Fantasy Football Draft Guide

Our fantasy football draft guide is meant to teach newcomers to our hobby all you need to know about fantasy football drafting. I'll give tips on draft preparation, selecting players, becoming a league commissioner and hosting a fantasy football draft. FF is all about fun and spending time with your buddies, so let's discuss the best day of the year - draft day.

Fantasy Football Drafting Preparation

Below are some basic draft preparation tips for new fantasy football league owners. These suggestions will make you a more informed owner, and ultimately make the game a lot more interesting and fun. I never understand the fantasy owners who don't take the time to learn all the potential players, because I wouldn't want to be the guy wondering who somebody is and why all the "knowledgeable owners" are congratulating your rival team on a good selection.

Here are six tips to keep in mind when getting ready for your upcoming draft. These may seem basic to experienced players, but you would be surprised how many people show up to drafts without learning these basic tips.

  • Learn the NFL Players
  • Know Your League's Scoring System
  • Watch the Injury Report
  • Look at Last Season's Numbers
  • Keep an Eye on Preseason
  • Have a Draft List

Learn the NFL Players

This doesn't mean you learn only the NFL players that the broadcasters talk about: the handful of star players on the team. You want to learn the names of all the skill position players on every NFL team: at least 2-deep at quarterback and tight end, 3-deep at running and 5-deep at wide receiver. You aren't going to be adding the 5th best receiver to your roster, but you never know when that 5th receiver gets on the field due to injuries (becoming the 3rd receiver), and there is a third runner who becomes a fantasy factor every single year.

You want to have considered these players, because it gives you more draft options. Knowing the key off-season pickups and transactions, including draft and free agency, are key. This lets you find sleepers and breakout players, while considering whether a player is likely to be a bust, due to competition from or replacement by a younger teammate. Make it your goal that not one player drafted is a "Huh?" moment. Know every potential pick in a fantasy football draft - even marginal picks.

Know Your League's Scoring System

Also, know the particular scoring system of your league, and how that might affect player values. Do your scoring rules favor players that score touchdowns or get a lot of receptions? Does your scoring system give QBs only 4 points per TD, instead of 6? Does you league require you to start two quarterbacks, or give 1.5x points for tight ends?

These are important concepts to consider, if you have unorthodox scoring rules.

Watch the Injury Report

Every year, 1 or 2 fantasy football players that are featured in magazines are done for the year by the time the draft comes around. You don't want to be the guy who calls out Domenic Hixon in the 15th round, only to learn that he's been out for the year for 2 months. Worse, you don't want to be the guy who names someone in the 2nd or 3rd round, only to learn the he tore his ACL last week in a preseason game. In some leagues, the owners force you to stick with that dumb pick. Frankly, you deserve it, if you aren't paying any better attention than that.

Look at Last Season's Numbers

Get your hands on a print-out of last year's stats and scoring totals, according to your league's scoring system. When you do, you'll notice that the magazines and experts diverge a lot from what actually happened last year, either because your scoring rules are different, or because of factors that might cause different projections to be made.

Understand why players are being projected where they are, so you can make educated decisions on whether you agree with the logic of where they're slotted. Don't draft only by last year's numbers, because the NFL is an ever-changing landscape. For the same reason, though, you can often predict the next season's trends, but seeing which players came on in the second half of last season. Get inside the numbers.

Keep an Eye on Preseason

Keep one eye on preseason, to see what the early results are. Take it all with a grain of salt, because only half of what happens in preseason matters. Teams and players that look good in preseason may or may not continue that into the regular season, so you need to analyse and be discriminating. Let's look at an example from last year.

Last year in August, there were two quarterbacks that a certain ESPN reporter was touting as having the best preseason: Aaron Rodgers and Matt Leinart. Aaron Rodgers went on to have the best fantasy stats of any NFL quarterback in a fantasy setting, according to many league rules - and certainly in the Top 3 of most leagues. Matt Leinart, on the other hand, sat the bench in the regular season, and looked awful when he got on the field in 2009. In one case, preseason was a good predictor of the regular season; while in the other, it had no bearing.

