Draft-Day Manifesto: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Drafters
- • Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
• Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
• Best-selling author of “Fantasy Life”
As you get ready for fantasy football 2020, be sure to get plenty of practice by using our Mock Draft Lobby.
That’s a long time to do anything, unless, of course, you’re Frank Gore.
To be clear, I am not Frank Gore.
As I sat down to think about the 2020 version of the Draft-Day Manifesto, the 22nd edition of the column, I started to think about what should be in it and, of course, what shouldn’t. If you’ve read me for any amount of time, you know I am a creature of habit and the Manifesto is always a perennial favorite of my readers.
But it’s also long. Like really long. I mean, it ain’t the Draft-Day Pamphlet, you know? And we live in a TikTok world where attention spans are shorter than ever. Plus, while the core of it changes with each new season, a different player pool and league trends, much of it is similar year after year, like me wishing Frank Gore well in what I am sure will be his final season playing.
So as I contemplated what to write, my mind turned to Stephen Covey, who passed away in 2012 at age 79. His Wikipedia describes him as an educator, author, businessperson and keynote speaker. It mentions he was married, had nine(!) kids and 52 grandchildren.
But calling him an author is a little like calling Taylor Swift a singer. Because Covey didn’t just write books. He wrote a monster.
His 1989 book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has sold more than 30 million copies, become the first nonfiction audiobook in U.S. publishing history to sell more than 1 million copies and spawned tons of offshoots, including “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families,” and “The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Frank Gore.” I’m pretty sure that last one doesn’t exist, but it should. Frank Gore forever.
I’ve long been obsessed with the premise of the book, and I’ve written about it before. Being able to distill achieving success into seven easy-to-grasp habits. And then I wondered … could I do that for fantasy football? At least for draft strategy? Could I distill the Draft-Day Manifesto into seven easy-to-grasp concepts that would give readers a fundamental, step-by-step blueprint on how to approach their draft prep?
I decided I’m sure as hell gonna try.
So, welcome, friends, old and new, to the 22nd edition of the heart-stopping, knowledge-dropping, ADP-rocking, booty-shaking, strategy-making, earth-quaking, sleeper-taking, Springsteen-stealing, justifying, death-defying, legendary DRAFT-DAY MANIFESTO.
My very first fantasy league was in 1984, and I have drafted hundreds of times in many leagues ever since. And as a result I can confirm what my very first commissioner, beloved former commissioner for life, Don Smith, would always say to me on draft day: “It’s only the best day of the year.”
It really is. It’s also the most important day of the year. And it’s important you do well on it.
So, with that in mind, please pay attention.
These are The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Drafters.
Habit 1: They spend a ton of time preparing
It seems obvious, but much like everything else in life, what you put into it is what you get out of it. So you need to prep. But before you prep, you need to understand — to a T — what you are prepping for.
Here’s how you do that:
A. Study the rules and, more importantly, figure out the best ways to exploit those rules. I know it seems obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many drafts I’ve been in where halfway through someone says, “Wait, do we start two wide receivers or three?”
I just got done with the 10th annual Scott Fish Bowl, an industrywide massive tournament, and I bring that up for two reasons. One, to promote my friend Scott Fish and his FantasyCares.net charity that the tournament is for. But also because that league has really weird scoring, including negative points for incompletions and sacks and a half-point for every completion. Well, in 2018, in this scoring system, Ben Roethlisberger was the third-best QB. I got him at QB20. Obviously, he needs to stay healthy, but given the upside of Big Ben in this format and the fact it’s a superflex league where you can play two QBs, he should’ve gone much earlier.
Is it a half-point per reception? Or full PPR? Is it 1.5 PPR for tight ends? Because that not only affects how you value tight ends but also affects how you value tight ends relative to every other position.
Take projections you trust (Mike Clay’s here on ESPN are very good) and put them into your league’s scoring system to find players who are more or less valuable than general perception.
How many roster spots do you have? How many bench spots? Deeper benches means there might be fewer players available in the free-agent pool, so you might want more depth in positions at which you don’t normally draft more than one. Do you have an IR spot? If so, you can be a little more aggressive in going after talented but injury-prone players. How are free-agent players awarded? First come, first served; a waiver system; or a “FAAB” bidding system, where you’ll have a chance at every free agent? Your ability to compete for free agents matters in your draft-day roster construction.
