The Fantasy Foundation
For those of us who have played fantasy sports before, we understand that going into the fantasy season without a plan-of-action is a bad idea. Good strategies aren’t thought up on the fly; they are built from the ground-up and are flexible enough in order to adjust to the many unexpected changes that occur during the fantasy season. Just like a delicate sculpture, if the body of work isn’t supported by a sturdy foundation, the entire work of art will be reduced to nothing. The foundation I am alluding to is fundamental knowledge that creates a stable base on which to build upon during the fantasy season and create a masterpiece, to win the championship. The building blocks I have here are generally broad and are applicable to many different types of leagues. Any questions related to this article or any articles I write can be asked via Twitter @fflange34. I will do my best to answer any questions I receive; I often answer questions on Sunday mornings regarding who to start and sit each week. Before we begin I want everyone to remember: winning a championship begins in the offseason, but it is our hard work and dedication during the season that allow us to finally hoist that coveted trophy. Let’s start building.
I. Know the League’s Rules and Scoring System
This is building block numero uno for a reason; if you do not understand your league’s rules then you will not win, period. By rules, I mean a few key concepts: roster composition, league types, scoring factors, and a select few other points.
- Roster composition is important because everyone needs to understand how many players can start at each position, which slots can start players at multiple positions, and how many players are allowed on the roster in total. If a draft is in-person and an owner tries taking a fourth kicker when the maximum for the roster is three, they will be criticized for years to come by their league mates, or should be, anyway. If a draft is online then the roster minimums and maximums for each position are typically shown on the side. Common roster compositions that all fantasy football players need to be aware of include: two QB leagues, super-flex position (aka offensive position player), kickers and team defenses (some leagues don’t have one or both anymore), individual defensive players (IDP), and if TEs have an individual roster spot or not.
- In two QB leagues, having a quality 2nd QB is important. Being stuck with two QB2s (top 13-24 scoring QBs), or even a QB2 and a QB3 (top 25-36 scoring QBs), can handicap an owner before the season even begins. This is because there typically isn’t much of a scoring difference between the 4th best QB and the 12th best QB in fantasy football, however, there is a much larger difference between the 12th scoring QB and the 24th scoring QB. This relates to block II in that it is imperative to know how the league typically goes about drafting QBs so that one isn’t’ drafted too early when a player at a different position would have been more valuable. Be sure to grab a viable QB1 and a quality QB2 before they are all gone.
- Super-flex positions allow a QB to be played in an offensive player spot (OP), along with RBs, WRs, and TEs (these three positions together are considered FLEX players for those uninitiated). When possible, a QB should start in the super-flex position because QBs tend to score more points than any other position. This is not always the case so double check each league’s scoring system prior to the draft.
- In IDP leagues, drafts tend to be vastly different than normal since a defensive stud such as JJ Watt is a 1st round draft pick. Some leagues have only one IDP spot – that won’t change much – but most leagues with IDPs tend to have four or more roster spots for these types of players. Be sure to look at the previous year’s draft and see when IDP players were taken, they may go at the end or they may be littered throughout the draft, as they should be.
- Team defenses and kickers shouldn’t be considered until the last few rounds (see block VI), if your league doesn’t have these positions then consider yourself lucky, I am generally not fond of either but understand their place in fantasy football.
- TEs are not always given their own position in fantasy; many leagues incorporate a WR/TE or FLEX spot or two instead of a simple TE slot. If this is the case, TEs should not be drafted where they normally are since they generally hold much less value compared to players at other positions. Rob Gronkowski is not a 1st round pick in a league without a starting TE spot, he is worth a late 2nd or early 3rd round selection based on total points scored. Double check past year’s scoring leaders at each position to figure out where the actual value of each TE falls. Also check the scoring rules because there are some leagues where TEs receive more points-per-reception than all other players do, this changes a few things; more on that below.
- League type is another variable that has a pronounced influence on draft strategy. Some common types of leagues include: head-to-head (H2H), weekly payout, best-ball format, daily fantasy, AFC/NFC only, keepers, and dynasty leagues. It is important to note that many leagues will be a combination of two or more of these.
- H2H is the standard league type where two owners are pitted against each other every week and the highest scorer notches a victory. Total victories are typically the decisive factor in determining which owners move onto the playoffs. Most leagues with this setup will continue the same H2H process throughout the playoffs but some will constitute a two-week H2H matchup in the playoffs instead.
- Weekly payout leagues do not have H2H matchups; instead, they pay the top few highest scorers each week and normally have additional rewards at the end of the season for categorical winners such as the team with the most overall points scored, most points scored in one week, highest scoring player, etc.
