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Faceoff: Early Rounds Strategy

Footballguys staff members discuss optimal early-round draft strategy

Generally speaking, what is your primary focus in the early rounds of your draft?

Chad Parsons: I am looking for dynamic difference-makers plain and simple. Ideally that includes two running backs in the first three rounds, but flexibility is absolutely key. Late in the first round I am open to drafting Calvin Johnson if I can project a back I like slipping into the early second round like McCoy or Rice. Other than Johnson, running back is the name of the game for me in round one and then more and more I have leaned towards a top receiver in the second round. Most owners will get a shot at Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, or Demaryius Thomas along the way in the second. I like that start with a top-shelf running back in round one. Rob Gronkowski has been a consistent target in round three, but with the latest news he can probably be had in round four. In the third, David Wilson and Lamar Miller are targets of mine which are in the mix with Gronkowski. As an owner, having a target list and then being flexible to the ebb and flow of the draft early leads to mining quite a bit of value as the strong base to a playoff squad.

Jeff Haseley: For the most part, I am in PPR leagues and therefore I'm targeting at least one running back with 50+ catch potential in the first two picks. If at all possible, I'm looking to secure two running backs in the first first three rounds. The scarcity of elite tight ends also has me contemplating Jimmy Graham as early as the late first round. The same is true with Calvin Johnson. If Graham or Calvin is my first pick, I'm definitely going running back with my second round selection and then deciding on running back or wide receiver in the third round.

In short - if C.J. Spiller, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Arian Foster and Trent Richardson are gone, I'll take Jimmy Graham as my first round pick. If Graham is gone, I'm selecting Calvin Johnson.

What about LeSean McCoy? - I'm leery of selecting McCoy due to the multiple concussions he suffered last year. If he gets another concussion (which is entirely possible), he could be out for multiple weeks. I'm not willing to take that chance with my first running back, regardless of how good he might be in Chip Kelly's offense.

Matt Waldman: I'm looking for the safest investments like Jeff and Chad while also gauging the flow of the draft and tendencies of my competition. Some folks have a baker's mentality (following ADP like it's an etiquette handbook) while others are chefs (they use ADP as a guide and adjust as needed). If at all possible, I try to gauge the overall mentality of the league and pinpoint the exceptions. This helps me set up my draft for the middle rounds.

Cian Fahey: With the way the draft is set up this season, I'm almost exclusively looking to take running backs early on. Surpassed weighting the importance of position, I typically look for the safest picks. As such, I prefer Steven Jackson over Adrian Peterson.

Kye Wachtell: I'd like to draft at least two running backs within my first three picks. For my first selection, I'm taking my top ranked player available. If that player is not a running back, then almost assuredly, I will be taking my top running back available with my second pick. If my first pick was a running back, then I'm free to take my top ranked player available regardless of their position with my second selection.

Round three is less predictable for me, but if I only have one running back at that point, then I will be looking to fill my RB2 role. If I already scooped up two running backs in the first two rounds, I'm freed to go with the best player available. I would not be averse to beginning RB-RB-RB if the value is there.

Long story short, I'm keeping a careful eye on the running back position and making it an emphasis to secure a strong RB1/RB2 combo. I'm also keeping my early round strategy fairly flexible in order to capitalize on any great values that may fall.

Jason Wood: Each year is different and I'm never dogmatic. The one constant from year to year is my belief that you have to focus on high floor players in the first three or four rounds, and then switch almost completely (180 degrees) to high upside (higher risk) players for the remainder of your roster. I'm always going to have a hard time drafting a RB or WR that hasn't been elite yet in the first round or two hoping they make the jump. But I'll GLADLY draft guys with very unproven resumes throughout my roster once we clear the first few rounds of play. This year in drafts it seems I'm focusing on RB/RB almost exclusively unless Jimmy Graham is available in the late 1st or early 2nd. From there I've ended up taking a quarterback in the third or fourth much more frequently than I had planned. I believe that's a byproduct of other 'experts' being too cute and letting all quarterbacks -- even elite ones -- fall. I do NOT recommend taking a quarterback in the third/fourth of most leagues as I suspect in typical leagues the truly elite guys will be gone by then. In other words, if a Cam Newton or Peyton Manning are there in the fourth, it's a no brainer. But don't grab someone like Kaepernick, Wilson or Romo that high.

Will Grant: My thought process is very similar to Jason's this season. It looks like the smart play is to target a RB-RB combination with the early picks, obviously depending on the scoring system and starting lineup requirements of the league. I don't like the roll the dice unless there's a lot of value so I'm not a guy who will target who will look to take McCoy at the end of round 1. The only time I'll end up with a wide receiver on my team is if Calvin Johnson falls into the second round or I find a guy like Dez Bryant or A.J. Green to pair with one of the Top 3 running backs (so never). Unless you can get Jimmy Graham or play in a league with 1.5 PPR for tight end, I'm skipping that position completely for the first third or four rounds. I agree with Jason that finding a guy like Rodgers or Brees in the third round has happened a few times and I'm all over that, especially if it's six points for passing touchdowns.

Andy Hicks: Gotta agree with Jason and Will here, high floor players are key early on. Don't know who to attribute the quote to (Joe?) and it's almost a cliché now: You can't win your league in the early rounds, but you can most definitely lose it. I'm not talking out and out safety and taking the highest rated player available, you have to believe in your squad, but low risk, high reward players are vital early on. You can get away with one high risk player like Rob Gronkowski, but two is tempting fate.

As for positions, I'm not locked into any philosophy in the first three rounds. I'd like to have two running backs and a wide receiver, but if Jimmy Graham or Aaron Rodgers are there depending on the scoring system, I could move in their direction.

