They say there is no more important day of your life than your child’s birthday. A close second might be your fantasy football draft day, when your team and championship hopes are born.
Okay, so maybe one pales in comparison to the other, but it’s no understatement to say that your performance on draft day is easily most what it takes to put together a fantasy championship. Drafting studs and avoiding busts will put you well on your way to success.
So what is the key to nailing your draft and walking away with a championship roster? You want to choose players that will give you the edge at each skill position and a team with enough depth to sustain an injury or to later trade away for another stud.
In part, this will vary depending on the size of your league. In a 10-team league with 16 rounds and standard ESPN format, that means that on any given Sunday, the best 160 players/defenses in the NFL will be on a roster, whereas in a 16-team league, that explodes to the top 256. Translation: in smaller leagues, every team will be loaded to an extent, which means that you must possess an edge at as many positions as possible. This starts in the draft.
ESPN’s Matthew Berry, the patron saint of online fantasy football, has adopted the motto “first or last” for this year’s season (Fantasy Football Guide 2015). This means that he advocates being one of the first to take a QB, RB, TE, etc. or the last. In other words, don’t follow the herd and settle for a middle-tier player at one position when you can nab the best player at another. Of course this doesn’t mean that you should spurn the No. 2 ranked player at a position or reach too far either.
To help you visualize how this might go on draft day, I’ve tried to summarize some of the popular draft strategies: QB Early, TE Early, D/ST Early, and even K early. These “Early” strategies focus on targeting one of the top-3 players at the given position. I have used ESPN 10-team standard settings (the golden standard for which I will use all season long) and noted the Average Draft Position (ADP) of each player to predict which round they might be taken. For example, Denver WR Demaryius Thomas is ranked as ESPN’s No. 11 player at the time of this writing. This means that in a standard ESPN 10-team league that he would most likely be selected with the 11th overall pick, the first of Round 2 (picks No. 11-20).
First, the most important position in the NFL: quarterback. Aaron Rodgers (No. 20), Andrew Luck (No. 26), and Russell Wilson (No. 37) have been anointed the consensus top-tier of fantasy QBs for this season. According to their current ADPs, those who want such a signal-caller can expect to spend a Round 2 pick on either Rodgers or Luck while Wilson carries a Round 3 price tag. In contrast, those drafters choosing to wait for a QB will likely find respectable options such as Matt Ryan (No. 84), Cam Newton (No. 98), Tony Romo (No. 113), and Tom Brady (No. 110) in the later rounds.
A similar situation exists for TE-minus the glib of later options. Those hoping to draft a top-tier TE will target Rob Gronkowski (No. 13), Jimmy Graham (No. 33), or Greg Olsen (No. 64) in the early to middle rounds of their draft. A TE Early approach carries a slightly smaller price tag, as you can wait until Round 6 and still walk away with top-3 talent, and Travis Kelce (No. 71) is rated by some as an equal to Greg Olsen.
Some fantasy players may prefer to wait until the final few rounds to take a D/ST, but I think of it as any other position in which you can build an advantage. The top-3 defenses – Seattle (No. 127), Buffalo (No. 129), and Houston (No. 133) – are significantly stronger than the rest of the field. Every team has its bad matchups of course, but grabbing one of these three units will give you a great option if you can’t use the team that’s playing Jacksonville that week. However, like QB, there are plenty of serviceable units with smaller price tags, like NY Jets (No. 140), Miami (No. 143), Minnesota (No. 188), and even Carolina (No. 255).
It’s also worth noting that Stephen Gostkowski (No. 151) has consistently been the best kicker in fantasy, and you can usually grab him in the second-to-last round. I’d advise doing that and using your final pick on a backup QB or breakout candidate RB/WR/TE that may or may not pan out.