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Faceoff: Dynasty Strategy

The Footballguys staff takes a good look at dynasty strategy

Let's discuss building a dynasty roster. Do you target specific positions? Do you eschew older players? What is your basic strategy in a dynasty league?

Chad Parsons: I value youth and future upside quite a bit. One glance at my Footballguys dynasty rankings will clearly express that sentiment. My goal is actually build a dynasty with my startup draft. Most of the time, that means performing poorly in the first season as my youth is getting their production in line for year two and beyond. There are times were I have a dominant team from the outset, but thinking long-term is my focus. I like to build around the receiver position and likely a young stud quarterback in the first four to five rounds. If a David Wilson or Lamar Miller is presented as a value in round two or three, I will absolutely be interested, but building a stable of receivers from Dez Bryant to Julio Jones to Demaryius Thomas is an attractive play early in the draft. From there, upside is the name of the game. Many middle round and later selections will never provide meaningful production for a dynasty team, so physical upside and the ability to at least flash big-time production is paramount filling out the rest of my roster. My draft list entering a startup is rather short, totaling 40-50 players throughout the ADP range. Aaron Rodgers is my far the oldest player on the list, and I have yet to draft him as I find Cam Newton and Andrew Luck a round later a more attractive value point at quarterback.

Matt Waldman: I'm in the middle of revising my dynasty strategies and I'm finding that I like to strike a balance between youth and veteran options. I'm researching the positions where it's best to focus on upside versus veteran talent. The goal is to acquire players who can anchor your team for years to come with strong, consistent production.

Until my research shows otherwise, I've regarded my QB1, WR1, WR2, TE1, and - depending on scoring - LB1 and DE1 as anchors. Of course, I'm going to want to land a runner with a career that spans the length and productivity of Adrian Peterson, Curtis Martin, or Emmitt Smith, but I'd rather not expect it to happen as a part of my strategy.

I tend to lean on wide receivers because of their tendency for lengthy careers. I'm now shying away from drafting young quarterback talent. While I'll gladly take Newton, Luck, Wilson, and Griffin, they are either going to be exceptions to the rule or they are the start of a trend where young quarterbacks adapt faster to the NFL game and become QB1s right away. I'm skeptical it's a trend. If I can get one of these players and acquire proven talent between the ages of 28 and 33, then I feel I can get three to six years of quality production. But don't tell me next year's class is going to have a bunch of greater starter talent at quarterback and expect me to house three to four rookie quarterbacks who turn into dead weight three to four years later. I'm through with that dynamic. I'd rather trade for a proven player and spend a little more than try to land huge bargains that rarely happen.

Because running back, wide receiver, and linebacker are such a deep positions in the NFL, I'd rather pinpoint quarterbacks, tight ends, and defensive ends and pick a handful of each while casting a wider net on running back, wide receiver, and linebacker. This gives me a chance to have currency for executing deals without running a risk of having a poor team for multiple seasons.

In terms of upside vs. age, I may tend to have a lower tolerance for running backs approaching 30 and a higher tolerance for wide receivers over that mark, but I approach each player on an individual basis of his function in the offense and skill set. The strategy one takes in dynasty leagues is really a matter of ambition. Some aspire to build a team that dominates for 10 years and hope to do it through the draft and patience. Others aspire to be good for the next two to three years and that's as far ahead as they want to look. I used to be the first aim, but now prefer the second option.

Jason Wood: Too many dynasty owners are in LOVE with youth for the sake of it. Yet NFL windows open and close quickly, and drafting someone you think will emerge in a few years is a risky proposition, particularly when it comes at the expense of rostering an older veteran that can give you starter-caliber fantasy production for two or three more years. I will often look to trade away youth or rookie draft picks for veterans in their late 20s and sometimes even their early 30s. Now you don't want to do that exclusively because you need to make sure you have chances to roster the truly elite running backs, wide receivers and most notably quarterbacks and keep them for a long time. If salary caps are involved, there is an added dimension to the value of youth but in non-cap leagues, I would say by far and away you're better off swapping an unproven first or second year player for a veteran that even if they show some decline is going to deliver flex-play value.

Adam Harstad: During my time in dynasty leagues, I've developed five rules that I try to follow at all times. Most of my specific dynasty strategies derive directly from these rules.

