Fantasy Football: How to draft a team that gets better by Week 1

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The set fantasy football lineup holds tremendous allure. It’s a gorgeous little thing, sitting there, weeks before the regular season kicks off. Gaze upon it, the living embodiment of your best-laid plans. 

You’ve donned your hardhat and made it from scratch. It’s yours, and it’s ready to infuriate your league mates, starting in September’s second week. All the podcast listening, all the reading, all the hours of considering player values and redraft strategies and potential pitfalls — it’s all done. You’re finished. 

To this, I say no. You’re not done. Two or three weeks before real games really happen, our game isn’t done shifting. Players continue to practice, they continue to play in preseason games, they continue to play a sport in which catastrophic, season-altering injury is always one play away. To pretend otherwise — to draft as if the NFL season starts tomorrow — ignores all this and prevents you from grabbing a competitive edge — however small — on your league mates. 

Below are some tips and tricks I’ve used in fantasy football drafts that end weeks before Week 1. You’ll reject some, you’ll laugh at others, but I’m deadly serious when I say these approaches have worked for me in leagues of every kind. These sneaky little strategies are designed to make your fantasy squad better as August wears on. 

Stop drafting kickers and defenses

Yes, I’m the kicker guy. I do that party trick where I evaluate weekly kicker options and recommend waiver wire pickups. The kids love it (they don’t). 

And yet, here I am, telling you not to draft a kicker if your fantasy platform of choice allows you to forgo the position. Curious! The same goes for a defense — take one if the draft site forces you to, then immediately drop the defense (and the kicker) to the wire. I don’t care if you have a crack at what you might consider a top defense or kicker. Resist the urge to fill the final spots in your beautiful roster. Remember: Kickers don’t matter. Neither do defenses. 

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Take running backs no one wants

If you consider yourself a purveyor of good players, this part might make you dry heave. 

What does one do if one does not draft a defense or a kicker? Simple: One picks up a couple of late-round running backs who might — just might — stumble into opportunity with a preseason injury or some other predictably unpredictable event. This assumes you didn’t burn a pile of early-round draft capital on the position, in which case this approach makes no sense. This doesn’t apply to wide receivers because the wide receiver position doesn’t work like that. Very seldom will a wideout with no fantasy appeal suddenly become an every-week starter because a fellow wideout is sidelined. 

I took this approach last year with Mike Davis. It was clear, per beat writer reports, that Davis had a lock on Carolina’s RB2 job and would take over as a three-down back if anything befell Christian McCaffrey. You know the rest of the story. Davis, it turned out, was more valuable than a final-round defense with a decent Week 1 matchup. Imagine that. 

Mike Davis #28 of the Carolina Panthers
Mike Davis paid serious fantasy dividends back when he was a Panther. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It worked way back in 2016 when Christine Michael — available in the waning rounds — started the year as Seattle’s every-down back thanks to a rash of injuries. Michael was fantasy’s 10th highest-scoring running back through the season’s first six weeks. Imagine that. In 2015, David Johnson, an 11th round pick, lit the world aflame after seizing Arizona's starting job. Johnson started five games and finished as fantasy's No. 7 running back. 

I’m forgoing kicker and defense for a bunch of potential workhorse backs in the vaunted Apex Writers League. I’ve rostered forgotten backs like Qadree Ollison, Matt Breida, Boston Scott, and Rhamondre Stevenson. Other frequent late-round RB targets include Chuba Hubbard, Justin Jackson, Tevin Coleman, Malcolm Brown, and Damien Williams

Why did I draft these RBs?

  • By every account, it would be Ollison who would serve as Atlanta’s primary back if Mike Davis were to miss time this season. The only thing standing between Ollison — a big back who’s drawn praise from head coach Arthur Smith this summer — and an early-down rushing role is 28-year-old Mike Davis, who has never had more than 165 rushing attempts in a season. 

  • Breida, meanwhile, is impressing Bills coaches and moved up the depth chart with Zack Moss’ recent hamstring injury. Breida had a dozen touches in Buffalo’s first preseason game against the Lions. Neither Moss nor Devin Singletary did anything in 2020 to hint they might dominate backfield touches for Buffalo. The forever-injured and blazing-fast Breida makes for an interesting late-round prospect in the Bills’ high-scoring offense. 