How many teams make the playoffs? And when do they start? In Scott Fish Bowl, Week 13 is the first week of the playoffs, which is when the Panthers and Christian McCaffrey are currently scheduled to have their bye. When is the trade deadline (if there is one)? Seriously, you need to read and explore every nook and cranny of your league’s rules and settings.
B. Start your research by watching, reading and listening. Everyone has different preferences and amount of time, so whether it’s TV, digital video shows, podcasts, columns or social media, start digging in. Immediately. You need to have an opinion on every player and more importantly, on that player (and that player’s position) relative to every other player. More on this later.
Understand there’s way too much information out there, so it’s not about the amount you consume but the quality of it and how you interpret it. Just look at everything with a skeptical eye and understand that every single thing you’ll read isn’t actually a fact but rather an opinion disguised as a fact. Trust me. Or better yet, read my 100 Facts You Need to Know Before You Draft. If nothing else, the intro is helpful to understand how analysis is created.
Now that you know your league rules and are doing research on players, you need to …
C. Figure out where you’re drafting. Are you drafting on ESPN.com (or the ESPN Fantasy App), where more people draft than any other site in the world? Or are you forced to draft somewhere else because the commish is a stubborn lummox? The reason I ask, other than another plug for the No. 1 fantasy site in the world, is because there’s a factor that no one talks about.
The average draft position is largely driven by the default rankings on whichever site you play. So the ADP ranks (and the likely way your draft goes) on ESPN differ (sometimes significantly) in some ways from the ADPs in other places people play fantasy, because our default rankings are different from those of other places. For example, as of this writing Daniel Jones is going as QB15 on ESPN. (And personally I have him as QB12.) Well, on one of our biggest competitors he’s being drafted as QB25. That’s a significant difference and one that, if you’re a Jones believer like I am, you can exploit.
Ultimately, find a rankings source you like (here are mine, if you want), adjust those ranks to your liking and then compare your ranks with the ADP of the site you are drafting on. You’ll find players who are going way too high or too low for your taste. That’s where you’ll find market inefficiency. (And it will be, once again, the driving force of this year’s preseason Love/Hate column.)
And, of course, if you’re playing in a league with friends/family/co-workers and have played with them before, hopefully you have an idea of their tendencies as well. Who reaches for rookies? Who loves to go QB early? And so on. As you prepare your draft sheet, make sure to make notations around players you are interested in but who you also think will draw interest from your league mates. As you get to that part of the draft and are quickly scanning, it’ll help you remember you might need to reach. We’ll talk more about that coming up.
D. Mock draft like crazy. Once you’ve done A, B and C (and ideally know your draft spot), let’s put that knowledge to the test and do some mock drafts. A ton of them. As many as you can. See what your team looks like if you start RB/RB. Or if you draft Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes in the first round. What’s it look like if you go for Travis Kelce early? How about starting with three straight wideouts? Try them all and see what team constructions you like. A good place to start is our Mock Draft Lobby, of course.
The more you draft, the more scenarios you try, the more prepared you will be, and the more familiar you’ll be with the draft room itself. Speaking of mock drafts, if you do join one, don’t leave early. People who leave mock drafts early are, like, the sixth-worst people on Earth.
Another thing I like to do is a bunch of best-ball drafts. In best-ball leagues, once you draft, you do nothing else with the team. No trades, waivers, start/sit, nothing. Every Tuesday, your lineup is retroactively set to be optimized, as is that of every other team in the league. Because you make no moves beyond the draft, you sometimes draft in a way you might not otherwise in a season-long league (multiple defenses, QBs, etc.). The positives of best-ball leagues are people are much less likely to leave during the draft, it’s a lot of fun and you have something else to root for during the season without the issue of finding time to do so.
Last thing, if you join a mock draft or play best ball, don’t impersonate me or someone else. I can’t tell you how many tweets I get that say, “I’m in a mock draft with you!” And it’s not me. It’s so weird — I don’t get why people do that. Just know every single time I do a mock draft or best-ball league I will always put it out on my Twitter account, so check there first.
Habit 2: They understand positional depth (or lack thereof)
It isn’t enough to just have an opinion on every potential player. You need to understand every player’s value relative to every other player and the depth of that position as it relates to your roster needs. QB is deep, you say. Not if you play in a 14-team superflex league. Then they start going quickly.
