Dear Draft: It's Not All About You

Matt Waldman kicks the draft to the corner and gives you the goods on what will help you tame the August Monster. 

You're So Vain, I Bet You Think This Article is ABout You

Dear Fantasy Draft, 

Your ego is out of control and we're to blame. ADP, VBD, UDD, Draft Dominator, or Perfect Draft, you're the center of attention. You're the subject of television, radio, podcasts, hangouts, magazines, websites, and smart phone apps. Readers, writers, celebrities, and professional athletes all want a piece of you.

You dominate summer. You're a corporate distraction.You're Christmas in August.

And I'm about to give you a long-needed kick in your John Brown hindparts.

It seems everyone believes you're the most important part of fantasy football season. Maybe it's because you've given working-age adults an excuse to throw a party, eat unhealthy food, drink too much, and wear over-sized, numbered pajamas tops with someone else's name emblazoned on their backs. You are fun that way, but I digress.

But you're not just the life of the party, you're the great purveyor of hope. Every team has a roster with massive potential and everyone is still undefeated. You sell the dream, but you're nothing more than a pusher with a gateway drug.

By season's end only one of us avoids living the nightmare and still we keep coming back for the gruel.

My God, you've got a sweet deal.

It's time to put you in your place. You might be the quarterback, but you're not the whole offense. You might be the foundation, but you're not the entire house. You might be Curly, but you're not the Three Stooges.

You don't win championships for fantasy owners; you're only the first step. And to be honest, fantasy owners can trip and fall with that first step and still win the race. You're overrated.

You're nothing but a tool.

I know big guy, the truth hurts. Why don't you shuffle to the icebox and put something cool on that before it swells to elephantine proportions. I'll take care of your adoring fans while your voice has temporarily jumped an octave...

Yours Truly,

The Gut Check 

Even those you like sometimes need a figurative kick in the ass to bring them back to reality. As we approach the peak of draft season, there's still time for an intervention of sorts. If you want to have a successful draft, you need to look beyond the draft. 

Contrary to the tone of fantasy football marketing, the draft is not the end-all be-all of the hobby. Moreover, too many of you screw up your teams trying to color inside the lines and have an even balance of positions, bye week coverage for every spot, and talent with favorable schedules on paper.

No my friends, fantasy football is not played on paper or pixels; it's only scored that way. The nuts and bolts of the game still takes place on the field and all our precious little theories that we spend months formulating, debating, and executing often get blown to smithereens before September drops off the calendar. 

As I've been saying for at least a couple of years, a winning fantasy team is a table and it needs multple legs to stand on. The draft is one of them and lineup management is another. The other two vital aspects of team management that can dramatically change the fortunes of your roster: the waiver wire and trades. 

If you do a little thinking and planning about about the dynamics of free agency and trades, you'll have enough perspective to formulate a draft plan that sets up your in-season management. And unless you pick the winning power ball numbers, you're going to need to rely on in-season management. 

Trades and Waivers: What You Need to Know

While it's true that the draft is the most expedient way to build a promising team, you can turn a bad roster into a championship team with a grinder's mentality towards weekly transactions and smart lineup management. To do so, you need a realistic expectation of what you can do with the waiver wire and trades. Otherwise you're going to become one of those owners who blames the fortunes of his team on "the stupidity of my league mates who don't understand the value of players and won't engage in fair trades." 

Trades are great ways to improve a team, but they require a long-term mentality.  Read The Only Trade Article You Need to Read for more information on how to cultivate your negotiation skills -- especially in local leagues where you have an opportunity to establish true familiarity with your competition. If you play online with people you don't see or there's a lot of league turnover, the waiver wire is more often your first option.

Fantasy owners prefer the waiver wire to trades

In my experience, most fantasy owners prefer to try their luck with free agency before they pursue or agree to a trade. I put this question on Twitter recently and with the exception of fantasy writers, most owners stated a preference for free agency as the initial course of action.

The reasons are fairly obvious: Trade offers often spark counter offer involving players the owner doesn't want to give up; negotiations can take too long and interfere with an owners' plans for the waiver wire; and most owners look a the prospect of a trade and wonder why give up something you value if you can (in theory) get something for nothing? 

