David Dodds has a long running feature series at Footballguys in which he opens his playbook and shows how he melds his knowledge of ADP, personal player evaluations and projections to have the Perfect Draft. It's one of my favorite articles every August and it's served me extremely well over the years.
Unfortunately, it ignores half the NFL.
So, like the From the Gut series that I've adapted (stolen is such an ugly word) to include IDPs, I think it's time to include IDPs in one of our best features. I'm going to present my thoughts a little differently than David, but the process and execution will be similar.
First, I think it'll be helpful to share my own drafting philosophy. Feel free to skip through this part of the discussion if you're only interested in the strategy and execution of the philosophy.
Pillars of Perfect Draft Strategy
1. Be aware of your league's parameters and competition.
You're a Footballguys.com Insider. You know this. But it bears repeating, especially since there is no single standard IDP scoring system. The perfect draft process, for me, relies on one part statistics, one part player evaluation and one part tier/ADP strategy. All three parts assume a precise understanding of your league's scoring system and a reasonable expectation about how your competition will value a given class of players.
2. Set up your draft board in tiers before the draft.
There will be much more about this in a positional tier series I'll be writing with Sigmund Bloom. I think using projections as a single data point or a list of players ranked 1-N is dangerous. You lose too much context. Maybe the sixth ranked running back isn't much different than the eleventh ranked running back in your mind. Maybe the RB15 on the list is really either the RB7 or RB40 depending on how the first month of his season progresses.
Splitting your draft board into tiers allows you to see exactly where you stand at each position during the draft at a glance. It gives you maximum flexibility. You can identify smart relative values – there are eight RB2 available but only one TE1 left on my board. The flexibility within your tier list helps separate upside when needed – Player X is RB14, but I want an upside player as the right foil for my safe, elite RB1, so he's a better fit than the RB9 right now. Perhaps most importantly, it limits the chances you'll get stuck on the wrong side of run or push the panic button in the middle of one in the heat of the draft.
You can define your tiers in any number of ways. I tend to be boring and split into categories like Elite RB, Strong RB1 with questions, High Upside RB2, High Floor RB2, and so on. Others might have catchier names (gold standard, silver dollar, etc.) or break them into round grades (1st round, 2nd round, 3rd-4th round, etc.). The key is to be true to the process so that you're not debating player values during the draft. If you know that you'll reach for a Mark Ingram or Mario Manningham or Jimmy Graham before a given tier says you should, bump that player up a tier before you draft. But be prepared to live with the consequences of falling too hard for any given player.
3. Understand what ADP means.
Average draft position, right? The point at which Player X is generally going in relation to his peers and overall. Absolutely, but know what "average" means in this context. Some players may go 2-3 rounds earlier than current ADP, especially in late August when ADP value seemingly change from hour to hour.
Here's where the art of the tier process and ADP strategy comes in. If your player analysis and projections says a player belongs a tier or more ahead of his current ADP, i.e. Player X is in the RB2+ tier on your board but carries and ADP of RB33, don't be a slave to "value." Why get stuck with a back ten slots and two tiers down your board because you waited until it was "correct" to draft him by ADP? If you trust your analysis, let your leaguemates point fingers and laugh when you "reach" for Player X. When you're right, as with Matthew Stafford and A.J. Green last year, Arian Foster and Hakeem Nicks in 2010 and Ray Rice in 2009, you'll be the one laughing when it matters.
The Perfect IDP Draft
Let's assume a 12-team league, with a standard QB-2RB-3WR-TE-PK offensive lineup with PPR, a reasonably standard 2DE-3LB-2DB IDP setup with balanced scoring and roster sizes between 30 and 36. I'll also assume leagues with at least average drafters, who'll be looking at more than an outdated magazine.
Make sure you read David's Perfect Draft thoughts to get a feel for where the best offensive values lie. The focus of this article is to highlight the best places to weave in each IDP position and highlight the biggest relative values to ADP. This year, that means that you'll probably not be targeting an IDP in the first 8-10 rounds of your draft.
Entering June, this looks like the deepest fantasy draft I can recall. The list of potential QB1 talent goes 15 deep. There are lots of questions to be answered at the RB position, but there could be as many as 12-15 anchor 300+ touch backs. The steep drop-off that was evident after 30 WRs in 2011 does not exist this year. And the trend toward pass-catching tight ends continues to lengthen the list of strong prospects at that position.
That depth suggests the following:
It's okay to fall in love with a player within a tier this year. If you simply must reach for Rob Gronkowski in the first round or Matthew Stafford in the second round or Demaryius Thomas in the third, the depth of talent in the first few rounds will allow you to get away with it.
However, the nature of the running back tiers – lots of high touch-high upside players, multiple injury questions, glut of unknowns in the RB3/RB4 tiers – suggests that you should target at least one running back in the first two rounds. Going WR-WR, QB-WR, or TE-WR isn't a draft-killing strategy, but it will stress your RB tiers later. Decide (using mock drafts) if you're comfortable with how Rounds 4-8 will develop if you do elect to draft a QB or TE in the first two rounds.
