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Short Bench Leagues

How to plan for a league with a short bench

Quite often I get asked the same questions over and over by Footballguys subscribers (and non-subscribers too, but I answer the subscribers first of course).  When that starts to happen, I think about how I can help more people – and usually that is how the idea of an article is born.  This article is another example of just that circumstance.

Fantasy football leagues vary – we all know this to be true.  Some leagues use PPR, some don’t.  Some like to avoid kickers, while others use two quarterbacks.  Despite all of that variation, I try and find a few commonalities across different formats to give some truths and advice to help as many people as possible.

One common situation is that of a “short bench" league.  I put that term in quotes, simply because many fantasy players often argue about the depth of a league.  Some hardcore fantasy leaguers play in 53+ roster spot IDP Dynasty leagues – that’s great, but that’s not our focus here.  We are talking about the other extreme end of the spectrum, a league in which the bench is short and the roster spots are almost as valuable as the players that occupy them.

For the purpose of this discussion, I am going to define a short bench as six players or fewer.  The size of the league does not matter, although I would say that if the league does not use a kicker, I would have to adjust that statement to five spots for a short bench.  So why doesn’t the league size matter?  Because the bench roster spots and the management of them is more of a function of how many different types of starting roster players you have on a given team.  For example, if you have a typical 12-team league with a starting lineup of a quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker and a defense (commonly abbreviated as a 1-2-3-1-1-1 league), you have not just nine starters, but six different types of players represented in that lineup.  Regardless of the league size (eight teams, ten, or 14 or more) you still have six different types of starters.  Flex roster spots have a little influence (as in a RB/WR flex), but usually the short bench concerns start to occur when you have an equal or fewer number of bench spots as different starter types.  Note that this also translates over to IDP leagues, where you can have different types of players in broad definition (IDPs overall), semi-broad definition (DL, LB, DB), or very specific definition (DE, DT, LB (possibly inside and outside), CB, S).  I will mention that further in a bit.

For these leagues where bench spots are at a premium, a value for each type of performer has to be looked at and determined.  This usually means that if the bench is short for IDP players, you will keep possibly one linebacker (typically your top performing position) and forget the other positions for bench spots.  Again, this goes back to our first principle – if you only need to replace your starter once, you do not need a bench player for that.

Now that I have defined what a short bench means, let’s start talking about how to manage a team like this.  Again, it cannot be stated enough – every roster spot matters.  You need to look at each type of position and decide if it is worth carrying that type of player on the bench or not, and if you do not, how will you cover for a bye week.  That leads to our first guiding principle for short benches:

Short Bench Rule #1:  Do not carry a bench player that will only be used once in your lineup.

That may sound obvious, but it is not to everyone.  Most everyone recognizes that in a short bench league, you are not going to hold on to a second defense or kicker – but what about quarterback or tight end?  That’s a good question, and most likely you should not. Let’s talk about each skill position and how to manage the short bench.

QUARTERBACKS

Quite simply, you should not have a second quarterback in a short bench league.  There are rare exceptions, most likely for a league that starts two quarterbacks and/or has a flex spot that can use a quarterback.  Remember our first guiding principle – Do not carry a bench player that will only be used once in your lineup.  If you can start two quarterbacks, that means the quarterback position will require a backup at least twice – so a backup is valid in this instance.

RUNNING BACKS

Running backs are gold, no matter what type of fantasy league in which you play.  Most leagues require at least two in a starting lineup, so you better have at least one backup at the position.  Quite often you should consider at least two, especially if the league scoring favors the running back position and you  can start three or more each week.  Another point to keep in mind is that you want true feature tailbacks if at all possible, and do not worry about handcuffs.  The handcuff players are likely going to be on the waiver wire anyway.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Wide receiver is usually the second-most important position in a short bench league.  This comes from the overall need of your starting lineup.  Many leagues require three starting wide receivers, and if you can start three or more and if the scoring has wideouts comparable to running backs, a good team may be very competitive starting four receivers each week.  With that in mind, it makes sense to have at least one – probably two – backups on your bench.

