How to Play Fantasy Football

If you are searching for "How to Play Fantasy Football", you're probably a fantasy football rookie, or else you just came through an awful rookie season. Either way, reading through a list of fantasy tips should help you succeed as a league owner, make it to the playoffs and even win your local league. While researching how to win your local fantasy football league doesn't assure you victory, it makes you a legitimate competitor, increases your odds of winning and puts you in a position to win your league, if you have a little luck.

Don't throw away your hard-earned money and be a perennial laughingstock in your fantasy leagues. Learn a few secrets to improving at fantasy football, and you'll be the one rolling your eyes as the rookie makes terrible picks at the next fantasy football draft. Once you put a few years with good finishes in a league, you'll become one of the respected league members whom everyone knows is a worthy opponent.

Before we start worrying about your league reputation several years from now, let's start with the absolute basics. I want to start this article by assuming someone is completely new to fantasy football, so simply skip down the page to the sub-heading that applies to your experience level at fantasy football. Let's start with how to get started in the first place.

How to Join a Fantasy Football League

If you want to play fantasy football, you'll need to join a fantasy football league. You can't compete without competitors, so find a local league or search online for fantasy football leagues to join. Hopefully, you have friends in your neighborhood, at work or at church that have a spot open.

Those who can't find a local game can find online fantasy football leagues to join. Go to fantasy football message boards and forums to find a good fantasy football league. There are leagues always searching for new members, especially keeper leagues and dynasty leagues, where long-standing teams have been abandoned (with rosters that probably stink). If you want to find a local league to join, go to online classifieds sites and directories, like Craigslist.

Those wanting to get a taste can join a free league on Yahoo, though I wouldn't recommend this, if you want strong competition. Yahoo free leagues have a pretty bad reputation among the fantasy football community, because you're bound to have 1 or more owners abandon their team midseason, especially when their team isn't performing. The fact is, if you want to become a fantasy football owner, you can do it rather easily on the Internet, whether you want to join a free fantasy football league, a high rollers league or a local competition.

How to Draft a Fantasy Football Team

Once you join a league, the first league event is going to be your fantasy draft. This event is often the only time all year the league membership meets. League drafts are also the most important day of fantasy football all year.

To draft a good fantasy football team, you're going to have to research the fantasy football landscape and determine who you should draft and when you should draft them. Don't just buy a fantasy magazine on the way to the draft and draft blindly off a fantasy football cheat sheet. While stranger things have happened, fantasy cheat sheets from a magazine put out months ago are not likely to produce positive results, because there are going to be several players on the list who are either out for the year, with different teams, on suspension or who have been demoted to second string.

Read about Free Agent Moves

Two big factors in upcoming season projections include NFL free agency and NFL draft decisions. Free agency in the NFL is when a veteran player leaves one team and joins another. This creates whole new situations on the team they're leaving, as well as the team they are joining.

Maybe a free agent move opens up a starting position on their old team, promoting an unproven young talent into a position they can flourish. Maybe a free agent move muddles the starting situations on the new team, or lets a talented free agent to go to a team with more surrounding talent, therefore giving them a better chance to succeed than ever before. Or maybe 1 or more free agent moves deprive a team of offensive talent, making the players on the old team who have produced in the past less likely to succeed.

When you read about an NFL free agent move, ask yourself the following questions, and answer them to the best of your football analyzing abilities.

  • Does this help or hurt the free agent's production?
  • Will he replace the starter at his position on the new team?
  • Does his inclusion make his new team's offense better or worse?
  • Does this make his new quarterback better, worse or indifferent?
  • Does this help his team post more wins?
  • Why did his old team let him go? Does he have injury concerns? Age concerns?
  • Who does this elevate on his old team?
  • Does this make his replacement a viable fantasy football player?
  • Does this improve or hurt his old team's offensive situation?

Remember that a wide receiver departing in free agency often affects the status of two quarterbacks: his old QB and his new QB. For instance, Santonio Holmes moved in free agency from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the New York Jets in the 2010 NFL offseason. This means that Ben Roethlisberger is losing a target who was the NFL MVP only 18 months ago, while Marc Sanchez has another veteran receiver to target.