Err on the side of drafting running backs early, rather than looking for upside targets in Rounds 4-10.
Use the depth in the WR tiers to draft three running backs (unless your tiers dry up sooner than expected) before drafting three wide receivers.
Unlike last season, the likelihood that you'll be taking three running backs in the first six rounds means you'll have to decide whether you'd rather have a top five QB or top five TE. It's very unlikely that you'll be able to get both.
If you target an elite QB or TE in the first two rounds, strongly consider an anchor running back with your other pick.
Weaving IDPs into Your Perfect Draft
This year, the playbook is essentially the same as last year. However, the depth at the defensive line and linebacker positions will give you even more flexibility in executing it. It's a four pronged strategy with a simple blueprint. This year, however, it comes with a twist that may be hard for a diehard IDP lover to handle.
Do not consider drafting a defensive player until the 10th round or later.
It pains me to type that sentence as the most vocal of vocal IDP advocates. If you're playing in a league with a scoring system that gives equal weight to offensive and defensive players, ignoring the IDP side of your cheatsheet until the tenth round is not a viable option. But it's not hypocritical in standard leagues.
Hear me out.
The defensive end position looks much deeper than in past years. Early ADP data from My Fantasy League drafts shows that you can find near elite defensive ends like Cliff Avril (DL15), Cameron Wake (DL18) and others at least five rounds after the elite tier players are drafted. Jason Pierre-Paul is a stud, but he's not worth a sixth or seventh round investment.
The linebacker position is similarly deep. Early ADP data shows that you can draft Brian Cushing (LB18), Ray Lewis (LB27), Donald Butler (LB28) and others at least five rounds after the elite players are drafted. Patrick Willis and D'Qwell Jackson are studs, but they aren't worth the sixth or seventh round investment.
1. Consider an elite defensive end to anchor the DL position.
Ensuring that you've rostered an elite defensive end has been the mainstay of my advice to those in an IDP redraft league for four years. The rest of the IDP world has now come around to this way of thinking, but you'll still see a linebacker (or ten linebackers) as the first IDP drafted in most leagues and sometimes as early as the third or fourth round. With rare exception (e.g. it's now the 11th round, all the viable running backs and wide receivers with upside are gone and you're certain your leaguemates will give you a shot at a defensive end in the next round), taking an elite linebacker over a defensive end is a losing strategy.
This season, the elite and near elite tiers get a boost from the re-classification of Mario Williams, Cameron Wake and Kamerion Wimbley as defensive ends. Jabaal Sheard, Cliff Avril, J.J. Watt, and Jeremy Mincey have given the near elite tier a big boost. And players like Robert Quinn and Adrian Clayborn look like strong bets to break out.
You don't need to forego running back or wide receiver depth to lock up Justin Tuck or Julius Peppers this year. You certainly don't need to be willing to break the seal in the fifth or sixth round to ensure you get Jason Pierre-Paul. If one of the elite defensive ends slides and represents clearly better value than the offensive talent left over in the tenth round, grab him.
If you miss on the elite tier defensive ends, the following players may outperform their current consensus ranking by a full tier or more. Target two between the 10th and 14th rounds then move on a DL3+ player as your third DL later in the draft.
(These ADP figures will change between now and August. I'll update ADP and my suggested targets often this summer.)
Near Elite DL
Cameron Wake (MFL ADP DL20) Elvis Dumervil (DL13) Cliff Avril (DL16) Jabaal Sheard (DL14) Kamerion Wimbley (DL31)
Adrian Clayborn (DL26) Robert Quinn (DL23) Michael Bennett (DL50+) Mark Anderson (DL40) Andre Branch (DL44)
2. Wait until 10-15 linebackers have been drafted, then get at least three players from the LB2 with upside or higher (LB20 or better) tiers.
Most of your colleagues will want a name linebacker to anchor their defense, like Patrick Willis or D'Qwell Jackson. And they'll do well enough with them. But you can find equal production (and sometimes better) by identifying and drafting talented players from the right situations 3-6 rounds later. While you wait, you can add better WR or RB depth from a much higher tier than your competition.
Don't believe me?
Last year, I recommended targeting David Hawthorne, Desmond Bishop and Derrick Johnson as your anchors after 10-12 linebackers had been drafted. Bishop (in his 13 healthy games) and Johnson were top five linebackers; Hawthorne finished strong after a slow start. I recommended D'Qwell Jackson (LB1), Nick Barnett (LB10) and Daryl Washington (LB11) among possible targets (I also recommended major disappointments Rey Maualuga and Rolando McClain) after 15-20 linebackers had been drafted. And I recommended Donald Butler (LB30 in part time duty) and Sean Weatherspoon (LB15) as targets after 30 linebackers had been drafted.