TIGHT ENDS

The tight end position is very similar to the quarterback position – you usually only need to replace your tight end once a season.  More importantly, the tight end is quite often the lowest scoring skill player out of the “Big 4” of QB, RB, WR and TE.  Those two simple truths often lead smart owners to not roster a second option with a short bench.

KICKERS AND DEFENSES

As mentioned before, with a short bench, there is absolutely no good reason to roster either a second kicker or defense.  Just work the waiver wire and fill in for bye week concerns – or just swap out your original kicker or defense with another option.  It is also highly recommended that the kicker and defense do not share bye weeks to minimize bye week roster impacts.

IDP PLAYERS

IDP leagues with short benches can be tricky.  There are many variations of IDP leagues, including those where you can have different types of players in broad definition (IDPs overall), semi-broad definition (DL, LB, DB), or very specific definition (DE, DT, LB (possibly inside and outside), CB, S).  For these leagues where bench spots are at a premium, a value for each type of performer has to be looked at closely.  This usually means that if the bench is short for IDP players, you will keep possibly one linebacker (typically your top performing position) and forget the other positions for bench spots.  Again, this goes back to our first principle – if you only need to replace your starter once, you do not need a bench player for that.

DRAFT STRATEGY

When you have a short bench, you need to make every draft pick count – and go in to the draft with the idea of what positions you will not have a backup.  That translates to principle number two for short bench leagues:

Short Bench Rule #2:  For positions that have only one player on your team roster, you must have an elite player that you are comfortable as your every week starter at that position.

This has to be kept in mind when you draft both a quarterback and a tight end.  Odds are that you will have just one of each, so you want an elite option.  Adjust your draft plans accordingly.  Take a top tier quarterback so that you do not have a weekly lineup headache along with a bench spot eaten up by a second quarterback (or tight end).

Another concern on draft day – but to a lesser extent – are bye weeks.  For short bench leagues, bye week concerns have two dimensions – within a given position (like all of your RBs or WRs) and also across your entire lineup.  An excellent strategy is to keep your tight end, kicker and defense from sharing the same bye week.  This will allow you to cover those bye week needs with just one roster spot (if you want to keep your originally drafted option).  If you can swing it that your quarterback also does not have the same bye week, even better.

For maximum draft value, you will want to draft as many running backs and wide receivers as you can and forget backups for all the other positions.  That may sound strange, but it is much harder to find a starting running back or wide receiver off of the waiver wire that can be a productive starter than it is for the tight end or quarterback positions.  The free agent market is usually deep with starting quarterbacks in short bench leagues, so treat that player pool as an extension of your bench.

IN-SEASON MANAGEMENT

Once you have your roster set, just wait for the right time to swap out your tight end or quarterback with your last running back or wide receiver.  Odds are that one of your backup RB or WR spots will be a disappointment – or at least be the player you never start.  By the middle of the NFL season, you should have a good idea of who is the most expendable on your team and that player will be your first cut.  After that move, you will have a “flex bench spot” to cover your quarterback and tight end bye weeks.  Kicker or defense should either be covered by the same flex spot or by a replacement option.  Usually, by taking a kicker with a Week 8 or later bye week, you can grab a different kicker from free agency to replace that kicker with until you either switch back or just decide to keep the new kicker.  Similar decisions can be made with your defense on bye week.

Here is an example roster breakdown with a 1-2-3-1-1-1 setup for a 12-team league with six bench spots:

  • QB – Ben Roethlisberger (Bye 8)
  • RB – Ezekiel Elliot (7), Doug Martin (6), Ameer Abdullah (10), Rashad Jennings (8), James Starks (4)
  • WR – Randall Cobb (4), Golden Tate (10), Emmanuel Sanders (11), Willie Snead (4), Vincent Jackson (6), Josh Gordon (13)
  • TE – Gary Barnidge (13)
  • K – Brandon McManus (11)
  • D – Houston (9)

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.