This article is for anyone who showed up for a fantasy draft and suddenly felt like they jumped into a shark tank in a seal suit full of raw rib eye.
This article is for anyone who thought a passing knowledge of NFL starters, supplemented by a fantasy guide from a roadside Slurp ‘n’ Rob, would make them competitive in their league, then suddenly learned that their old friends had turned into statistic-spouting cyborgs. They say things like, “Peyton Hillis was available in the ninth round in 37.4 percent of PPR leagues this year,” instead of, “Hello.”
If you’re a casual fantasy gamer, heaven help you. The hardcore players have gone high-tech, subscribing to services that collate the results of 25,000 drafts and provide middle-of-the-night text messages with Michael Vick’s MRI results. But you don’t have to join ‘em to beat ‘em. A little knowledge and a lot of common sense can still beat a smartphone full of factoids.
Let this Fantasy Guide fill you in on what you need to know before drafting. You can get through the whole thing in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It's no substitute for a direct mind-meld with a fantasy supercomputer. But then, who really wants that?
Start the Draft Right
The first two rounds of a fantasy draft are a time for measured optimism and expectation management. You will acquire two outstanding players, just not the two you want.
Here’s a list of the players who will go in the first two rounds of nearly every fantasy draft on earth:
Running Backs: Ray Rice, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Trent Richardson, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, Fred Jackson.
Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton.
Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, Wes Welker, Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings, Marques Colston.
It’s a great list, but it is not an à la carte menu. You do not get your first or second choices, or even your third and 10th. In a 12-team league, you might get your fifth and 20th or eighth and 17th. That comes as an ice-water bath for even hardcore fantasy players, who enter the draft dreaming of a Ray Rice-Matt Forte backfield and leave with Michael Turner and Larry Fitzgerald.
Get comfortable with the compromises you will have to make in the first two rounds. You will come away fretting about Peterson’s injury, Chris Johnson’s inconsistency, Newton’s sophomore slump or Fitzgerald’s quarterback situation. Instead of wishing you had a pair of indestructible 1,800-yard rushers, plan to make the most of the players you did get. Here are some questions to ask yourself after two rounds:
Did you draft a pair of boom-or-bust running backs? Then grab that third running back, fast, as insurance.
Did you draft a pair of low-ceiling running backs? Then grab any big-time quarterbacks or receivers that are left, or be first in line at the tight end buffet. Michael Turner and Frank Gore can lull you into a false sense of security with long strings of 80-yard, maybe-a-touchdown games.
Did you draft a quarterback and a receiver? Then make peace with the fact that your second running back spot is going to be weak. Select some Settle Backs and Handcuffs and be ready to mix and match (more on this in a minute).
Once you get through the four or five rounds, you may feel like you are at a disadvantage to the folks who showed up with laminated three-color depth charts for all 32 teams. The next few segments are a who’s who of the middle rounds, a field guide to help you match production potential to names.
Once the stars are off the board, you will be forced to settle for these guys. Know what you are getting:
Ahmad Bradshaw is injury prone and has shared carries for most of his career, but is good for a lot of 60-yard, maybe-a-touchdown games, with some receiving value. He makes good bench insurance. Ditto for Pierre Thomas, who’s in a three-back committee but always ends up with 15 touches in the Saints offense. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have shared the job for years in Carolina, and each provides dependable low-wattage output. You can have one of these insurance policies on your roster, but you better not have all four.
Stevan Ridley appears to be the main back in New England, which means only about 50 yards per game but tons of touchdowns. Doug Martin is a high-upside rookie battling LeGarrette Blount in Tampa. Martin may be outperforming the top picks by season’s end. Be wary of Willis McGahee (Broncos), Shonn Greene (Jets) and BenJarvus Green Ellis (Bengals), who are only featured backs because no one better has come along to claim their jobs.
