For those about to draft, we salute you.
If this is your inaugural season of fantasy football, welcome to the club. Unfortunately, the chances are that your inexperience has put you a bit behind the competition in terms of experience within your league, but I have good news for you: this beloved sport, try as we might to pore over stats to essentially predict the future and make the playoffs, is mostly luck.
That said, this guide should assist you in effectively preparing for your draft by teaching you the correct ways to assess talent, not fall prey to common rookie mistakes, and stock your team with the necessary depth so that even when your squad is beset by injuries and bye weeks, you’ll be able to persevere without having to mercilessly pilfer the waiver wire.
1. TARGET SCORERS AND PASS-CATCHING RBs
In order for your fantasy team to accrue stats, your players need to be in the huddle and receive necessary opportunities to score touchdowns, yards, and receptions (receptions are especially important in point-per-reception leagues, or PPR leagues).
Most fantasy football leagues place a statistical premium on touchdowns, typically the most climactic scoring event in the game. You need to find skill players who are not only slated to play as much as possible on their respective teams, you need to specifically target the guys who score the most TDs. Anyone can check last year’s touchdown leaders, and have a general idea of who gets the rock into the end zone.
However, in recent years, a plethora of statistical information has been made available that provides research on which players received most opportunities to score inside the red zone (20-yard line), as well as depth chart battles on each team’s training camp, and information on which players have impressed their respective coaching staff to the point where the starter in 2010 is different from whoever was first-string at the beginning of 2009. Some examples include Arizona RB Beanie Wells, Kansas City RB Jamaal Charles, and Dallas WR Miles Austin. Each of these players have significantly more value than they did a year ago due to their boost in playing time (in Charles’ situation, his primary competition for reps in 2009 is no longer on the team), and also for their “nose for the end zone.”
During training camp, look to see which players are impressing in camp, as well as which incumbent starters are disappointing their coaches with injuries, contract holdouts, an inability to grasp the offensive philosophy, or simply lackluster play. Whoever stands to gain from a starter’s missed playing time should be someone you at least place on your radar, if not target.
If you're in a PPR league, you should look for running backs that have soft hands, and that registered at least 40-45 receptions last season. Although receptions typically count for only one point in most leagues, these catches can easily add up, and turn an ostensibly underachieving RB into a fantasy commodity. Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte, who averaged 60 catches each of the last two years in spite of gradually decreasing playing time, is a prime example of this. An extra 60 receptions typically translates to the fantasy equivalent of 10-12 touchdowns. Even if you're not in a PPR league, the receiving yards and TDs that RBs accumulate will add to their value, regardless of whether receptions count or not.
Football is a unique sport in that the shelf life for players is far less than other sports like baseball and hockey. Within football are different age ranges of effectiveness per position. For example, a 34-year-old placekicker or quarterback is much more effective at that stage in his career than a 34-year-old running back or wide receiver. Below is a list of different position requirements for fantasy football, followed by the average age range of effectiveness. Obviously, there are occasional exceptions in wide receivers who play well into their thirties, but you’d be better off following these age guidelines:
QUARTERBACK: (24-35) – Typically, quarterbacks need two to three years to get properly acclimated to the speed, intensity, and complex schemes of the NFL, and even highly-coveted first-round picks experience a learning curve. 2009 was no exception with rookie QBs Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez taking their lumps in their first season. If you're thinking of drafting 2010 No. 1 NFL draft pick Sam Bradford as your QB1, think again.
Drafting rookie quarterbacks is seldom advised, as it’s the most difficult position to grasp at the highest level. Most rookies are trying so hard not to make a mistake and let their team down, that statistical performance takes a backseat to more pressing issues like not getting hurt, not turning the ball over, continuing to learn the offense, and leading the team.
Once a QB reaches his second or third year as a starter, his coaching staff has likely gained substantial confidence in his abilities, and opens up the offense for more explosive formations (like four-and five-wideouts) and deep passing.
On the other end of the spectrum, most quarterbacks have typically taken such a beating over the course of their career, that by the time they hit their mid-30s (like 2009 example Kurt Warner), their constitution erodes to a point where they’re one blindsided sack or pancake block from retirement.
