Every so often you find yourself amongst a group of people talking about something that you know you should know all about, but — without admitting it — you don’t. While seven of your best friends are discussing their thoughts on “Ozark,” you’re nodding or shaking your head while reacting to the respective thoughts shared, hoping no one engages you directly, as you haven’t actually seen the show.
We’ve all been there.
That may be how you feel when or if someone asks you to join his or her fantasy football league. Your coworker is looking to engage fellow employees more this fall, so fantasy football is the ticket. Of course, you’re going to say yes! Only trick is … you’ve never played before.
That’s why each summer, I rewrite this piece: The 10(ish) rules to follow if you’re playing fantasy football for the first time and want to start strongly with your draft. Use these tips to help get you steered in the right direction, remembering that ultimately it’s your draft — you can select as you please!
And now go watch “Ozark.” Just do it.
1. Draft for value
Your starting lineup is going to consist of a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a flex (RB/WR/TE), a defense/special teams, and a kicker — that’s nine spots in total (using ESPN’s default settings).
Your first nine picks should not fill out your starting lineup. Not all positions in a fantasy football lineup are created equally, and I’m here to tell you that none is more important than the running back spot. It’s really hard to find excellent and reliable running backs in fantasy football, as evidenced through a couple of key stats. To wit: in 2019, there were a total of just 27 running backs who averaged at least 12.0 fantasy points per game (minimum eight games played), as compared to 39 wide receivers to accomplish the same threshold.
Beyond that, the bottom falls out rather quickly amongst running backs: The 20th-highest scoring running back in fantasy football last season managed just 41.9% of the total points scored by the top running back, Christian McCaffrey. The 20th-highest scoring wide receiver managed 58.7% of Michael Thomas‘ season-long total as the No. 1 wideout. And both McCaffrey and Thomas had historically great seasons, so this isn’t some outlying fluke.
You’ll learn this early: There’s a supply shortage of reliable running backs in fantasy football. They matter a lot. Speaking generally, you’re going to want to build your roster around running backs and — as we’ll get into now — wide receivers.
2. But do target wide receivers early, too
Wide receivers do matter. A lot! If you look at the ADP (average draft position), you’ll find that four of the top-10 selected players are wide receivers, with the six remaining being running backs. As a matter of fact, 35 of the top 40 players in terms of ADP are running backs or wide receivers, which illustrates the point I’m trying to hammer home: take lots of running backs and wide receivers early.
Yes, you will likely be drafting players — several of them — for your bench before you come close to completely filling out your starting lineup. Trust me on this one!
3. Quarterback patience
If you go through the 2019 scoring leaders in fantasy football, it’ll be hard to miss that five of the top 10 overall scorers play quarterback — which is part of the exact reason you should be patient at quarterback in your draft.
Put in its simplest form: There are lots of good quarterbacks in fantasy.
A total of 23 quarterbacks averaged at least 15 fantasy points per game in 2019 (minimum eight games played), meaning that not only are there plenty of sufficient options to be a starter, but also to find your backup. Given that you start only one quarterback in your lineup, there are going to be quality options available on the waiver wire at almost all times.
While a dominant quarterback can go a long way in fantasy football (shout out to Lamar Jackson), consider this: Of the 20 players who appeared on the most championship teams in 2019, only two of them were quarterbacks.
Many can carry you to glory. Be patient!
4. So, how about tight ends?
All right, we’ve checked off three of the four major positions in fantasy, so let’s address tight ends.
A few important notes: You typically start only one tight end per week, there are very few tight ends who put up consistently robust point totals, and they are seldom used in your flex spot.
Let’s paint that with numbers. In 2019, a total of 45 wide receivers scored at least 150 points during the season, while 31 running backs did the same. A total of just nine tight ends managed that feat, with only Travis Kelce surpassing 250 points (and no one else came close).
As we head into 2020, I’m optimistic that there is better depth at the tight end spot than we’ve seen in quite some time, but still, a small number of tight ends are definitely worth paying the premium on: Kelce is a top 20-22 selection, and George Kittle will likely go within the next round or so.
So, what’s the tight end strategy? Pretty simple: If not Kelce or Kittle early, remember that there are solid value plays all over the board this season.
5. Be most patient on defenses/special teams and kickers
Get used to this happening in every draft you take part in from your first to your 50th: Someone will get anxious or eager to take a “top” D/ST and use a midround pick on that team. Maybe an eighth-rounder, maybe a round or two sooner. Who knows. But we have a body of evidence that shows us that the least predictable position in fantasy football is D/ST.
Last season’s top-picked D/ST on average (Bears) finished as the 16th-best overall. The 49ers — a D/ST that finished third overall — were drafted in just 3.5% of leagues going into the season.
It’s hard to predict how a defense will fare year-over-year, even when the personnel largely remain the same. Much of the upside in D/ST scoring is attached to touchdowns and turnovers, two stats that aren’t quite as simple to replicate year-over-year.
