There are as many draft strategies as there are players in the NFL. No one strategy guarantees you a championship team or a cellar dwellar and even the best laid plans can go awry as a draft unfolds.
If you don’t have a strategy chosen before your draft begins, you’re leaving too much to chance. As I often say: In the absence of a plan exists impulse. As soon as you have your draft slot, your plan should take shape. Give some consideration to the following items:
Things To Do
1. Where do you want to pick?
Do you like to be in the top three? Do you like to pick last in the round to get back to back picks? Somewhere in between? Ultimately, you aren’t in control of where you pick, but you still need to be ready to adjust. Your first three picks go a long way toward establishing your first tier core. Just because you can’t dictate your draft position doesn’t mean that you can’t easily move within those first three rounds to ultimately shape your first three picks. It’s very easy to trade up, out or back. Keep all options open toward working your plan.
2. Know thy scoring format
Point per reception (PPR) league? Six point for passing touchdowns? Performance scoring for big plays? Return yardage? PPR leagues can result in a dramatic value increase for top receivers and three-down backs. Six points for passing touchdowns adds value to quarterbacks. Performance scoring, which rewards players for 100 yard rushing games, 300 yard passing games, long touchdowns of a certain distance, or a myriad of other milestones tends to favor players that are center pieces in their respective offenses and high quality quarterbacks with legitimate weapons. Return yardage leagues, which reward players for punt and kick return yardage and touchdowns, highlight dual threat players. Don’t forget to check to see if tight ends get 1.5 points per reception.
3. Know the positional format
Specifically, does the format require starting two running backs, or only a single running back. The difference is of great importance as it could very well help dictate your second and third round selections. If you are playing in a PPR format, know that many successful teams are built on the backs of receivers. The inclusion of a second starting running back requirement changes the dynamic considerably as the position can get very thin, very quickly. If the format allows for two quarterbacks to be started, you MUST spend an early pick on your first quarterback and I could easily justify spending your first two picks on the position if the right names fall. The weekly scoring advantage garnered with top quarterbacks can be sizable.
4. Know how the players scored within the scoring format last year
Most league service sites allow you to access historical records such that you can see how a player performed in a particular scoring system in the previous year. Chances are that you have at least one league that you can reference to give you an idea of how the players performed within a closely matched scoring system. This is a critical understanding to have as you build your team. You’ll undoubtedly be faced with difficult choices as your draft progresses. Remember that the only thing that matters week to week is fantasy point production. Points on your bench don’t help you as much as points on the field in a head-to-head match. Don’t force the selection of a RB4 if a well-scoring receiver remains undrafted. If you can’t find how a player scored in the previous year of the scoring format in question, at least understand the productivity of the players in your ranking system.
5. Know the player tiers
Every position has tiers that must be understood. If the second tier of quarterbacks are ranked very closely in value, there’s no great need to rush into that tier as long as at least one falls to you. Conversely, if a single player within a tier remains on the board at your selection, you’ll know that there is virtually no chance he makes it back to you in the following round. His selection is an easy one to make. Understanding the tiers within each position is a critical research point as that single fact will tell you when it’s time to grab your quarterback, your tight end and when it’s safe to forego the same decision.
6. Don’t draft in a vacuum
It’s always a shock to me when I find that, while drafting, some coaches don’t keep track of other teams as they draft. This strategy is imperative if you pick at the beginning, or near the end, of a round but is useful at any point. If you’re faced with the decision of selecting the last quarterback in the tier at the end of a round, and you pick again within a few picks, know the makeup of the teams that pick after you. While it’s never a guarantee that a team picking after you won’t select a second quarterback, it’s a good bet that in the early rounds if teams after you have already filled their quarterback position, or tight end for that matter, you’re relatively safe in foregoing the pick until your next selection. I often use this strategy even when picking in the middle of a round as I play the odds of a targeted player remaining on the board until my next pick.
Next, let’s cover a few things that I don’t do.
Things to NOT do
1. Pay attention to player forecasts
Most sites like to spend a lot of time forecasting the upcoming year as it relates to player scoring. I’ve found that it’s a waste of time – completely. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t understand the variables that suggest a player’s performance for the upcoming season. Last year’s scoring, a little bit of your own logic and a trusted site (like DLF) to help you sort out depth charts and player movement, is all you need to rank the players. Don’t waste your time guessing any more than you need to. The expert at your favorite site is guessing just as you would if you tried to forecast a players upcoming year.