You may not hit on every player you draft. Some of them may "only" finish as a solid LB2+. But you'll be getting them at huge values to those who invest picks in rounds 5-9 on a bigger and more hyped name.
This year, you should target the following players:
(These ADP figures will change between now and August. I'll update ADP and my suggested targets often this summer.)
After 10-12 LBs have been drafted (usually sometime after the 10th round):
Sean Lee (MFL ADP LB12) Brian Cushing (LB18) Lawrence Timmons (LB14) Pat Angerer (LB15)
All four of these players have 95 solo tackle upside with added big play value. I expect that Lee and Angerer may move out of consideration here in the coming weeks, but Cushing and Timmons should remain good values until August.
After 15-20 LBs have been drafted (usually after the 12th round):
London Fletcher (LB21) Jon Beason / Luke Kuechly (LB23 / LB25) Ray Lewis (LB27) Donald Butler (LB28) DeMeco Ryans (LB29) Nick Barnett (LB34)
If you're drafting in June, you can see how far ahead of the game you can be with smart preparation. Lewis is a near lock to finish in the top fifteen. Odds are that Butler, Ryans and Barnett will be their teams' highlighted tacklers. If these ADPs hold into August, I may be advocating ignoring the linebacker position very deep into the draft.
After 30 LBs have been drafted (usually after the 16th round):
Erin Henderson (LB55) Kavell Conner (LB60+) Stephen Nicholas (LB60+)
All three are every-down linebackers with LB3 upside that aren't likely to see much additional hype between now and September.
Target one elite defensive back and then skim value the rest of the way.
Before the advent of interchangeable safeties and the 3-4 defense, a stud in-the-box safety was a priority draft target as a surrogate LB2 you could plug into your DB1 lineup slot. As the league trended toward cover safeties with cornerback tackling ability, the 80 solo tackle DB all but disappeared. In 2007, only one defensive back had more than 80 solos and just two had 180 or more fantasy points (equal value to a mid-level LB2) in FBG's standard scoring system.
An influx of cover safeties with an interest in supporting the run has changed all that. Last year, it was again correct to wait on the DB position and target a select group of safeties later in the draft. Kam Chancellor, George Wilson, and Morgan Burnett were all ranked outside the consensus top ten and highlighted as value targets in this feature.
This year, the right strategy is again to target an elite defensive back and a high upside value target. If you were able to grab one of Tyvon Branch/Roman Harper and one of Kam Chancellor/George Wilson as a combination last year, you had a huge relative advantage in your defensive back lineup.
The top tier is a little deeper this year, with ten players carrying an elite or near elite grade. Consider drafting a top five safety as early as your 4th or 5th IDP after securing at least one DE and two linebackers from the LB2+ tier.
After that, look to fill out your roster with at least one of the following value defensive backs (all currently around MFL ADP DB20 or later) after at least 15 defensive backs have been drafted. Try to get one of this group, but don't leave a better offensive depth selection on the board to draft any of them if you have already drafted an elite DB. There will always be rosterable DBs with lineup upside on the waiver wire during the season.
Jordan Babineaux (MFL ADP DB33) Antrel Rolle (DB20) Quintin Mikell (DB19)
Always err on the side of high upside rather than a high floor when drafting IDP depth.
A high floor is nice, but unless you've got a lineup full of studs, a high floor LB3 without any upside provides no relative advantage for your lineup against a good team. Rather than filling out your roster with a player like Lance Briggs, take a shot on Kelvin Sheppard or Aaron Curry or James Anderson. None project to more than matchup LB5 candidates right now, but could slide into much more productive roles (and fantasy value) with a depth chart shakeup or injury.
If you don't see an IDP that fits the upside profile, spend your depth picks on offensive players and tread water with your starters until a better option presents itself on the waiver wire. Ronnie Hillman, Randall Cobb, Tim Tebow, or the like is a better use of a roster spot than a marginal IDP that you'll need only as a bye week replacement.
Expect to leverage your tiers in the first six rounds to secure at least three solid running backs and be leery of targeting an elite QB and an elite TE in the first five rounds.
Don't draft a defensive player until the 10th round.
Consider drafting an elite defensive end in the 10th round, but targeting offensive depth and electing to take two near elite defensive ends is reasonable.
Wait to take your first linebacker until at least ten (and possibly fifteen) have been drafted, then work to add 3-4 linebackers from your LB2+ tier over the next few rounds (likely between rounds 10 and 16).
Plan to take one elite defensive back between rounds 10 and 15, then target your short list of upside DBs at value much later in the draft.
With so many more variables and rounds, make sure you're comfortable with your tiers before you start drafting. If you're looking for help in setting up those tiers, Footballguys offers two full sets of projections (that you can tweak and customize with the Projections Dominator and Draft Dominator tools), and many sets of positional rankings. Also, Sigmund Bloom and I will be posting our own tiers in a position-by-position series of articles throughout the summer.
Best of luck with your IDP drafts.