I play in eight fantasy leagues. The majority of them are dynasty leagues with a significant IDP component. I only played in one true re-draft league this year — the Footballguys Staff League.
For the record, I made the playoffs in four of these eight leagues, losing the tiebreaker for a berth in two others. Last spring, I also took over a team in a devy-dynasty format that didn't win a game in 2016. After starting 0-5, I won 6 of 7 and nearly earned a playoff spot without a quarterback.
The team I'm profiling has a 10-3 record, a first-round bye, and faces Jeff Haseley's squad in the semifinals of the league. Last year, I lost in the semis to eventual champion Chase Stuart. More about that later.
I'm profiling this league because there are worthwhile lessons for all fantasy owners when it comes to drafting, lineups, and free agency.
Lesson No. 1 — when possible, know your competition
Last year, Jason Wood decided to make this league a super-flex format. A large percentage of our staff targeted quarterbacks in the early and middle rounds.
Blake Bortles was one of my two starters and despite a putrid follow-up to a great 2015 campaign, he was a surprisingly good garbage-time starter in this format. I remembered this for 2017 so I could make a strategic decision on timing my quarterback selections based on my competition.
Matthew Stafford was one of my Tier 1 QBs. With the fifth spot in this draft, I felt good about time the selection of my first passer so I got one of the last options in my first tier. Stafford was that guy and as the No. 8 player overall, his return exceeded my initial investment.
I opted again for Bortles because I wanted to select a lot of my valuable core players in the middle rounds and taking a second quarterback early didn't make a lot of sense to me. This is a PPR league with a 1.5 PPR TE premium and we can start a maximum of four backs, five receivers, and three tight ends.
The point differential between starting quarterbacks is generally not great enough to overcome strong players at other positions with these lineup allotments. Unless a fantasy owner can thread the needle and land two top-5 starters and still acquire strong players elsewhere, loading up on quarterbacks early doesn't make sense to me.
As the No. 8 passer in this league, the difference between Stafford and the No. 5 quarterback is less than half a point per game. The difference between Stafford and the No. 4 passer is three points per game. The difference between Bortles — the No. 17 option — and Stafford is four points per game.
I knew Bortles would be the least attractive veteran quarterback in this draft after what he did last year. Waiting until the Tier 1 passers were almost gone in the 3rd round and landing Stafford, and then waiting until the 11th round to acquire Bortles it afforded me the opportunity to take the meat of a successful starting lineup:
- Christian McCaffrey - a fantasy RB1 in this format.
- Delanie Walker - the No. 4 TE and the sixth tight end taken in the draft.
- Carlos Hyde - the second of three fantasy RB1s on my team.
- Marvin Jones - my 9.05 and a top-10 WR in this league.
I had my share of big misses — more on that later — but understanding where the pressure points in your draft exist helps you formulate a strategy. This is an underlying theme for my Upside-Down Strategy and David Dodd's Perfect Drafts.
Speaking of the Upside-Down Draft...
Lesson No. 2 — the running back position remains volatile
For the better part of a decade, I've been writing about the volatile nature of the running back position in fantasy football. It's not as much about talent as it is injury rates for the position and its supporting talent along the offensive line.
The ground game is a team game. Look at Todd Gurley last year and how much of the fantasy industry was questioning Gurley's talent. The real issue was the five other supporting players on the team and a lack of balance from the passing game.
Much of the fantasy community still regards the top running backs as the safest bets in fantasy drafts. While true when they stay healthy and their linemen maintain cohesion, there are more variables at work with the ground game that is difficult to predict.
Last year, I saw the potential for less volatility with top-projected running backs and decided to draft them early in this league. While I built a strong team, I made a crucial mistake with the first-round selection of Adrian Peterson. While that looked incredibly misguided last year, think about the Vikings' offensive line this year — 2017's performance is closer to what I expected if the Vikings line stayed healthy. However, injuries decimated the unit early and Peterson struggled until he hurt his knee.
That first-round pick cost me the championship. I'm not saying this anecdotally, 2016's champ, Chase Stuart figured this out last year. I was deciding between Peterson and LeVeon Bell. I liked the look of the Vikings line when healthy. I was also little skittish about Bell's suspension and the skill of DeAngelo Williams to keep Bell at bay if Bell suffered any nagging injury.
Learning my lesson, I returned to playing the odds in favor of running back volatility. I especially liked this rookie class of backs — the most talented group with immediate impact potential I've seen since 2007 — so I made up my mind not to be afraid of taking a lot of them.