Anquan Boldin also moved in free agency, from the Arizona Cardinals to the Baltimore Ravens. Does his arrival elevate Joe Flacco to elite status as a quarterback? Does having Joe Flacco instead of Kurt Warner hurt Boldin's chances to be an elite performer? Meanwhile, does Boldin's disappearance from the Arizona Cardinals' offense hurt Matt Leinart's chances of filling in adequately for a departing Kurt Warner, or Fitzgerald's numbers, without Boldin splitting the defense's focus? Or does Anquan Boldin's departure give Steve Breaston a chance to put up big numbers, and force Larry Fitzgerald to put up even better numbers than before?

You'll do this for each and every significant free agent that moves throughout the NFL offseason, especially including quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. Don't discount the importance of moving offensive linemen, who might improve the overall offensive situation for every player he is going to, or might hurt the production of the team he's leaving. Once you see a list of free agent moves, you'll understand why the 2010 fantasy football season is a different beast than the 2009 fantasy football season.

Follow the NFL Draft

Make the same evaluations with the key additions in the 2010 NFL Draft. You'll probably want to restrict your evaluations to the skill position players on offense, with special attention payed to running backs. Remember that NFL rookie quarterbacks have a learning curve, and that even successful rookie QBs of the past, like Ben Roethlisberger, Marc Sanchez, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco tended towards more conservative offensive strategies, and were therefore not fantasy football juggernauts. Even wide receivers, who have had a few notable successes in recent years (Desean Jackson, Eddie Royal, Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin) have their ups and downs, and often don't "break out" until their 3rd year in the league - or longer.

Often, NFL draft additions make the overall offensive situation of a team better. Percy Harvin may not have helped you win your fantasy league last year, unless you started him in just the perfect weeks. But he did help make the Vikings Offense more explosive, more dangerous, and harder to defend. This probably helped Brett Favre be a more productive quarterback. The same could be said of Jermichael Finley and his contribution to Aaron Rodgers' stats. Keep in mind that most NFL rookies take a while to mature, learn the offense and improve physically, so don't make your fantasy football evaluations based solely on the NFL draft. Usually, free agent moves (veterans) are going to do the most to change NFL teams, at least in redraft leagues.

Read Training Camp News

One of the most important parts of pre-draft preparations in fantasy football is reading the news from training camps. The fantasy football magazines and publications tend to come out in June every year, roughly six weeks after the NFL Draft. Because of this early release schedule, the fantasy mags aren't going to contain the latest fantasy transactions and roster moves.

Training camp not only involves a few key position battles, it sometimes requires the preseason to reveal moves that were decided upon by NFL front offices in the offseason. For instance, if you read a fantasy football publication last year, you probably would have learned that the Baltimore Ravens were going to give Ray Rice more playing time in 2009, and that Willis McGahee would lose playing time from his 2008 numbers. But by the time preseason games were being played, it was apparent that Ray Rice was the new starter and that McGahee was nothing more than the backup. It wasn't that McGahee had had a terrible offseason; it's just that Ray Rice was having a brilliant offseason.

A year later and it's obvious that Ray Rice is the present and future of the Baltimore Ravens running attack. But if you had only read the magazines coming into the 2009 fantasy football drafts, you wouldn't have known that Ray Rice was going to be the unquestioned starter and he was set for a breakout year. That's the difference in keeping up with training camp news, and drafting on faith with a magazine cheat sheet.

Keep Up with Preseason Scores

This is less important than keeping up with the training camp updates, because teams and players place different emphasis on preseason scores and results. Young teams play their youngsters a little more, hoping to build chemistry and gives their inexperienced players a little more game experience. Veteran teams rest starters and hope to get to the regular season opener with few or no injuries. Few teams show exotic offensive and defensive packages, meaning that some players shine in the preseason, when they'll be thrown by the blitzes and coverages on defense and different looks on offenses, when the regular season rolls around. Every team has a preseason star who will be a non-factor when the games matter.

I've said before that 50% of what happens in preseason matters: you just don't know which 50%. Some teams that look horrible in preseason, look great in the regular season. Some teams that look great in preseason, look horrible in the regular season. Then there are teams that the preseason carries over into the real games, for better or worse. So here's what I do when evaluating players in preseason.

