In this short series, I’ll try to help get your keeper team into shape leading up to your draft. In part one, we’ll talk about determining whether you’re a contender or not, and then focus on keeper selection and trade options. In part two we’ll get to the hallmark of a good keeper league (at least for me) the hybrid keeper draft and how to prepare.
I’ll drop one big, fat caveat before we get much further – and this should come as no surprise, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it – the number of keeper spots in your given league has a massive impact on strategy. If you only keep two players, you’re in a glorified redraft league and should play it like that. If you keep ten or more players, maybe you should convert to dynasty and be done with it. This advice is best for those leagues somewhere in between, and it is meant to be fluid. Its weight will be different depending on your keeper number (and any other specific restrictions you may have.)
Are You a Contender?
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The first thing you do is decide where you stand – are you a contender, a dumpster fire or somewhere in between? And this can be a tough call to make when your keepers are limited. Here’s an exercise that can help you get a better view of your team. First, take a look at your roster and pencil in your keepers for next year. Then head over to the DLF Dynasty Rankings. You may not realize this, but if you click on any ranker’s name:
You can see their tier breaks along with all of their rankings and comments:
(One caveat is that the tier sizes and breaks are totally controlled by the ranker, and not all rankers include tier breaks at all.)
This can be exceedingly helpful in looking at the overall value of your keepers. Is there a ranker who tends to jive with your way of thinking? Take a look at their rankings and tier breaks, and match it against the keepers you penciled in earlier. Note all the numbers and take a look at what you’ve got. Here’s a real world example from a seven Keeper League of mine:
Is this a contending team or not? His running backs are one old guy and one still unproven young guy who may have some competition. He has some good assets at wide receiver, but maybe as many question marks as answers. I would say if everything fell his way and he had a great draft, he could contend. But personally I’d be looking to rebuild. When you have a limited number of keepers, each slot has to be as strong as possible if you want to compete. He has five keepers at tier 5 or lower, so it might be time to pull the plug. Otherwise he could find himself in the worst possible position in a keeper league – a middling roster that barely misses the playoffs and nets a bad draft pick for next year. Nobody wants that.
Now just looking at your roster may not be enough to make a decision, but in that case do the same exercise looking at the competition. Sometimes you have to see how you stack up against the real contenders in your league to make that call.
Hopefully this showed how useful this simple exercise can be. Looking at that team from afar, this owner might have thought stronger than the numbers say. It has some marquee names, but breaking it down rationally shows some real weakness.
Now that we know where we stand, let’s get to keeper selection and look at some trading options.
Keeper Selection and Trading – Contender
If you’re going to compete, you’re going to need to consolidate your strength in blue-chip studs. In a 12 team league, there are likely two-three teams with no chance, two-three teams that look like champs with their existing keepers, and then six teams or so in the middle. The worst thing you can be in a keeper league is average. Keeper “depth” doesn’t generally win you championships. If you have five keepers and they are all “very good” then you’re probably in trouble.
Established studs are held by owners with an iron grip, in most cases. (The exception to this is if you have rules in place that force player movement in some way. I’m not a fan of such limitations, and prefer keeper leagues that let you keep players indefinitely.) But there are ways around this. Here are a couple of things to try to acquire a stud or two if you don’t have any.
First, target teams on the decline. Maybe a team built around vets for one more run came up short, and has AJ Green and little else. See if you can swing a deal that either consolidates some of your “good” players or includes draft picks.
Also look at teams that are very top-heavy. Maybe someone has Deandre Hopkins and Antonio Brown but is having a hard time filling out his remaining keeper spots. Your depth might be enticing to such an owner.
One option often overlooked is trading some of your second tier talent for early picks. Maybe you have a strong team with a couple of studs and some other “very good” guys. See if you can move one of those “very good” guys to a weaker team in need. You may be able to net a stronger draft for yourself, which can be crucial (more on that in part two).
Don’t focus on filling positions. One mistake many keeper owners make is trying to fill as many starting positions as they can. In most leagues, you shouldn’t be keeping a quarterback unless he’s one of the top five at the position – and even that can be questionable. The same can be said for tight end, unless you’re a Rob Gronkowski owner, there’s a good chance you’re better off releasing that tight end of yours back into the pool. The story is the same with kickers and defenses. Defenses in particular are so difficult to gauge year to year that they aren’t worth precious keeper spots. There could be an argument for keeping Stephen Gostkowski if you’re strong everywhere else, but only if you’re fielding a team of studs.
On the other side of this, don’t keep six wide receivers if you can only ever start three. If you have that much depth at one position, it’s probably an opportunity for you to package up for a stud, or to find a trade partner hurting for that position.
Keeper Selection and Trading – Rebuilding
If there’s one way I see owners fail again and again in keeper leagues, it’s a failure to recognize when it’s time to rebuild, or even understanding that you CAN rebuild in a keeper league. Dynasty owners are very familiar with the concept, but there seems to be more reluctance in the realm of keeper leagues to just blow it up and start over. Well you can, and the strategy and concepts are the same.
First try to move your players for young players and picks. Much like you would in a dynasty, move your valuable vets for young guys if you can. One wrinkle in rebuilding a keeper team that often differs from real dynasty is that you CAN pry away young players that are up and coming but not all the way there. With limited keepers, teams don’t always have the space to continue to let guys develop. Think Melvin Gordon. He may be on a contending team that can’t afford a “maybe” in his keeper selections. You, on the other hand, are rebuilding and can take him on – and you can get guys like this without paying through the nose. Here’s an example of some actual moves I made while rebuilding my keeper team in the 2013-2014 off-season:
Gave Marshawn Lynch, ‘14 eighth round pick, ‘14 tenth round pick
Received Deandre Hopkins, ‘14 first round pick, ‘14 sixth round pick
Remember that Lynch was at the top of his game, and Hopkins was coming off a good rookie year. It was money in the bank for a rebuild.
Cruz and Davis were valuable assets to a contender. That first turned into Sammy Watkins.
Through my moves in the off-season, I went into the 2014 draft with three first round picks and two second rounders. By the end of that rebuilding season, I had Hopkins, Watkins, Mike Evans, Allen Robinson and Russell Wilson. I almost made the playoffs (in a rebuild) and won that same league the following year.
That is an extreme example of everything falling the right way (and that I rebuilt leading up to the perfect draft to have a lot of picks), but the point remains. Don’t forget you can rebuild in a keeper league. Holding down that “just missing the playoffs” spot does you no good. Prior to those moves, I kept thinking I was very close with Lynch and some of my other guys. Once I took a real, hard look at my squad, I saw what needed to be done. You can do the same.
Keeper leagues can be like the red-headed stepchild of fantasy, but I love the format. There are nuances about how it’s played that are different from both redraft and dynasty. Hopefully these suggestions I’ve given you can help you think about your keeper league differently. Take the time to analyze your roster critically before making your keeper decisions, and don’t settle for mediocrity. If you’re a contender, you need studs to win. If you’re not, you can and should rebuild. And remember that trading can work differently in a keeper league than it does in a true dynasty. Target those young guys that aren’t yet studs: Melvin Gordon, DeVante Parker or Kevin White. These are guys with untapped potential that turn expendable when keeper decisions are made. Target them with impunity.
Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for part two, where I’ll talk about my favorite aspect of keeper leagues: the Hybrid Draft.