Your 2019 Fantasy Football Cliff Notes: Last-minute draft tips

This is it, the last weekend of fantasy football drafts. Some preseasons seem to lag on forever; I thought this one was more on the tidy side. But I’m definitely eager for the real games to start.

If you were headed to a draft and just had a few minutes for general advice, below is what I would tell you. I’ve written similar pieces in the past, and I will liberally borrow from them — some tips are evergreen, after all. But there’s also new content here.

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Sometime in the following 24 hours, I’ll release a more player-specific notebook, with the specific aim of helping you while I ruin my own personal draft weekend. My loss is your gain.

(As always, your mileage will vary, you know your league better than I do, and of course, it’s all contextual — that’s the understood disclaimer to any general discussion we have.)

The Forever Obvious Stuff

• You have to know your rules backwards and forwards. This is so blatantly obvious, I feel sheepish even saying it. But if you’re in as many leagues as I am, it’s not always obvious what the rules are. Do your homework. (And yes, Mark, this includes knowing what time your draft starts.)

There’s a corollary to knowing your league rules — make sure you know what your league’s free-agent rules and cadences are. Every season, someone will invariably say, “Wait, pickups started?” after the windows open. Sometimes I’m that guy. A detailed mobile calendar is mandatory in 2019, given how dynamic everyone’s life is. Don’t assume you’ll remember; make it so you can’t forget.

• A plan is good, but keep it in pencil. Stay flexible. The only unbreakable rule is no unbreakable rules.

• Listen to all you respect, but make your own decisions. It’s YOUR team. You’re the guy or girl who has to like it.

• Every year, the quarterback depth gets better and better. You can do well at any price point. I probably won’t go for the Patrick Mahomes tier, but I won’t try to talk you out of it. You will never feel stuck at quarterback, and it’s also the position you probably need to do the least amount of homework on.

• Sometimes a too-cute owner will stockpile quarterbacks with the idea that you can trade one from a position of strength. That rarely works, and the surplus is meekly cut soon thereafter. That’s going to be true again in 2019.

• There isn’t a ton we can learn from preseason, but I do care about two things: 1) Production and 2) When a player was on the field. Running with the starters is critical. The Steelers briefly misled some people before training camp, suggesting that James Conner’s workload might be scaled back. Then they hit the field and Conner goes 14-for-14 in first-team reps one night. Teams won’t always tell us the truth or even tell us anything, but their actions are screaming to us.

The Golden Rule

• Play fantasy football with a microscope, not a telescope. Play for Today. Look at the current slate and short lookaheads. We’ll worry about the playoff weeks later (hopefully, when we’re 6-2 and sitting pretty). It’s a mistake to try to win Week 15 in August. Win the first month. Win the first game. I can’t say this enough — so much is going to radically change. Live in the present.

If you’re insistent that Fantasy Playoff Schedules are a worthwhile thing, use them as a tie-breaker, only.

General Thoughts

• Any strategy can work if you pick the right players, but I want one of my first two picks to be a running back, if possible and if reasonable. There aren’t many bell cows, and the chances of getting a true RB1 after the first two-three rounds are not good. Volume is still the key to the fantasy kingdom.

• I draft almost completely blind to bye weeks. This ties in with the microscope/telescope tip. So much of my team is going to be turned over, dropped, traded, adjusted. On the rare occasions that I do consider a bye week, two general thoughts: 1) A later bye week beats an earlier one and 2) I like when teams are on a skinny bye (with a small group of teams) rather than a thicker bye (when roster problems are more likely to show). But again, bye weeks are almost irrelevant to our summer planning. We can worry about them later in the year.

• Projectable volume is the key to wide receiver selection. Maybe you see John Brown having three-five big games this year, but can you predict when they’re coming? Will you have the stomach to keep starting him — or even keep rostering him — if he hits a rough patch of two-three games? Target share is critical. A narrow usage tree is always nice, too. (Both of those points will point you to someone like Dede Westbrook.)

• I don’t draft into injury problems unless I get a significant discount. Some of you have heard me say this 1,000 times. Injury optimism is not your friend. I was out on Andrew Luck in 2017 (and sadly, this year). I was out on Doug Baldwin last year. Unless A.J. Green is priced at some ridiculous discount, he’s not on my 2019 board.