Teams have different motivations in preseason. Veteran teams often just try to keep starters healthy, by playing them little. Younger teams and losing teams want to evaluate young players, so they play their starters longer. That means many bad teams look good in preseason, since their talented young starters are playing the playoff teams' backups. Once the season starts, it's a completely different story.

At the same time, you can get a gauge of athletic ability and talent levels, especially at the most athletic or "instinctual" positions: running back and linebacker. The passing game is more intricate than smash-mouth football, so tracking what quarterbacks, receivers, and pass rushers do in preseason is not always valuable, since disguised coverages and blitz packages often are left out, until Week 1.

If you do place faith in any one preseason game, make it Week 3 of the 4-week preseason game. That's when starting lineups traditionally play through the first half, and often one series into the second half (to get used to halftime adjustments). This is the dress rehearsal for the season. Weeks 1-2 are just getting players' feet wet, with the starters playing 1-2 series or the 1st quarter. Week 4 is about getting an extra week of rest for the starters, so they essentially have a bye week between the end of training camp and the opening Sunday of the regular season. So pay attention mainly to Week 3, while understanding that teams often look bad or good for one half of football.

Have a Draft List

Finally, when preparing for your first draft, don't use a freaking cheat sheet. Instead, compile your own draft list, using your own thoughts and analysis. Don't be ashamed to borrow ideas from other people, but go over them in your head. Look through magazines, websites, ADP lists, mock drafts, NFL Network, other tv sources, fantasy news and updates - then make a list of rankings all your own. At the very list, print off other people's projections and rankings, then make notes of where you disagree.

More Draft Suggestions - Drafting Advice

Now that we've discussed draft preparation, let's discuss what to do once the draft is started. This is the funnest part of the fantasy football year, the most exciting part, and the part you can screw up the quickest. If you make a few bonehead moves at the top of the draft, you'll be paying for it all year. Really mess up one of those picks in the top 3-4 rounds and you're playing fantasy football with one hand tied behind your back. You'll need to hit the grand slam on a later pick, or in early free agency, to make up the difference.

  • Cover Yourself at Runner
  • Draft for Value and Remain Flexible
  • Don't Draft Using a Gimmick
  • Don't Draft for Spite
  • Keep Your Picks to Yourself
  • Drink Reasonably
  • Mark Your Draft List
  • Mark Off League Rosters
  • Track Bye Weeks
  • Have Late Round Ideas
  • Wait to Draft Kickers

Cover Yourself at Running Back

"Cover yourself at runner" doesn't mean you have to draft RB-RB in the first two rounds. Having a good running back corps, though, is one of the essential draft strategies that's worked for many years. I've seen teams with so-so RB options make a playoff run, but those teams had superior production at the other positions, and their runners didn't absolutely kill them.

You want every position on your team producing. That means you'll skimp on some position come draft day, hoping to hit on a pick or two a little later in the draft. Why people target runners so early isn't that this is the only position that you need production from; people focus so much on runners, because it's the thinnest position. Once productive runners are gone, they are gone. Let's look at the position breakdowns.

Let's assume you have a 12 team league which starts 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs and 1 tight end, then measure to see what percentage of NFL skill position players are started in fantasy football leagues.

Position Breakdown - 12 Team League

Quarterbacks - 12 Starters - 32 NFL Starters - Percentage of NFL Starters Played Every Week in FF: 37.5%
Running Backs - 24 Starters - 32 NFL Starters - Percentage of NFL Starters Played Every Week in FF: 75%
Wide Receivers - 24 Starters - 64 NFL Starters - Percentage of NFL Starters Played Every Week in FF: 37.5%
Tight Ends - 12 Starters - 32 NFL Starters - Percentage of NFL Starters Played Every Week in FF: 37.5%

There you have it: 75% of the yearly running back crop of starters get started every week in the average fantasy football league. All the other skills positions only require half of that percentage. That means more bad RBs getting started every week than any other position. Also, if you get stuck with a bad starting NFL running back, there are fewer running backs to replace them with. In most leagues with sizable rosters, there are none in free agency.