When you draft, you’re not just collecting as many good players as possible. You’re constructing a roster with finite resources. You have only so many spots, and as we discussed earlier, you need to also understand how easy or hard it will be to replace players in season.
One good way to track players in a draft is by using “tiers” on your positional ranks. Grouping players of similar value so that you can see, once you are in range, how many players are available at that level. Go through your ranking list and draw a line whenever there is a decent-sized drop in value. For example, at QB, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes are in a tier by themselves. The next tier, for me, is Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen and Tom Brady. If you wanted Allen and Brady in the third tier, I get it, and that’s the point. You need to know where you’re comfortable and where you aren’t. The whole idea is to make player evaluation easier for you at a glance when you’ve got very little time on the clock.
With that in mind, here are my general thoughts on each offensive position this year:
Not surprisingly, QB is once again very deep. Again, the approach is different for superflex leagues, where I ideally get at least one top-tier QB, but for ESPN standard leagues, where you start just one QB, you can wait at the position. Make no mistake, having Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes on your team is not going to be the reason you lose. They are awesome, and you will enjoy watching them every week. But there’s some simple math to it: There are 32 starting QBs in the NFL, and in a 10-team standard ESPN league, only 10 must be selected. L-Jax, of course, was an outlier last season, so let’s put him aside for one second.
Last season, through Week 16 on a points-per-game (PPG) basis, the difference between QB2 (Deshaun Watson) and QB11 (Kyler Murray) was 3.2 points per game. Now, that’s not nothing. But compare it to the RBs, where once again Christian McCaffrey was an extreme outlier and we’ll put him aside as well.
If we say the league will split the flex position down the middle — that in a given week a league is starting 25 RBs and 25 WRs — last season, through Week 16, the difference between RB2 (Dalvin Cook) and RB26 (Devin Singletary) was 8.6 points per game. More than double the differential at starting QB. We’re gonna get to WRs in a moment.
It’s just sort of simple, right? You’ll need more running backs every week than you will quarterbacks. And because of that (and because they tend to get hurt more often than other positions), most fantasy managers will roster anywhere from five to eight running backs.
Meanwhile, in a 10-team (or even 12-team) league where you start only one QB, it’s likely that only 15 or so QBs will be drafted. That leaves another 17 on the waiver wire for you to pick up in a bye week or if someone gets hurt or underperforms. A common expression used in baseball is “VORP,” which stands for value over replacement player. The difference between your starting QB in fantasy and one you can pick up and stream in a good matchup is not significant when you compare that with positions where there is more scarcity.
To that point, check out this list. These are the top 10 QBs last season on a points-per-game basis for Weeks 9-16:
1. Lamar Jackson 30.01
2. Ryan Tannehill 23.36
3. Drew Brees 22.50
4. Patrick Mahomes 21.10
5. Josh Allen 20.89
6. Jameis Winston 20.86
7. Ryan Fitzpatrick 20.75
8. Dak Prescott 19.37
9. Kyler Murray 18.41
10. Jimmy Garoppolo 18.37
Many of these guys were available on waiver wires for much of the season, as was QB12 in that time frame, Sam Darnold (17.60). And before you scream one-year sample size, note that over the past five years, only 50% of QBs drafted top 10 at the position finished as a top-10 performer at the position.
Jackson is a special player, and if he drops to the third round, I am all about that action. But just remember, everything people are saying about Jackson this year is what they were saying about Mahomes last season at this time. Mahomes, who got hurt for a bit, finished as QB3, about a point-and-a-half better than QB6, Jameis Winston, who was drafted as QB18 in the 16th round, if he was drafted at all (he was drafted in only 54.3% of ESPN leagues last season).
Regression to the mean is real, and it is spectacular. You can check out my top-100 ranks to see where I personally would draft quarterbacks, but whenever you decide to take the plunge, try to get a running quarterback.
Last season, nine of the top 10 QBs had at least 200 rushing yards. Five of them had at least 300 rushing yards. Oh, and five of the top 10 QBs were not top 10 the previous season.
In 2018, five of the top 10 QBs had at least 250 rushing yards and seven of the 10 were not top 10 the previous season.
I’m a big believer in letting the draft come to you and not forcing anything, but other than Michael Thomas, every first-rounder this year for me is a running back. Once again, it’s a supply-and-demand issue. As we’ll get to, there are a lot more wide receivers who will be viable this season starting for you on a week-to-week basis than running backs.