Of course, 40-year-old Brett Favre continues to buck all trends, but quarterbacks like Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck become more injury-prone and less athletically gifted as the enter their age-35 season.
RUNNING BACK: (21-29)
No position in fantasy football experiences rookie success as much as running back. Their fresh legs are welcomed into the league, only to be pulverized by defenders dozens of times per game. Even as running-backs-by-committee continue to permeate the league, an inescapable truth of football is that a RB who has been getting 200+ carries for 7-8 years has likely lost significant tread from his proverbial tires, and doesn’t carry the same explosiveness in his early 30s as he did in his early 20s.
Even though running back is an extremely important position, rookies rely on their instincts and raw athletic ability to gain tough yards. Unlike young quarterbacks who need to learn their team’s entire offense, how to read NFL defenses, each of their receivers’ routes, all while not getting killed or benched, running backs can simply focus on hitting the correct hole with the ball, catching the occasional screen pass, and picking up blitzers.
In short, young RBs have a lot less on their plate than young QBs, and tend to flourish at an earlier age because of their fresh legs. Conversely, QBs take longer to learn their position, but can play well into their 30s while retaining most of their athletic abilities.
In 2009, we witnessed an expectedly rapid decline from 30-year-old LaDainian Tomlinson as the Chargers RB1 due to his huge NFL workload (only one season with just under 300 carries) that began back in 2001. Although his owners from previous seasons adored him for his past production, there is no way that LT can regain the burst from his first years in the NFL, even if he has an elite Jets offensive line opening holes for him in 2010.
Strictly based on age, another Pro Bowler from the past to avoid is 30-year-old Brian Westbrook. Although Westbrook was a stud in the fantasy football landscape as an Eagle only two years ago, his newfound propensity for concussions coupled with his tired legs make him a far less attractive option moving forward.
WIDE RECEIVER (23-33)
Wide receiver is a bit trickier of a position than running back when determining a player’s maturity level. Once every few years, players like Terry Glenn, Randy Moss, and Eddie Royal take the league by storm in their inaugural season, but the vast majority of young wideouts take a year or two to get adjusted to the NFL level.
As far as your draft goes, you should generally stay away from rookie receivers, as the transition from college to the NFL is rarely seamless.
On the other end of the age spectrum for wideouts, 33 is about the age you should expect their talent level to taper off.
Although exceptional players like Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Hines Ward and Isaac Bruce defied conventional logic by excelling at this extremely competitive position well into their 30s, these highly-disciplined athletes provide the exception more than the norm.
Note that Ward and the recently-retired Bruce are/were considered possession receivers, and the bread-and-butter of their game is catching short-to-medium passes, not running fly patterns. On the other hand, Joey Galloway and Torry Holt, two aging wideouts whose ability to run streaks and burn defensive backs are a shadow of ten years ago, are two examples of players to avoid in spite of their name value.
In short, possession receivers can play longer careers than “burner”-type wideouts.
TIGHT END (23-33)
Typically, a tight end's primary responsibility to his NFL team is to block first, then catch passes, which is quite the contrary to your fantasy team. This priority shift helps to explain why tight ends are, on the whole, not as valuable as RBs and WRs. Although NFL tight ends often shine against vanilla college defenses, these same athletes usually require at least a year to properly adjust to complex blocking schemes in the NFL, and prove they can pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.
While physical specimens like Tony Gonzalez continue to boggle the mind as to the longevity of his prime, most TEs wear down from years in the trenches by age 32.
Except for Gonzalez, stick with non-rookie tight ends in their 20s.
As you might expect, most of the rules for the rest of the fantasy football talent pool don’t really apply to kickers. One aspect of that maxim is in terms of age, which typically translates to experience and mental fortitude in high-pressure situations. Of course, there are exceptions like the Saints’ Garrett Hartley, who took over for then-45-year old John Carney in 2009. At the time the torch was passed between the kickers last season, Carney could still nail field goals, although his range was limited compared to when he was a Charger ten years ago. By the time Hartley took over kicking duties for the high-flying Saints, he was instantly a fantasy commodity given that he has more scoring chances than, say, the Browns' kicker. But Hartley’s abilities alone don’t necessarily make him a good fantasy kicker, the team he plays for is they key to his value. This concept segues into my next installment in preparing for a draft: schemes.