Adam Harstad: First off, I'd like to drive a stake through the heart of the old canard that you can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it. I've seen people win their leagues in 2004 after spending their first rounder on Ricky Williams, who promptly retired. I've seen championships from Daunte Culpepper owners in 2005, Marvin Harrison owners in 2007, Tom Brady owners in 2008, Randy Moss owners in 2010, and Jamaal Charles owners in 2011. If your team fails to win a title, there's plenty of blame to go around all the way up and down your roster.

In a typical season, using standard (non-PPR) scoring and VBD baselines of QB12, RB24, WR30, and TE12, all players in the league will combine for about 4,000 points of VBD. It stands to reason, then, that an average team should expect to have about 333 points of VBD lying around on the roster (4,000 divided by 12). A good team, on the other hand, might have 400 points of VBD, which would amount to a nearly 5 point per game advantage against an average team. It doesn't matter where you get that VBD, as long as you get it. In 2012, you could have drafted Ray Rice and Tom Brady in the first two rounds (195 combined VBD), or you could have gotten Doug Martin and Matt Ryan in the middle rounds (200 combined VBD), or you could have grabbed Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III very late (191 combined VBD). Or you could have just drafted Adrian Peterson, whose 191 points of VBD on his own was on par with any of those pairs combined. You can't win your draft with a single pick, but a single pick can at least get you about halfway there.

I try to approach the entire draft with that mindset- my goal isn't to avoid all of the land mines, my goal is to finish the draft with at least 400 points of VBD on my roster. If that means rolling the dice on C.J. Spiller and hoping he can earn an unprecedented workload (and that he can hold up under it), then I'll roll those dice. Spiller managed 96 points of VBD in 2012 despite not even starting 8 games. If that means taking a chance on Rob Gronkowski, then I'll take that chance. Gronkowski produced 143 points of VBD in 2011, and before his injury was on track to follow that up with another 120 VBD in 2012. If that means gambling on Maurice Jones-Drew, then I'm okay taking that gamble. Prior to his Lisfranc injury, Jones-Drew had played in 99 out of 102 possible games in his career, and had been a 100+ VBD player since earning the starting job. If that means betting that Robert Griffin will be healthy and effective just 8 months removed from his reconstructive knee surgery, or betting that Kaepernick can keep the magic going over a larger sample size, I'll gladly make that bet. When adjusting for strength of schedule and number of games played, Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick last year scored nearly identically to Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

This isn't to say that I'm going to reach and draft Rob Gronkowski or Maurice Jones-Drew in the first round. There are a few guys at the top who manage to combine sublime difference-making potential with the highest of floors, and those players will deservedly be the first players selected. I'm just saying that I think the typical owner gets too risk-adverse at the top of the draft, especially when considering that the biggest risks are the ones we can't anticipate, such as torn ACLs or teams collapsing around the player (yes, Larry Fitzgerald, I'm looking at you). Many of 2012's biggest disappointments (Chris Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings) were originally considered safe picks. Many of 2012's most valuable players (Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant) were early picks that were considered risky. Early on, I'm not drafting to minimize my risk, I'm drafting the guys who I believe will get me the most points of VBD.

Mark Wimer: I'm focusing on two things - locking down a proven, elite player who is entering his "peak" years and avoiding players with either health issues (the examples earlier of LeSean McCoy and Rob Gronkowski are well taken) or behavior/attitude issues (Marshawn Lynch has had substance abuse issues dating back to his early days in Buffalo, and a DUI case is pending (but unlikely to be resolved during 2013) right now). Depending on my draft position and league format, I have taken Calvin Johnson, Doug Martin, and Jimmy Graham in the first round of drafts this year, and in some cases I have gone WR/WR or TE/WR in rounds one and two. As you can see, I am NOT a set-in-stone take-two-running-backs-early guy this year.

The reason I am not set in stone about the running backs is that I think the second and third tier of running backs have guys among them (especially in PPR leagues) that could potentially be top-ten fantasy backs by the end of 2013. I think the return of Sean Payton to the Saints will elevate Darren Sproles back into top-ten contention, as one example. I think the array of targets starting in Dallas (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten) will make running room more available to DeMarco Murray (assuming that the starters enjoy good health this year, which is admittedly a concern with Murray especially, and also has been an issue for Austin in the past). I also have hopes that the offensive line in Dallas will play better when it comes to run blocking this year. Obviously, not taking running backs who are viewed as "sure things" (guys like Doug Martin and Jamaal Charles) entails more risk at the running back position for my teams - but I am trading off that risk for security at the top of my wide receiver and tight end positions.

I happen to think that Calvin Johnson will outscore the field of wide receivers by such a wide margin (and that he is a lower injury risk than someone like Adrian Peterson, who enters 2013 with a surgically repaired groin along with his two-seasons-distant surgically repaired knee) that I am more than willing to take Johnson at any point in the first round, including 1.01 if necesssary.

By the way - full disclosure - I did draft Marshawn Lynch as my No. 2 running back in a dynasty league start-up this year, but I also made sure to have both Robert Turbin and Christine Michael in that stable of backs just in case Lynch suffers injury or a season-or-life-ending lapse of judgement regarding drugs/alcohol during 2013.

Jeff Pasquino: Put me down in the high floor, low risk category in the first few rounds. I will go with the Top 50 type list for Rounds 4-7 (or deeper with some luck) and then adjust to the players that I get. Odds are that I will already have lowered players on my list that I do not like for any number of reasons (injury risk, age, overrated, etc.), so I will just use my list and hope that a guy I do not want keeps falling - but even then, I will not be afraid to take a value play on a guy who plummets. For example, I may not like Darren McFadden (injury, Raiders should be terrible) but if he falls to Round 5 or 6, I may consider taking him.


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