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Build a Draft Plan in Reverse

How late-round target players dictate early-round strategy in a fantasy football draft

Over the last few years, the proliferation of the 'zero' or 'late round' draft strategies for any of the skill positions has led to a boom of activity around team-building and draft capital optimization in fantasy football drafts. The late round approach to any position is a two-way street as an owner would be centering their attention on the back-half of the draft (plus more attention to the waiver wire) but also pointing to avoidance of the position in the early rounds. While any strategy of positional drafting can work with the right players, the late round approach works hand-in-hand with the entire value structure of the position for a particular year.

Assess the Late Round Landscape

When getting up to speed on the new landscape of positional value for a fantasy football season - or simply recalibrating for a new wave of upcoming drafts - my first task is simply highlighting late round players of interest. This can be done on an overall (mix of positions) sheet of the top-200 or so, but I prefer to separate the positions into distinct columns. 

Next, I simply highlight - starting at the bottom - the players of interest. Especially outside the first 10 rounds or so as they are all affordable and any singular player can be drafted in most of your leagues if aggressive enough.

There are bound to be highlighted players at every position in the low-cost bucket, but the key is looking at your confidence level and the sheer number of options. For example, tight end is ripe this year for the late rounds. Near or outside the top-100, I have Martellus Bennett, Eric Ebron, Jason Witten, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Charles Clay, Antonio Gates, Ben Watson, and Zach Miller highlighted. In a stock start-1TE format, I am happy with any two of them to start the year and adjusting as needed. As a result, my strategy earlier in the draft is to avoid the position outside of overt value (for example, Rob Gronkowski making it to Round 3 or Travis Kelce late in the third). Due to my late-round outlook and target players at tight end, I adjust my early round approach in kind; They work hand in hand.

Shift to the wide receiver position as an example in the opposite direction. Outside the top-100, my target list at receiver is shorter than tight end (especially considering starting 2-3x the number of tight ends in typical formats). The list includes Kenny Britt, Kevin White, Mike Wallace, and Ted Ginn Jr. Considering a tight end or two is on my list in the later rounds already, wide receiver is relatively barren outside the top-100. As a result, I will be more active in assessing (and selecting) receivers in the opening rounds than tight end.

Running back is closer to tight end than wide receiver with options like Theo Riddick, Frank Gore, C.J. Prosise, Terrance West, Matt Forte, Darren McFadden (may rise out of this group with Ezekiel Elliott suspension announcement), Tim Hightower, Robert Turbin, and others outside the top-100. While I have at least a couple running backs by this juncture in the draft, the late rounds are better on my target board than the wide receiver position.

Quarterback is in the same boat as tight end with plenty of available starters outside the top-100, including Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, and later targets like Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler. Like tight end, pivoting strategy if an overt value early presents itself is key, but in most drafts waiting until at least 10-12 are off the board is the likely outcome.

Blending the Draft Board

Knowing the above list of target players for the late rounds for each position, an owner can project the outline of their team for the back-half of a draft. On my example above, tight end and quarterback are easily accessible in the late rounds - quality NFL starters with projectable floors. As a result, running back and wide receiver are more important in the early rounds. Running back is deep in depth, but I still want two or three sturdy options before getting outside the top-100. Wide receiver, the other early position of interest, is one where being lean and mean is optimal. Late picks at receiver are likely No.2 or No.3 options on a depth chart where becoming an impact option - with any predictability - is a longer shot than a No.2 back (or committee option) needing an injury for the opportunity bump.

Blending together all of the team-building strategies by position leads to a running back target within the first two rounds as a core option. The mid-rounds are ripe with wide receivers. The goal is a No.1 receiver or the No.2 receiver on an elite passing game. We are talking about 35-40 receivers in this subset at most. Ideally, build a strong base with 4-5 of them as the late rounds will include few legitimate sleepers at receiver who will survive the early season waiver wire churn with enough optimism.

The final result is exiting the first 7-8 rounds with 3-4 running backs and 4-5 wide receivers. If a quarterback or tight end falls to an overt level, then they mix in, likely instead of a running back knowing the later target player list outlined above. Building a draft board, starting in the later rounds, creates a more balanced approach to team-building. The most important function is preventing low efficiency on late picks, where the preferred players are sparse. Instead, allowing flexibility with the early rounds where the global appeal from player to player is higher to return value.