As for your kicker, just draft one in the final round, and target one who plays on a good offense. Paying a multiple-round premium on them won’t cost you your draft, but there will be really good “lottery tickets” (more on them in a second) available whom you’ll be bypassing.
Consider this: In 2019, Greg Zuerlein had an ADP of 86th overall, top amongst kickers. That was just one spot behind Dak Prescott (the second-highest-scoring quarterback) and well ahead of other fantasy stalwarts such as Austin Hooper (99th) and Kyler Murray (110th). Zuerlein finished as the 12th-highest scoring kicker. Humph.
6. Upside matters late
When you’re getting to the final few rounds of the draft, keep this word in mind: upside.
Fantasy football is laced with surprise standouts every season, particularly from players who slide only because we haven’t seen it from them yet.
Let’s say you find yourself reading a preview piece about the Denver Broncos, and early word is that rookie wide receiver KJ Hamler is going to make an immediate impact, or a venerable reporter out of Washington says Steven Sims Jr.‘s late surge in 2019 will carry over into this season. Any kernel of information that suggests a busy role could ensue this season is enough to take a late-round flier on a player.
Surprise stars from 2019 included A.J. Brown of the Titans, D.J. Chark Jr. of the Jaguars, and Terry McLaurin from Washington. Each of them went undrafted in at least 88% of leagues and went on to finish as a top-30 wideout for the season.
7. Know the lingo
This may seem a little silly, but it’s important. You don’t need a Rosetta Stone to figure out what a variety of fantasy football-related terms mean, but a little assistance is still worth your while.
Waiver wire: This is the in-season roster tool you’ll rely upon. All players who are either not drafted or subsequently dropped are available on waivers. You add those free-agent players to your roster via the waiver wire.
PPR: Points per reception. For each reception that a player compiles, he is awarded one fantasy point (e.g., if Michael Thomas has seven catches in a game, he earns seven points for those catches, plus additional points for yardage and touchdown-scoring). ESPN’s standard scoring is PPR.
Stream: When you “stream” a player, it means you are using that player in place of your normal starter at a particular position and doing so on a one-week (or short-term) basis. So, if your quarterback is on his bye week (his NFL team has the week off), you may add a subsequent quarterback from the waiver wire to stream in his place that week.
Handcuff: A term almost exclusively used relating to running backs, a handcuff is the backup to a highly talented and productive player and is added to your roster as insurance in case the starter is injured or out of the game for any reason.
Stack: When you have multiple players from the same team in your lineup, specifically a quarterback and wide receiver, it is called a stack. This is a common phrase heard amongst those playing daily fantasy football (DFS football).
8. Do I need backups everywhere?
Let’s start right away by noting that you don’t need a backup kicker or defense. As for a backup quarterback or tight end? It depends. If you were particularly patient at quarterback and tight end and consider your first selection a “dice roll,” you may decide to use one of your final picks on another quarterback or tight end to build some insurance. It’s not totally necessary, however, as there are always useful options available on the waiver wire at both quarterback and tight end early in the season.
One spot where you may want to think long and hard about a backup is if you selected a premium running back early who has a clear-cut backup, also known (as explained above) as his handcuff.
Let’s say you use your first-round pick on Vikings star back Dalvin Cook — a great selection if you go that route! — then keep in mind that having Alexander Mattison (his backup) is a worthwhile pick later. While the ideal world would be that Mattison does not play — Cook remains healthy, etc. — his value is greater to your team than to anyone else’s.
9. Miscellaneous odds and ends
Know the rules: Odds are your league will be using default ESPN Fantasy settings, but it’s always worth checking … just in case. For example, the difference between a PPR and non-PPR format impacts your roster construction.
Bye weeks: When you select a player, you’ll see a small number next to his name that shows what week his team is on a bye. Don’t use bye weeks to dictate your draft strategy, but just make a mental note. You might have to start using the waiver wire early if four of your best players have a Week 8 bye, for example.
Players from the same team. A good rule of thumb to follow is to pick the best players. If those happen to come from the same team, that’s OK. Sure, you’ll have to get creative with waiver pickups during the Saints’ bye if you have Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Thomas, but don’t use being on the same team as motivation to push players way up or down your board during the draft.
10. Your roster will evolve
No matter how much time and effort you pour into your first fantasy draft, be reminded of one thing: This is just the starting point of your roster. Don’t be surprised if you start fielding trade offers within hours of your draft concluding. This is what makes the exercise fun — it’s called fantasy football for a reason.
Be prepared to be nimble and dynamic. Not only do bye weeks, struggling performers and injuries call for roster alterations, sometimes it’s just fun to engage a good friend in a trade proposal.
Last thing: The fantasy football season is just 16 or 17 weeks long. There are things that will be out of your control. I can assure you it will provide you a weekly rush that I believe you’ll find yourself coming back for annually.
Most importantly … have fun. This game is awesome!