Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Tips to Guide You to a 2014 Fantasy Title
If you are like the millions of fantasy football fanatics out there, the next two months on your calendar are going to make or break your year. It is draft prep time, and you need to use this time wisely to study the right things.
We outline some of the biggest and best fantasy rules of thumb that can guide you to a fantasy football title in 2014. Use these as a guide to set up what you research, scout and watch this preseason.
We don't get into the minute details of breaking down player versus player as much as giving you big-picture strategies and categories to hone in on which players you might like to target come draft day. There is more than one right way to draft a fantasy football champion. We merely give you the framework here.
Wait to Draft Your Starting Quarterback
This is the most often issued advice by fantasy writers for readers and the most often ignored one. Every fantasy analyst mock draft shows how late you can get productive quarterbacks, but novices always eschew the common sense of waiting on their quarterback and reach for one too early.
Cue the broken record: Productive fantasy quarterbacks can be had in the late rounds. Wait on the position.
We get the temptation to pick your quarterback early. Peyton Manning is coming off an incredible season, Drew Brees seems like he will pass for 5,000 yards every year until he's 50, and Aaron Rodgers is due to rebound into an NFL MVP candidate this year. Heck, quarterback is the highest-scoring position in fantasy. You don't want to screw that spot up.
But, we have to remind you Andy Dalton—yes, that guy—was the third-highest scoring quarterback last year with his 33 passing touchdowns. He is ranked 17th in FantasyPros.com's consensus among analysts. Dalton should just now be entering his prime at age 26 and his fourth season—a contract year, no less.
OK, so you don't like Dalton. We don't necessarily this year either, especially with Hue Jackson potentially limiting his passes, according to Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official website.
Philip Rivers was sixth last year among quarterbacks. He is 15th in the above consensus. You can assume his offense will only get better in his second year in the system and further maturation from rookie surprise Keenan Allen.
Throw in Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton (maybe not with those wide receivers), Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Russell Wilson and even Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is rarely drafted as anything more than a fantasy backup. He was eighth in fantasy scoring last year.
After Peyton Manning, Brees and Rodgers, there are a dozen quarterbacks or more who can average 20-23 fantasy points per game. There is not much to choose among them.
Wait until Rounds 8 and 9, and double-barrel the important quarterback position with a pair from the top 15. Don't ignore this advice this year.
Don't Bother Drafting 30-Year-Old Running Backs
We understand your loyalty to what has worked in the past. You want to go back to the well year after year with veterans you can trust. Understand this: Drafting old running backs does not work.
Running back is a kid's position. You want to pick backs between the ages of 24-27, regardless of their workload.
Even if a 31-year-old back like Gore or the Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams doesn't look like he is slowing down, he is at risk for injury. They can slip in the draft because of their age, and you should still look away for that reason.
Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush, Rashad Jennings and Pierre Thomas are other running backs dangerously close to 30. Forget about the Atlanta Falcons' Jackson or the Philadelphia Eagles' Sproles—even in those potentially explosive offenses. They are too old to be counted on for a rebound.
Father Time is undefeated, especially when it comes to running backs.
Top Rookies Tend to Be Overrated; Draft Rookies Late
Blame the NFL draft media spectacle. Blame the increasingly bright lights of major college football. First-year NFL players just don't measure up in fantasy football.
Hype and name recognition get fantasy football's rookies picked earlier than projected production warrants. We broke down some rookies to avoid in drafts earlier this week at Bleacher Report, attacking some of the biggest names and talents from this May's draft.
Frankly, avoid them all. They are more bust than breakout, particularly the ones drafted the earliest.
You might be lamenting the fact you didn't have Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard or Keenan Allen a year ago. Don't allow those exceptions to rule you on draft day. All we have to do is remind you Allen wasn't drafted a year ago.
Even the best of the rookies can start slow like those guys did last year. You can pick productive rookies off waivers if not trade for the drafted ones fairly easily after slow starts.
Lacy had just 15 carries for 51 yards through the first two weeks. Bernard had just 12 for 60. Allen had three catches for 30 yards.
While you can imagine the possibilities from a Bishop Sankey for the Tennessee Titans, you are better off waiting and stockpiling rookie backs late. The late-round, scatter-shot, shotgun approach tends to be better than putting expensive rookie eggs in your fantasy basket early.