The running backs who get significant touches are few and far between, and the drop-off after the elite RBs is much steeper than it is for wide receivers.
Check out the average fantasy points at different levels for running backs and wide receivers from the past five seasons (2015-19):
RB5 — 287.5 fantasy points
RB10 — 230.2 fantasy points (19.9% drop from RB5)
RB15 — 200.5 fantasy points (12.9% drop from RB10)
WR5 — 289.1 fantasy points
WR10 — 251.0 fantasy points (13.2% drop from WR5)
WR15 — 231.5 fantasy points (7.7% drop from WR10)
That’s five years of data showing us that the RB position dries up faster than the WR position. We’re just talking about lower-tier RB1s and middle-tier RB2s compared with middle-tier WR1s and WR2s. Meanwhile the drop for wideouts is much less significant. From a general point of view over the past five years, WR15 has produced about the same as RB10.
The majority of your draft will involve selecting either running backs or wide receivers. So when you are looking for starters in the middle rounds, I’d rather take my chances evaluating WR talent (something I can control) as opposed to hoping a backup or committee RB gets a shot (something I can’t control).
Michael Thomas and Christian McCaffrey were historic outliers last season, so let’s break things down starting with the No. 2 at each position. In 2019, WR2 in total points was Chris Godwin and RB2 was a finally freed Aaron Jones.
Moving past them, there were 26 WRs who gave you at least 70% of what Godwin produced, in terms of fantasy points. There were only 11 RBs who gave you at least 70% of what Jones produced.
DJ Chark Jr. made that list (he was undrafted in 88% of ESPN leagues). A.J. Brown made that list (undrafted in 94% of ESPN leagues). Meanwhile, all of the RBs who made that list were drafted in more than 92% of leagues. Yes, last season was a good one in terms of running back health and, as we will get into later, there are certainly weeks or periods of time when there will be free-agent running backs who pop. But for the most part, there are many more usable wide receivers than running backs in any given week.
By the way, if you’re playing PPR, whenever you’re drafting RBs, try to get one who catches passes. I know that sounds obvious, but you might not realize how significant it is. Last season, eight of the top 10 RBs in terms of points per game averaged at least three receptions per game. Nine of the top 10 RBs saw at least 30% of their fantasy points come from receiving, while 18 of the top 20 RBs averaged at least two receptions per game.
We’ve already talked about the depth at wide receiver somewhat, but just to give some context to that, in 2019 there were 19 wide receivers who averaged at least 15.0 PPG, 34 WRs who averaged at least 12.5 PPG and an impressive 55 WRs who averaged at least 10.0 PPG. And that’s before one of the deepest wide receiver rookie classes ever came into the league.
Just anecdotally, as of this writing, below are the WRs being drafted from 30th to 34th at the position — meaning these would be people’s fourth wide receivers in a 10-team league:
Michael Gallup (WR14 in PPG from Week 9 on last season)
Tyler Boyd (Consecutive 1,000-yard seasons on what should be an improved offense; and A.J. Green is back — Boyd was better in 2018 when Green played)
Marquise Brown (No. 1 WR on one of the best offenses in football, now in his second season)
Julian Edelman (Cam Newton has to throw it to someone. Last season’s WR9 in PPG)
Marvin Jones Jr. (WR12 last season in Weeks 1-9, when Matthew Stafford was healthy)
And on and on it goes. It’s the deepest position in fantasy this year.
Normally a fairly shallow position, tight end is deeper than it has been in years. Travis Kelce and George Kittle are legit advantages at the position every week, and I’m a big Mark Andrews fan this year. So if you wanted to grab Kelce in the second or Kittle in the third, I’m good with that, especially since you’re likely grabbing a running back in the first and we’ve talked about how deep wideout is.
But if you decide to wait, a lot of high-upside guys are going outside the top 10. Consider this: Over the past three seasons, the average TE10 has scored 140.3 points per season. That would mean we are looking at 8.8 points per game — if your TE plays all 16 games — to slide into the top 10 in annual points.
There were 11 TEs who entered last season at age 26 or younger and averaged more than 8 points per game. Any small skill/role growth would put them right in that top-10 range. And that list does not include the very talented Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, nor players expected to see a massive spike in target share thanks to a new role on their team (Hayden Hurst, Jonnu Smith, Blake Jarwin, Ian Thomas, Dawson Knox). It also doesn’t include Chris Herndon (Can he stay healthy?) or Dan Arnold (Will he get a shot in Arizona?). Plus, we expect to see an increase in usage for Jack Doyle, and don’t forget Rob Gronkowski is back.