(Lesson 2.5: Trust your analysis when you do a lot of it in a meticulous manner. If you fail, build on it and it will get better long-term. Abandon it for someone else's ideas and you'll never develop a methodology or compass.)
I waited until the fourth round to take my first back. I still got the 10th back off the board and waiting didn't impact my ability to acquire three backs in the middle rounds. By the end of the eighth round, I had more runners (3) than all but one team. I found the block of players I coveted based on ADP and incorporated this into my timing of a landing a Tier 1 and Tier 2 QB.
|Round||Player||Position Rank||Overall Rank|
|8.09||Danny Woodhead (Cut after Wk 1)||82||375|
|14.08||Dion Lewis (Cut After Wk 4)||33||153|
|16.08||Jamaal Charles (Cut After Wk 12)||61||266|
I drafted three RB1s in the middle rounds and four backs in the Top 36 at the position — including Cohen, who only posted one dud performance during the five weeks I've started him. While there's an undeniable luck factor with landing a back of Kamara's production in the 13th round, it's about creating scenarios where you maximize your opportunities for luck to strike.
It means knowing the skill of the players, understanding the intended usage of the player, the strength of the offensive line (Sigmund Bloom highlighted the underrated awesomeness of the Saints' run-blocking unit at Footballguys this spring), and the areas of the draft where position volatility is the least damaging but the potential for return still remains reasonably high.
The benefit of the Upside-Down Draft Strategy is the opportunity to select less volatile options at the earliest stage of the draft. That brings us to Lesson No. 3.
Lesson No. 3 — identify the safest options with your early picks
If I'm going Upside-Down to avoid volatility at running back, it only stands to reason that I should take a high-scoring position with less volatility due to injury. While receivers have volatility, injury isn't as great of an issue for the position as it is for runners.
If I remember correctly, Antonio Brown was my top-ranked fantasy option — or very close for most of the spring and summer. One of the lessons (call it Lesson 3.5 for today) I share annually about top receivers is that a healthy percentage of the elite producers at the position have a teammate or two in the passing game who is also a fantasy starter — often a fellow WR1 or TE1. Top receivers benefit from teammates who prevent opposing defenses from bracketing them all the time or shadowing them with its best cornerback.
I took Brown fifth and he's currently the No. 5 overall player in this league. The only other team with a first-round investment that has this kind of return was Jene Bramel's selection of Tom Brady the pick before me. Considering my third-round selection Matthew Stafford is the No. 8 player overall and only half a point per game behind Brady, Brown's investment was more worthwhile.
My second pick was Dez Bryant — 20th overall. Despite injuries to the offensive line, miscommunications with Dak Prescott, and Ezekiel Elliott's suspension, Bryant is the No. 20 fantasy receiver in this league. That's a worthwhile return on investment considering that I took Bryant because of his line, his rapport with Prescott, and the ground game.
Lesson No. 4 — Shoot your shot
While conventional fantasy thinking is to take running backs and quarterbacks early because the top options score a truck-load of points, I prefer safer options early and picking "my guys" in the middle and late rounds. "My guys" are the players I'm higher on than the consensus and you can't be afraid to put your money where your mouth is.
The key is figuring out the point in the draft where you can take them ahead of ADP but so early that you derail opportunities for other players you value. This league is one of my favorites because of the level of competition.
Bob Henry, Jason Wood, and Maurile Tremblay probably have the greatest track record success with projections in the industry. Sigmund Bloom, Aaron Rudnicki, and Jeff Haseley are three of the toughest competitors I face in multiple leagues every year. Chase Stuart and Adam Harstad possess fantastic analytical skills that help them build high scorers. Cecil Lammey and Mark Wimer are strong at maintaining the pulse of trends and you can't give them an opening to exploit.
And that leaves Clayton Gray, who I'd bet has the best overall win-loss record of anyone in this league over the past 3-5 years. He's arguably the best fantasy owner of this group.
As you can see, everyone is a sharp-shooter — especially Clayton, Chase, and Adam, who are masterful draft-day snipers. It means you have to shoot your shot.
These were "my guys" who I had significantly higher than the consensus this year and I went strong to the hole:
|Round||Player||Position Rank||Overall Rank|
As you might expect, I didn't get all my shots off in this league. Clayton took Jamaal Williams and Paul Richardson in the 10th and 16th round, respectively and settled for Austin Hooper and Taylor Gabriel in those rounds.