So if you make a mistake at any of the other positions, you can make up for that mistake through free agency, through a trade, or off your bench. Your bench at the runner position isn't that deep, so you have to cover yourself.

Running Back by Committee

Keep in mind there are more "running back by committee" or RBBC situations than ever before. In one way, that gives you more potential players to hit on in a given week, but fewer dependable options to start with. You might hit on a player any given week, but your team is going to be a lot less consistent, if you don't have a couple of those every-down RBs to start.

Also consider that the many leagues have an "offensive flex position" player. This means you can choose from a number of positions to start 1 player, such as RB, WR or TE. Sometimes the flex position option means a 1 RB/2 WR/1 Flex position, but sometimes that means 2 RBs/2 WRs/1 Flex position. In that case, some people might try to grab three productive runners early, hoping to start a 3 ball carrier offensive alignment, because RBs are often more consistent than WRs. This makes the depth even lighter.

Now think of yourself having two of the top 12 running back positions. This puts your starting lineup back to that 37.5% level that the other positions are at, where you are likely to be starting two of the best 35% to 40% of the best players at their position. If you can nail the RB position down, you're more likely to be able to nail down those other positions down by year's end, and therefore be one of the few teams that is getting production from all the positions in your starting lineup. In this situation, it's like your team has a 1-man starting roster advantage over most of the other teams in the league.

Running Back Injury Situations

Finally, consider that running backs carry the ball more often than receivers and tight ends, and get in more and bigger crashes than these other positions (on average). Running backs tend to get injured at a much higher rate than other positions. So having running back depth is all-the-more important, because even if you have 2 of the top 12 I was talking about, that situation might not last. So "covering yourself at running back" means you have to get productive runners, then add whatever depth you can, to prepare for injury situations. That's why so many fantasy owners draft RB handcuffs (their own RB's backup), so they are certain to have a starting running back, regardless of the injury situation.

No other position requires this much thought, because the depth at those other positions are simply greater. You have more options, and you have more good options. Even with more leagues trying to weight scoring systems to make receivers and tight ends as valuable (or almost as valuable) as running backs, the basic numbers really don't change. That's why it still shocks me that there's always some owner who is cavalier about drafting running backs, as if people are crazy to think runners aren't important.

How to Cover Yourself at Running Back

So what I'm saying is you should always be mindful of the running back position. If your league allows a point for each reception, drafting a wide receiver in either of the first two rounds is an option. Drafting WR-WR is even option. But if you do that, be prepared to start drafting running backs - and a lot of running backs - from the 3rd round on. From the 3rd round until the 10th round, I suggest you get at least 4 running backs, so you have options. That means you'll probably end up with two less-touted starters, and two more-touted backups. Even then, you should try to find another sleeper running back or two, or draft handcuffs for the starters you do have. What you don't do is assume drafting a couple of guys does the trick, or you could be in for a long fantasy football season.

Fantasy Drafting Tips - Draft for Value and Remain Flexible

There comes a time in a draft where the running backs are starting to all look the same, or the chance the ones you are drafting don't have any more upside than what you'll be drafting in another round or two, when you should consider switching to another position and starting a run on wide receiver or quarterback.

Let's assume you have the 12th pick in a 12-team league. The RBs are starting to get thin, but the wide receivers have hardly been touched. You might get the next two runners on the list, but these guys might be almost certain to be of lower quality than the runners taken ahead. Also, the ones you take at the bottom of the 3rd and top of the 4th might not look much worse. So you decide to draft one of the best wide receivers, to make up the different. You don't want to 2nd-tier runners in the 1st/2nd, then draft off the picked-over list of 2nd-tier receivers in the 3rd/4th. That's a possibility, if you follow the RB-RB-WR-WR conventional philosophy.

