Don't draft Peyton Manning in the first round expecting a repeat of his 2013 record-breaking season
Getting ready for your fantasy football draft? Be sure to read these 10 tips from Athlon contributor Mike Clay before plotting your championship-winning plan of attack.
1. Gather as many studs as possible, Then worry about everything else
League-wide offensive production is growing each and every year. The recent wave of fast-paced and pass-heavy offenses has led to more fantasy points than we’ve ever seen. As a result, there are more fantasy-relevant players at every position. “Wait at <enter position name here>” is a common piece of advice from fantasy pundits, but in this day and age, you truly can wait at any position and end up with a competent group of starters. So what’s the message here? The focus of your first few picks should not be on need or replacement value; rather, it should be on selecting superstars until none remains. I always suggest drawing lines on your cheat sheet to create tiers. Be sure that only superstars are in that first tier at each position. The players who fit the superstar bill can fluctuate depending on your league’s scoring, but they’re usually not terribly hard to determine. This year, it’s the top seven or so running backs, top six wide receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham. Unless your scoring is obscenely favorable for quarterbacks, no passers should be in this conversation.
2. Be prepared to adjust on the fly
There are a lot of draft strategies out there: value-based drafting, high ceiling, wide receiver heavy, best player available, tiers. The list goes on and on. Although you’re best served having a game plan in mind come draft day, it’s important that flexibility and the willingness to adjust are a part of your mindset. No two drafts are the same, which means that all the preparation in the world can’t prevent the inside-the-box thinker from panicking when his target is swooped up right before he’s on the clock.
There are a few ways you can stay ahead of the game during your draft. The most obvious one is to cross every selected player off your board. Not only does this help you avoid the embarrassment of selecting a player taken four rounds earlier, but it also allows you to keep an eye on the flow of the draft. Maybe you’re in a 12-team league and haven’t picked a quarterback yet. You notice 10 are already off the board. Should you panic and snatch one up? Unless you’re staring at a major value, of course not. The owners who already have quarterbacks will be addressing other positions for a few rounds, which means you can take advantage and wait even longer to select a signal-caller.
Drafting near the turn? Glance at the rosters of the teams who pick between your two selections on the short side of the turn. Let’s say you have the 10th pick of the fifth round in a 12-team league, and you’re trying to decide between a quarterback and wide receiver. You glance at the rosters of the teams picking 11th and 12th. Both have a quarterback. The odds of either team picking a second quarterback are extremely low. That makes your decision easy. Pick the best wide receiver and go with the quarterback the next time around.
Those are just a few examples of how to adjust on the fly during your draft. Keeping tabs on everything going on around you is the best way to maximize your roster.
3. Don’t be the guy who drafts Peyton Manning
Earlier, I mentioned that quarterbacks do not fit the bill as early-round must-target superstars. That’s despite the fact that there are several superstar talents at the position. On top of that, Peyton Manning was arguably the fantasy MVP last season, breaking all sorts of records en route to blowing all other quarterbacks out of the water in terms of fantasy points. So why am I advising against selecting Manning this season? Simple: He’s not going to live up to his average draft position (ADP).
In early mock drafts, Manning is coming off the board in the mid-to-late first round. If you believe Manning will equal his 2013 performance, that’s not a bad pick. If you expect regression, it’s a poor selection. And you should expect regression. Manning set the single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, and his team set the records for most points, touchdowns and 50-plus point games. Historically, teams that have put up extremely high touchdown totals have regressed the very next season. Consider that over the past six years, 12 offenses have averaged at least three touchdowns per game over a full season. Two-thirds of those teams saw a drop in scoring the next season. The average drop-off was a massive 22 percent, and every team dropped by at least 12 percent. Of the four teams that scored more the next season, three saw a boost of just three percent. The fourth was, go figure, the Broncos, who went from 3.1 TDs per game in 2012 to 4.1 per game in 2013.
I should also point out the loss of Eric Decker and the fact that we already saw regression from the Denver offense in the second half last season. After averaging an absurd five offensive scores per game through their first eight games, the Broncos put up 3.4 per game the rest of the way. That’s still a very healthy number, but it puts them right there with the league’s other elite offenses. Manning remains a top fantasy quarterback, but the inevitable regression makes him a poor first-round pick.
4. With two exceptions, wait at tight end
Much like last year, the tight end position is shaping up to drop off after the top two before leveling off, for the most part, until around the No. 12 spot. Jimmy Graham is your clear No. 1 option, but Rob Gronkowski is so productive when healthy — sometimes more so than Graham — that he has to be considered in the third round. After that, we have a tier of tight ends who will put up similar numbers. A case could be made that Julius Thomas should be in his own tier, but he usually comes off the board before Gronkowski despite overlooked durability questions of his own.
The true values come later in the draft. Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Jordan Reed, Dennis Pitta and Greg Olsen can all be had in the middle rounds. Even better, the likes of Kyle Rudolph, Martellus Bennett and breakout candidate Zach Ertz usually last into and beyond the ninth round. High-ceiling fliers like Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert and Dwayne Allen can be had with late-round picks.
Graham and Gronkowski (assuming he remains on track to play in Week 1) are worth the early-round pick, but otherwise, the smart move is to wait for a major value later.
