When you’re playing a different game, it’s easier to win.
Instead of drafting your starters first, build depth first. Instead of reaching, take value that falls. Instead of targeting overhyped sleepers, plan for inevitable busts. Instead of trying to dominate the draft, let everyone else beat themselves.
Despite its namesake, a standard league calls for an approach that is anything but. What follows is a position-by-position look at how to approach fantasy football in its purest form.
Quarterback Approach: Leave Room for Upside
In many respects, fantasy drafting boils down to a game of supply and demand. Not just supply of players to draft, but also supply of potential outcomes. One ideal scenario is drafting a player late who ends up worthy of a much higher pick, which is more likely to happen at QB than any other position. Here’s what I’m getting at: by the numbers, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are worth second-round picks. But while it seems like Rodgers and Brady have huge upside, drafting them in the second round essentially offsets most of that upside. A late-round QB would have more upside in the true sense of the word, in that he could greatly outperform his draft cost.
The middle tier of QBs can be tempting, but Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger are all capable of inexplicable road woes; Matt Ryan is primed for regression; the health of Andrew Luck’s shoulder has been a mystery all summer.
Late in the draft is where you want to pounce. At least four of Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford and Carson Palmer will be drafted outside the top 12, sometimes as late as the 10th round. And unlike other positions in standard scoring, QB is relatively predictable. You should be able to have success swapping QBs in and out based on matchup; QB fantasy scoring spikes when playing in home games and/or when his team is the favorite.
Running Back Approach: Aggressively Stockpile
They don’t get paid as much as they used to, but elite RBs are still money in the bank in standard fantasy leagues: the position has accounted for 21 of the top 25 fantasy seasons by non-QBs over the past five years. Each season featured 230 fantasy points or more. If your fake football team ends up without one of these RB seasons, your odds of winning the league take a big hit. But if you somehow end up with two? You probably run away with it.
Workload volume has a strong correlation to fantasy points, so it’s no surprise that one of the main indicators of a 230-point RB season was 300 or more touches (18.8 per game). In fact, pretty much any RB that gets starter-type carries is valuable to some degree in fantasy. Standard scoring demands that you put any biases aside and indiscriminately draft RBs with pulses and weekly roles. It’s the high-demand/low-supply position that you draft bench players for before you pick a starting QB or TE.
Have a top-two pick this season? Don’t think twice—David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell is your guy. Johnson’s 327.9 fantasy points last season were the most by any non-QB since Chris Johnson in 2009. Bell’s 242.4 fantasy points last season marked the only time a RB has topped 240 in under 13 games since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.
Once Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones are off the board, the next tier of RBs includes Jay Ajayi, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Jordan Howard, DeMarco Murray, Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy. Pairing one with A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson, Michael Thomas, Dez Bryant or T.Y. Hilton would give you an elite RB-WR combo that not many teams will have. Doubling up on two of those RBs is also an option; there’s plenty of No. 1 fantasy WR upside in the third round.
Because you want maximum upside, the RBs to avoid are those that don’t have a realistic path to 300 touches, such as Ty Montgomery, Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick. Goal-line work is also paramount, so Ameer Abdullah is a shaky pick as well despite his talent.
As the draft progresses, don’t let up. Every starting RB is valuable, but the average drafter allows primary early-down backs like Rob Kelley, Jonathan Stewart, and Terrance West to slip to the ninth round. Even if your league starts three WRs, there’s nothing wrong with coming out of the ninth with five RBs and four WRs; the 4for4 WR projections have six WRs ranked in the top 48 who have an average draft position in the 10th round or later.
The more RBs you have on your roster, the better prepared you will be for injuries and busts, which tend to afflict the position more than others. RBs also tend to be the highest-value trade chips in standard leagues.
Handcuffing, or drafting the backup to one of your starting RBs, is generally not recommended unless it’s a clear cut situation where the backup would inherit a feature-back role on a solid offense. If not, you want to make better use of that roster spot.
Wide Receiver Approach: Target Touchdown Upside
WR is the position where you can really play a different game.
Since many WRs average similar yardage totals, TDs become a major deciding factor in which WRs end up higher up fantasy leaderboards. For example, the 30 WRs who averaged 50 to 70 yards per game last season ended up with anywhere from 6.3 to 10.7 fantasy points per game. The top 15 scored a TD every two games while the bottom 15 scored a TD every four games.
The thing about TDs is they fluctuate a lot in the short-term, tricking us into thinking a receiver’s “true” TD rate is the one from his most recent season. But this can be beneficial in fantasy because these receivers are often undervalued, and large short-term fluctuations mean the positive jumps will be highly valuable in fantasy.
Also, we have data that can tip us off as to which receivers are likely to score more TDs over the long term. One of the main leading indicators is playing with a QB who throws a lot of TDs, such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, etc. Red zone targets and deep targets also have elevated TD expectations.
With little differentiating many of the WRs in the middle rounds, there’s great incentive to emphasize TD upside above all else. In 2017, that means targeting Martavis Bryant, Willie Snead, Randall Cobb, Tyrell Williams, Donte Moncrief, Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall and Ted Ginn.
Tight End Approach: Gronk, Eifert or Play Matchups
Early-round TEs present the same dilemma as QB, but if Rob Gronkowski hits his ceiling, he would outscore others at his position by a more significant margin than a top QB would. Gronk is getting somewhat of an injury discount after going at the first/second-round turn last season, yet had a healthy offseason for the first time in what seems like forever.
Whereas Gronk is being drafted lower, on average, than he has in seasons past, the average draft positions of Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen are higher than they’ve ever been. Given the standard format, Tyler Eifert in the sixth round is the best non-late value; he has 18 TDs in his past 21 games.
Of course, waiting until late is always a sound approach at a one-starter position. Like WR, you want to emphasize TD upside, which for TEs skews heavily toward playing at home. TEs being drafted outside the top 12 include four who played with one of the five QBs who threw 30+ TDs last season: Austin Hooper (Matt Ryan, 38), Coby Fleener (Drew Brees, 36), Antonio Gates (Philip Rivers, 33) and Jack Doyle (Andrew Luck, 31).
DST/Kicker Approach: Draft for Week 1
If you thought kicker and defense were unpredictable, think again. As point-spread favorites, defenses have historically scored over 33% more fantasy points per game than when they’re underdogs. And kickers have scored 13% more fantasy points per game when their team is the favorite. Since many fantasy owners aren’t aware of this, they end up starting the same defense and kicker every week, even in bad matchups. Instead, simply draft these positions based on Week 1 matchup.