- In best-ball format, lineups are not set each week by the owner; the highest scoring players from each respective position are automatically selected at the end of each week to account for each team’s overall score. With this type of league, boom-or-bust type players provide more value than players who score points on a more consistent basis; this is because they don’t hinder you nearly as much when they have a dud week since another player’s points will likely be used.
- Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) have been a hit since they came about and they are not going anywhere anytime soon, despite the government considering them gambling in most states (which is total crap, I’ll save that for another time though). Owners select players to fill out their roster and compete against a field of other fantasy owners to claim a prize at the end of each week. Available NFL players have a predetermined cost that can change week-to-week and the combined cost of each player on the roster must equate to less than the allotted salary cap. There are no season-long ties to any players, unlike season-long leagues. I won’t go into much detail about DFS here, look forward to another piece on the website in the future that breaks down the different types of DFS leagues and the benefits to each.
- AFC/NFC only leagues are typically only utilized for leagues that have a large number of teams, generally 16-32. In those leagues, players available during the draft and in the free-agent pool are players that can only be found in their respective conferences during the season.
- Keeper leagues are leagues where each team is given the chance to keep one or more players from the previous year. The rules regarding who can be kept, and the manner in which they are kept, are unique to almost every league. The players that are being kept must be determined before the draft, but it is usually the case that those players are actually selected during the draft at some point. One league I was a member of that had one keeper each year forced us to take our keeper with our first round pick, regardless of where we chose in the draft. After the “keeper” round, the draft ran as usual in its typical snake-like fashion. Many keeper leagues have keepers selected in the same round they were chosen during the prior season; this is advantageous for owners who select rookies in later rounds as they will have a lot of value in years to come, assuming they hit on their expected value. It is my opinion that any league with keepers should allow owners to keep only one player that they drafted the previous year, and that player must then be taken during the round that is half the value as the previous year. What I mean is if David Johnson was taken during the 16th round one year, he should be taken during the 8th the following year by the keeper’s team, and the 4th round the year after that. All odd number rounds should be reduced by one and then halved. Personally, I am neither for nor against keepers but I am no longer in any leagues that have keepers.
- Dynasty leagues are not meant for novice fantasy football players. It’s like playing Madden in owner mode vs. playing as a coach. There are many more difficult decisions to make and the current year is not all that matters, contrary to re-draft leagues. There is still a draft associated with dynasty leagues, the difference being that many players are kept year to year and that future draft picks can be traded. The reason why an owner might do this is similar to an MLB team making moves before the trade-deadline. If a team is good and has aspirations to win the championship then it may be worthwhile to make a few moves to better the team this year at the cost of potentially winning in the future. In dynasty leagues it is very important to draft players who are expected to have significant value in years to come, even if they do not play in the current year. Just like playing owner mode in Madden, many dynasty leagues tend to fail after the first year since most players don’t want to stick with it long-term. Taking over a currently-running dynasty league for a player who has left is not easy for even the most veteran of fantasy players. The new owner would have had no impact on their new team and chances are they are not taking over a good one, essentially starting with a handicap.
- Scoring Factors vary from league to league; this is arguably the most important aspect to the league and it will have the largest influence on how players should be drafted. Different types of scoring factors every fantasy player should be aware of include: points-per-reception (PPR), points scored for passing TDs, points for first downs, points for return yards/TDs, team defense scoring, and negative points.
- The main difference between most leagues is PPR vs. non-PPR. In PPR, every time a FLEX player catches a pass, even if they lose yardage on the play, they gain a single point. This is important since it provides more value to the reliable players who catch six to ten passes each game over the boom-or-bust type players who typically only catch two or three. Receiving backs and possession receivers see the greatest boost in value in PPR leagues. As I mentioned above, check to see if TEs earn the same amount of points for each catch as WRs and RBs do. One thing I will caution readers about is leagues with 0.5 PPR scoring. This does NOT dramatically change anything, I have found that it simply adds a bit more value to FLEX players in comparison to QBs. PPR seems to have overtaken “standard scoring” across fantasy football. All leagues I participate in have PPR in some format; I highly recommend PPR to anyone who is not in a league that currently uses it. I write all of my articles and create my rankings based on PPR scoring.
- Most leagues award four points for passing TDs but some leagues award six. A simple two point difference may not seem like much, but consider this: many QBs in the NFL today have the ability to throw 30+ TDs each year, that’s a 60 point difference over the course of the season…that’s quite a bit. The top tier of QBs in the league see the biggest benefit from six point passing TD leagues since they tend to throw more TD passes than the average QB. This makes having a top-end QB more valuable than standard leagues and they should be drafted as such. Leagues of this format have block V apply differently to them.