Why does this information matter in August? The number of players at each position you take and the rounds you draft them affects your team management. 

Imagine team No.5 is yours from this draft and you can start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE, and 1 RB/WR/TE flex in this 12-team league.

Here's the state of the team by Week 3:

  • Johnson is out for the year. 
  • Harvin is out five weeks 
  • Allen is quiet (WR 34) after Philip Rivers was lost for the season in the opener. .
  • It was speculated that Jones would be back by Week 5, but he's not running yet. 
  • Cutler and Wilson are playing like QB1s--and Cutler is No.6 among fantasy passers.   
  • Jeffery is the No.1 fantasy WR after three weeks by a 30-point margin. 
  • Kelce and Gates are earning quality targets, but Kelce is TE 11 and Gates TE15. 
  • Your RBs: Gore (RB11), Sankey (RB28), Bell (RB21), Sproles (RB33), and Ingram (RB32)

What do you do with this roster? You could try to acquire wide receivers from the waiver wire, but are you likely to hit on 2-3 options to keep you afloat before Harvin or Jone returns?  Can you afford to go with Jeffery and a muted Allen unless your RBs and/or TEs pick up the slack and it's not certain this will happen?

Are you aware of the likelihood of another fantasy owner being receptive to one of your RB2s, borderline TE1s, and QB1s when negotiating a trade this early in the year? Where should you focus your energies on the waiver wire? How long can you afford to wait before you have to initiate a trade? 

These are all factors that are helpful to think about BEFORE you draft your team.

Easiest Positions to Acquire As Free Agents

(If you're in one of these leagues that has more bells and whistles than Cecil Lammey's coffee, Jason Wood's comics library, or Chase Stuart's slide rule, you don't count -- although I'm sure your mother and father love you very much. These are general takes that apply to most leagues.)

  1. Team Defense - There's a reason that Sigmund Bloom operates a Texas-based fantasy dealership during the season where you can rent-to-own with little or no credit.
  2. Kicker - Few teams stockpile team defenses or kickers and often half of your league will be rotating kickers from the waiver wire until they find one they settle on by the season's midpoint. 
  3. Wide Receiver - Within between 2-5 of these skill players on the field during any given offensive play, the position has the highest volume of players capable of fantasy production each week. Throw in the fact that the average yards per touch is higher than any of the skill positions and receivers are easier to find than any position for at least the first 6-8 weeks of the season. 
  4. Quarterback - There's a decent argument that tight end belongs in this spot, but consider the fact that a "bad" quarterback performance can often translate to a 350-yard, 3-touchdown, 4-interception box score whereas a bad week for a tight end means limited targets. You might be less likely to find a consistent fantasy QB1 than a consistent fantasy TE1, but the weekly matchups are often easier to predict for a QBBC than rotating tight ends. 
  5. Tight End - Consider yourself fortunate if you land a free agent who becomes a top-5 tight end by season's end. It's this tier -- and really only the top 3 -- that are the true difference-makers for a fantasy squad. 
  6. Running Back - The combination of teams stockpiling RB talent, the fact that only 2-3 (at most) backs in each offense have fantasy value (and this is a broad statement), and the high rate of injury to the position creates a scarcity of resources for teams in need.  

There's little surprise that the most common order of the elite positions selected during the draft parallels the ease/difficulty of acquiring these positions as free agents.  Why is this important? Because RB, TE, and QB are the three positions in the free agent pool where you're going to see the greatest amount of early activity. 

If you're going to spend big bucks on a player that you believe can give you strong production at these positions then odds are likely that you'll find that player during the first month of the year. There will be exceptions, but there's another disadvantage to waiting to spend your money later: There will be fewer players in the pool that other owners with money want so it will be more difficult to acquire your target. 

How The Waiver Wire Influences The Trade Market

Because owners are more likely to try their hand at free agency before pursuing a trade, it's more difficult to pursue trades during the first 4-6 weeks of the season unless the offer involves an elite option at one of the skill positions. If you've acquired depth at a position during your draft then you have to understand that there are only two probably ways you'll profit from it: 

1. Trade your elite option early and rely on your depth - Most fantasy owners don't want to do this because the risk of giving up too much is heightened. 