Pay little or no attention to young quarterbacks and receivers in preseason. If they look good, they are playing against basic packages they won't see when the games are real. Pay attention to the speed and quickness of the running backs, if not their production. With an NFL running back, if he has the athletic ability to compete, he should be ready to compete in real games. Keep an eye on news about whether he's picking up blitzes and whether he's putting the ball on the ground, but if he looks like he's got burst and power in preseason games, then you should evaluate him as a potential difference maker in the regular season. If not, drop him down your list.

The same can be said for defensive players in IDP formats. I've noticed that the best rookie linebackers tend to show in preseason whether they are athletically able to keep up with the other players or not. Since linebackers and running backs tend to be about speed, quickness, strength, athleticism and speed, I tend to evaluate these positions on their preseason showings. Other positions, I take with a grain of salt.

Evaluate 2nd and 3rd Year Players

One final note when keeping up with preseason scores: most rookies aren't fantasy difference makers. A few bust out and make a big difference, but coaches are unlikely to trust rookies. As I mentioned before, rookie RBs tend to get lost on blitz packages, so watch for athleticism, but remember that they won't play on as many plays in the real games - at least in the early part of the season.

The best evaluations you'll make in preseason are on young players who are finally getting their chance to start: the 2nd year and 3rd year veterans. These guys may have shown something in their rookie season, or maybe they didn't. But this is the time they have to shine, and you can find some sleepers by watching their progress in the preseason. If you can't watch the game or a replay, search through the box scores, watch highlights on NFL dotcom, and read game recaps to get an idea of their progress.

Fantasy Football Drafts - Draft for Value

When it finally comes time for fantasy draft day, you want to have not only a list of players you want to draft by position, but also an idea where each player should be drafted. "Drafting for value" is about getting players at the right part of the draft. For instance, if you had drafted Ray Rice last year in the 1st round, you would have seen a lot of raised eyebrows. That pick would have been a brilliant sleeper at that spot, but it also would have been a stupid pick.

Why?

Because you maximize your chances of hitting on stud players, when you know how to slot them properly. Let's assume you had kept up with Ray Rice and were convinced the 2nd year 2nd-rounder was going to be a star in the Ravens run-first offense. Then let's assume you had a mid-1st round selection and a pretty good idea that Ray Rice wouldn't be drafted until the 5th or 6th rounds - maybe later.

An Example of Drafting for Value

Drafting at the mid-to-bottom of the 1st in 2009, you had a chance to draft Chris Johnson. Knowing Chris Johnson was about to be off the board, you decided to draft him in the 1st round. Then you drafted players of value in the 2nd through 4th rounds, grabbing a quarterback and a couple of other players with upside. When the 5th round came around, you thought there was a chance Ray Rice would fall to you in the 6th, but you were concerned someone who had drafted receivers early would grab him before your next pick came around. In the 5th round, drafting Ray Rice was a good idea, so you grabbed him.

In that scenario, you went into the season with Chris Johnson and Ray Rice, two of the best RBs in 2009. But had you drafted Ray Rice several rounds too high, you would never have had a chance to draft a stud RB in the 5th. You probably would have been choosing from the Derrick Wards and Larry Johnsons of the world. If you're new to the NFL and fantasy football, you might be wondering who Derrick Ward is. That's the point.

Drafting for value preserves the chance that you get that sleeper pick a little bit later in the draft, filling out your roster with potential studs. The more guys on your roster that have a real chance of being difference makers, the better your chances of being a fantasy champion.

Plays the Odds and Hope for Luck

Nothing is certain in fantasy football. You might have drafted Marion Barber or Ladainian Tomlinson instead of Chris Johnson in the 1st. Chris Johnson might have blown his knee out on the third play of the season. Somebody might have grabbed Ray Rice in the 3rd round, because he went to their college. But you're playing the odds in fantasy football, and the more you weight the odds in your favor, the better your chances of being the lucky one, when it's all over.