Scott Pianowski is out on A.J. Green this year. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Scott Pianowski is out on A.J. Green this year. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

• I don’t adjust online rankings in the draft room because I want to know what the other owners are looking at. But I will scribble down players I think are misranked, so I have them in mind; know where the buried treasure is. I’m also a frequent filler of the player queue. Make sure you’re thinking even when it’s several minutes away from your next pick.

• If I’m starting any kind of a new league, it’s a multiple-flex league where one of those flexes can also be a quarterback. So, basically, a two-QB league. I also like leagues that start a bunch of players and have modest benches — the more difficult choices a league asks me to make, the more I like it. And with heavy starting requirements, one outlier performance (good or bad) doesn’t automatically swing the result. (I had a good discussion about this with Evan Silva and Adam Levitan, about a week ago.)

• ADP has the most value when a draft starts, and it starts losing value quickly after that. You need to know what things reasonably might cost, but you can’t be a slave to it. And at some point early in a draft, the exercise should morph into “just get your guys.” If you’re going to overpay for something, let it be for someone you really believe in.

Around the time your draft becomes “just get your guys” is the same time it becomes “screw floor, get upside.” The fewer starters required in your league, the more upside is critical. I actually do run a fair amount of leagues that are so deep with starters, floor also creeps into the middle and later rounds. I like leagues where a single and a double have value; it isn’t just home-run hunting. But I suspect most of your formats are going to be ones where upside rules the day. Yes, I love a sturdy floor in the early rounds. But that flies out the window quickly.

• Some leagues are more playable than others, but I generally look to get tons of value on draft night, being somewhat position-agnostic. I’ll look to balance things later. Occasionally, I might be in a format where this doesn’t make sense (and obviously in Best Ball, you only get one shot at roster construction). But mostly, I just want to pound the draft as well as I can and get the most amount of stuff.

That point established, I do think it’s often a mistake to construct a roster that is in desperate need of a trade to balance it out unless you know your leaguemates well and are confident trading will be easy to do.

• Here’s how I feel about rookies in general: I’m open to drafting any rookie running back; I’m willing to consider the case on a rookie quarterback; I’m generally leery of rookie wideouts (the insane 2014 rookie crop gave many the wrong takeaway going forward); and I expect very little from rookie tight ends. And anytime a rookie wideout or tight end has a reasonable first year, I’m generally thrilled to draft them the ensuing season.

• I want a fast start. I want leverage. I want to be aggressive early with waivers. And I view bye weeks as a fantastic opportunity to improve my winning chances, both short-term and long-term. (Your first extensive league audit should coincide with the first bye week, Week 4.)

• I like to put at least one “points scored” team in the playoffs, manually, no matter the won/loss record. Yes, Yahoo’s game allows the commish to do this.

• If you can find someone who shares your NFL world-view, partnering up is practically a cheat code. And you’ll always have someone else who cares about your team, and someone to share the grunt-work with. (If you’re not going to have a co-owner, at least identify two-three good friends you can discuss stuff with, privately. We all need someone to hash stuff out with; to talk us out of an occasional bad idea; to tell us the truth, as they see it, in blunt terms.)

Fantasy Football Draft Kit
Fantasy Football Draft Kit

• Clear your mind as much as you can before the draft. Make sure every little household nuance is resolved before you step into the chair. Try to get to the draft room well in advance, too. (Do you play your best golf when you arrive at the course three minutes before the tee time? I sure don’t.)

• The day of the draft, I like to visualize how I think it might go, or what an ideal draft might feel like. Not only is this not written in pen — I don’t even write it down. It’s just a way to open my mind to possibilities.

• As soon as the real games start, I’ll divorce myself from preseason thoughts quickly. Consider the new information. Play the new position. Anchoring old opinions tied to dated information is the ultimate dinosaur move. Play For Today is as much about not looking back as it is not looking too far ahead.

• Pick a team name that makes you happy (didn’t we learn this from Boogie Nights?). Maybe it’s something related to your kids or your pet. Maybe it’s a private joke. You’re going to look at it for the next four months. We take the small wins where we can.

It’s the best draft pocket of the year, amigos. Seize the day.

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