off a solid 2015 campaign. He’s a safe option who has a limited fantasy ceiling. Johnson flashed potential as a receiver in his rookie season and is poised to take a big step forward under new Browns head coach Hue Jackson. His floor is much lower than Gore’s, but his ceiling is tremendously higher. If given the choice between the two on draft day, the clear pick is Johnson. Draft for ceiling, not for floor.
Find a strategy
But what’s the best fantasy football draft strategy? I get asked this question all of the time. There’s no shortage of strategies out there. You have value-based drafting, tier-based drafting, Zero-RB, Zero-WR, late-round quarterback, and others I’m probably forgetting. Despite all of these methods, the best approach is surprisingly simple: draft the best player every time it’s your pick.
Easier said than done, I know. But this is where preparation comes into play. Fantasy football is a game of information. Knowing more than your opponents gives you an edge. You’re not going to get that edge by showing up and drafting from a set of rankings that you found in a magazine or downloaded from your website of choice – which is profootballfocus.com, of course.
Don’t get me wrong. Those rankings certainly serve a purpose. Industry rankings give you a baseline of how to value players against each other. But I’m going to let you in on a secret. Fantasy analysts don’t know everything. I know some of you on Twitter are well aware of this fact, but there are a lot of fantasy drafters out there who treat rankings like gospel. They’re not, which is why you see such a wide range of differences among the many rankers in the fantasy industry.
Instead of just blindly following someone else’s rankings, I recommend using industry rankings to create your own draft board. NFL teams build draft boards, and so should you. People are often surprised when I tell them that I draft off of just one sheet at fantasy drafts. This streamlined approach takes some work on the front end to put into place, but it eliminates a lot of the clumsiness many of us experience flipping back and forth between papers, magazines and websites on draft day.
Build your board
There’s no precise science to building a fantasy draft board, but where I like to start is by establishing a set of overall rankings. You can use the overall rankings from your favorite industry analyst, or put together your own. The do-it-yourself crowd may want to start by position. Ranking players by position isn’t the most difficult exercise. You don’t need a complex algorithm like the one I use to power PFF’s projection numbers. You can simply go through and ask yourself who you like more: Player A or Player B? However, combining these positional lists into a set of overall rankings can be a bit more challenging. Of course, you can take the same approach of Player A or Player B, but it’s often difficult finding that precise spot to splice your positional lists together.
Instead, I prefer to take a value-based approach to establishing an overall set of rankings. Value-based drafting is an old idea in fantasy sports. In essence, a player’s fantasy value is not based on the total points he’s projected to score, but rather the points he’s projected to score over the value of replacement at his position. There are a number of ways to establish the replacement-level baseline for each position, but I tend to prefer the method outlined by Rotoviz’s Frank DuPont. Once you establish replacement-level points, simply subtract that number from the player’s projected points and you have his value score. Sort value scores from largest to smallest and you have your starting spot for overall rankings.
At this point, it’s a good idea to give your rankings a close look. The value scores are a solid starting spot, but you may notice places in your overall rankings that need tweaking. Go ahead and move players around as you see fit. Remember, this is your draft board. Also, as you go through the list, you’re going to notice natural breaking points. Make note of these as you see them. They’re going to ultimately be your tier dividing lines.
With the rankings polished, the next step is to establish your tiers. Since this is a draft board, you’re going to want to think of your tiers in a round-by-round basis. However, don’t feel like you need to put the precise number of players in each round tier. If you’re in a 12-team league and you only feel like there are 10 players whom you would take in the first round, then only put those players in your Round 1 tier. The same thing applies if you happen to like 15 players in the second round.
The way I order my draft board visually is with positions in the columns and rounds in the rows. From there, I establish which players I like the most in the tier and list them at the top. For the first four rounds, I’ll list players in the exact order of my overall rankings. That gives a list of roughly 60 players to start. Beyond that point, I’ll often have players from different positions with the same grades in the round. This allows for a little flexibility in the middle and later rounds in order to fill out positions of need. However, to start things out, I recommend exhausting your first four rounds. In most cases, you’ll find that you’re still drafting from this list well into the sixth round and perhaps longer.
So to come full circle to my original answer to the best draft strategy, using this approach will force you to draft the best players regardless of their position. Of course, if you follow a value-based approach to building your board, you’re going to notice that there are very few quarterbacks and tight ends in your early-round tiers. At tight end, you’ll likely have Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen in your first four rounds, but there’s still a lot of value to be had later in drafts with players like Zach Ertz, Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green.
As for quarterback, the value gap between the top options and replacement level isn’t nearly as significant as other positions due to the pass-happy nature of today’s NFL. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to prioritize quarterbacks early in drafts. There are plenty of values to be had even after the first dozen quarterbacks come off the board, including Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford and Marcus Mariota.