2. Wait 4-6 weeks for the competition to realize it needs your depth - If six owners in your 14-team league need a quarterback, it's likely all six will try the waiver wire first and as many as 3-4 will be satisfied with what they find. By the end of September, the remaining QB-poor teams will be in a position for you to revisit them with an offer. The same applies to the other positions -- a little less time for RBs that are on the difficult end of the free agency spectrum and a little more time for WRs that are on the easy side.  

The overall takeaways you should get from the free agent and trade markets is that trades are the path of last resort unless the deal involves an elite option or a potential elite option suddenly inherits a great situation (think Carlos Hyde if Frank Gore is lost for the year).  It means that the depth you draft doesn't always pay off in a timely manner if you're conservative about using it -- and most fantasy owners owning the depth would rather tout the quality of their depth than trade away a starter and rely upon it. 

Easiest Positions to Deal in a Trade

This list applies to starters or players about to be designated starters due to injury or benching. Let's look at this list with the context of the team I showed above. 

1. Running Back - Most fantasy owners are reluctant to part with the depth until its abundantly clear that they need another position and don't have room to hold onto another back. But if you're the exception, you'll earn your share of inquiries. Your imaginary roster has a lot of flex talent, but unless an injury strikes to the committee options that are suppressing your RBs' production then Frank Gore might be your best option to sell and you're unlikely to earn anything more than a WR2. Even if one of your RBs becomes the bell cow, you might have to wait 3-5 weeks for the stats to support your asking price -- and that's a risk. 

2. Wide Receiver - I've often stated that this is the most "liquid" position in fantasy football. You may not always get the value that you want for the position, but it's the easiest one to use when constructing offers. Receivers not considered WR1s or WR2s are rarely the centerpiece of many trades, but they add layers of value to influence package deals.

In the case of this team above, Jeffery can be the centerpiece of a deal. The risk is you don't get the return on Jeffery that you hoped. However, the risk of waiting too long is that Jeffery doesn't maintain his torrid pace and you lost a chance to fortify your squad with multiple players to stabilize your starting lineup. Knowing that the waiver wire is generally deeper for receivers for a longer period of time than other positions, the risk to give up Jeffery is probably worth the reward, but you migth have to package him wiith additional depth to get a difference maker and a second starter. 

3. Tight End - Unless the tight end is one of the top 3-5 options, it's unlikely you'll have success making the player the focal point of the deal. If you do have one of the elite options on the trade block, then you're really trading a WR -- because contrary to the NFL's claims -- these top producers are wide receivers. Your competition probably won't jump on Kelce or Gates as the centerpiece of a deal. However, a team might part with a top option at TE and a secondary WR if desperate for an elite receiver and you're offering one of these tight ends in a package deal.  

4. Quarterback - Most leagues award points in ways that even "bad" quarterbacks have strong enough games to help a fantasy team. Wilson won't be that appealing as a low-end QB1 who is now missing his primary option -- even if he has thrived without ever having Harvin playing extended time in the first place. It has nothing to do with Wilson and everything to do with fantasy owners preferring to take their chances with free agent quarterbacks or commmittees.

Cutler on the other hand, might earn consideration if he continues inching his way towards the elite tier, but the cautious nature of fantasy owners with quarterbacks could mean you'll have to wait a few weeks to make a deal. A package deal might tip the scales for an owner to act sooner, but if it doesn't then you might have to abandon any thought of offering a QB so you can acquire players you need immediately.  

5. Kickers - I only see these deals in leagues where a team needs a bye-week option. I've never seen a league without unique scoring rules where a kicker garners value commensurate with skill players. 

6. Team Defense - When Bloom has a deal for you, why are you shopping elsewhere? That's the prevailing logic.

The optimal trade window will likely arrive in late-September to mid-October if you're trying to deal mid-range talent rather than established stars. On the other hand, stars are better to deal early because they're value is generally based on previous years of work and there are too many unknowns with the less proven alternatives to mount a viable counter offer.

How All this Helps Your DRaft

If you haven't drafted a team yet and this information is something you find worthwhile, here are ways I'd integrate it into your draft plan. Much of this is common sense, but still a worthwhile reminder. 