As you know, many NFL teams have high-powered offenses that churn out points on a consistent basis. One of my all-time favorite schemes was the Run N’ Shoot that the Houston Oilers employed in the early 1990s. The Run N’ Shoot was a four-wide, spread offense that turned quarterback Warren Moon into a fantasy god, gave each of the starting four Houston receivers legitimate degrees of fantasy relevance, and still left enough production for the running game.
While Houston lost the Oilers to Tennessee years ago, the city still has a high-powered offense to call its own in the Texans. QB Matt Schaub leads this well-oiled passing machine, as he has a multitude of weapons in Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and Owen Daniels at his disposal. Without the safety net of an effective running game (the Texans’ lead rusher in 2009 was Steve Slaton, who amassed 437 yards for a putrid 3.3 yards-per-carry average), Schaub and Texans were forced to throw early and often, regardless of the score. Based on this logic, you’d be better off drafting the Texans’ or Saints’ second receiver before you draft, say, Buffalo’s WR1.
You should target players on teams that score lots of points, because points on the scoreboard usually translate to fantasy points. If you own Kansas City QB Matt Cassel, and all you know is that the Chiefs lost 31-6, you can bet that Cassel had a crappy fantasy day.
On the other hand, you want running backs that play on teams that emphasize the run in their offense. Teams like the Jets, Panthers, and Titans were atop the league in team carries in 2009, and this statistic serves as a realistic benchmark of how the offense will likely be divvied up this season.
4. TIMESHARE SITUATION
There are two schools of thought regarding competition for a starting job. On one hand, a starter with no competition for a job might get settled into a complacent environment, and a lack of motivation could reflect in his overall performance as the season progresses. Of course, this starter would receive the vast majority of touches or looks compared to his backup, so there is a great deal of solace in taking a player whose job is not in jeopardy, and won’t be riding the pine too often.
On the other hand, nothing is more frustrating than drafting a running back who turns out to be nothing more than a cog in a running-back-by-committee, which has become an emerging trend in the NFL in the last few years in an effort to keep backs healthy.
Sometimes, a RBBC can yield multiple fantasy threats, as had been evidenced during the Fred Taylor/Maurice Jones-Drew years in Jacksonville, or perhaps the current situation in Dallas that features three talented running backs in Marion Barber, Tashard Choice, and Felix Jones.
I wouldn’t use a top-three pick on any of the Dallas RBs in light of the crowded backfield, but given the rampant injuries that hits each NFL team, there will probably be enough touches in the Cowboys’ explosive offense to get Barber, Choice and Jones all involved at some point in the 16-game season. Regardless, a RBBC not only keeps running backs motivated as there is constantly someone dipping into their carries, but it also keeps your RB healthy in the long run.
An NFL team not having to rely on one back to carry the ball 30 times means that while you’ll be disappointed that your RB didn’t get all the carries in Week 2, there is a greater likelihood he’ll be healthier come fantasy playoff time in Week 14 if his workload is limited to 15-20 carries each game instead of 25-30. Rams RB Steven Jackson, who averaged almost 22 carries per game through Week 15, betrayed his owners by sitting out the all-important Week 16, most leagues' fantasy Super Bowl. Had the Rams not pounded Jackson and gave some of his carries to a backup, perhaps Jackson wouldn't have had to sit out Week 16.
When it comes to quarterbacks, you only want to target starting signal callers who receive virtually all the snaps for their team, save for a small handful of trick plays. As an example, I would avoid Cleveland’s murky QB situation in 2010 as Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Josh Cribbs are all expected to get significant time under center in various packages, making none of them attractive fantasy options. As the old saying goes in football, “If you have two starting QBs on your team, you really have zero.”
5. INJURIES / SUSPENSIONS: STAY AWAY, OR VALUE PICK?
Injuries are an inescapable part of the brutal sport of football. Although it’s usually better to stay away from drafting injured players before the season starts, you might be able to occasionally find value in a quality player afflicted with an injury that every other team in your league is afraid to take a chance on. Typically, you’ll want to simply avoid injured players altogether, but once in a while, an opportunity falls in your lap during a draft. Here are the key body parts that you should check for injury at each position that should raise a red flag about how likely that player is to contribute on the field.