This might be enough to convince you that drafting low is a killer. Actually, I've won leagues just as many times drafting at the bottom of the 1st, as the top of the 1st. Studies have shown that you're usually better off drafting really high or really low in the first round, and that's more or less been my experience with drafting.

The thing is, draft evaluation is usually way off. Chris Johnson was going in the middle to late 1st round in most drafts last year. So getting the guy with "less upside" isn't always the case. The list looks different every year. So be flexible, don't panic and keep making smart picks - while keeping your own roster in mind.

Don't Draft Using a Gimmick

I've seen guys intentionally decide to be the last one to draft a quarterback. I've seen two guys get into a race to see who would be last, only to have 3-4 backup QBs go, so they ended up drafting the 15th or 16th best QB to be their fantasy starter. That's taking a smart move - waiting on a quarterback - and making it a dumb move. They destroyed the value of their strategy, by turning it into a gimmick.

I've seen people weight their draft (many times) to include players off their favorite NFL team. I've seen fantasy owners who won't draft players off of the rivals of their favorite NFL team. I've seen team owners who tried to draft mostly players off of last year's high-powered Superbowl offenses, or who dipped down to get that QB-WR combo off the same team. Seldom do these pay off the way the owner would hope.

The point being, don't draft using a gimmick of any kind. Make every single draft pick based on which player you think is best at that position, regardless of loyalty or NFL connections. Make every single draft pick based on what's the best move for your team, knowing the likely strengths and weaknesses of your team roster. Gimmicky drafts usually turn into disastrous seasons.

Don't Draft for Spite

Don't try to draft the backup running back of a perennial rival, just to piss him off. Don't draft their backup, in hopes of forcing that person into a trade. (That almost never works.) Don't get mad that somebody drafted your backup RB and draft their starting RBs lesser backup. Don't draft a second quarterback, because one of your rivals is waiting on a starter and you're going to punish them.

Instead, draft according to what you think is going to make your team better, regardless of how it affects the other teams in the league. You have enough to worry about, without trying to worry about everyone else's team. Keep your focus.

Keep Your Picks to Yourself

Don't let others see your cheat sheets. Don't give advice to other owners about their next pick. If you really believe in these players and they turn into fantasy studs, there will be a point in the season you're going to need that player - whether for a game or the whole season - and you're going to regret giving that advice. I've done it a hundred times myself. Once again, worry about your own team. You don't hear of the NFL general managers offering each other advice on draft day.

As far others looking onto your draft lists, this goes for owners sitting next to you who are trying to sneak a peak without you knowing. I'll mention the year where another guy and I had a team together, and the guy next to us heard that we were going to draft Freddie Jones (TE Cardinals at the time) with our next pick, somewhere in the 8th to 10th round. So next pick, he drafted Freddie Jones, just to give us hell. We cussed and discussed our next move, then begrudgingly decided to draft the next TE prospect on our list - Antonio Gates. It doesn't always turn out that happily, so don't let people cheat off your cheatsheet.

Drink Reasonably - How to Draft

I'm not saying you shouldn't drink, but it's bad for your season to drink and draft - at least to excess. I say "drink reasonably", because you should still be in control of your reason. It's fun on draft day, then the rest of the season sucks. Don't be like my friend who was so drunk that he conflated Packers WRs Antonio Freeman and Anthony Morgan, and ended up trying to draft Morgan Freeman. Or the guy who kept trying to draft "Korean Robinson".

Mark Your Draft List - Drafting Suggestions

I mentioned this one the other day, but I'll mention it again. Mark off players drafted off your draft list, either with pen, pencil or highlighter. This lets you keep track of relative value at the positions. When you see a lone name amidst a sea of markouts, you know you can draft that guy and be drafting for value.

Track Bye Weeks - Fantasy Drafting Advice

Also keep a bye week list and make certain you don't draft a glut of players at the same position with the same bye weeks. Some people take bye weeks far too seriously, and end up passing on good players for that one week. But you also don't want to be without a starter one week, because of bye week situations. This is especially true in league's with smaller rosters or rigid position number limits at a position. In larger leagues, I pay a lot less attention to this, than you average league owner. You have to deal with bye weeks sometime anyway.