Rule #1- I want to win championships

This one seems obvious, but it's not. At the end of a 10-year span, I want to be the guy holding the most trophies, not the guy bragging about his overall winning percentage or playoff appearances. Again, it seems intuitive, but I'm sure we all know a guy who can't wait to regale you with stories of all of their ALMOST championship teams and the unlucky breaks that cost them a title.

Note: Until a couple of years ago, I was one of those owners bragging about winning percentages and near misses. I was afraid to make moves that would cause short-term pain for long-term gain. I could talk all I wanted, but my goal wasn't to win it all, my goal was to not suck.

Rule #2- The best place to finish is first (see rule #1). The worst place to finish is second

Rule #2 flows organically from Rule #1. Obviously the goal is to finish in first place. If I don't finish in first place, though, I'd rather finish in last place. You win just as many trophies for a 12th place finish as you do for a 2nd place finish (that'd be zero), but the guy in 12th place also gets the No. 1 overall rookie pick as a consolation prize. I can't count how many teams I've seen get stuck on the success treadmill - good enough to make the playoffs, not good enough to win it all, and not getting enough of a talent infusion in the rookie draft to move up the ladder. I also can't count the number of decent teams who suffered some timely injuries and fluky bad luck, fell into a top pick in a monster draft, and rode that talent infusion to championships. In an older dynasty league, ask the Adrian Peterson owner whether he would have rather finished second in 2006 instead of 12th. Ask the Calvin Johnson owner.

Note: I am not suggesting tanking, which is dirty pool and should face serious consequences. I'm talking about roster-construction philosophy. The goal is to never be average. Ideally, I want a team that's very good all the time. If I can't get that, I want a team that has large boom/bust cycles, swinging from very good to very bad and back again.

Rule #3- Embrace variance

This one is another logical follow-up to the previous two. If the best place to finish is first, and the next-best place to finish is last, then we should embrace strategies that maximize our chances of finishing either first or last, while avoiding strategies that maximize our chances of finishing 2nd through 11th. This means embracing risk. This means loading up on players with red flags. It means ignoring the conventional wisdom that you need a good mix of youth and veterans. If I have an underperforming young team and I add a bunch of aging veterans to the mix, it's possible that these veteran additions will be enough to get me all the way to a championship. It's more likely, however, that these discounted veterans will make my team too good to get a top pick, but not nearly good enough to add a trophy to the case. If I'm not winning a championship, then those veterans are doing nothing but declining in value and costing me a better draft pick. Similarly, if I've got a very strong but aging team, I'll resist the temptation to sell off some of those productive veterans for a youth infusion. Selling off productive players reduces my chances of winning a championship, and the youth I get for my aging vets will probably be less valuable than the draft pick I'd get if my vets all fell apart on me.

Note: this only applies to teams that are young and unproductive, or old and productive. If I have a team that is young and productive, I'll absolutely fill some gaps with reliable veterans. If I have a team that's both old and unproductive, I'm initiating a firesale and unloading my veterans for whatever I can get for them.

Rule #4: Don't try to replace first-tier talents with second-tier talents

Careers are short for all but the most elite players. Youth doesn't translate into longevity unless it's backed up by serious talent. In my running back rankings from September of 2010, Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Mathews, Chris Wells, and Knowshon Moreno all cracked my Top 15. They were all 23 or younger and they all had first-round pedigree. That youth didn't save them - they lacked the necessary talent, so they plummeted down the rankings. The most valuable assets in dynasty have to be the players who pair both youth and proven talent. After that, in terms of longevity, you have the players who are old but proven performers, and then finally the players that are young but unproven. I don't take a second-tier talent over a first-tier talent, even if the second-tier talent plays at a premium position (such as running back) and the first-tier talent plays at a less important position (such as quarterback or tight end), even if the second-tier talent is at a position of need and the first-tier talent is at a position of depth. For example, I'd never take Stevan Ridley over Robert Griffin, even if I already owned Cam Newton. If I get my hands on one of those ultra-rare young-but-proven players, I don't trade him away for a package of lesser parts. The cliche is that whoever gets the best player in a deal usually wins, and that's because first-tier talents become cornerstones that anchor your franchise for years, while second-tier talents usually fizzle and fade away.

