"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success" – Alexander Graham Bell
Ah, draft night! Everyone arrives with a stack full of resources, cold beer and a head crammed with countless player names – and maybe a phonetic pronunciation guide so you don't butcher T.J. Houshmandzadeh's name. You take a seat beside your buddy and talk about life, family and whether Jessica Alba or Eva Longoria is hotter. Then it begins. Your heart rate increases. Your leg begins to nervously twitch. And you pray to some higher power that Lamont Jordan falls to you at pick eleven – did you prepare?
Every fantasy football expert will tell you that building a championship team begins and ends on draft day. Widely accepted as the most popular of fantasy sports, football can be the easiest to dominate by following simple draft guidelines and strategies. Below is a comprehensive list of ten drafting tips in order for you to tower over your feeble-minded opponents en route to capturing the gridiron gold.
The tips below are based on the following yardage based scoring system:
6 points for every receiving/rushing touchdown
4 points for every passing touchdown
1 point for every 10 receiving/rushing yards
1 point for every 20 yards passing
Tip 1 – Running Back Wild
Running backs are the quintessential cornerstone for winning any fantasy championship. Some publications and websites will tell you time and time again to take the best player on the board, but if it's not a running back in the early rounds, don't buy it. In order to win in standard leagues, you must draft two solid backs in the first two rounds, period. If you have a drafting conundrum and you have to decide between Randy Moss and Domanick Davis, go running back. If you find yourself in a bind in the middle rounds, pondering whether you should take Cedric Benson or a second marginal receiver a la Drew Bennett, go running back. If you are drafting in the late rounds and you think you need a backup quarterback, take a fifth running back instead. Running Backs get the touches – typically 150 per year or more than wide receivers – gain the yards, and score the rushing touchdowns more often than any other fantasy football position. Their trade value is worth their weight in gold and with injuries happening to major players every season, stockpiling them in August will fill your inbox with trade offers come November.
Tip 2 – Quarterback Restraint
Every year someone in your draft-room gets overly excited for the services of the fragile and erratic Michael Vick. And every year they get burned. Fantasy championships can be won with a mediocre second- or third-tier quarterback. Trust me. Six years ago I won my 14-team league championship with Jon Kitna, who completed more passes to safeties rather than receivers in 2000. Using my draft strategy won't net you the perceived top tier, but after Round 7, several high upside players like Kurt Warner, Drew Brees and Jake Delhomme will probably be available and are the perfect complement to any strong running back tandem. Last season, the top three gunslingers, Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady averaged 17-19 points per week. Meanwhile, later draft day selections, Drew Brees, Jake Plummer and Drew Bledsoe notched totals around 15 points per week. Not that big of a difference. Concentrate on selecting solid running backs and wide receivers instead with your first four picks and pounce on quarterback values later in your draft.
Tip 3 – Overpaying for Wideouts Equals Fantasy Fallout
Other than leagues that score points per reception, the earliest a wide receiver should be selected is with your Round 3 pick. Several of your opponents will think that landing Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, or Torry Holt is the ultimate coup early in the draft. Don't be that guy. Wide receivers, unlike running backs, are consistently inconsistent. They are a rollercoaster ride of boom and bust that can only be trusted for weekly maximum performance against weak secondaries, or in prolific passing offenses. Case in point, the top five receivers of 2005 – Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Santana Moss, Chad Johnson, and Joey Galloway – averaged 4.4 games of 75 yards or less with zero touchdowns. Outside of Willis McGahee, Willie Parker and Reuben Droughns, no other top 15 running back totaled more than four remedial games. Remember, a good WR will average seven plus targets per game, compared to a versatile back that accumulates 25-35 touches each Sunday. Focus on receivers who yield a high YAC (Yards After Catch), get a large number of looks and are involved in pass-happy offensive philosophies. Anquan Boldin, Reggie Wayne and Donald Driver all fit the bill, and are superior values for Rounds 3-5.
Tip 4 – If His Name Ain't Gates, Wait
Last year, one of the owners in my local 12-team league drafted Tony Gonzalez with his Round 3 pick. Just to refresh everyone's fogged memories, Gonzo managed to stay healthy, but finished seventh among tight ends and 166th overall, averaging a disappointing 5.9 points per week. Last season, only Antonio Gates broke the century mark in total fantasy points scored, finishing 70th overall. Other than the superfluous Gates, tight ends are the most overrated position in fantasy football. Instead of jumping the gun early, hold off and select a Vernon Davis or Zachary Hilton after Round 9. Remember where Chris Cooley was drafted last season? Where did he finish? That's right, fifth at his position. Like closers in baseball, they can wait.
Tip 5 – Always Carry Handcuffs
If you are a veteran of fantasy football you know that when a starting RB is injured everyone combs the waiver wire for the successor like Dracula in search of virgin blood. Avoid the pain and suffering of a possible devastating injury to your fantasy team and draft their backups in the mid-to-late rounds. Carolina's DeAngelo Williams, Detroit's Brian Calhoun, and Dallas' Marion Barber should be hogtied, super-glued, welded, to DeShaun Foster and the Joneses. Acquiring brittle backs and not handcuffing their back-ups is going to battle without a sword. Just ask every Priest Holmes owner from 2005. Play it smart and pick up the second in command.