For me, this year I want to be either one of the first people to take a tight end or one of the last.
Habit 3: They know the one big secret of fantasy football
This is in every Manifesto I write, but I repeat it every year because it’s that important.
At a fundamental level, fantasy football is entirely about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis.
That’s it. That simple. That’s the big secret.
From the time you read this article until the end of your season, every single thing you do needs to lead back to that very simple but rarely followed approach.
Every draft pick, waiver move, potential trade, start/sit decision and so on.
In July 2019, we had no idea that Dennis Kelly and David Quessenberry, both offensive linemen for the Titans, would each finish the season with more receptions than A.J. Green. They each had one. We had no idea that backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who didn’t get into a game until Week 6, would finish with the same number of touchdown passes as consensus top-10 QB pick Baker Mayfield, who played in all 16 games. That Lamar Jackson, who the previous season had more rushing attempts than pass completions, would lead the NFL in passing touchdowns … and blow away the single-season fantasy points record Patrick Mahomes had set the year before. We had no concept that consensus No. 1 pick Saquon Barkley would finish with fewer fantasy points than perennial washout DeVante Parker. That Odell Beckham Jr. would play all 16 games and have just one more reception than DJ Chark Jr. I was higher than anyone last preseason on Darren Waller and even I didn’t imagine a scenario in which only Travis Kelce would have more than Waller’s 90 receptions among tight ends. That we had seen Andrew Luck’s last game. And so on and so forth.
I can’t predict the future.
Neither can you.
Neither can anyone else.
So all you can do is minimize risk, give yourself the best odds to succeed every week, make the best call you can in the moment and let the chips fall where they may.
If you take only one thing away from this article, make it that. I’m gonna repeat it once more because it’s that’s important:
At a fundamental level, the key to fantasy football success is minimizing risk on a weekly basis to give yourself the best odds to win.
As my good friend Joe Bryant of FootballGuys.com fame likes to say, it’s a game with an oblong ball made of leather. Weird stuff is going to happen.
Since we won’t know what is definitely going to happen, all we can do is try to predict what’s most likely to happen.
Kelce has four straight seasons of at least 80 receptions and 1,000 yards and he’s returning to play for Andy Reid with Mahomes as his quarterback. What’s most likely to happen?
Russell Wilson is the only QB to throw for 30 TDs in each of the past two seasons … and he has done it in three straight. What’s most likely to happen?
Aaron Jones and Derrick Henry each had 16 rushing touchdowns last season. In the past 13 years, no running back in the NFL has repeated a 16-touchdown season since LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson both did it in 2005 and 2006. What’s most likely to happen?
Josh Allen rushed for nine touchdowns last season. Since 1950, there have been 10 other instances of QBs rushing for at least nine TDs in a season. All 10 of them saw their rushing TD total drop by at least four the next season (with an average decline of 7.1 rushing TDs). Tell me, what’s most likely to happen?
Now, most likely to happen doesn’t mean it will happen. It just means it’s much more likely to happen than not. And that’s all we can ask for. If you consistently play the odds, you’ll win a lot more than you won’t.
So, once more for the kids in the back. When building your team, when making start/sit or trade decisions, when doing anything in fantasy football, just think to yourself: At a fundamental level, fantasy football is entirely about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis.
Always ask yourself … what’s most likely to happen?
Habit 4: They recognize this fantasy football season will be vastly different from any other by a significant margin
There’s very little I know about COVID-19, and whatever I do know is likely to be out-of-date by the time this gets published. But here’s one thing I feel good about: Playing a season in a world where this virus exists is going to be very different from any season we have ever experienced.
With so much unknown and unknowable, let’s start by eliminating the unknown things we can get rid of. For me, that means when evaluating players, I am going to focus on players who are in as similar a situation as possible to the one they were in last season. There are going to be no preseason games this year and, at most, 14 practices with pads. You can Zoom ’til your phone dies, but that is still not a lot of time for players to get familiar with their new coaches, teammates and playbook.
Now let’s not be ridiculous. You’re not drafting Jamison Crowder (same coach and QB from last season) over DeAndre Hopkins (new coach, new playbook, new QB). But am I taking Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, Julio Jones and Tyreek Hill (same coach and QB for all) over Hopkins? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
The teams returning the same head coach and offensive coordinator from 2019 are:
Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas, New England, New Orleans, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Tennessee.