Pryor was a swing and a miss, but it's mitigated by seventh-round price. (Lesson 4.5: Young receivers can regress if they switch teams early in their careers. Pryor went from a strong pass catcher to a guy second-guessing fundamental techniques of attacking the football on the field.)
Readers joke that if anyone mentions Richardson, Marvin Jones, Spencer Ware, and Cedric Peerman, they will hear my name shouted in the echo. Jones was masterful early in 2016 and his production fell off a cliff. (Lesson 4.6: If a receiver's production suddenly declines and the reasons are injury and bracket coverage, don't blame the player, blame the game.) I banked on him as that starting fantasy option that I could land at a reserve price in most formats. In this league, targeted at the high end of that estimation.
I ranked Kupp higher than anyone this summer. I told readers that Kupp was the most likely rookie to surprise fantasy owners as the most productive year-one option. In this format, Kupp is 30 points ahead of the No. 2 rookie option, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
I maintained all spring and summer that Lewis was the best runner on the Patriots and referenced a local article where Bill Belichick stated his excitement about Lewis' rehab well before training camp. While I cut Lewis before his value kicked-in, it was to add Aaron Jones, who delivered a strong week for me during the two weeks that used him.
Looking back on the transaction, it was a wash during the time that I needed a bye-week option. However, long-term I would have been better off with Lewis, even if I would have continued to roll with Kamara, Hyde, and McCaffrey as my starters.
Cohen was a player I touted late in the preseason after John Fox told the FOX broadcast crew that Cohen was small, not short. That's old-school coach code for "we're going to use him as a running back and not only a gadget player."
That was true early on and Cohen was a fantastic return on investment in September.
Most people identify what I'm sharing as "trust your gut." I prefer "shoot your shot," because your shot is what you do best. I'm best at mid-and-late picks at running back and wide receiver. I try to set up my draft so I can shoot as many of those shots as possible.
Lesson 5 — Know the unknown and the overlooked
Cooper Kupp, Tarik Cohen, Aaron Jones, Peyton Barber, J.D. McKissic, Brett Hundley, Mike Davis, and Austin Ekeler were all relative "unknowns" to begin the year. These are players I know extremely well. Many of them I've written about extensively. They've all spent time on my roster and in my starting lineup.
Barber and Davis aren't so much unknown as they are overlooked and written off. When a player is barely hanging onto a depth chart spot it doesn't mean he lacks talent — especially at running back. As I often write, NFL running backs are the NBA's equivalent of shooting guards. You can get one off the street to deliver significant production in the right circumstances.
Look at Alex Collins.
Keep an open mind on these players and when you hear a friend, colleague, or writer say these guys aren't talented, remind yourself that you know better and to keep an open mind when you learn they begin moving up the depth chart or could earn time as a contributor.
(Lesson 5.5: If you're going to pull the trigger on one of these guys and you need them to contribute, have the guts to use them! The reasons you added them should have been about talent and situation. If not, you're only playing keep-away from the competition. That's fine but again, if you know the unknown and overlooked, shoot your shot!)
Lesson 6 — develop your own compass and Have fun
I know, it's corny. It's also true. I love competing and I hate losing. However, the only thing I hate more than losing is losing on someone else's terms.
Footballguys content is designed for a variety of fantasy owners. Our original audience consists of the hardest of the hardcore fantasy fanatics. You guys are my people at heart and few of you need to read this lesson.
While many readers don't have that hardcore attitude due to specific priorities in their lives, they still want to win and they rely on Footballguys for information. Many of you in this category might even say you rely on Footballguys to win. After all, our tagline is "Win Your League."
I agree with that tagline, but I believe that most of all, we want you to win your league on your terms. In order for that to happen consistently, you need to develop your own compass. It means using our information to flesh out your own strengths and weaknesses. Once you learn these things about your play, you can begin to target what's most valuable for your development.
My competition and their articles help me develop my own compass. I knew Adrian Peterson in the first round was a risk, and it cost me a championship. I also knew I had to take that path to learn valuable lessons about when I was most comfortable taking backs and which backs I should target when I'm selecting outside of my comfort zone.
There isn't one strategic magic pill to building a winner, in the same way, there's no single successful physical and stylistic prototype for success at the positions we use in fantasy football. Julio Jones, Steve Smith, and Keenan Allen are as different as can be and each played to their strengths.
Learn your strengths and play to them. Have fun figuring them out and use our work to guide you in that direction.