Incorporating Keepers
By Jeff Tefertiller
May 2nd, 2012

Even though the majority of fantasy footballers participate in redraft leagues, dynasty leagues are gaining in number and prominence. There is also a growing number of the fantasy world who love keeper leagues. Keeper leagues offer the fantasy football enthusiast the best of both redraft and dynasty leagues. The keeper owner gets to keep the best players from the year before AND draft the rest of the team. Most who participate in this hobby love the annual draft - the anticipation, the strategy, and most of all .... the smack talk.

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Keeper leagues are leagues where an owner is allowed to keep a certain number of players from one year to the next. Depending on the league, teams are able to keep one to eight players. Leagues with fewer players kept have more of an emphasis on the draft. For this reason, the redraft rankings and projections are a great guide for player value and expected performance. The converse is true with the larger keeper leagues looking more like dynasty leagues. Keeper leagues offer the year-around activity of a dynasty league with the ability to draft well and make a bad team into a contender in just one year as with redrafts. For keeper owners, it is the best of both worlds. There are many types of keeper leagues, representing the gambit of keeper owners.

There are only two goals of keeper leagues:

  1. Win the championship
  2. Upgrade your keepers

Everything a keeper owner does is with one of these two goals in mind.

Many keeper leagues are active with trades more often than redraft or dynasty leagues because owners are either trying to load up for a title run or make quantity-for-quality deals in order to improve their keeper choices. Late in the season, there are trades with one team "selling" players who will not be kept in exchange for future draft picks. One key point that surprises many new to keeper leagues is that each keeper league has its own economy for trades involving draft picks and players. It is impossible to compare values across leagues. Many trades happen right before the keeper deadline. As the deadline approaches, the expected return of picks for players traded declines as similar players are offered to the teams without good keepers. It becomes an issue of supply and demand. The stocked teams try to pawn off their non-keepers onto the lesser talented teams for draft picks or pick upgrades.

We will focus on the three primary types of keeper leagues:

  1. Keep less than three players
  2. Keep more than three players
  3. Give up a draft pick assigned per keeper

In leagues that keep three or fewer players, the key is whether the players kept would be drafted in the same number of rounds of a redraft league. For example, if a 12-team league keeps two players, each player should have an ADP (Average Draft Position) of 24 or higher. In the leagues that keep three or fewer players, keeping a quarterback or tight end is a bad idea, even if their names are Rodgers, Brady, or Brees. Why is this so? Most teams will keep at least two running backs, depending on starting lineup requirements. If every other team keeps two or more ball carriers, and you do not pick early in the first round, you will lose all chance at having a preseason top 20 running back. You are already behind the curve. The supply of elite running backs and wide receivers is as low as it has ever been while there is increased depth at the quarterback and tight end positions.

One general rule of thumb is that you should try to keep (depending on your choices) as many running backs as you are able to start each week. If your league starts two backs, plus a flex player, you should try to keep three running backs. The ability to start a solid fantasy tailback in the flex while some start a receiver is a big advantage for you. This is assuming the back has an ADP equal to the pick given up to keep the player. Other than being behind the curve finding running backs, value is another reason to keep as many backs as possible. The supply of viable fantasy starters at the position will dry up quickly. There will be some teams whose best keepers might be positions other than at running back. If so, there will be an even heavier burden on finding quality backs early in the draft. Only the top wide receivers should be considered as keepers. Each year, the ADP data bears this point out. Only a handful of pass catchers are considered first and second round picks in redraft leagues. In addition, receiver depth is easier to find than at the running back position. Each year, there are several wide receivers available outside of the top ten at the position who will produce similar numbers to the "stud" receivers.