2. Force a strategy
It’s very important to have a strategy entering your draft. Do your due-diligence prior to your draft and devise a strategy for your draft. But don’t chisel that strategy into stone. Do not be impulsive. If a draft begins to go badly for you, don’t force a busted strategy. I can’t count the times when, during a draft, I’ve had five running backs or wide receivers ranked for a selection six picks away, only to see all five go off the board. It’s frustrating but don’t let it shake you to the point where you automatically reach for a the sixth player in the position if it doesn’t make sense. Have a strategy, but understand when that strategy needs to change.
3. Don’t mail-in the middle rounds
No doubt, the first three to four rounds are extremely important for putting in your first and second tier foundation. But dynasties are created in rounds five through ten. The homework you’ve done and the educated chances you take in these early-middle rounds will ultimately determine how deep and how strong your team will be. A lot of coaches start sorting players purely by ADP (average draft position) or drafting somewhat indiscriminately after rounds four or five. The informed coach can work magic in these six rounds. Most players in the first four rounds of a draft will score relatively well. But the point advantage available to the savvy coach from players in the following five to six rounds can really separate them from the field.
4. Don’t fall victim to early Kicker, IDP or Defense selections
There are a lot of strategies for these positions and I won’t discount those that feel strongly about how and when to start selecting individual Individual Defensive Players (IDP). Do NOT select your kicker or your defense until the last two rounds. I know I’m going to get comments about how you can gain a point advantage by selectively doing so, but I’ve researched it many times and I’ve never found anything that leads me to believe that there’s an advantage to be had. I don’t waste time ranking kickers or defenses and simply use last year’s scoring in most all situations. I won’t even consider taking IDPs until the late rounds but that is more of a personal preference.
So with these things in mind, let’s examine some thoughts on draft position and my favorite strategies. Much will be determined by the details of how your individual draft unfolds, but at least you can have a plan of attack as your draft gets underway.
The top five picks, in various order have primarily been:
1.01 Arian Foster, RB HOU
1.02 Ray Rice, RB BAL
1.03 LeSean McCoy, RB PHI
1.04 Calvin Johnson, WR DET
1.05 Aaron Rodgers, QB GB
The next seven rounding out the first round are not as locked in, but have primarily been:
1.06 Ryan Mathews, RB SD
1.07 Trent Richardson, RB CLE
1.08 Cam Newton, QB CAR
1.09 Jimmy Graham, TE NO
1.10 Matt Stafford, QB DET
1.11 Rob Gronkowski, TE NE
1.12 A.J. Green, WR CIN
The second round has been seeing a relatively predictable set of usual suspects:
2.01 DeMarco Murray, RB DAL
2.02 Matt Forte, RB CHI
2.03 Julio Jones, WR ATL
2.04 Darren McFadden, RB OAK
2.05 Adrian Peterson, RB MIN
2.06 Larry Fitzgerald, WR ARI
2.07 Hakeem Nicks, WR NYG
2.08 Drew Brees, QB NO
2.09 Doug Martin, RB TB
2.10 Dez Bryant, WR DAL
2.11 Maurice Jones-Drew, RB JAX
2.12 Tom Brady, QB NE
A couple of names slipping into the the bottom of the second round or top of the third round have been:
Wes Welker, WR NE
Jamal Charles, RB KC
Brandon Marshall, WR CHI
For the most part, the previous 27 names make up your first and second rounds. Surveying the names, I’d draw the line between the first and second tier of players at twenty, after 2.08.
Strategies for your selection:
I would have a hard time trading out of one of these picks in 2012. I’m not a fan of taking a quarterback highly in the first round. Locking up one of the top four players above, followed by two of the remaining listed players late in the second and early in the third, is a tough core group to walk away form. The three running backs plus Calvin Johnson offer too much positional advantage to pass on unless you can rake in additional picks in the second and third rounds.
I often trade out of these picks and have been very successful, including this year, of landing a second and a third round selection in return, giving back a sixth or seventh. Not always successful with this move, but I pounce on it if offered for reason I’ll discuss shortly.