We also need to consider the cost of swinging and missing on an early-round quarterback. Unlike wide receiver and running back, where you’ll likely draft five-plus players at each position, you’re only likely to draft one or two quarterbacks. If you miss on an early-round quarterback, the cost is significantly higher than missing on an early-round running back or wide receiver – just ask last year’s Andrew Luck owners. Without more options on your team, you’re really stuck if you miss at quarterback. Whereas if you miss on running back or wide receiver, you still have other options who have the chance of hitting. The high cost of missing is yet another reason to wait until at least the middle rounds to select a signal caller.
But building a draft board is only part of the battle. You still need to be able to execute on draft day, and that comes down to preparation. I was in a casual home league draft last year where everyone seemed to have done their homework. These guys were lights out through the first three rounds. There wasn’t a single value pick to be had. But as the draft wore on, a few of them started to unravel and make mistakes. This happens in a lot of home league drafts, and the sharp drafters are able to capitalize.
Most people go to fantasy drafts with rankings of some sort. While there’s a wide range of variation in rankings throughout the fantasy industry, they’re generally fairly similar over the first 25-30 players. So even if you did no prep whatsoever, you’re likely going to be able to draft well for the first few rounds. Inevitably, those who don’t put in the time are going to struggle as the draft wears on. You may be the type who follows NFL news year-round. If that’s the case, you’re ahead of the game and have a leg up on your league. But if you like to tune out after the Super Bowl and pick things back up in July, I recommend reading my Depth Chart Review series where I cover the fantasy relevant players and offseason developments for all 32 NFL teams.
In addition to being more knowledgeable than your league mates, you also need to know your league tendencies. Reading up on fantasy industry mock drafts or reviewing ADP data has its value, but this information rarely reflects the tendencies of your home league. Case in point: quarterbacks. The fantasy industry has fully embraced the late-round quarterback approach. However, the drafting public still seems to resist this idea. As a result, quarterbacks tend to go much later in industry mocks than they will in your home league drafts. But just because quarterbacks go early doesn’t mean you fall prey to groupthink and grab one in the third round. Knowing that your league is quarterback-happy will allow you to exploit the value they leave on the board at running back and wide receiver. Remember, there’s tons of value at quarterback this year. Even in a quarterback-happy league, you still can get away with waiting.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Another thing to remember on draft day is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received: Don’t sweat the little things. Bye weeks are little things. Sure, having two studs with the same bye week isn’t ideal, but it shouldn’t be the reason you pass over a player on draft day. That includes if the players are on the same team. It isn’t a mistake to have to strong fantasy assets from the same team, a la Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.
Strength of schedule is another little thing. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t look at schedule information at all, but keep in mind that strength of schedule is heavily weighted toward last season’s data. Schedule strength is very dynamic and changes not only from season to season, but potentially from week to week. Basing schedule strength on previous results doesn’t take these shifts into account, and can provide a misleading picture of a player’s fantasy outlook. So while you may want to briefly review a player’s schedule, schedule strength is constantly subject to change.
Consider an auction
Generally speaking, much of this discussion has assumed a traditional snake draft, but a lot of fantasy drafters have dipped their toes into the exciting waters of auction drafts. If you’re new to the concept, auctions provide a very different dynamic than traditional drafts. If you don’t get the first pick overall in a snake draft this year, it’s very unlikely that you’ll wind up with Antonio Brown. However, in an auction draft, you have the potential to own Brown or any other fantasy-relevant player.
Of course, to get Brown or Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones, you’re going to have to spend a healthy chunk of your budget. These players are likely to cost you upwards of 30-35 percent of your auction money. While it’s certainly nice to have one of the Big 3 wide receivers to anchor your team, spending that much at one position can leave you pretty thin elsewhere. This “stars and scrubs” approach to auctions has the potential to be effective if you’re able to get a lot of solid fantasy starters on the cheap, but there’s also a chance you end up with a suboptimal fantasy squad.
Find value wherever you can
The goal in fantasy drafts is essentially the same regardless of the format. Whether you’re in an auction or a snake draft, you want to get value with every one of your picks. Spending a big chunk of your budget on one player isn’t the best way to do so. But how do you figure out a player’s auction value?
Like building your draft board, you can take the easy way and use the auction values found in the Pro Football Focus projections. We took the guesswork out for you, but keep in mind that these numbers are specifically for PPR. You can use the custom ranker tool to get values for other scoring settings. But if you’re ambitious and would like to calculate the numbers yourself, there’s a relatively easy way to do so. All you need is some beginner-level Excel skills and a set of projections. If that sort of thing isn’t your bag, just go ahead and skip the next paragraph.