Dallas (new head coach, but same offense and offensive coordinator), the Los Angeles Rams (new OC, but this is still Sean McVay’s offense) and Minnesota (Gary Kubiak is the new OC, but he was on the staff last season) also have very similar setups to last season’s.
Those teams are a good start, but obviously a lot of them have new players, which is where I might shy away. Same for rookies. Other than Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who lands in the perfect offense and situation for fantasy success right away, and maybe Jonathan Taylor, most rookies aren’t being drafted very high, so I have no issue if you want to take a flier on one or two. But in general, I want veteran players on good offenses that have continuity.
I’m also paying attention to roster construction. I talk about this elsewhere in this column, but suffice to say, this year more than ever, every roster spot is precious.
So I want to save space wherever I can. In a 10- or 12-team standard league where you start only one QB, I am drafting only one QB. I believe they will be the easiest to stream week to week and/or replace on the waiver wire, compared with any other position. I believe the second-easiest position to replace will be WR. Both of these positions have a lot of depth, and it will be easier to find viable replacements on a weekly basis at QB and WR than at RB or TE, should one of your players miss time, be it for COVID reasons or any other. So I’ll have more RBs on my team than any other position, including, if possible, the backups to all my starters. Keep in mind, as Stephania Bell said so eloquently on the Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast the other day, there’s concern this season for an increase in soft-tissue injuries. With an altered training offseason and a modified ramp-up to the season, there’s worry about players coming off of injuries and even non-injured players just reacclimating to football.
Ultimately, it will depend on your league settings, how many bench spots you have and what a starting roster looks like when it comes to determining how you construct your bench. But either way, even if you are lucky enough to have great health on your team this season, someone in your league won’t, and having depth to trade will only help.
Speaking of your league settings, hopefully you haven’t had a draft yet. If you haven’t, I suggest adding at least two or three bench spots to what you normally play. And your league needs to make a decision, as a group, about what happens if the season gets shortened.
We discussed this on the pod the other day, but my suggestion is that you decide on how many games would make the season official. Field Yates threw out 10 games, and I agree with that. But whatever number you decide, make a call on how champions are determined — and how payouts are handled, if you play for money.
My suggestion: If the season makes it to 10 games but is called off before 16, whoever has the most total points scored wins the league, and I’d pay out to three places. I prefer total points to win-loss record because some teams might not have played each other and the playoffs won’t have been completed. But whatever you decide, you need to be clear about it before the season starts, and ideally before you draft.
If the season is called off before 10 games (or whatever you decide), I’d say just donate all the money to an agreed-upon charity that helps those affected by COVID-19. But if not that, then refund all the money or roll it over to next year.
Final point here — and not to be morbid — but every league commish (and maybe every team?) should have someone else who can access the league. In the event you or someone close to you contracts COVID, the last thing you’re gonna want to deal with is fantasy football.
Most importantly, wear a mask, wash your hands, socially distance yourself, be smart and safe, and cross your fingers we get a season.
Habit 5: They understand it’s a weekly game
Fantasy football is a weekly game. I’ve written about this for many moons now, yet I still hear very few people make this point. So let me be as obvious as possible with it.
We don’t play a yearly game.
Fantasy football is a weekly game that happens to take place over the course of an NFL season.
Ultimately, “season-long” fantasy football is a string of 13 (and hopefully more) one-week contests. Analysts, writers and pundits (and I’m guilty of it, too) all talk about how many touchdown passes or fantasy points or yards or targets or whatever someone had last season and how many are projected this season, but the truth is, there aren’t a lot of players who need to be in your lineup every single week.
It would be awesome if every player on your team were a Derrick Henry, but you’re gonna need guys like Latavius Murray, who last season was RB5 from Weeks 7-10.
On draft day, you are putting together a squad that needs to do one thing: outscore one other (predetermined) team during one certain week. Knowing that there will be bye weeks, injuries and many other surprises throughout the course of a season, especially one happening during a pandemic, your goal on draft day is to gather the best collection of players to give you a foundation — key word: foundation — to have the best shot at success every week.
To put it a slightly different way, you want the best group of players you can collect who will give you the most potential fantasy points in a given week, with an underlying tenet being that you not only don’t have to start the same team every week but — thanks to bye weeks — can’t do so.