- Points for first downs are becoming more common but are still fairly rare. It is exactly as it sounds, every time a player gets a first down, they gain an additional point. This is fundamentally the same as PPR vs. non-PPR scoring as it adds more value to the receiving backs and possession receivers as they tend to be the ones targeted on third and fourth downs; however, just like with 0.5 PPR, it is not a drastic change. Use this knowledge only when having trouble deciding between a few players on draft day, the player that catches more balls will see the biggest benefit from this. Do not use it as a main factor when determining rankings since it has only makes a small impact.
- Players who get points for punt/kick return yards and TDs have a slight uptick in value during the draft as well. I have never played in a league that gives points for return yards but that would be yet another influential factor in my pre-draft rankings. In leagues that return TDs count for individual players, I don’t change my ranking much, if at all. I generally only value a player with return potential more if there are two players I like equally during the draft and I am having trouble deciding between them. Don’t use this as a major factor come draft day either.
- Team defense scoring changes league-to-league so it is important to note how much they score. In standard leagues, team defenses do not have much of a scoring difference between the 3rd and 12th top scoring units. This means there is not much value in taking the 3rd best defense over the 12th best defense in the draft. This is especially true if there are multiple rounds between the 3rd and 12th defense taken off the board. However, if defenses do have a wider-range of scoring in this same interval, it would be wise to take a better defense early to get a leg up on the competition. I go into more detail on this in block VI, just be sure to check the league’s scoring and the previous year’s results prior to the draft.
- Finally, negative points can change a league quickly. I have played in leagues where passing TDs were worth four points but every INT lost me four points. That made the top tier QBs insanely more valuable than the rest as there was a very real possibility that a QB could net negative points in a week. Don’t worry about losing points for fumbles, they aren’t something that can be predicted with any level of accuracy, they are simply annoying when they occur.
- A few other points to highlight regarding a league’s composition: number of teams in the league, how playoffs work and when they are, if there is a trade or waiver deadline, if/when teams become dead to transactions, and finally, my policy changing major league rules the day of the draft.
- The number of teams in the league will heavily affect the way each team looks after the draft. Eight team leagues that only start one QB means that every team will have a viable starter; there is no need to draft a QB until the later rounds. In 14 team leagues, half of the teams will have a very good starter and a few teams might have to play QB by committee or pick up a starter based on matchups. Doing the latter is possible but requires a lot of work, having a reliable QB each week is much less stressful.
- Playoffs are everything, we all want to win the championship and that begins by making the playoffs. As I mentioned before, in H2H leagues the rules may change once the playoffs start. Some leagues simply do away with H2H scoring and award the playoff team with the most points scored over the entire playoff period with the championship trophy. When the playoffs occur is another variable; if the championship is week 16, or even week 17, a player on an NFL team that has already clinched a playoff spot may not be playing at all. When this happens it is unfortunate for that owner but there isn’t much to do. Just don’t play the championship in week 17, end the league in week 16 or 15. The last point I have about playoffs regards seeding. Some leagues award bye weeks to the top two teams based on record, they automatically make it to the second round. Some leagues are set up where the top four teams with the best record make the playoffs and two of the remaining teams with the most overall points scored during the season make the playoffs as well. This can be very different league-to-league and should be fully understood by every owner before the season kicks off.
- This next point is one I absolutely cannot stress enough; before the draft, every owner needs to agree if there will be a trade and waiver deadline, the date of the deadline(s), and if/when teams become dead to making transactions. Trade abuse with teams that are no longer relevant (playoff ineligible) can become an issue, especially if a decision on this is made after it occurs. This needs to be settled before the season starts so there is no whining about it during the season. Also, nobody wants the worst teams in their league assisting other teams by dropping or trading their players when they are no longer eligible to make the playoffs. Ideally, no league should have any issues with this but unfortunately it happens; make sure this is figured out before the season.
- Finally, an equally as important point as the previous one, no league should change major rules the day of the draft. Some people prepare very heavily before the draft like myself; changing the league dynamic by adjusting teams or changing major rules are major factors that will affect the entire draft. Unless there is a league that decides these rules every year by pulling them out of a hat on draft day, make sure they are set and remain unchanged two to four weeks before the draft.
* This is block 1 of an 11-part series that will be posted over the course of the next week. It will then be posted in its entirety at the conclusion of the series. Thank you for reading and be sure to come back tomorrow to OTN for the next block!