The NFL season is fast approaching, and many people are starting to draft for their fantasy teams. The draft is the most important day of a re-draft, season long fantasy league, which is probably what most of you guys are playing. I’m not a fan of drafting before at least some preseason games are played to cut down on injury risk. The temptation to run a few is very strong, though. Regardless, here are a couple tips to help you win your drafts, and hopefully, your fantasy league with it.
1. Overemphasize the Running Backs
In general, this should be common knowledge for seasoned fantasy players. For the newbies out there, the number of elite running backs is by far the smallest of any position in terms of how many you actually need. In standard leagues, you need at least two running backs every week. You also have a flex where you could slot an RB in if you are so lucky. That’s three RBs you need in all of your drafts, minimum. The talent pool of tight ends is smaller, but considering you only need one, running back is really the scarcest position.
200 points is kind of a general indicator of an elite season for your skill positions (non-QBs). Even in a half point PPR, only eight running backs hit that mark, with three more coming close with 190. Compare that with 13 wide receivers, and again an additional three were in the 190s. Another sort of benchmark to hit could be 10 points per game. If all of your guys can at least get double digits usually you’re doing alright. 41 WRs hit that mark, compared to 30 RBs (among players that played at least half a season).
Whether it’s the top end or depth, WRs outstrip RBs by a decent amount. That’s why you need running backs, and this is even more pronounced in standard non-ppr leagues. Even for more experienced players, the advice here is OVERemphasize. We often fall in love with one or two hot WR names. That causes us to skip running back here or there. Be extremely careful with that.
Really look at the WR position, and look at those guys in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. Usually, there won’t be many viable running backs, but there will be quite a few nice WRs in that range. This year for example (using Yahoo Rankings), you can get WRs like Odell Beckham Jr in the sixth round. On the other hand the running backs here are in timeshares that could be 50/50 splits or worse. Trey Sermon, Javonte Williams and Leonard Fournette are all examples.
To make things clear, unless you have an ironclad plan to get running backs later, like you’re going to reach multiple rounds to fill your RB quota and you feel confident in these guys, two of your first three picks pretty much HAVE to be running backs. Don’t forget in case of bye weeks and injuries, you probably want three playable RBs. If there are only 30 RBs that are getting over 10 points a game, there simply isn’t enough of them in a 12 team league for everyone to have three. Don’t be one that doesn’t.
2. Don’t Pay a Premium on QBs
There are tiers of QBs, and within tiers they are pretty similar. Last year, the gap between QB 1 and QB 6 was 33 points, which is about two points per game. Then the gap between QB 7 and QB 11 was another 30 points. Finally, the gap between 12 and 16 was 25 points. Essentially, as long as you are in one of the tiers, it doesn’t really matter where you are within that tier. They are going to score around the same.
Of course knowing which QB will be in which tier is the hard part. Using data from the past nine years, I found that on average just one quarterback that finished in the top five finished there again the next year. QB is a very high variance position, and it isn’t uncommon at all for guys you would never think to finish in the top five to do just that. Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston have been top five QBs in the past, to use some examples.
It’s usually not too hard to predict which 12 guys will be in the usable QB range. Nine of the top 12 finishing QBs were in the first 12 QBs taken in last year’s drafts. Two of those three misses were due to injury that couldn’t really be foreseen. Where they end up tier-wise though is pretty much impossible to guess. Even guys that people thought would be locks to finish high like Lamar Jackson, didn’t. On the flip side, Aaron Rodgers was the 10th QB drafted, and Josh Allen was the 11th, and they finished up third and first respectively.
Using a high pick on a QB doesn’t work out more often than not. Year to year there can be such massive differences in QB play. As long as you get one of the first 12 guys drafted, you can be pretty safe, and trying to predict much farther than that is random enough that it’s not really something to rely on. Why use a crucial fourth rounder on Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson (where they are currently ranked in Yahoo) when Ryan Tannehill (who beat Jackson last year) can be had in the seventh or eighth in most drafts?
The one exception in my opinion is Patrick Mahomes. More than any other QB, his talent, team and coach makes him a guarantee to finish in the first tier.
3. If You’re Not First, Be Last On Tight End
Somewhat similar to the QB discussion, Tight ends are even more bunched up than pretty much any other position outside of the top two. The difference between TE 3 and TE 12 was just 32 points. You can even go back a couple more guys and the difference really isn’t that much bigger. In a half-PPR they are all scoring between seven and nine points, and splitting hairs on those guys is pretty pointless.
