The Gut Check No.304: Five Draft Strategies That Will Make You a Better Fantasy Owner

If you want to be great fantasy owner there are no panaceas. Waldman shares five draft strategies that will help the long-term development of your fantasy football chops . 

Greatness Comes From Practice

When it comes to the success of readers, fantasy writers are concerned about short-term matters: Which players are on the rise/decline, where to get value this year, which strategies work well this season. These topics are all panaceas if you want to be a good fantasy owner "this year." 

But one condition of greatness is sustained excellence. If you want to become a great fantasy owner, you need more than a strong draft game and skill with managing your weekly lineups. You also need to develop the chops to negotiate trades and make wise decisions in free agency.

The only way to gain these skills is practice. However, most of you are here to get the answers to the test without doing the homework.

Even those who are willing to do the extra work don't know how to practice. Most people have an incomplete idea of what practice is. 

They're focused on repeating a task until they perfect it and they often do it in the vacuum of one specific context to apply the skill. When the context changes, they're lost and back at square one.

Few people practice by exploring the full range contexts where they can apply their potential talents and limitations. Even fewer embrace the value of making mistakes. It is this simple reason why it's so rare for anyone to be great at anything in life. 

Quality practice requires a lot of mistake-filled outcomes while exploring a multitude of situations. Those who practice well are mindful. They take note of why they're succeeding and failing and they develop the awareness to gauge where the thin line between success and failure exists in a variety of situations. 

Tom Brady said as much in 2012 about practice. He explores all of the thin lines between success and failure so he is well prepared for what happens in a real-time environment. Like Brady, if you want to be great you have to be willing to do the same. 

The difficult part about practicing your fantasy football skills is that the only well-known method -- the mock draft -- is focused on the most overexposed aspect of the hobby. We don't have mock trades, mock free agency, and mock lineup decision applications to help fantasy owners improve these skills. 

But it doesn't mean you can't improvise. 

If you join specific leagues with the intent of research, experimentation, and practice, you can make your seasons in these leagues a personal training ground. All you have to do is make conscious decisions during your draft to build your team so you have to lean more on in season management skills.

In other words, sabotage your draft. 

This is at least how some of you will see my recommendation, but the real way to describe what I'm telling you to do is to play in certain leagues where learning takes the top priority over winning. I have designed draft strategies that will provide you an opportunity to work on your weaknesses as a fantasy owner. 

I recommend having at least one experimental league for every type of format where you compete. Again, the purpose is to experiment with draft strategies that will force you to anticipate and work through in-season problems.

The expectation with this league isn't to win, but to learn and refine your game. Even if you're a high-stakes player, you don't have to spend any money to set up these environments.

Many people will read this article, but most won't try its' recommendations. The reason is simple: Striving for greatness is too hard -- especially when there is no guarantee that you'll reach your destination.

But for the handful of you who dare to be great and have the persistence to follow through, here are five draft strategies that will help you develop your chops. I'll name each strategy, explain what it will help you learn about your talents as a drafter, and show you how it will set up a team that forces you to practice certain in season skills. 

The first two are structured to help you practice trades, free agency, and lineup decisions. The final three are more draft-focused, but you can also use to develop your inseason management chops. 

NO.1: The Single-heavy Strategy

What is it? The strategy is what it sounds like: You draft as many players at one position as possible while only selecting the minimum number of positions that you need to fill the rest of your starting lineup.

In a 20-round draft, use between 30-60 percent of your picks on one position. The lower limit of this range is what I recommend if you're focusing on positions (QB, TE, K, DEF) that have only one spot in a starting lineup. The upper limit of this range is for the positions that have 3-5 positions in a lineup (RB, WR, and sometimes TE). 

Who Should Do It? Fantasy owners who want to focus on improving their evaluation and projections for a specific position. 