The starting spot for auction values is the exact same value-based approach that we used to create our overall rankings and draft board for snake draft leagues. Once you establish your value score for each player, you then need to figure out your total budget multiplied by the number of teams in the league. So in a 12-team league with a $200 budget, the total amount of money in play is $2,400. Next, scrub out the dollar minimums for each roster spot. If you league has 16 roster spots with a $1 minimum, that’s $16 per team, or $192 dollars. You now have a remainder of $2,208. Take this number and divide it by your total number of positive value-based scores. In my most recent projections, the positive VDB total is 6175.5, which when divided into $2,208 results in a value factor of 0.36. Now multiply the player’s value score by the value factor and you have his auction value.
With auction values in place, you know each player’s market value. The goal is to get the player at or under that specific value. When players go above their market value, it creates opportunity for you to get other players below their market value. Invariably you’ll have some overzealous bidders early on in an auction. Ideally, you’ll want to sit back and bide your time, unless it becomes clear that you can get a solid player below market value. If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to pounce.
You’ll also want to establish a percentage range of your budget that you’re willing to spend on each position. Typically, I budget about 40 percent for wide receiver, 25 percent for running back, 10-15 percent for tight end and quarterback, and the remainder for team defense and kicker. Of course, this budget allocation will change with different roster requirements, but it’s a good starting spot.
Play your favorite format
I’m often asked which league format is the best. To be honest, I don’t really have a precise answer. It’s really a matter of preference. Some like to pound the table for one particular format or another, but part of the beauty to fantasy football is that there’s so much variety. Fantasy leagues range from very basic “standard” formats to full-roster leagues that include individual defensive players. IDP leagues have existed on the fringes of fantasy football really since its inception. There are certainly some purists out there who scoff at the very idea of playing with a team defense, but any and all fantasy formats have merits. Learning an additional player pool isn’t something some fantasy players are interested in doing, and those folks will never play IDP. It’s cool. Fantasy is for fun, so do what you like.
But what I will say in favor of playing IDP is that this format gives you a familiarity with the defensive side of the ball that you simply don’t get in leagues with just team defense. That knowledge will not only help you in your IDP leagues, but it also gives you an additional advantage on the offensive side of the ball.
Traditionally, fantasy football analysts have looked at matchups in terms of position versus team. For example, how wide receivers fare against the Raiders defense. But fantasy has become a more microscopic game where we can now look at how left wide receives fare against the Raiders’ right corner and so on. Know who these players are and how they perform on the field can allow you to exploit the positive matchups while potentially avoiding the negative ones.
The decision to play IDP is entirely up to you, but if you do take the plunge – or have already – remember that the best IDP rosters are the ones that prioritize offensive players over defensive players. I know it runs contrary to logic, but you don’t need J.J. Watt or Luke Kuechly to win your IDP league. In fact, taking these players at their current ADP means you sacrifice value on the offensive side of the ball.
In IDP leagues that field a full roster of defensive players, it’s a good idea to fill out your offensive roster over the first 8-10 rounds before addressing the defensive side of the ball. Trust me. There’s going to be plenty of good options among the defensive player pool at that point in the draft. On the offensive side of the ball, not so much. Better yet, as your opponents use early round picks on defensive players, they allow value to slip to you. It’s a win-win situation.
Much like IDP, playing DFS can actually make you a better season-long player. No, this isn’t a commercial about how you can turn one small deposit into a fortune. But with a little time and effort, you can certainly grind out a reasonable profit. But more importantly, playing DFS teaches a valuable fantasy lesson: that fantasy football is played on a week-to-week basis. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, especially with the entire season ahead of us.
Looking at yearly projected numbers and rankings can be very misleading. They show the entire season-long journey in one quick snapshot, but don’t display the winding path it takes to get there. Take for example Doug Martin’s 2012 season. He finished the year as fantasy’s No. 3 running back with 1,926 total yards and 12 scores. However, he wasn’t that front-end RB1 option every week, as he had eight games where he finished outside of the top-12 in fantasy scoring. It was a still a strong season, but his week-to-week value fluctuated. Playing DFS keys you into these sorts of fluctuations. You also become more aware of the potential range of outcomes that can occur for any given player on any given weekend. In doing so, you become a better weekly player, which ultimately leads to become a better season-long player.
There’s no singular path to fantasy glory, and sometimes you can make all the right moves and still lose. But if you put the pieces in place, the puzzle tends to work itself out. And hey, it’s a lot of fun along the way. Just do me a favor and don’t make safe picks on draft day. You’re not going to win your league that way, and you just might wind up having to listen to someone give a speech about your inability to win fantasy leagues.