Fantasy Football Draft Tips

Here's a few all-purpose fantasy draft tips to keep in mind. I'm not saying that these are always the right thing to do, but I am saying they are the right thing to do enough of the time that you might as well use them as rules, then live with the results.

  • Never draft a quarterback in the 1st Round.
  • When in doubt, go with a running back.
  • Only draft receivers high in a point-per-reception league.
  • Don't be the first one to draft a defense.
  • Don't be the first one to draft a tight end.
  • Draft high upside runners and receivers in the middle rounds.

Fantasy Football Quarterbacks

Drafting a quarterback in the 1st round leaves you with the best potential quarterback, but also at a disadvantage at the two most important positions: running back and wide receiver. The thing is, there is high volatility in the 1st to 10th quarterback every year, so drafting one in the 1st round just isn't worth it. There's a good chance you can draft one in the 4th, 5th or 7th round and still get somebody almost as good - if not just as good. I played in a league that drafted early two years ago, and Kurt Warner (still the backup in Arizona at the time) went in the 19th round. The next day, he was named the starter.

That same draft, Aaron Rodgers was an 8th rounder. Jay Cutler was an 11th rounder. Tom Brady (on I.R. before the 1st quarter was over) was drafted in the 1st round. Brady was coming off a record year, but that was still a dumb move. There were guys who were likely to do as well, or almost as well, who went much later in the draft.

Here's the thing to know: quarterbacks rule in the NFL, but they don't rule in fantasy football. Maybe not as much as they once did, but running backs rule in fantasy football. Look at the rosters of teams at the end of the fantasy football season, and I guarantee the common factor with the best 4 or 5 teams is that they had at least one good stud running back. The teams at the bottom of the league are likely to have had injuries or bad picks at RB.

You might think I'm cherry-picking the Tom Brady situation from two years ago, as a worst-case scenario. I'll give you an example from last year.

Drafting Drew Brees in the 1st Round

I was in another (dubious) draft where a guy drafted Drew Brees in the 1st round. He thought it was a brilliant pick, and it looked great in Week 1, when Drew Brees threw for 6 TDs against the Detroit Lions. He even had the highest score in the league after Week 1, because he drafted Drew Brees.

But that was a horrible pick. By midseason, his team was 2-6, despite having one of the best 2-3 quarterbacks in the league, and the leading point-getter most of the season. That's because his running backs ended up being Clinton Portis, Chris Wells, Ernest Graham, and Julius Jones, and because he had no one but Greg Jennings (granted, a seemingly solid option going into 2009) to anchor his receiving corps. In other words, he was going into the season with nothing at running back and wide receiver, which meant he was dead (fantasy wise) and didn't even know it.

How did that happen?

Well, he drafted Brees in the 1st, then Greg Jennings in the 2nd. This meant he was "lucky" to be drafting Clinton Portis high in the 3rd. Then he drafted a tight end in the (4th), leaving him Beanie Wells in the 5th. When he decided to reach on the Minnesota Vikings Defense in the 6th, his fate was sealed. He was hoping Clinton Portis would stay healthy, and Beanie Wells (a bit of a knucklehead) would get on the field quick with a no-nonsense coach. Granted, in that league, defenses can score many more points than in most other fantasy league you'll play in, but he needed to take another shot or two on viable running backs.

Had he not drafted Drew Brees in the 1st, he likely would have had a stud running back to slide in front of Portis and those other guys, and he could have drafted someone like Matt Schaub in 6th or 7th round. His chances would have been much better of winning, had he avoided the rookie mistake.

Of course, he compounded his mistake by drafting tight end and defense high. He was tempting the fantasy football gods to strike him down, which is exactly what happened.

So just follow the 6 little rules of fantasy football drafting above, and you'll be a happy fantasy owner most of the time.

Fantasy Football Free Agency

The most overlooked part of fantasy football by new fantasy owners is free agency. I guess this is because free agency doesn't go on in the real NFL during the season, and they assume fantasy football emulates the NFL. In fact, free agency is a huge treasure trove of fantasy talent, especially in the first month of the season.

Most fantasy leagues are 12-teams deep, with 16-20 players. That means there are 240 players drafted at most, counting field goal kickers and defenses (we'll say about 40 positions). So in your average fantasy football league, somewhere between 160 and 200 skill position players get drafted, including quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends.