I rarely trade out of these picks and the last pick in the round is usually my favorite place to select. The ability to take players back to back, without fear of losing one is a nice advantage. It is true that you have to be very aware of how your team is shaping up as with nearly two rounds of selections before your next two, it is easy to get left out in the cold if you fail to address a position and a “run” starts shortly after your second pick. For this reason, I tend to like to “lead the draft” with my selection in hopes of starting a positional run, most often in quarterback or tight end. In any case, I don’t often trade out of these two picks. Just too much comfort in knowing that I get back to back players of my choice.
My Primary Strategy
In most cases, you’re going to be looking at needing a core group of seven players. This includes a single quarterback and tight end as well as a collection of five running backs and wide receivers. Sometimes starting requirements may be increased by a player but for this article, I’m assuming a core of seven.
I typically wait to draft my quarterback until round seven or eight, depending on how the draft unfolds. In a dynasty league, with the emphasis not on winning solely in the current year, there is opportunity in holding off. As seen from the player listing above, in order to land a top five quarterback, you’d need to select one within the first two rounds, foregoing a RB/WR/TE. There’s no discounting the fact that a top quarterback does offer a sizable weekly advantage but I prefer to build my non-quarterback core in rounds one through six and securing a top ten quarterback with upside in round seven. I may adjust this tactic up a round if a run on quarterbacks starts early, but not in most cases.
In 2012, after the top five quarterbacks are off the board, you have such names as :
Eli Manning, NYG
Matt Ryan, ATL
Robert Griffin III, WAS
Andrew Luck, IND
Philip Rivers, SD
Tony Romo, DAL
Michael Vick, PHI
Peyton Manning, DEN
Not a bad consolation prize for waiting on your quarterback. They aren’t likely to perform as well as the top five, but most still have upside into the top five should lightning strike. Every year there are surprises and in a year such as 2012 when there are dynamic rookies within the position, I feel even better about this strategy.
With my plan of foregoing a quarterback selection until round seven, the trade out scenario, for draft picks in the middle of the first round now shows clear benefit. Without the quarterback, I need to assemble six players. Trading out of the first round for two additional picks in the second and third rounds, giving back my sixth round selection, nets me those six players in the first five rounds. With such players as Larry Fitzgerald, Hakeem Nicks, Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Doug Martin, Julio Jones and even Jamal Charles available in the second round, I’m completely willing to forego a first round selection in return for two of those players in the second, in addition to two more players in the third. These picks will almost certainly be running back and wide receivers unless one of the top tight ends fall. In all likelihood, my tight end selection will take place in round five. Speaking of tight ends ….
Much like quarterbacks, after both Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are off the board, there’s no great rush to add a tight end with the following group still available:
Aaron Hernandez, NE
Jermichael Finley, GB
Vernon Davis, SF
Brandon Pettigrew, DET
Jason Witten, DAL
Antonio Gates, SD
Fred Davis, WAS
Even those following this second tier are enough such that I don’t fear being left out of the position.
Recapping the situation where I have traded out of a middle-selection first round pick, that finds my selections resembling the following:
Rd. 1 – Traded Away
Rd. 2 – RB/WR
Rd. 2 – RB/WR
Rd. 3 – RB/WR
Rd. 3 – RB/WR
Rd. 4 – RB/WR
Rd. 5 – TE
Rd. 6 – Traded Away
Rd. 7 – QB – Core Completed
Note that it is very possible that you will not find a willing trade partner for a second and third round selection. Should that occur, wait until you are on the clock (as long as it’s a slow live draft) and try again. Being on the clock with players available has a way of bringing trades out of the woodwork. I have upgraded the sixth round selection to a fifth round selection to get a deal done but, in most situations, that has not been necessary. Without a favorable trade option, I’ll simply stick with my current selections and build without an early trade.
In any event, the goal is to build the core as quickly as possible to secure a young and productive foundation. Once my core has been assembled, I can begin taking chances on players in those very important middle rounds, eight through ten to add youthful upside. Or, if I feel I have a near-term contender, a balance of veteran production. Maximum frustration for this strategy is to not have a suitable core in place by round seven, in which case you must use the next one or two rounds to fill it out. The result here is that beginning in round eight, you can start over-drafting those players that you covet, a round early, to ensure that you are the coach selecting them. If you aren’t willing to over-draft a young player, you will fall victim to a fellow coach that is.