Diagnostic Benefits: Execute this strategy for a few seasons and you'll get a feel for how adept you are at evaluating talent, scheme fit, and/or projecting performance at a specific position. Do you fear that you're not strong at selecting running backs? Adopt a position-heavy strategy where you go heavy on the position.

During the first year of executing this strategy, make a concerted effort to select runners whose talent you believe in and not because ADP or fantasy writers tell you these prospects are a good value. Take notes on the hits and misses at season's end: What do these hits and misses have in common in terms of size, age, skill types, role in offense, scheme styles, injury types, draft position, etc?

If you do this for a few years, you'll begin to spot patterns with your successes and failures. Some may correspond with fantasy advice you've read or they'll be factors that are unique to your individual perspective. You'll also begin to develop a well-rounded understanding of incorporating data and film analysis into your preparation. 

What you learn should inform your projections, your blind spots with certain styles of runners, and your strengths evaluating specific types of running back talent. Whatever position you choose to "go heavy on," a few years of this approach should help you improve your evaluations and projections in a fraction of the time it might take by simply competing with a conventional strategy that's focused on perfection over practice.

In-Season Focus: Because this strategy requires a fantasy owner to lean hard on one position, it's likely that you'll have a wealth of talent at one position and a deficit of talent at other spots. If this is the case, you've built a team where you have enough resources to practice your trade negotiation to acquire premium players. 

Because you won't know if you drafted well enough to have an immediate glut of talent at one position until at least 2-3 weeks into the season, it's worth your while to initiate deals as soon as the regular season begins. You might give away a great player for little in return early on, but when it comes to the art of the deal you have to learn what type of early season offers are worth making compared to potential midseason deals.

If you discover by midseason that you did not acquire a glut of talented players then your exercise in trading becomes a more challenging endeavor but still worthwhile. Now you have to begin with more modest deals with the aim of upgrading your position depth to make bigger trades.

For instance, you may have to make minor deals involving a handcuff for a low-end starter or unproven player at another position and hope that player outperforms his value and one of your bench players earns an opportunity to star so you can turn that unproven player into a profit with a second deal. Or, you might have to use the waiver wire to acquire a high-performing free agent and package him with one of your underperforming players at this position glut to buy a player that can help you.

Regardless of the quality of players of your position-heavy strategy, you'll have a variety of paths where you can initiate deals. The fact that your roster is so unbalanced will provide enough motivation to make you build through trades for at least half of the season. It's the kind of practice you want to get.   

If you decide to work on the quality of your free agency acquisitions, an unbalanced roster increases the need for you to rely on the sound lineup decisions and the waiver wire. I believe there's enough focus on lineup decisions in the fantasy industry that most fantasy owners can learn this skill through the weekly practice of setting lineups.

If you want to accelerate that process, it's worth noting the player's position, his role in his offense, the number of touches/looks that he receives in that role,and the amount of points per look he earns. Even so, a lot of this information is covered in weekly lineup strategy pieces. 

As for the waiver wire, I'll have more at the end of this article about studying free agency. 

No.2: The Dual-Heavy Strategy

What is it? You go heavy at two positions during your draft and maintain a minimal allotment of players elsewhere to field a starting lineup. You can execute the dual position-heavy strategy three ways:

  1. Go heavy at one position early and another late.
  2. Go heavy at one position early and another in the middle rounds.
  3. Alternate picks at each position in the early and middle rounds. 

An example of going "heavy at one position early" in a 20-round draft is selecting 5-8 players (20-40 percent of your roster) at that position within the first 10 rounds. Going "heavy late" is selecting 5-8 players during the final 10 rounds If you go early/middle then you're seeking 5 of each in the first 10 rounds. If you alternate then you're choosing 10-16 players from two positions during the first 10-16 rounds of a 20-round draft. 

Who Should Do it?/Diagnostic Benefits: This strategy and its variations are good for owners that have already worked with the Single-Heavy Strategy and they want to continue working on this weak area while balancing another position of strength into the mix on draft day. It's also a good starting point before trying the Single-Heavy, especially you find one-for-one trade offers harder to make. This approach should give you enough strength at more than one position to generate package deals, which are often easier to sell for inexperienced negotiators.