Those are a lot of mixed metaphors. Fantasy football rookies are like those too: overplayed.
Second- and Third-Year Players Are Your Best Breakouts
So the natural progression from saying fantasy football rookies are disappointing is following through with picking them in their second and third years. This is where patience rewards you handsomely. It is payback time.
Alshon Jeffery, anyone?
Sophomores and juniors can be disparaged in fantasy drafts because we haven't liked what we have seen from them to date. We might even have been burned firsthand. Montee Ball owners who are still cursing Knowshon Moreno, stand up here.
Ball failed to meet draft-day expectations. Moreno was the fantasy MVP for the Denver Broncos. Ball should emerge as a fantasy star in his second year.
He is just a single example of the bigger picture. There are countless players who didn't amount to much as rookies and can explode in their second or third seasons.
Without delivering you endless breakout analysis for fantasy football 2014 in one slide here, we will list last year's rookie disappointments who will be solid value picks in this summer's drafts (in the order they were drafted):
- WR Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
- QB EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills
- TE Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
- WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings (although he came on late)
- WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee Titans
- TE Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
- QB Geno Smith, New York Jets (cough, cough...maybe we shouldn't show crazy here)
- WR Robert Woods, Buffalo Bills
- TE Gavin Escobar, Dallas Cowboys
- TE Vance McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
- RB Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
- WR Aaron Dobson, New England Patriots
- RB Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks
That is some list with varying degrees of second-year breakout potential. Those are just the disappointments from the first two rounds. There are dozens of others from the rest of that 2013 draft and third-year breakthrough candidates from 2012.
Heck, the 2013 rookies who came through last year from the first two rounds can project to be better in their second years too:
- DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans (if he only had a quarterback)
- Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
- Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
Targeting untapped talent is the best advice in the middle to late rounds of fantasy drafts, regardless of which names you favor.
Third-Year Wide Receivers Can Erupt
Smashing sophomores successes Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton and Michael Floyd, along with productive 2013 rookies DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen and Terrance Williams, might have spoiled this one, but we are going to outline it here because of its historical significance in fantasy football: The third season can be when wide receivers break through.
Even if we cannot lump Jeffery or Hilton as breakouts in this year's class, we need to pay attention to history...and NFL common sense. We won't take the time to overload you with data, but there is a common fantasy strategy of targeting wide receivers in their third year.
It follows: Complex passing offenses and precision route running take time to master, and the trust of your quarterback, offensive coordinator or head coach might not come in those first two seasons, even if the skills are there.
After you get all of that out of the way, you have to catch the ball when it is delivered to you. Even the wide receivers with the best hands in college football need time to perfect the art of catching passes from the big-armed stud quarterbacks in the NFL.
There is a lot that goes into being a productive fantasy football wide receiver. It can take until the third season for that to culminate.
Here are the 2012 wide receivers (and tight ends) who should outperform their fantasy draft positions (in order of their April '12 selection):
- WR Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
- WR Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans
- TE Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts
- WR Rueben Randle, New York Giants
- TE Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
- WR Mohamed Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals
- WR Chris Givens, St. Louis Rams
- TE Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
- WR Nick Toon, New Orleans Saints
- WR Marvin Jones, Cincinnati Bengals
The Chargers' Green is the most intriguing name on this list for a huge breakthrough. He was featured in our Bleacher Report story late last week on under-the-radar players who can make fantasy fireworks.
There are dozens of other third-year receivers worth watching in training camp or early in the season if they aren't drafted in fantasy. Here's a sampling of those forgotten but not finished guys:
- WR A.J. Jenkins, Kansas City Chiefs
- WR Brian Quick, St. Louis Rams
- WR Stephen Hill, New York Jets
- WR Ryan Broyles, Detroit Lions
- WR DeVier Posey, Houston Texans
- WR T.J. Graham, Buffalo Bills
- TE Michael Egnew, Miami Dolphins
- WR Travis Benjamin, Cleveland Browns
- TE Adrien Robinson, New York Giants
- WR Juron Criner, Oakland Raiders
Age 27 Can Be the Peak for Running Backs and Wide Receivers
I don't want to self-plagiarize here, but I contributed one of the 101 Fantasy Tips for David Gonos' bi-annual e-book. My yet-to-be-published tip for fantasy football 2014 was related to my favorite age of 27.