Regardless of how you slice it, my core is built in the first seven rounds, without emphasis on the quarterback and tight end, unless a significant player drops. The quicker I can amass picks in rounds two through five to build that core, the better. But without trade, the same goal applies.
In PPR leagues, it’s common to now see coaches build strictly through early round selections of young wide receivers almost exclusively through round four, followed by running back in rounds five or six, especially if the format calls for only a single starting running back requirement. The theory here is that young receivers have very long careers and, once established, will anchor the team. Within the draft, a coach utilizing this strategy will find veteran running backs to fill the starting roster requirements in rounds seven through eleven. Running backs falling in these rounds may be:
Stevan Ridley, NE
Donald Brown, IND
James Starks, GB
Ryan Williams, ARI
Reggie Bush, MIA
Kevin Smith, DET
Frank Gore, SF
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CIN
Pierre Thomas, NO
Willis McGahee, DEN
As you can see, as long as you are comfortable with having to play an aging group of running backs, in return for the potential of a decade of young productive receivers, this strategy could very well pay dividends. This strategy lends itself VERY well for trading out of the first round into the middle of the second round. Once you decide that running backs are not a concern, trading out won’t be a concern. Most coaches are in a mad rush to secure starting running back talent.
In my history and research, I’ve found that nothing is more determinant of a fantasy champion than having a top quarterback. Without a top quarterback, there are just too many points to be made up weekly unless you’ve done a world-class job at building your supporting cast. Rather than trying to predict the next quarterback to reach the top five, some coaches prefer to just draft one out of the gate. The advantages are obvious. The drawbacks are obvious as well in that the team must now start building the core in rounds two through seven, rather than one through six, and one round can make a huge difference. This strategy actually lends itself well to a best player available (BPA) strategy in which a point disparity advantage is garnered with the early selection of a quarterback and then solid fantasy points are ensured with safe selections following.
For myself, I’ve not found that the early-quarterback strategy leads to a team of more older veterans than I prefer.
By far, the most often used draft strategy is that of hoarding running backs, or at least back-to-back running back picks in both the first and second rounds. The reason for this strategy is rooted in the fact that with so few dedicated, carry-the-load, running backs available, securing two (or three) starting running backs early also secures a significant advantage each week over your opponent. This may or may not be the case if against a receiver focused drafter in a PPR league. While I am a reformed running back drafter, I do acknowledge that my teams built around this strategy due tend to be more consistent. But should injury strike, it’s usually very impactful. A team with a strong foundation of multiple young receivers and a young productive quarterback, though, can be a powerhouse in following years as focus shifts to finding that one bell-cow running back. I should also note that use of this strategy is used because of the large number of receivers available in the NFL. The running back position is a very shallow and aggressively mined position.
Trading Away Draft Picks
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one possible tactic that can bring significant results. That being the trading away of start-up draft picks for first round picks in the following year. Once I reach round nine, I begin to put out feelers to see who may be interested in acquiring a soon-to-be pick in return for a first round selection next year. I have found that leagues are either flush with owners willing to make this move or completely bereft, and little in between. My belief is that it’s due to herd mentality when the first coach trades away his pick for the rights to a ninth or tenth round player. For myself, while I do covet these picks, having a second, or third, first round pick in an upcoming draft is usually too much to pass up. Bonus points if the team that is looking to trade has done a poor job of building his team THIS year, likely suggesting a higher pick in next year’s draft. I’m always there to help (to my benefit) the coach that allowed his running back situation to get dire to the point where he has to use his future year picks to make a play this year. There is a cost available should you choose to execute this strategy, but it’s often a worthy gamble when you realize that many first round rookies are selected well before round seven in their rookie year.
In the end, the “Do” and “Do Not” portion of your strategy will ultimately determine your outcome. By focusing on those items, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes your way via the draft, be it trade offer, unexpected players falling, or a bad run following your selection. By keeping your wits about you and your research close, you’ll be able to be proactive rather than reactive. And that alone will guarantee a level of success that many may not be able to approach.
Draft well and good luck this year!
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