Have Late Round Ideas - Drafting Tips

Don't get to the late rounds and have no more names to draft. Always walk out of a fantasy football draft with more players on your list. You want to be thinking, "Man, I wish I could have added so-and-so", instead of adding several guys who have no change to play, because those were the only names you could remember off the top of your head.

Wait to Draft Kickers - Fantasy Football Tips

Finally, wait to draft your field goal kickers. The list of Top 10 kickers changes so much from one year to the next, that there's no reason to sweat it. There are always 1 or 2 perfectly valuable (probably Top 10) kickers sitting on the waiver wire, so you shouldn't waste a pick in the middle rounds, hoping to hit on that one guy who makes all the difference. Among the top ten kickers, there's seldom more than a few points. And so many factors go into who is best (offenses who move the ball, but don't score touchdowns) that you can't predict who will be best.

Instead, while others are drafting field goal kickers, use your picks in those rounds to draft high upside backup running backs and solid wide receiver prospects. You're team is much better served taking a chance on one of those guys. This goes without saying for most veterans, but rookies need to know this stuff.

How to Host a Fantasy Football Draft

Now that we're finished with the draft tips section, let's talk about hosting drafts and being prepared for everything that goes on around your fantasy football draft day experience.

Even a rookie can host the fantasy football draft. If you don't know what you're doing or how to draft, you at least know something about hosting a party. A fantasy football draft is a cross between a party and an examination, so just remember to prepare for both - fantasy football drafting is a guy's night out, but with cheat sheets.

Set a Date for the Draft

At least a month or two in advance, agree on a draft date. This is usually done by the league commissioner, whose job it is to coordinate with everyone and make sure the league owners have the day open and are going to be there. Nothing's lamer than a fantasy football draft where several owners decide they can't show up live, and several people present at the draft end up drafting two teams.

So when you first set the draft date, make sure everyone has the day open. If they don't, make other plans. "Making other plans" might mean changing the draft date, or it might mean changing league membership. In either case, don't get caught in the trap of agreeing to have several people miss the draft. That's lame. If the missing person can send a proxy to draft on their behalf, luckily with a cheat sheet made by the owner, that's acceptable.

No Cell Phone Drafting

Another rule I have is "no cellphones". That doesn't mean people can't answer when their annoying wife calls to find out how things are going - that's frowned on, but sometimes unavoidable with a minimum of 12 grown men somewhere. What I'm talking about is the owner who won't show up, but keeps calling in to someone at the draft, asking for a list of who has been drafted since the last pick. You don't want to hear something like "Michael Turner...Andre Johnson...Rashard Mendenhall...Drew Brees..." all day long, or the ever-famous "No, Randy Moss was taken two rounds ago."

Nip that stuff in the bud. Tell the absent owner to send somebody, but not call them constantly. That is a beating for everybody else. Better yet, you probably want to avoid the absent owner altogether, though legitimate absences do happen occasionally. We had a long-time league owner who missed two years ago, because his car engine caught on fire the night before in his garage, and came close to setting his house on fire. It was some line of cars that eventually got recalled.

Find a Draft Location

Draft location is important. What you need is plenty of space, as well as plenty of desk space. There's nothing more annoying than a totally cramped fantasy football draft, so find a place that gives 12 or more guys personal space, and room to think. You're going to be in a confined space for 4-5 hours, most likely.

I've had drafts in all kinds of locations: a houseboat out on a lake, a league member's honky-tonk bar, an old train station. We've had them in apartment living rooms, household living rooms, patios, dens, game rooms, private rooms in a restaurants (always good), public restaurants (always a disaster), countless places of business, card shops, comic shops, board rooms, private boxes, old warehouses, aluminum buildings "out back of the house" - you name it.