Tip 6 – Rookie QBs and WRs are a Brain Tease
Just because the Vince Youngs of the world go high in the NFL draft doesn't mean they are draftable. The quarterback position has an incredible development curve that forces inexperienced players to adjust to a new level. When Peyton Manning was thrown into the NFL fire as a rookie in 1998 he averaged a sensational 233.7 YPG and 1.53 passing TDs per game, but his 28 interceptions were brutal. Arguably the best rookie campaign by an NFL quarterback was in 1983 by "Mr. Isotoner" Dan Marino. That season Marino played eleven games – he started nine – and averaged 200.9 YPG, while totaling 20 TD passes with 6 INTs. Marino and Peyton were very rare commodities when they transitioned from the college to the pro game. Likewise for receivers, only Anquan Boldin and Michael Clayton have eclipsed the 1,000-mark in their initial campaigns over the past five years. In general, most rookie quarterbacks and receivers take roughly two-to-three years to adjust to the fast-paced NFL style. Using this mode of thinking makes drafting an experienced Samie Parker over a Santonio Holmes sensible. Avoid the temptation.
Tip 7 – Defense and Kickers are Great Late
Two years ago in my 14-team league, a close friend of mine – impaired by obvious mental deficiencies – selected the Tennessee Titans defense in Round 3. Unless you want to be viewed by your league-mates as an individual of questionable intellect, never, ever, select a defense or kicker until at least Round 10. Sure, a kicker of Neil Rackers proportions, or a tenacious defense like the Bears can sometimes make all of the difference in any given week. However, in most leagues, a predominant number of defenses, and especially kickers, score marginal points on a weekly basis. Employing a streaming tactic for defenses can also be very beneficial. This entails picking up a defense with a favorable matchup off waivers and plugging them into your lineup. Last season, two of the worst fantasy defenses, the Raiders and Saints, each compiled killer weeks against a bumbling Bills offense. If you do your homework weekly, you can reap major benefits without having to waste an early pick. When everyone's reaching for the Seattle defense in Round 10, you can concentrate on adding depth to your primary positions.
Tip 8 – Don't Sing the Bye Week Blues
How many times have you sat in a draft and realized midway through that both of your starting running backs and your quarterback have the same bye week? Usually, excessive amounts of explicit remarks ensue, followed by nausea and an uncontrollable urge to vomit. How do you solve this? Always take the best player on the board in any situation, but if you can, try to avoid selecting too many players with the same bye week. In many instances, when owners suffer from the bye week blues they simply mail-in a loss, or desperately scour a bare waiver wire in search of a suspect replacement. Draft day is the time to address bye week conundrums. All it takes is one game to squash your hopes of a championship run. Be prepared, have a list of each NFL team's bye weeks next to you on draft day.
Tip 9 – Understand Coaching Philosophies
Denny Green loves to pass, Bill Cowher loves to run and Brian Billick depends on a hard-nosed defense. Clearly, understanding the basic offensive schemes a team implements can correlate into fantasy success. For example, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz plans on instituting a spread offense that made the Rams the "Greatest Show on Turf." What does this mean? Jon Kitna could be very serviceable in a system required to throw a number of balls downfield. With an established pass catcher in Roy Williams and two young, athletic receivers in Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, and a very good running attack spearheaded by Kevin Jones, Kitna could be in store for a resurgent season based on the peripherals. Should you depend on him as your QB1 like I did six years ago? Only if you enjoy the thrills of nude recreational cliff diving. All jokes aside, the system makes him a potential 20-TD late-round backup. It's these type of wee-hour surprises that makes owners chumps or champions. Reading up on each team's offensive philosophies will give you an edge on draft day by letting you know who will put up the points and who won't.
Tip 10 – Plan Ahead
In 2005, Thomas Jones and Ricky Williams were difference makers during the fantasy playoffs. Did you have them? Both were mid-round draft picks at best last season that led many owners to prominence. Why did they outperform top names like LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James and LaMont Jordan when it counted the most? Simply put, because of matchups. In the salary cap age of the NFL it takes at least a couple of seasons for team defenses to rebuild. This means that teams that are typically bad against the run last season will sing the same sad song this year. Since 2003, Oakland, Houston, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Cleveland have all ranked in the bottom ten in defending the run. Since the Indianapolis Colts play at Jacksonville, Cincinnati and at Houston in weeks 14-16, Dominic Rhodes – my pick to land the starting job – and rookie sensation Joseph Addai should be upgraded on draft day cheat sheets due to their favourable late-season slate. Prior to draft day, grab a schedule and peruse the most important weeks of the fantasy season. Planning ahead and exploiting matchups may be all the difference you need when it counts the most.
Whether you step into a draft room physically or virtually, always remember that draft night should be fun, exciting, and entertaining. If you plan on talking smack, back it up with a simple draft plan. By following the tips described above, you are one giant step ahead of the competition!