  • Scott has so far split first-team reps with Miles Sanders in Eagles camp, a development that might make Sanders truthers faint. Us late-round running backs drafters will send you flowers. The diminutive Scott got three starts for Philadelphia in 2020, seeing at least 15 touches in each contest. Scott has proven more than capable as a starting NFL running back. He should end up on the roster of any fantasy manager seeking a borderline back who could be a plug-and-play option should Sanders struggle with injuries again. 

  • Stevenson was summarily dismissed by many fantasy players after he missed early training camp practices with a non-football injury and was the subject of some harsh words from New England’s longtime running backs coach. He then shredded Washington’s second and third-team defense in the Patriots’ first preseason game to the tune of 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Sony Michel could be a late-August roster cut for the Pats, leaving Stevenson as the team’s early-down back should Damien Harris miss time. 

  • CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones reported last week that Jackson is locked in as the Chargers’ No. 2 back behind Austin Ekeler. This is a dash of some much needed — and much appreciated — clarity in a backfield where three guys could’ve been the No. 2. Jackson is a solid back with some pass-catching chops who should be among the most valued running backs taken in the final rounds. He could seize the means of rushing production if Ekeler goes down in 2021. 

  • With Coleman out for personal reasons, Ty Johnson got the start for Gang Green in the team's first preseason game and rookie Michael Carter — the No. 5 RB on the team’s depth chart — saw some first-half run. You don’t want to draft Coleman. I get it. But it appears he could get the first crack as New York’s lead back in a system with which he’s familiar. We can’t be too picky with the 55th RB off the draft board. 

  • Malcolm Brown could be the most boring pick in fantasy football this season. He’s a plodder mostly known as an intelligent and effective blocker who has decent enough hands. Dolphins coaches love Brown, who started the team’s first preseason game against the Bears. Brown logged 16 snaps with the Dolphins’ first-team defense to Myles Gaskin’s seven first-team reps. He could serve as the team's primary goal-line back. Here’s where I remind you we are beggars, not choosers, in the closing rounds of a draft. 

  • Hubbard, whose specialty in college was splash plays and thrilling runs, is set as Carolina’s No. 2 RB behind McCaffrey. The rookie posted 80 yards on seven carries in the team’s first preseason tilt Sunday against the Colts, ripping off a patented long run. He’s no stranger to heavy workloads either. As a sophomore at Oklahoma State in 2019, Hubbard shouldered 328 carries in 13 regular-season games and his 2,094 rushing yards led the nation. The former Canadian track star could be a borderline RB1 if CMC were unable to stay healthy in 2021. 

  • Williams is positioned for an immediate weekly role in the Bears offense with Tarik Cohen still recovering from his 2020 knee injury. Williams is an adept pass-catcher, evidenced by his usage and production in KC’s backfield two years ago (19 receptions in his final five games with the Chiefs). The Chicago Sun-Times’ Patrick Finley said Williams has been a “matchup nightmare” as a pass-catcher in training camp. And as you may or may not already know, he’s one nicked-up David Montgomery away from a starter’s workload — or something resembling it. 

Take it to the extreme

If you’re into the idea of fading defense and kicker to stock up on running backs who could fall into massive opportunity, you’ll love the next level of this little trick. 

Don’t draft any so-called onesie position — yes, that means quarterback, tight end, defense, and kicker. This allows you to maximize the number of RB lottery tickets whose fantasy value could skyrocket in the final weeks of August. 

This should probably be reserved for ten-team leagues, where a bunch of startable quarterbacks and tight ends are going to be sitting pretty on the waiver wire in the final days before the stats start counting. It’s in a 10-teamer that you’re more likely to find a Konami code quarterback on the wire when you’re ready to finally fill out your starting lineup — maybe Trey Lance or Justin Fields or Taysom Hill. That’s assuming, of course, your ten-team league mates don’t do the unforgivable and draft more than one QB. 

As for tight end, if you don’t draft one of the top four guys off the board, who cares? We always think we’ve identified a middle-round tight end exception and, right on time, we’re always wrong. Pick up a tight end in September who doesn’t have any competition for pass routes or targets and let it ride. Our game doesn’t have to be so hard. 

Shunning every onesie position will let you hoard running backs in the double-digit rounds. Robust RB drafters need not apply for this approach to building teams weeks before the regular season. But for those looking to capitalize on the weirdness of August, there’s no better way than to stockpile running backs to go along with your stable of elite receivers. 

While your roster won’t be nearly as pretty as the complete roster that dances in your head, it could be downright ravishing by opening day.

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