It is my belief it is a man's coming of age, and historically it can be the peak of running backs and wide receivers' careers. Again, this is a slideshow, so we cannot get into the meticulous historical data and details, but think of the best running back and wide receiver.
Jamaal Charles? Calvin Johnson? Adrian Peterson?
Those should be the first names that come to mind. Each enjoyed the best season of his career at age 27. Charles is still that age, having turned 27 at the end of last year's breakthrough campaign. Megatron set a record for receiving yards at 27. Peterson nearly broke Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record at 27.
There were some notable tweets about similar findings this winter. NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) tweeted a revealing graph this winter of age versus production (in yards) of fantasy players at the pivotal running back and wide receiver positions. Yardage at both positions peaked at age 27.
Brandon Pilzner (@bpilzner) responded to that tweet with his own study here. His graph showed fantasy points per game peaked at age 27 for running backs and arced toward the peak at 27 for wide receivers.
Don't take any concrete advice away from this, perhaps, but just keep in your mind the significance age 27 has on fantasy football career years.
Tight Ends Can Be Dime a Dozen
Tight ends are like fantasy football quarterbacks except hardly as productive. Save for Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski every year, there is just not much to choose among the rest of the options at the position. You can wait on a tight end a long, long time—even longer than your starting quarterback.
Heck, Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron and Charles Clay came out of seemingly nowhere to be elite fantasy producers at the position last season. They were drafted late, if they were even drafted.
Graham, Thomas, Gronk, Cameron and Vernon Davis are the top options at the position, per FantasyPros.com's analyst consensus. After that group, there is no difference among about a dozen or so tight ends.
If you miss out on that select group—and you probably will because of the premium the masses are placing on them—you should pick your starting tight end after you have all of your backup running backs, wide receivers and quarterback. You might even get away with picking your tight end after your defense/special teams and kicker.
You won't have to find the next Orange Julius, Cameron or even Jordan Reed (a favorite breakout candidate here) to make this strategy work. There are going to be guys like Clay, Zach Ertz, Tyler Eifert and Coby Fleener sitting there for you still.
Injury-Risk Sleepers Can Score You Some Mid-, Late-Round Bargains
NFL players beset by injury can get stigmatized in a hurry by fantasy footballers. They are branded busts, injury-prone and high-risk guys.
But we like to call them injury-risk sleepers. Even better, let's call them injury-risk opportunities.
See, injury perceptions can drag down a player's value in drafts. Being the lovers of finding inefficiencies in the marketplace that we are, hearing about a player tumbling in drafts not because of a lack of talent excites us.
Sure, there is risk involved in this business. Every player in the NFL is one awkward twist of fate from a career-threatening injury. There are fatal car crashes just about every waking minute of the day. That doesn't mean we refrain from driving. We should just try to do it more safely.
Drafting our fantasy football injury-risk sleepers presents us with an opportunity as long as we proceed with caution. We broke down the projections of the stars returning from serious injury here at Bleacher Report last week.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin stand to be two of the biggest bargains downgraded due to injury questions this summer. They won't end there. There are going to be more injuries to monitor once we get into training camp too.
Consider that simultaneously a curse, a blessing and an opportunity.
Draft Your Defense/Special Teams and Kicker Not Only Late but Last
OK, to recap, wait on quarterbacks. Wait on rookies. Wait on tight ends. And finally, wait, wait and wait longer on defense/special teams and kickers.
The kicker one should be obvious to everyone by now. You don't have to bother selecting one until the last round because there is just so little overall point-production difference among the starting options in any fantasy league. The same should be said for defense/special teams.
Even if your league has some wacky scoring for those defensive units or bothers with the minutia of return yardage, you shouldn't waste a middle-round pick on your defense/special teams. Sure, that means you won't get the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers, but the consensus Nos. 1-2 picks were the same a year ago, and they were hardly any better than the also-rans among fantasy units.
A team like the Houston Texans with pass-rushing extraordinaire J.J. Watt was a popular pick a year ago, and it fell off the fantasy map. The Kansas City Chiefs were undrafted in most leagues, and they finished No. 1.
Defense/special teams are just as much of a crapshoot as kickers, even if fantasy hasn't yet fully bought into that notion.
Use your valuable mid-round picks on running backs, wide receivers and your starting quarterback as we prescribed throughout this slideshow. Those are the positions and players who will make a true difference in your season.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.