Note: this also applies as you go down the line. For instance, it's really hard to replace a second-tier talent with a package of third-tier talents (the differentiator between the second-tier and the 3rd tier, in my mind, is how likely a player is to make the leap up to the first tier). It's also hard to replace a third-tier talent with a fourth-tier talent (the key differentiator between the third and fourth tiers being the ability to contribute to your starting lineup rather than just looking pretty on the bench).

Rule #5: Respect chance

The best team in the league usually doesn't win the championship - in fact, unless that team is an absolute juggernaut, the odds are someone else will finish the season holding the trophy. Even if you're not the best team, you can still be that someone else. In most leagues, championships are awarded based on two or three consecutive head-to-head matchups. It's random. There's a lot of noise. Learn the lesson of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens. They weren't the best team in the league, and they certainly weren't the best Baltimore Ravens team of the last five years, but they were the team that hoisted the Lombardi trophy. Similarly, sometimes you have a good-but-not-great team, and it makes more sense to fight for the playoffs and hope you get lucky than to blow it up and build for next year. The playoffs may be a lottery, but one thing is for sure - you cannot win if you don't buy a ticket.

Note: The randomness of the playoffs is why touting regular season record and playoff appearances can be so comforting- in the long run, they're better indicators of team quality than championships. I have nothing against anyone who measures their success by those marks. If that's you, though, then these are not the rules you're looking for.

Mark Wimer: Usually, I value proven young players already at the star level in the NFL in the early rounds of a dynasty start-up draft - guys like Doug Martin (23), Julio Jones (24), Matt Ryan (28), and so forth - guys who have shown that they're capable of playing at the NFL level and playing very well, but also guys who haven't necessarily yet hit their peak years. The window on quarterbacks is longer than the other guys, with NFL quarterbacks playing well into their 30s (and that's likely to continue with all the protective rules about (not) hitting quarterbacks now in place), but generally I don't like to draft players older than 27 in the early rounds of a dynasty draft. Career-ending injuries are impossible to predict, but it's undeniable that younger players rehabilitate injuries more quickly and often more succesfully than guys closer to or over 30 years old.

After I've built a core of proven youth, then I look for productive young guys with lots of upside (but not necessarily yet star level production) - players like T.Y. Hilton (23) and Martellus Bennett (26) who I think have a lot of upside in the near future as my dynasty team core. However, at this second stage of team building I'll also take an older player who is currently peaking (Marshawn Lynch, for example - only 27 years old, but has 7 years of NFL wear-and-tear on his body) as to be competitive in year one you need some reliable fantasy points each week. What I avoid at this stage is an aging star (clearest example this year: Tony Gonzalez) who has perhaps a 1- to 2-year time window left on his career.

Once you've set up the core dynasty element of your team, then a dynasty owner can choose one of two paths, in my opinion. You can A). ignore age and go for winning championships in the near future, or B). you can seek out sleeper-type NFL talent (young guys who haven't yet proven their ability to produce for 16 games a year) or incoming rookies and aim to compete for a longer time period (but not necessarily in year one of the dynasty league).

An owner who chooses path A) would likely start snarfing up guys like Drew Brees, Steven Jackson, Wes Welker, Lance Moore, James Jones, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez etc. to build a team that is quick off the gun during 2013.

An owner who chooses path B) would likely add guys like Josh Freeman (only 25, with 5 years NFL experience), Mohamed Sanu/Marvin Jones (each 23), Robert Turbin/Christine Michael (23 and 22, respectively), Jordan Cameron (25).

I've built both A) and B) teams over the years, and each path has it's attendant joys and frustrations - much like those real NFL GMs/Owners experience. Washington's Dan Snyder tried path A for many years (though these days Washington is tending to go with younger talent and trying building a team), while the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rooneys are a path B type of organization.

Jeff Pasquino: Having just done a piece on this very topic (Supply and Demand), I have revised my outlook that I want to acquire long term value at key positions (usually wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback) and then fill in the roster gaps with more transient positions (usually running back) that are viewed with more disdain on the dynasty rankings. I will certainly address all four major positions throughout the draft, but in a startup dynasty league I will try and get as much value - present and future - as possible. You have to know that when you get into that draft and even after it is over, trades can and will happen. The best way to build your team is to amass as much value on your roster and then trade for pieces that you need in a given year. There will always be a team in your league looking to get younger or that devalues an older player, which can help you win now. You want to be in a position to both win now and win later, so it does not matter how your roster looks after your draft day postion-wise as long as you think it is chocked full of value.


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