If you assume that each NFL team have 1 QB, 1 RB, 2 WRs and 1 TE as their starters, that comes out to 160 players exactly. But most NFL teams have a backup RB who is almost as important and/or used almost as much (32), as well as a 3rd receiver who is on the field a significant part of the time (32). That pushes the total of viable players up to 222 players.

When you start to account for injuries, demotions and players who play themselves into starting positions, that number assures that valuable NFL players won't even get drafted in your average fantasy football draft. Those players are free agents to be picked up on the waiver wire, which occurs sometime in the middle of the week of most fantasy football leagues.

So figure out how to make free agent transactions in your local league (there are a million variations of waiver wire rules) and become aggressive in fantasy football free agency, especially in the first month of your season. Almost every fantasy roster has 1 or 2 players who, through injury or ineffectiveness, can be cut from their roster, especially in redraft leagues. So cut that backup kicker, defense or tight end and grab the hottest free agent prospects.

You'll miss on some, but if you hit, you can change the course of your fantasy season.

Fantasy Football Trades

Another overlooked part of fantasy football by rookie owners is the in-season trading. Many shy away from getting involved in trades, because they think that veteran owners who "know something they don't" are going to rook them. If that's the case, bounce trade suggestions off of veteran fantasy owners not in your league. These might be friends you know around town, or a message board or online fantasy football community of some sort.

The thing is: you can improve your team through trades. Imagine you have a glut of good receivers, but you need another solid running back, or your injured runner's talented backup. You can find a team that needs help at the position in which you have excess talent and trade that player to fill holes in your roster. You can make a fantasy trade that helps both teams.

One suggestion is to avoid trading running backs too quickly or trading a running back without getting back a valuable one in return. In my experience, quarterbacks are hard to trade, because everyone has a QB they think is as good, if not almost as good. Veteran fantasy football owners know that quarterbacks can be streaky, and any QB can be started in a pinch - with a few exceptions (Browns the past couple of years).

Why Trading Is Good in Fantasy Football

But leagues are more fun, if the owners in them are interested in trading. Even if you don't like a trade proposal, and you almost certainly won't like most of them proposed by the other owners in your league, send a rejection quickly. The other owners will appreciate that.

The best fantasy football trade tip is to initiate contact yourself. Search through opposing lineups, find players you think might help your team, and evaluate the holes in the other team's lineup. Based on these criteria and an honest assessment of the talent you're sending back, make a trade proposal. It doesn't hurt to start with something that favors you a bit, but don't make blatantly insulting offers, because that's only to make your potential trade partner suspicious and angry, so they'll be less likely to accept when you make them a legitimate offer.

Making trade proposals yourself shows you're willing to trade, and also have skills evaluating talent. Trades usually favor the team making the proposal, so you're less likely to get rooked, if you're the one making the offer. Look at the latest player news on your players and they guys you want to trade for, to make sure you aren't trading for injured players - or trading players on IR.

Monitor Sunday Morning Start/Bench Moves

Also, set a time in the week when you monitor injury news and check your player's bye week status. Never start a player who is on their bye week or who has been benched due to injury. That drives the other owners in the league crazy, because it kills the spirit of competition. Imagine these guys needing a big win later in the season, and their division rival gets a cheap win, because your team is starting two bye players and a third that's been ruled out, due to injuries.

Crazy things happen in fantasy football, and you'll sometimes start a player who gets scratched after the start/bench deadline, or who goes out on the first play of the game. But cut down on those instances by checking on your lineup status on Sunday morning, and benching anyone who is listed as Doubtful or Out. Some owners go the extra step and bench players who are listed as Questionable (50/50), especially if they have a viable starting option on the bench.

Playing Fantasy Football

If you want to learn how to play fantasy football without embarrassing yourself or making the other league owners hate you, that's a pretty good start. While following the advice above won't assure you of winning the league title or even making the playoffs, following these fantasy football tips will make you a respectable league owner who participates in the most meaningful ways. You'll be worthy competition and, with a little luck, a contender for your fantasy football league championship.

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