Ryan Mathews of the Chargers is recovering from a preseason collarbone injury. He may be back by Week 3, so don’t fall asleep on him. (Ignore his backup situation. That’s what Norv Turner is doing.) The Lions and Packers have no good running backs, so don’t speculate. Roy Helu is listed as the Redskins featured back, but Mike Shanahan changes backs like he changes socks, and the Redskins are loaded with alternatives.
No, we haven’t veered into “Fifty Shades of Grey” territory. A “handcuff” is the established backup to a superstar running back. When you draft the star, you start a ticking clock for the backup: You may want to pounce on him as injury insurance, or a rival might take him to handcuff you into making a trade when the star gets hurt.
Here is a list of the high-priority handcuffs, the ones worth selecting regardless of whether you took that team’s starter or not. Some fantasy experts take the handcuff strategy to illogical extremes, grabbing an unknown player off a depth chart and proudly trumpeting “I have Ray Rice’s backup! One injury and I am set!” Rice’s backup has not been selected, so that owner is just guessing. If you have no idea who the player is, don’t draft him.
Ben Tate gets lots of carries in the Texans’ run-heavy offense, even when starter Arian Foster is healthy. Rashad Jennings backs up Jaguars holdout Maurice Jones-Drew on a run-heavy team and is a capable back in his own right. Vikings grinder Toby Gerhart backs up Adrian Peterson, who is coming off an ACL tear. Isaac Redman of the Steelers is technically not a handcuff because starter Rashad Mendenhall is still on the mend from an ACL injury. Mendenhall’s recovery time may cause confusion in some leagues, so pounce on the bruising Redman if he slips through the early rounds.
Michael Bush of the Bears and Peyton Hillis of the Chiefs are halfway between handcuffs and “leech backs,” guys likely to score one-yard touchdowns after starters Matt Forte and Jamaal Charles march their teams down the field. Bush and Hillis are big guys who can also catch, giving them multi-purpose value. C.J. Spiller (Bills) and Jacquizz Rodgers (Falcons) are not really handcuffs, but they are very talented “change-ups” who make fine late-round speculation picks.
Beware the Big Names
Casual fantasy owners often draft established veterans too soon simply because they have name recognition. Doing so only ensures that you select a team that would have dominated your league in 2007.
Use extreme caution when selecting the following household names:
Peyton Manning has few receiving weapons and is a high injury risk. He is now a lower-echelon starter in fantasy football. Carson Palmer’s play started deteriorating years ago, and he looks lost in the new Raiders offense. He works best as a Bye Guy (see below). The Niners have been drafting and signing running backs for two years to reduce Frank Gore’s role. He is a No. 3 fantasy back who will be drafted with the ones and twos. Cedric Benson is worn down and was never that good to begin with. Let someone else pounce on him because he is the biggest name in a jumbled Packers backfield.
Randy Moss caught 28 passes for three teams when he last took the field two seasons ago. That tells you all you need to know. Donald Driver is now the fourth or fifth option in the Packers passing game. Reggie Bush is overvalued after a few big games in December. He’s the running back version of Owens and Moss.
Tony Gonzalez is a Time Lord, so feel free to draft him as your starting tight end. Just make sure the young superstars (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham) are already off the board.
There are plenty of good quarterbacks in the draft pool. If you pass on the top five or six guys, you will find the following solid values hanging around in the mid rounds:
Philip Rivers is a 30-touchdown threat who should rebound after a bad year. Jay Cutler has the best receiving corps of his career, and some owners may sleep on him because he’s coming off an injury. Matt Schaub is like Cutler, but with weaker receivers and an easier schedule. Speculators will pounce on Robert Griffin III, with good reason: he could throw for 20 touchdowns and rush for 10. RGIII is a rookie, of course, so the risk factor is high. Ryan Fitzpatrick throws a million passes per game and runs well, but the real reasons to draft him are in the next section.
If you do draft a Rodgers, Brady, Newton or Brees at quarterback, all you really want in a backup is someone who can be productive in the bye week. A “Bye Guy” is a so-so quarterback who has a favorable matchup during your starter’s bye week and works cheap. Here are some bye guy suggestions:
Ryan Fitzpatrick faces the Cardinals during the Brees-Newton bye week and the Patriots (a likely shootout) during Rodgers’ bye. Fitzpatrick is the Don Strock of fantasy backups, so he won’t come as cheap as some of these other guys.