So, unless you are getting one of the best tight ends, you should probably be waiting until rounds 10-15 to draft your tight end. Maybe a little earlier, but any sooner than that and it’s going to be nearly impossible for that pick to actually return value.
In 2021, the three tight ends worth picking before the end are Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle. That’s pretty much the list. You might want to take guys like T.J. Hockenson, Mark Andrews or Tyler Higbee higher, like in rounds 4-7. Don’t do it. Even if they end up TE 4, as we can see it basically doesn’t matter. Those guys aren’t going to outscore Mike Gesicki (ranked 116 overall) by anywhere near enough to justify that massive round differential, if they outscore him at all.
4. Play it Safe in Your First Three Rounds
The top 36 of basically all drafts are essentially set in stone. It’s pretty much going to be the same guys taken each time. The order can change, but it usually won’t be by much more than like 5-7 spots. Not only that, but most of the 36 guys are going to be fantasy starters. For instance in the overall scheme of things, would it have mattered that much if you had Adam Thielen versus Mike Evans or Allen Robinson, who were all drafted in the third round last year? They all got you 13 or 14 points per game after all. All of this is to say, you can’t really win a season in the first three rounds of you drafts.
You absolutely can LOSE a season in your first three rounds however, if you pick a bust. It did matter if you picked Austin Ekeler over someone like Aaron Jones or Clyde Edwards-Helaire over Derrick Henry. Of course, many busts are hard to see coming. If it was obvious they would bust, they wouldn’t be ranked in the top 36. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any signs.
Rookies are usually much more risky than established players. For every super high rated rookie you have that absolutely smashes it, you have a few that don’t live up at all to their position. That could be an instant loss. Najee Harris is soaring up draft boards, and the higher he gets the riskier he becomes. Is he definitely going to outscore RBs like Miles Sanders or Chris Carson, who are proven NFL talents ranked below him? No, and he could easily bust.
Guys that are very talented but injury prone are another group to stay away from. Injuries are the biggest sources of busts in drafts. Taking risks on guys like Ekeler (small running backs) or perhaps even Saquon Barkley (missed 17 of his last 32 games) could be asking for trouble.
Finally, guys that looked like they had gaudy numbers but were actually propped up on just a few incredible weeks (guys like Tyler Lockett or Cam Akers pre-injury) are also risky. There’s almost always going to be guys with similar upsides to these people, and with much higher floors. If you don’t draft a bust in your first three picks, you always have a fighting shot. If you do, that could be your season ending right then and there.
5. Don’t Waste Picks on Low Upside Guys Late In Drafts
For this tip, I’m specifically talking about rounds in the back half of drafts, like rounds nine or ten and on. In these rounds, there are names like Marquise Brown, or Mike Williams. These guys are all veteran wide receivers that simply don’t have much hope to be amazing in fantasy. They could be steady guys, maybe score you ten points at best here or there. The problem is, realistically you are pretty much never going to use them.
By round ten, if you’ve been following the rest of the advice here, you probably have 7-9 RBs and WRs with maybe a QB or TE. Since you only play five RBs/WRs in a standard league, you already have AT LEAST two back ups to cover bye weeks, injuries or to possibly compete for starting spots. These backups are likely better than Marquise Brown or Mike Williams. So when will you ever use these two guys? Or guys like them? You would need a ridiculous rash of injuries to hit all at the same time, and if five of your first nine picks go down I think you just take the L.
The chances of guys like these popping off and finishing in the top 24 receivers is slim to none, and this type of player ends up being dime a dozen on the waiver wire. It’s much better to use these picks on guys you might actually use because they have ultra high ceilings.
DeVonta Smith is around this range, and while it’s not likely, since we know nothing about him except he was one of the greatest college WRs ever, who’s to say he won’t have a Justin Jefferson type season? Or, if Carson Wentz somehow returns to MVP form, one of the Indianapolis Colts receivers like Michael Pittman Jr. is probably going to be a top fantasy play.
Even handcuffs, which I’m personally not a huge fan of, like Alexander Mattison are one injury away from being a starting RB. The point is those three guys I named all have a potential to be great. There’s almost no universe where Marquise Brown, who was WR 46 when his QB was the MVP, finishes in the top 24.