5. React reasonably to hype
Each year, the fantasy football industry grows exponentially. Punditry grows as a result. We all have guys we love and guys we hate, which leads to a constant seesaw of market value for each player. One week, I write a piece suggesting a breakout season for Justin Hunter. His ADP skyrockets. The next week, Joe Analyst writes a piece explaining why Tavon Austin will bust out during his sophomore season. Hunter’s ADP returns to earth, and Austin becomes overvalued for a while.
The key is to take every single piece of advice with a grain of salt. Does the advice make sense? Does the math add up? Is the player truly in a situation where he can succeed? Is he really as good as the analyst suggests?
Savvy owners take advantage of overreacting owners by avoiding the noise and sticking to their boards, making occasional tweaks only when it makes sense.
6. Go get these sophomore wideouts
All the talk is about the depth of this year’s crop of rookie wide receivers. Sorted by my favorite values, don’t overlook these sophomores:
I foreshadowed this earlier, but Justin Hunter actually is an excellent breakout candidate in Ken Whisenhunt’s wide receiver-friendly, pass-first offense. Terrance Williams will start opposite Dez Bryant in Dallas’ pass-heavy offense. Aaron Dobson figures to play nearly every down in an offense operated by Tom Brady. DeAndre Hopkins struggled along with the rest of Houston’s offense last season, but he will be rejuvenated with Bill O’Brien in control. Tavon Austin disappointed as a rookie but showed big-play ability and will be a key part of the Rams’ improving offense. In Buffalo, Robert Woods is being overshadowed by rookie Sammy Watkins, but the sophomore has an excellent shot to play nearly every down in 2014. Markus Wheaton and Kenny Stills have been promoted into starting roles in good (Pittsburgh) and great (New Orleans) offenses, respectively. The likes of Quinton Patton, Stedman Bailey, Marquise Goodwin, Ace Sanders, Marquess Wilson and Brice Butler should be monitored.
Keenan Allen and Cordarrelle Patterson are fine picks as well, but both will come off the board in the first half of your draft, making them expensive investments.
7. Draft post-hype superstars
We see it every year. A highly talented player makes perfect sense as a breakout. Selected in the first few rounds of every single draft, the player inevitably disappoints before finally busting out the very next season. Last year, Ryan Mathews was a fine example. Knowshon Moreno, DeMarco Murray, Rashad Jennings, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas also fit the bill.
This season, C.J. Spiller should be on your radar. Considering that he was a first-round pick in most drafts, the 2013 season was a major disappointment. Despite dealing with injuries and sharing the Buffalo backfield with Fred Jackson, Spiller still managed 202 carries and eclipsed 1,100 total yards. A lack of usage near the goal line remains a concern, but Spiller is only 27 and one of the top talents at the position. Available in the third round of most drafts, Spiller has top-five upside.
Looking for other post-hype candidates? Consider Jake Locker, Mark Ingram, David Wilson, Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola, Tyler Eifert, Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green.
8. Raise the roof
Once you’re comfortable with your starting lineup, ensure that your focus is on acquiring the players with the highest ceiling. Obviously you want to draft high-upside players early as well, but for the most part, the players in this category are unproven. Spending early-round picks on speculative players is risky and best saved for the mid-to-late rounds. I’ve mentioned a bunch of these players throughout this piece, but there are a few categories breakout players tend to fall into. The most obvious one is “talented.” Players drafted in the last three years who have a ton of raw talent but were injured or buried on their team’s depth chart are usually worthy of late-round consideration. Last season, Alshon Jeffery, Zac Stacy, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron fit this category. Another is “opportunity.” These players might not be quite as naturally gifted, but they’ve fallen into a situation where they’ll be playing a significant offensive role or playing enough of a role in a high-scoring offense. The likes of Riley Cooper, Charles Clay and Julian Edelman fit the bill in 2013.
9. Be wary of rookies
Each year, there is a massive amount of attention given to the NFL Draft. That, combined with recency bias toward the college superstars of the past season, often leads to rookies being overvalued in fantasy drafts. Last year, 14 rookies were drafted in the top 200 of most drafts. Only four players (Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Cordarrelle Patterson) outperformed their ADP. The other 10 players were nothing more than waiver wire fodder for most of the season. That was the case for Patterson for a good chuck of the season as well. There were a few other rookies who shined, but the likes of Andre Ellington, Keenan Allen, Jordan Reed, Zac Stacy and Mike Glennon went undrafted in most leagues. The message here is that rookies tend to be overhyped, and you should be very skeptical about choosing them during the first dozen rounds of your draft.
10. Don’t draft your handcuffs; draft the best handcuffs
It’s inevitable. The guy who picks Toby Gerhart is going to draft and/or waste a valuable roster spot on Jordan Todman. Trent Richardson owners will stash Vick Ballard. Gio Bernard owners will snag BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You get the picture. There are a lot of backup running backs who qualify as handcuffs but who are not very good and/or would be no more than a committee back in the event that they were called on to start. Todman, Ballard and Green-Ellis fall into that category and shouldn’t be stashed over running backs with higher ceilings. You don’t need to own Jamaal Charles in order to snatch up Knile Davis. Or Matt Forté to grab Ka’Deem Carey. Christine Michael, LeGarrette Blount, Bernard Pierce, Carlos Hyde, Donald Brown, Jerick McKinnon, Tre Mason, Charles Sims and Devonta Freeman all make for solid late-round targets.