Matt Cassel faces the Buccaneers during the Brees-Newton bye week and will be available near the end of the draft. Carson Palmer faces the Buccaneers during Brady’s bye. John Skelton faces the Rams during Stafford’s bye week and the Packers (another shootout) during Brady’s. Only a crazy person would make Skelton his top backup -- and only a Whisenhunt would make him a starter – but he could help you win a game as the Last Man Drafted.
After the first dozen wide receivers are off the draft board, you’re left with lots of very similar-looking players. There’s nothing worse than selecting a bunch of bland receivers who will catch four passes for 50 yards every week, catapulting you to eighth place in your league. Always have one eye on the upside when selecting receivers: You can always churn the waiver pool during the year if a gamble at this position doesn’t pay out. The following players may be second in their team’s plans, but they could become first in your heart.
Antonio Brown is a better overall talent than Mike Wallace, his higher-profile Steelers teammate. The sharks in your league know all about Brown, however. Julio Jones (Falcons) and Titus Young (Lions) are both second-year receivers with breathtaking talent on teams that throw tons of passes. Thanks to Roddy White and Calvin Johnson, neither Jones nor Young knows what double coverage looks like. David Nelson of the Bills is a 6-foot-5 specimen whom Fitzpatrick loves to look for in clutch situations. Eric Decker became a useless appendage in the Broncos’ Tebow offense because he specializes in catching quick, accurate passes. Peyton Manning is now his quarterback. Hakeem Nicks and Jordy Nelson do not fit this category because they will be drafted with the big boys. Nicks got hurt in Giants camp but should be fine for the season.
Avoid unsettled receiving situations for teams with questions at quarterback. There’s no reason to draft a Jets wide receiver at all, and you’re better off taking the fourth or fifth best Saints or Packers receiver than trying to figure out who will be the top guy for the Rams or Titans.
Pick the Right Defense
Someone will jump on the Jets defense in the sixth round. Don’t be that person. Wait until the final two rounds, then take your pick of great defenses that everyone has overlooked.
When it comes to defense, throw away the cheat sheet. Pick a team with a great pass rush that faces lousy divisional quarterbacks. The great pass rush forces the lousy quarterbacks to fumble or throw interceptions; hilarity and defensive touchdowns ensue. It’s that simple. A great punt or kick returner is a plus in leagues that lump special teams with defense.
The Bills Defense has a totally revamped pass rush and plays in a division with a rookie quarterback and the Jets. The Seahawks Defense has a great scheme and lots of young talent, and they face the Rams and Cardinals a total of four times. The Cardinals Defense is blitz-happy, faces the Rams and Seahawks offenses twice each, and features Patrick Peterson as return man. The Texans Defense is also blitz-happy and faces a bumper crop of iffy quarterbacks.
Enough about players and strategies! Here are three overarching tips for getting the most from your fantasy experience.
Use One Master Sheet: This is extremely important. Do all of your cross-offs on one sheet, and only one sheet. I have seen dozens of fantasy owners try to juggle a dozen sheets, lists and depth charts; they end up spending twice as much time organizing paperwork as thinking, researching or eating buffalo wings. The person with nine lists is also the one who gets mixed up and calls out “Matt Forte” in the 12th round.
Draft Players You Like: Seriously. You have to watch these players and root for them, so steer clear of your favorite team’s archrival or the guy who just got arrested for stealing teddy bears from the local preschool. Once you get past the first two rounds, there’s a comparable alternative for almost any player.
Have Fun: Your fantasy draft is not a battle to the death or a supplemental source of income. It’s just a few hours to talk football with your friends. The guys with the round-the-clock cell phone services turn it into another job. Come away from your draft with a dozen NFL players who will enhance your Sunday football experience. If you also earn some bragging rights and a little money, that’s a bonus.