It’s that time of year again, August, when fantasy owners begin a full blitz to prepare for their fantasy football draft. While player rankings and draft strategies obviously vary from year to year, there are some universal rules to fantasy football success that apply each season. Some of these strategies are the fantasy football equivalent of the Oakland Athletics’ legendary Moneyball system, emphasizing statistics over names, which turned that perennial low-budget baseball team into a contender. Fantasy football owners who are consistently successful already understand these theories, but even the best owners sometimes get caught up in the media hype about rookies, new head coaches and free agents in new surroundings. That said, here are five timeless fantasy football strategies that may help make you a winner this year and for many years to come.
5. Ignore the Hype Surrounding College Football Stars
Let’s start with a roll call of college football superstars from the past decade who fizzled in the National Football League: Vince Young. Reggie Bush. JaMarcus Russell. The list goes on and on. Let’s state the obvious here: College football stardom is no guarantee of success in the NFL. We’ll call it the Ryan Leaf/JaMarcus Russell Theorem. Yet, come draft day, several rookie running backs and maybe a rookie wide receiver or two will be drafted in the first two or three rounds, while everyone ignores the NFL workhorse who’s averaged a solid but unspectacular 1,000 rushing yards and 10 TDs over the past three seasons. If you’re drafting for a keeper league and building for the future, it’s good strategy to draft a rookie RB or WR high based on youth and potential. Just don’t overdraft them based on their college stats and expect an immediate impact. Don’t ever pick a rookie receiver in the first or early second round expecting a Randy Moss 1998 type explosive debut, or even the strong numbers posted by A.J. Green in 2011 (1,057 yards, 7 TDs).
You’ve undoubtedly heard quarterbacks who start as rookies almost always post mediocre numbers in their first year, so avoid drafting them as your starting QB. Cam Newton’s otherworldly rookie performance in 2011 was the once-in-a-generation exception to the rule. In other words, don’t draft the next Vince Young or JaMarcus Russell looking for a repeat of Newton’s heroics.
4. Great Systems Can Turn Journeyman Players Into Stars
There was extreme disappointment in the St. Louis Rams camp in 1999, when new quarterback Trent Green tore his ACL in the preseason. That opened the door for an unknown former grocery clerk named Kurt Warner to be the starter. Warner went undrafted in many fantasy leagues, yet surrounded by weapons like Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, he produced an all-universe season (4,353 yards, 41 passing TDs). The lesson here is that even unknown players thrust into a starting role in good systems can have a great season. My favorite example from personal experience: in 1994, one of my starting running backs, Terry Kirby of the Miami Dolphins, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 4. No one else wanted his replacement, a special teams player named Bernie Parmalee. I picked up Parmalee and he delivered with more than 1,100 yards and 7 TDs in 10 starts the rest of the way.
3. There’s Great Value in QBs, WRs from Bad Defensive Teams
Although the specific teams usually change from year to year, there are always going to be bad teams in the NFL. With some exceptions, try to avoid players from bad offenses until the late rounds, when they are the best players available. On the other hand, a team with a terrible defense is playing from behind in most games, which means cheap garbage time statistics for their QB and top receiver. The top receiver or two from a bad defensive team can usually be counted on for some late-game stats to help your fantasy score. Unless they’re stars, these guys often slip to the mid-to-late rounds of the draft. Tuck one away on your roster for that No. 3 receiver slot or bye-week depth.
2. Think Numbers, Not Names
This is the biggest mistake many fantasy owners make, drafting guys based on name and reputation rather than looking at their stats, age and other factors. Even veteran fantasy owners who should know better sometimes draft “name” players over younger talent with more upside. A few prominent examples from recent years would be Shaun Alexander, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. A couple of years after these guys stopped being superstars, fantasy owners were still drafting them in the first or second round, expecting a return to their glory years. “Sure, they had a bad season last year, and the year before, but they’ll bounce back, right?” As many fantasy owners find out much to their regret, the answer is usually no. That’s especially true for running backs, who age in dog years. Alexander went from 1,880 rushing yards and 29 total TDs at age 28 to out of the league a couple of years later. It happens that fast. So ignore the star-studded name, and think in terms of numbers: Let’s see, 29-year-old former all-pro RB, ran for 800 yards (3.4 yards per carry) in injury-plagued season — I’ll pass. You’re better off pursuing someone with fresher legs. Sure, sometimes you’ll miss a great season by an aging player you ignored in the draft, but following the statistical odds will work in your favor more often than not.
1. Use the ‘Experts’ as a Guide But Trust Your Own Instincts
It’s fine to use one or more of the many fantasy football websites or magazines that rank fantasy players. Use these rankings as a general guide, but when in doubt, follow your gut instinct. Here’s why: As a rule, most fantasy writers tend to play it safe. When a writer ranks a QB at No. 10, a consensus choice in that range, and that player bombs, no one remembers. But if he rated that QB at No. 4, his fellow fantasy analysts will be sure to goad him about the mistake throughout the season, not to mention the angry comments fans who followed that advice are sure to leave on the website. From my experience, one of the best contrarian fantasy football websites is footballdiehards.com. They’re not afraid to think outside the box, unlike many popular sites out there. The bottom line: Give yourself some credit for your fantasy expertise, and if you have a hunch, go with it.
One More: Always Draft Kickers Last
It happens in almost every draft. Someone in a middle round will draft the first kicker. The shrewd fantasy owners in the draft will think, “That’s way too early.” But before you know it, three or four more owners inexplicably panic and grab kickers in with next few picks. Under no circumstances should you draft a kicker until the final round or two of the draft. If you are in a 12-team league, taking the 10th or even 12th kicker in the draft is not a disadvantage; it’s a blessing, because in the earlier rounds, while everyone is drafting kickers based on last year’s statistics, you are drafting for depth at RB, WR and QB. Kicker statistics are a complete crapshoot from year to year anyway. For example, in its 2008 preseason fantasy draft rankings for kickers, ESPN.com ranked John Kasay, Jason Elam, David Akers and Matt Bryant from No. 21 to No. 24. John Carney was ranked 33rd. Those five kickers all finished in the top six in kicker scoring that season. For ESPN’s preseason kicker rankings for 2011, five kickers ranked 12th or lower in the preseason rankings finished in the top 10 in kicker scoring.
The author is a former sportswriter who has played fantasy football since 1990, usually in two (or more) leagues per season. His career winning percentage in traditional leagues is better than most former NFL coaches in the Hall of Fame. He’s also won a number of championships in 25-man leagues in national rotisserie competitions.