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Faceoff: Taking Talent vs League Setup

July 22nd

Clayton Gray: Discuss how to balance grabbing talent versus your draft being dictated by league parameters (scoring/roster set-up/etc). In general, how much does the league setup change the makeup of your roster?

Jason Wood: The league setup plays a huge role. Fantasy football is about maximizing your team's production, and by definition what's optimal in a 10-team redraft is going to differ from a 12-team auction or a 12-team 53-man roster long-term dynasty league. You have to understand not only the league's limitations on draft day, but also how easy/hard it will be to make changes to your roster during the season. You also need to know your opponents. Do they have tendencies in the draft you can exploit? Do they have known weaknesses or soft spots for certain players that you can capitalize on in trade talks? Everything that shapes your league is vital to your plan of action.

Jene Bramel: The league setup defines your draft board. Talent is obviously important, but the talents of one player may fit one draft board much better than another. LeSean McCoy, Wes Welker and Tony Gonzalez, all very talented players, should change tiers for most drafters in PPR leagues.

My tiers will change, sometimes dramatically, based on whether the league includes PPR, one or more flex players, 10 or 16 teams, etc. I tend to err on the side of talent and upside within tiers, but I'll be looking for more upside and more targets in a PPR league with 10 teams and multiple flexes than in a non-PPR league with no flex slots and 16 teams where a stable veteran WR3 with a higher floor might be the smarter draft pick.

Sigmund Bloom: There's a reason that "Know your league scoring and lineups" is one of our mottos on the Audible. You are always going to focus on grabbing talent, but the league setup will dictate the priority you put on each position, which dictates how your draft unfolds. A few key points per position:

  • In a 10 or 12 team league QBBC is still viable, but in 14 or 16 team leagues, you can get caught on the wrong side of a run because there aren't even 20 reliable options this year. In a pt per 20 passing yards and 6 pts for all TDs league, grabbing one of the top 7 becomes a stronger strategy.
  • PPR leagues can really skew the value of guys like Blount, Turner, Greene, who won't catch many passers, but often people overreact and push them too far down the board. They're all still viable RBs, Turner still possibly RB1 quality. In non-PPR leagues, RB is still king and you should basically draft like we did back in the "Stud RB theory" days - hoard RBs and earmark the majority of your premium picks for the position.
  • It's hard to get excited about stud WRs in non-PPR leagues because the advantage they give you over their competition is reduced greatly. In that setup, no WR is worth a first round pick, or maybe even a second. In PPR leagues with three starters and a flex, WR is king. You should plan on using three of your first five picks on the position, and maybe four of the first seven. WRs will be in shorter supply and the ability to start four WR1/WR2 level producers can carry you. You can also tailor your later RB picks to include more rookies and high-upside risk/reward plays.
  • TE premium leagues are growing in number, so it is important to know if you play in a league with 1+ PPR and enhanced yardage scoring for TEs. In these leagues, TEs can make for strong flexes, and players like Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, and Jermichael Finley can give you first-round value in the third or fourth round. Not only does the TE premium make TEs more valuable with respect to other positions, but it also makes the elite TEs gap from the pack bigger, so getting one of them becomes even more important.
  • K/DEF: I like waiting until the last two rounds to address these positions, but if your league gives points (and even takes points away) for yardage and points allowed for defenses, or awards more than a point per turnover/sack, a premium defense might be worth a pick as early as the 9th/10th round. Kickers who have the distance legs to get a lot of 50+ yard attempts might be worth a pick in the 15th/16th round in leagues that award 1/10 of a point for each yard of a field goal's distance.

Matt Waldman: Talent is a deceptive term to a lot of fantasy football owners. If I were simply picking players based on talent I'd take Jonathan Stewart over LeSean McCoy or Ray Rice. I'd take Chad Ochocinco, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, and Michael Crabtree over Reggie Wayne. However, the way these players are used in their respective offenses to give their talents full or limited expression is the key difference. Fantasy football is no different than NFL in this respect. You learn the rules, figure out which players possess the talent to contribute and the teams that will provide the setting and support to maximize that talent, and strategize how to acquire as many of them as possible in the draft. Simple concept, but difficult to master year after year.

Jeff Pasquino: No question that the league setup really impacts your roster. Stud QBs are worth even more in leagues with special rules (such as a Super-Flex or Start 2 QB leagues). As Bloom stated, the talent pool gets scary thin after about 20 or so quarterbacks are picked, and after the first 7-8 names go off of the board there is a marked dropoff. Running backs clearly are much different based on PPR vs. non-PPR, as Blount and Turner sink in value while Ray Rice and Lesean McCoy spike in PPR. Leagues where you have to can get away with only one RB in your starting lineup de-emphasize RB depth (and at the same time emphasize having a stud RB1), while other leagues where you can flex 3 or 4 into your lineup can really boost their value. Couple that with non-PPR and you have a very RB-heavy league, so you better be aware of what the league rules are.