Other options to consider include the following options:

  • Community Center
  • Sports Complex
  • Church
  • School
  • Civic Organization Lodge
  • Cabin Out in the Woods

Purchase Food and Drinks

Remember to stock the place with meal foods and snack foods, along with alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Remember that a draft takes 3-5 hours, if you're doing it right, so guys are going to want a meal sometime in there. Consider ordering out pizza, but there are all kind of option.

We have a buddy that hosts one draft every year and ends up cooking a brisket - as he'll be happy to tell you, an official award-winning brisket from Kansas or somewhere. Wings and sandwiches are good options, too. Alcohol of some sort is necessary. You don't have to partake, but it's an experience to see people drink and draft, especially in the second half of draft day.

One year, we had one host supply two margarita machines. I don't know why he decided two margarita machines were needed, but we ended up using both. And these appeared to be really stout margaritas, so despite my usual rules to the contrary, my late rounds involved drafting with a really nice buzz. Unfortunately, the hangover lasted all season, with one of my worst drafts ever.

Draft Board or No Draft Board

Some people by draft boards with the ready-made stickers with players' names on them, so you can see who drafted whom and mark it off at your leisure. It's also dramatic to see people place the stickers up, revealing their much-anticipated selection. There are reasons not to use this method, which I'll get to in a moment.

Other leagues use a dry-erase board or a bullet board, along with post-it notes, to achieve the same effect. Anything can work, though these aren't necessary. In fact, draft boards are something an ass-whipping.

For instance, there is one league I draft in, where several of the players are reaching middle-age. These guys are serious fantasy football drafters, but they don't seem to understand that a draft board works best, if everybody walks to the board and places their own stickers up. If you don't, somebody is stuck placing stickers for 10-20 picks at a time, instead of thinking about the draft. That sucks.

If your league has people who might do this, under no circumstances should you get a draft board. It's less annoying to yell out who drafted whom all afternoon to those few fools who can't mark it off as you go. The best option, if you employ a draft board of any kind, is to have an extra person (not a league owner) who handles this duty separately. If you have a guy who insists on bringing his wife or girlfriend (usually grounds for league expulsion), hand this duty over to her.

Online Drafting

For leagues that have no time, you can have the "online draft", which is fun for a change of pace. There are different types of these. I've been in several online drafts with a 2-minute time limit between picks, which can get a little hairy. It's like speed drafting, because some sites over the years have required you refresh the page, to know who was taken last. These usually have a few "interesting" picks.

Back in the early days of online fantasy football, there was a website called "The Sandbox". You would rank players at every position, then have a computer assign players to everyone. That was awful, because I always ended up with a team full of people I would have never have drafted, then become bitter about the whole league. While those leagues appear to have gone by the wayside just before Y2K, I would suggest to anybody who might consider such a thing to say no.

My friends have one online draft every year, which becomes an adventure all its own. In early August, we start a draft that takes 2-3 weeks: our 36-man roster, 16-man starting lineup, dynasty IDP league with NFL coaches. We start out with a 12-hour time limit on picks, then eventually get disgusted in the late rounds when everyone looks the same, and end up cutting it down to 2-hour time limits. It's completely different than any draft you'll ever have live, becomes a kind of ordeal about midway through, but brings the league together by the time it's over.

Online drafts are completely different creatures, but that our "Insane League" draft is like stretching the special draft day experience out into a fortnight.

Fantasy Football Drafting - Enjoy Yourself

Consider hosting a draft similar to hosting a party: you want everybody having a good time. So make sure nobody wants for anything, everyone has their head in the game, and make it run seamlessly. Someone has to play host and/or emcee to make a draft run smoothly, so you might as well be it.

Fantasy Football Draft Guide

So there's you fantasy football draft guide, to help you with every aspect of the fantasy football drafting experience. Fantasy football is just like most other activities. The more time you spend practicing and preparing, the better you're going to be at it, and the more fun you're going to have. So take my advice and be one of the best fantasy football drafters in the room.

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