So here’s a very simple way to go about that. We’ve talked about how you need to have an opinion on every player. You don’t need to have stats or projections memorized, but just a general sense of how much you like that guy in comparison with other players. Even if it’s just someone’s rankings that you trust, some way to differentiate between players as the clock ticks down on your pick, right? Now there’s one layer that I want you to add when thinking about each player.
Every player you roster should have a range of outcomes that makes him one of two things:
1. A player with a high floor during the course of a season.
2. A player who could wind up as an elite option at a position in any given week.
Let’s start with No. 1.
Range of outcomes: Yearly
This is crucial for the guys you’re thinking about in the first two rounds. Ezekiel Elliott has been in the NFL for four years. He has at least nine touchdowns in every season. He has more than 1,700 total yards in every season except 2017, when he played only 10 games and still eclipsed 1,200 yards. He has never averaged fewer than 22 touches per game. In 56 career games with the Cowboys, he has 48 total scores.
Barring a big injury, the range of outcomes for Elliott is very small. He will wind up this season as one of the five or so best running backs in fantasy.
Meanwhile, as discussed above, I believe the range of outcomes for Kenyan Drake is wide. He could absolutely crush again, as he did with Arizona during the second half of last season. Or he could revert to what he had been his entire career before Arizona, which is a committee back.
When I am picking early, I do not want any player who has anything other than a narrow range of yearly outcomes. A high floor and obvious upside every week.
Let’s go further down in our ESPN live draft trends. Robert Woods is currently being drafted at 47th overall and James Conner 49th. Woods has back-to-back seasons of more than 1,100 yards, 130 targets and 85 receptions, and barring injury has a narrow range of outcomes as a top-20 wide receiver. Conner, meanwhile, has one year of being truly elite and one year of being an injury-prone committee back. Even in his breakout season, he missed three games. There is a wide range of outcomes for Conner. Now, you might find yourself on the wrong end of a bunch of RB runs and need to take a flier on Conner, and I get it. He’s certainly going in a range where taking that kind of flier is fine, because he does have incredible upside. But I just want to provide an example of narrow vs. wide range of yearly outcomes among players being valued similarly in drafts.
Too often people evaluate a player only in terms of what he could do in a positive manner, the best-case scenario for that player. They don’t think about the negative. People also tend to have recency bias, meaning they think only about how the player performed in the recent past, not looking at a larger body of work.
As much as possible, especially in the early rounds, I want players with a high floor. And not just a high floor for the season but a high floor each week. That consistency, week in and week out, is one of the keys to winning from week to week. And that winning gets you into the playoffs and gives you a shot at the title.
As you move through your draft, especially in the first six to eight rounds or so, ideally you are rostering players who have a narrow (and high) range of yearly outcomes.
Now, let’s talk about the other side of this.
Range of outcomes: Weekly
The idea here is that certain players, given their talent and the right opportunity, have a range that could easily extend very high in a given week.
In other words, if you are not drafting a starter with a reasonably narrow range of outcomes for his yearly production, then your bench (which is basically what you are drafting from Round 8 or 9 on, assuming you have a QB at this point) should feature players with the potential for a very high weekly ceiling.
Again, very important to keep stressing this: It is a weekly game. This means that every single week, you will look at all the players available to you — on your roster and in the free-agent pool — and decide on a starting lineup.
As obvious as it seems, that’s actually a huge step that gets overlooked a lot in fantasy. Because it’s not just enough to have a good player. You need to know when to start that player.
I mean, Boston Scott’s Week 14 game last season (10 carries for 59 yards and a TD, 6 receptions for 69 yards, 24.8 fantasy points) was awesome.
Except almost no one got to enjoy it, as he was on the bench in most leagues because he had zero touches the week before against Miami. And because we didn’t know what his role would be in that game or how successful he would be, he sat on most people’s benches or, more likely, most leagues’ waiver wire.
I like Scott as a deep sleeper this year, regardless, but if anything happens to Miles Sanders, he would automatically become a fantasy starter. I mentioned Latavius Murray earlier and the impressive stretch he had last season. Murray is currently going as RB47. Nyheim Hines is going as RB49.
OK, if anything happens to Alvin Kamara, we know what Murray can be. A top-five fantasy running back. He would have a high range of weekly outcomes in the weeks in which Kamara was out and, more importantly, you would know when to start him.