The complimentary comments can be made about both wide receivers and tight ends. If you need 3 WRs in your roster (again, I say the "norm"), that is much different than in smaller leagues where you may only need one or two. When you need fewer WRs, studs matter more and depth barely matters. Add in PPR and WRs get a strong boost - pushing many stud WRs to comparable stud RB values. With no PPR they are worth far less. Tight ends also fall into a similar category, and with so many viable TEs now in fantasy depth is usually best left on the waiver wire to try and find the next stud RB.

Another critical thing to note about league setup and talent is how the waiver wire will be handled. Is it one of the "first come, first served" style league, or is it the dreaded "worst team gets first pick" style? Many leagues have now gone to the free agency auction bid (FAAB) style where you post a private list of players with auction bids from your free agent budget. All of that matters because if it is going to be challenging to add waiver wire talent then you have to draft accordingly. Stashing sleepers and handcuff RBs matter more when it will be tough for a team to get those players off of the waiver wire mid-season.

Jeff Haseley: Several people have added great advice so far. I'll add a little bit more to what has been said already, focusing on the QB position. I believe it is becoming more and more accepted to select an elite QB in the early rounds of the draft. Not only are they a better bet to meet their already high expectations, but if the league setup yields a 6 point per TD pass scoring format vs. 4 points per TD pass, that trend is even more popular. Leagues that require two starting QBs can definitely not be neglected in the early rounds. In most league formats, QB scoring is vital. What is a better move? Selecting a proven top end QB in round three or being forced to choose which RB of those remaining, has a better chance of not busting? Having said all of that, I believe there are several quality QBs that aren't getting enough credit this year. Tony Romo is a slightly forgotten man, due to his injury last year, but he has the ability to put up solid numbers. Aside from last year, he was building on three consecutive years of 26 TD passes or more. Matt Ryan is on the verge of becoming an elite QB, as is Sam Bradford. Bradford may be a year out from being a highly sought after fantasy QB, but at his current draft position, I like his chances of exceeding expectations. Your QB position will be stronger than the majority of your opponents if you are able to select Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning. To get that edge, you will have to draft them relatively early. Is it worth it? A proven low bust rate of elite QBs in recent years suggests that it is.

Mark Wimer: League setup is obviously a huge factor when it comes to draft boards. Some leagues have rules to try and "level" the various skill positions in value (like giving 1.5 points per reception to tight ends, but 1 point to wide receivers and .5 points to running backs, etc.), while others have much simpler scoring rules. As Jene noted, your draft boards should change significantly from draft to draft depending on how each league implements roster and scoring rules.

That all said, I think that there is a reward to waiting to draft your third wide receiver and the depth at wide receiver until late in almost any given fantasy draft. Basically, you are rolling the dice in late rounds on wide receivers #3 through the end of your bench. Waiting longer than usual for your wide receivers allows you to target the sparser ranks of RB/TE/QB during the mid rounds of the draft, but I've found it generally doesn't hurt my teams' wide receiver position overall (assuming you've secured solid #1 and #2 wide receivers in the early rounds of the draft).

Every year there are "surprise" players who bubble up among the wide receivers - this is largely due to the fact that teams, generally speaking, field more wide receivers each week than any other position, so there is more opportunity for an unheralded, but talented, guy to suddenly appear on the fantasy landscape. Brandon Lloyd is last year's prime example of this phenomenon.

Take, for example, Golden Tate, a guy that the Seahawks say they want to become much more involved in the offense this year. Tate was considered one of the most "pro-ready" guys in the 2010 draft at his position, but he underwhelmed in year one (39 targets for 21/227/0), and isn't a hot fantasy prospect in most redraft leagues. He's a guy I plan on rostering a lot late in drafts this year - I think he's an excellent candidate for surging in production during 2011. I'm drafting him based on my perception of his talent and opportunity to play in Seattle (Deon Butler had a horrifyingly-broken leg last season and I'm not sure he'll ever be the player he might have otherwise been; Ben Obomanu should be a guy that Tate can move past on the depth chart if Tate does well in training camp).

Also, as there are more wide receivers in play each week than any other skill position, there are more guys who go down to injury in any given week at that position, presenting opportunities to "churn" your WR bench as likely prospects show up on the waiver wire. The same thing can't be said about QB (there are not very many starting-caliber backup QBs in the NFL), RB (in most leagues every RB with some chance at productivity are already rostered at the end of the draft) or TE (like QB, there just aren't many starting-caliber fantasy tight ends available in the NFL - they are all likely to be rostered at the end of the draft).