QB – throwing arm, shoulder, elbow, wrist, neck, knee, eye, ribs, head (concussion)
RB – knee, ankle, neck, foot, toe, hand, calf, ribs, hamstring, head (concussion)
WR – knee, ankle, foot, neck, toe, hand, finger, calf, ribs, hamstring, hip, head (concussion)
TE – knee, ankle, foot, toe, neck, hand, finger, chest, ribs, hamstring, hip, head (concussion)
K – leg, hamstring, calf, hip, toe, foot (pretty much anything below the waist)
The aforementioned list of injuries pertains to body parts critical to playing football. If a top-tier receiver is still undrafted in the sixth round because he’ll miss the first couple games due to a sprained elbow, then don’t be afraid to draft him, as his elbow will likely heal in time, and won’t affect his route running or catching abilities once he’s healthy.
If a player is on the dreaded Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP), this means that player, per NFL mandate, cannot play before Week 6. Typically, players on the PUP list weren’t healthy enough to practice during training camp, and will take longer to get settled within the team’s depth chart than if that player simply came back from a routine injury. Except for rare circumstances, you should simply avoid drafting anyone who spent Weeks 1-6 on the PUP list.
Suspensions also tend to get players buried on draft day cheat sheets. Just because Jets WR Santonio Holmes is scheduled for a four-game suspension doesn’t mean he can’t be a fantasy contributor once he is eligible to return in Week 5. At least with suspensions, players simply sit there and stew, motivated to get out of the coach’s doghouse and back onto the field as opposed to sitting in the trainer’s room, rehabbing a troublesome injury.
If you’ve got the available bench space, don’t be afraid to take a chance on a high-upside guy like Holmes, or even Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who would be drafted a round or two earlier were he not being punished by the NFL for past misdeeds.
6. NFL SCHEDULE
There are a few things to keep in mind when factoring the NFL Regular Season Schedule into whom you draft for your team. First, you should assess which divisions are stronger than others. Based on the 2009 regular season standings, the AFC South garnered 38 wins, which is more than any other division. Meanwhile, the AFC West only won 30 total games, making it an inferior division in 2009 than the former.
Of course, the talent levels within the division fluctuate from year to year, but not drastically. Whoever was awesome in 2009 won’t be horrible in 2010, and vice versa. The NFC East is consistently one of the strongest divisions while the NFC West is considered cupcake by comparison.
If you draft players within the lackluster NFC West, that means that player gets six intra-division games against teams that are traditionally soft on defense like the Rams, Cardinals, and Seahawks. However, if you draft a player on the Redskins, you can look forward to two daunting games against the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys each year.
Another thing to bear in mind regarding the regular season schedule when drafting your team is each team’s bye week. Some people don’t mind having all their players sitting out the same week, as it’s easier to simply write off one bad week as a loss, and return to almost full strength with a full roster intact each other week.
(Most) Others like to stagger their players’ bye weeks so that their roster has enough depth from week to week, and they’re not forced to go scavenging the waiver wire for a WR4 when they have three wideouts all on bye at once. Either strategy can work for you or against you, but I typically prefer to draft players whose bye weeks stagger, as it provides greater overall peace of mind.
The last thing to take into account when determining which players have a favorable fantasy postseason schedule, which are Weeks 14-16. Even though you’re looking four months into the future, this observation could play a critical role down the stretch should your team reach the fantasy playoffs.
If you’re on the fence about two prospective players to draft, look at their Week 14-16 opponents. For example, after glancing at the 2010 schedule, I see Tampa Bay is scheduled to play @ Washington, and then host Detroit and Seattle the following weeks. Barring a huge turnaround from the Redskins’, Lions’ or Seahawks’ defense in 2010, the Buccaneers have what can be considered a favorable fantasy playoff schedule.
Make no mistake, I’m not telling you to run out and draft the entire Buccaneers’ lackluster offense, but fantasy playoff scheduling is simply another criterion to keep in the back of your mind when you’re forced to make tough decisions during your draft.