If you are in a keeper league that keeps three or fewer players, you should try fervently to improve your keepers each year. This comes from quantity-for-quality trades, working the waiver wire, and drafting well. In leagues that keep just one player, that player kept is of the highest importance. You should always try to trade for a stud running back in these leagues. If you acquire a top back, you would be wise not to consider trading him. In a one-player keeper league, the top player (Arian Foster, Ray Rice, or Adrian Peterson) has more value than in dynasty or redraft. His owner gets to keep him indefinitely like a dynasty league. Plus it allows the owner to draft well each year and start each fantasy season with a huge advantage. Most weeks, the elite ball carriers will outscore their opponent's keeper by several points. This advantage is not easy to overcome for the other teams in the league. The advantage is like drawing the first or second pick in a redraft every year. But, the difference is that a team could have Arian Foster and still draft a top back like Maurice-Jones-Drew in the first round, yielding a huge advantage.

In the best-case scenario, an owner is wise to keep a wide receiver if each team in the league is allowed to keep four players or more. Quarterbacks should only be kept in leagues that keep six or more players. Many times, it is still best to only keep running backs and receivers in leagues that keep six or seven players. There are viable tight ends and passers available each year which are not kept from the previous season. To keep a total of six strong backs and wide receivers gives a huge advantage over the teams that feel like they must keep their entire starting lineup from the prior season. It goes without saying that defenses and kickers should not be kept unless the league keeps at least eight, and probably not even then. In these larger keeper leagues, it is very important to draft well and improve the keepers. With most of the better players kept, weaker teams need to have great drafts in order to compete. In these keeper leagues, non-elite rookies are invariably drafted much too soon. Further, many highly drafted rookies will not be kept the following year after disappointing - as rookies often do - in year one. For this reason, each rookie selected in the first few rounds has to make an impact in year one. If not, it is a huge waste of a pick trying to hit a home run. Solid, steady veteran players are often overlooked in the early rounds of keeper leagues. Most owners want to take a chance on striking gold and forget that there are veteran players available with upside. These established players have the advantage of solid statistics and a proven track record behind them.

In the leagues where keepers are kept at the cost of a draft pick assigned to the player, running backs are usually in great shortage. These leagues have elite players like Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Ray Rice locked up at a very cheap price in comparison to redraft leagues. These elite players may only cost the owner a middle or late round draft pick. This is why many times it is wise to take chances on high upside players later in the draft. If you hit on a late round pick, he is yours indefinitely at a very reasonable price tag. With these good players already on rosters, the talent drop off in the draft will come sooner than expected, especially at the running back position. This makes the higher picks more valuable. There are always late round steals that make worthy keepers (especially if they only cost the draft pick used). Keeper league drafters should evaluate the upside of the player's situation in the middle and late rounds when looking at a players as a potential keeper. Some players taken in those rounds will be good one-year options while some might have long-term viability at a cheap price. This is where backup running backs like DeMarco Murray, Willis McGahee, and Fred Jackson paid dividends last year after being drafted late in keeper drafts. This season, some options include: Mikel LeShoure, Ryan Williams, Jacquizz Rodgers, C.J. Spiller, Kendall Hunter, and Shane Vereen.

So, a big question for keeper owners is how to interpret the rankings for a keeper league. First of all, know your league's rules inside and out. This is true for any league. To get a feel for value, input all of the rules into one of the the Footballguys Draft aids (Draft Dominator, VBD, etc). The rankings that are derived will be tailor-made for your league. Also, the Draft Dominator allows an owner to input keepers. The Draft Dominator even permits keeper league owners to input a draft pick to be given up to keep the player.

Keeper leagues are enjoyable to many owners. They offer the chance to build for the future with great keepers and the add new starters like a redraft. Usually, the teams with the best keepers win the leagues. They have such a head-start making it difficult to overcome. And, the best keepers are running backs in most cases. The strategy becomes all about upgrading keepers, specifically at the running back position. The draft will allow owners to fill out the roster and possibly upgrade keepers. To get an idea as to how the draft might go, you are strongly advised to incorporate the Draft Dominator into your draft preparation. It allows an owner to plug in every keeper, enter every pick, and then run a mock draft. The mock draft can even be run using ADP. It is a great tool for draft practice.

Keeper leagues are a lot of fun. They truly do offer the best of both redraft and dynasty leagues.

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