Quarterbacks: If you target a top-tier QB, I'd still recommend you consider a second QB with an ADP in the QB10-QB14 range (along the lines of Cutler, Rivers, or Wilson). It's unlikely you'll have the good fortune to sell the low-end QB1, but he'll keep your team competitive if you part with the elite option due to injuries that require you to make a deal. Plus, you should be able to find a stop-gap QB for your bye weeks off the waiver wire.

If I can get an elite QB at a value (and I'm really only talking about Manning and maybe Brees or Rodgers) 2-3 rounds lower than expected then I'll do so because I'm also getting a second potential elite option. However, this doesn't happen often and it's why I prefer to wait on QBs and take two in that ADP range within a three-round period. I don't count on one of them to break into the top-five, but if it happens I can sell that player during the stretch run (when QB becomes more marketable) for a key need.  

Running Back:  I don't have to tell you to draft a lot of them, but I would add emphasis to the idea that you get as many of them as you can who have a role in the offense. Picking 3-4 runners and then waiting until round 12 or 13 to stack backups to your roster is a risky move because you're likely holding and waiting on something to give these backs an opportunity that may never come -- especially if your starters get hurt or get benched. If you pick backs early, have a plan to pick at least some backs throughout the middle rounds so at least 4-6 of the 5-8 runners on your roster are slated to see meaningful touches in an offense. 

Wide Receiver: Not much different advice than running back, but there's a little more opportunity to evenly distribute your picks at wide receiver throughout your draft because of their availability on the waiver wire and the opportunity to find starters in the later rounds. An even distribution throughout your draft is wise. 

Tight End: You won't be able to trade a tight end early in the season unless you have a 1-2 of the established elite options--a rarity among fantasy owners. If you picked wisely, a tight end playing well above his ADP and at an elite level will give you a negotiating chip around the mid-point of the season. The trade value and loss of potential value at other positions are two reasons not to back-load your roster with multiple tight ends in non-premium scoring leagues. 

Evaluating Your Roster For In-Season Management

You've already drafted and you want to develop a game plan in case some part of your roster heads south in a hurry. Here are my suggestions. 

If your weakest position on paper is RB: You should also consider how much you really need that back. If you have a RB1 and you're strong at other spots, you thrive without a quality RB2 and the weekly search in free agency is acceptable. If your best RB is an RB2 then you'll need multiple studs at other roster spots to field a true contender. Otherwise,  it's probably wiser to marshal your resources to acquire at least another RB2 or consistent flex option through a trade. 

If you're strong at receiver or tight end, target the waiver wire during the early weeks and build on this strength while placing one of your studs on the trading block. Playing the waiver wire for RB is highly unpredictable. You might hit on a back early, but it's also likely that you'll be playing the wire all year to find one and have limited success. It doesn't mean you shouldn't try, but it might be more worthwhile to prioritize other options ahead of that back if there's no clear-cut starter sitting the free agent pool. 

If your weakest position on paper is WR/TE: Play the waiver wire weekly. By Week 6, if the additions don't pan out or the returns are limited, begin your trade negotiations. Don't abandon your use of the waiver wire while conducting negotiations, either. You might land someone of value and strengthen your negotiating position.

If your weakest position on paper is QB: The waiver wire will help you stay afloat early, but rather than trying to find the "surprise stud QB" as a free agent, focus on receivers and backs. If you build on a strength, you can use that to acquire a quality QB1 by mid season. 

If your strongest position on paper is RB: You hold a fine advantage and I'd be patient with it unless you're getting offered stud options at other positions early on. If not, stay patient, shop for free agents at WR and TE, and offers will be easier to make for some of your mid-grade quality backs around late October or early November. 

If your strongest position on paper is WR: Continue building on WR and RB via free agency. Rest assured, you'll have the capability to make deals but if you're not willing to give up your best at the position, you'll have to package your mid-grade talent to land an established player. 

If your strongest position on paper is TE/QB: A strong TE/QB depth chart means you have a mid-grade TE1/QB1 and an elite option. If this turns out to be your roster early, and you're in dire need for talent, sell the stud early (this also applies to WR) and live with the low-range option. If you're not sure you need to acquire more talent then wait as long as possible to shore up the weak area through free agency until you have no other choice but to shop the elite option.

Next Week: A preseason waiver wire monitor list for the first frew weeks of the regular season.