Opt for one of the first two paths if you think you're a strong evaluator at one position (late picks) and weaker at another (early picks). You'll have a quality trade bait - if not a promising team - if you're able to pick studs and quality starters early at one position and locate at least one startable value in the late rounds with the position where you're a strong evaluator.  Try No.3 if you're trying to acquire a safer group of players from two positions to use as trade bait. 

In-Season Focus: A Dual-Heavy draft shoud proivde an owner enough ammo to create more package deals. You may also have more room for error early in the season because you have potential for a greater variety of position strength to make deals. 

No.3: Bargain Shopping

What is it? Your objective is to build a team with a majority of players that have an average draft position at least 10-12 picks higher than the spot you select them. Keep in mind that it's virtually impossible to find values of this magnitude during the first three rounds.

However, as soon as you identify players that fall in your draft for reasons that don't have to do with a recent injury or off-field issues make it a priority to take these players while paying attention to position balance the way you do with your normal approach in the draft. 

Who Should Do it?/Diagnostic Benefits: This is a good way to document which "bargains" before the draft remain as such as the season plays out. Keep a log of the players you selected that you believed were bargains and those that you thought weren't a value.

Look for the same commonalities and differences between successful picks and failed picks when it comes to football position, body type, skill sets, offensive style, scheme, age difference, injury, and draft position. Also note if there was a surplus or scarcity of the position with each selection.

For example, you may discover after logging several drafts that if you took a RB in the fourth round because he was considered a third-round ADP value, but in hindsight the better values at this point in the draft are consistently quarterback or tight end, then adjust your draft strategy accordingly.

Track the number of players that didn't fulfill their value projection due to injury and unless the player has a chronic injury with a specific body part that makes him slightly more "injury prone" (read Jene Bramel on this topic) then remove this information from your analysis.

Are you missing out on players you wanted and they performed better than the players you took because ADP (the Emily Post of fantasy sports) told you it was good value? This exercise will help you figure out if you have an eye for value and where that eye works best. 

In-Season Focus: One thing worth observation is how to market players that you drafted at a value. What type of response do you get from owners when you offer them a value pick who is performing well? Do they offer premium players in return? Does it vary according to position or the owners' needs?

If you're seeking additional knowledge about lineup decisions, it might be worth studying your tendency to start a name player over an option that surprises that season. How many weeks did you wait before you used him in your starting lineup over the name-brand option?

Study players at a variety of positions that where fantasy surprises. Footballguys player pages provide enough data to look at weekly production from past seasons to do this -- note players that surprised in the past like Keenan Allen, Alfred Morris, or Russell Wilson. Begin tracking these players by position and figure out if there's anything worthwhile to note about how soon you should trust them for your lineups over slumping players. Were nagging injuries or injuries to teammates a factor for the slumping players? 

No.4:  ReachIng 

What is it? This is a similar process as Bargain Shoppping, but the objective is to build a team where you take players earlier than their ADP. In contrast to Bargain Shopping, you can reach for players from the beginning to the end of any draft. While I would recommend keep the range greater than a 12-18 spots earlier than ADP when you're picking in the first 4-6 rounds, you can incrementally broaden that range to 24-36 spots -- or greater -- as your draft progresses into the mid and late rounds. 

Who Should Do it?/Diagnostic Benefits: The same reasons for the Bargain Shopping exercise apply to the Reaching strategy. How good are you at gauging value? Which positions are you best at gauging value. When you hit on a reach did the pick out-perform what you would have done if you waited for perceived value or stayed to the letter of average draft position? 

A good way to do this exercise is to do mock drafts with strategies No.3, No.4, and No.5 and examine the differences. Log the information and see if you come up with any worthwhile information as the years pass.  

No.5: To The Letter of The ADP

What is it? Pick a team that follows the ADP data within +/- 6-8 spots. 

Who Should Do it?/Diagnostic Benefits: See exercises No.3 and No.4

No.6: Free Wheeling

What is it? Create a draft board where you exclude players you don't like for whatever reason: fear of injuries, distrust of the surrounding talent, age, etc. Put the players in order based on how you value them according to your personal projections or rankings. Don't even look at ADP when you first make this list. 

Once you've finished with the first draft of this board, consult ADP data to fine-tune your list. The goal is to get as many of the players on your list as possible. If it means waiting four rounds to pick a player you value as a top-25 fantasy option and still getting three other players on your list that you don't value as high, do it.

In essence, if you reach five rounds for one player and wait seven rounds lower than your valuation of another player, do it. At the same time, feel free to make some outrageous reaches if you know that taking Steven Jackson in the third round when he's a seventh-round value helps you get more of your mid-round options that you've rated higher than most. 

Who Should Do it?/Diagnostic Benefits: Fantasy owners who are too worried about getting value will find this a good exercise if they have the self-control/discipline to undertake it. Owners who regret not acting on their strong takes about specific players that outperform ADP by a large margin. 

Some owners may find that they should loosen up and take more chances. Others may learn that they need to tighten up their draft-day discipline because they're too impulsive when they read hot takes about an undervalued player. And there are owners who are so dismissive of a player after a negative report in practice or preseason that they made egregious choices to eliminate players from their draft board that they should have considered. 

The free wheeling strategy helps you see how beneficial or hurtful these types of choices are to your team-building. Should you limit your wild cuts to a smaller group of players? What rounds should you take these swings? Which positions should you avoid engaging in this style of risk-taking?

In-Season Focus: Building a team through the draft where you veer from the consensus with a lot of your decisions should help you see how dependent it will make you with trades and free agency. Are you good enough at these aspects of team management to take these wild swings in strategy and still build a good team if you fail? 

How to Monitor The Waiver Wire

Create a spreadsheet or journal and log transactions in your leagues. Some information might be best restricted to leagues with similar formats. Others information might have enough in common with a broader range of league types. This is some of the information I'm considering:

  • Position
  • Preseason ADP
  • Week Added
  • Week Dropped
  • Player Dropped/Added Due to Injury
  • Player Dropped/Added Due to Demotion-Promotion
  • Player Dropped/Added Due to Poor/Strong Performance
  • Total Times Added by Teams in League x Year
  • Total Times Dropped by Teams in League x Year
  • Total Times Started by Teams x Year
  • End-of-Year Ranking
  • End-of-Year Fantasy Points
  • Considered a Starter When Dropped
  • Considered a Starter When Added
  • Weeks of Starter-Caliber Fantasy Production Before Added
  • Weeks of Starter-Caliber Fantasy Production After Added
  • Weeks of Starter-Caliber Fantasy Production After Dropped
  • Traded?
  • ADP of Players Received in Trade
  • Weeks of Starter-Caliber Fantasy Production From Players Received in Trade

One year of tracking this information in several leagues may not be enlightening, but several years of doing so could yield interesting results about the best/worst weeks of the season to add and drop players, position demand, and how owners gain/lose value with their choices. 

I'm looking into tracking this information from a 3-5 years of leagues that I have access to and writing about his information during the season if there are worthwhile insights to help owners make strategic decisions. If this kind of research yields good information, it could force us to examine the choices we make when he draft, make lineup decisions, and how to position trades for maximum profit. 

None of this information will help you win your league this year, but if you join a few leagues and consider them "practice venues" you'll get a lot from the experience if you do it to study the hobby. By the way, don't share what you're doing with your league mates; let them think you're trying a foolish new strategy.

For some of you this will be easier said than done because ego can get in the way. But if you're one of the few intent on getting better and have the time and discipline to do so, you'll eventually be ready to compete with anyone.


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