Compare him with Hines, who has one career game of more than 16 fantasy points and averages 3.7 yards per carry in his NFL career. In 2019, 72 running backs had at least one game with at least 13.7 points (310 total instances). Hines was not one of them.
I know some folks are talking up Hines this year as a deep PPR sleeper because of Philip Rivers’ penchant for dumping off to his running backs, and I actually buy that. I think Hines will have a nice season and likely will finish higher than his ADP of RB49. But so what?
With Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor also in Indy, the best-case scenario for Hines is, like, James White. A usable flex piece week in and week out. That’s best case. And it’s absolutely valuable, but it won’t come anywhere close to winning you a week or a championship. You won’t know when those weeks he catches a swing pass and walks into the end zone will be.
Gimme the guy who could be top-five for a few weeks and useless the rest of way over the guy who, in the best-case scenario, could be a flex play all season. Whatever.
Let’s do this again. Phillip Lindsay is currently going as RB38 on ESPN. J.K. Dobbins is RB40.
Now, Lindsay is a nice player. I like him, and he certainly did very well in 2018. But he is now on a Denver team that just signed Melvin Gordon to a big deal. And if anything happened to Gordon, the Broncos still have Royce Freeman, who played all 16 games last season. This is an offense that might still be run-first but is likely to be more balanced after adding a lot more weapons for Drew Lock’s first full season as a starter.
Before you yell about Lindsay’s passing-game role, realize he had fewer than 25 receiving yards in 13 of 16 games last season, while Gordon has 204 receptions in his past 40 games and at least 55 receptions for four straight years.
Lindsay was 19th (among 29 qualified RBs, minimum 150 carries) in percentage of carries that gained at least 10 yards and had just four top-15 finishes at the position last season, fewer than Jamaal Williams and the same as Ronald Jones II, to give some context. And that was without Melvin Gordon there!
Look, the best-case scenario for Lindsay involves a multigame absence for Gordon, during which he gets the lion’s share of the work in a better, more efficient offense under Lock, with Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, Jerry Jeudy, etc. And when they get in close, they give it to Lindsay, not Freeman. If all that happens, he is in that 15-20 range at RB. That would be great. A significant return in value for RB38.
And certainly, even with a healthy Gordon out there, Lindsay should still see work every week and will be a viable RB3/flex type for 12-team leagues or for bye weeks. I get it. As I said, I actually think he’s a talented player.
But I will take Dobbins in every single draft and twice on Sunday. Because while there’s a chance Dobbins will do absolutely nothing this season, there’s also a chance something will happen to Mark Ingram II, who will turn 31 this season and missed four games in 2018, and Dobbins will wind up as the lead back for at least some time in an offense that not only had the most rushing yards last season but was No. 1 by more than 50 yards per game. Obviously, that’s inflated by Lamar Jackson, but come on. The Ravens tied for second in rushing touchdowns and were first in rushing attempts by a wide margin, so we’re talking about the chance of Dobbins being the lead back in that offense, a guy who could be a top-five type league-winner, versus a guy whose best-case scenario is top-15(ish) in a few weeks.
I mean, what are we playing for here, kids? Fourth place? Remember, second place is just the first loser. Let the player next to you go safe with a solid yet unspectacular Cole Beasley. If there’s ever a week when you need Cole Beasley-type production, you can find it on the waiver wire, I promise.
This year, due to COVID-19, ESPN has added an IR spot to our default game. I would recommend adding even more in a custom league, but either way, this will be a year unlike any we have ever seen (no preseason games!). So, YOLO, baby. If you ain’t swinging for the fences with every pick in the second half of your draft, why are you even playing?
Habit 6: They are flexible and trust themselves above all others
Try not to enter any draft with a set strategy. You never know where you might find unexpected value, so being flexible enough to adapt on the fly is essential. Don’t let the draft room dictate your behavior, but consider it a factor in shaping your approach.
Going back to that Scott Fish Bowl league I mentioned earlier. I had the No. 1 pick. Took McCaffrey. And in every mock I did, I drafted Austin Ekeler with the final pick of the second round (24th overall). He was always there. Every mock I did, I waited on WR because the position is so deep this year. Given that it is in essence a two-QB league with higher scoring for tight ends, QBs and TEs always went heavy in the first two rounds, so Ekeler was always there and clearly I am an Ekeler believer once again.
Then, on draft day in the actual league, Ekeler goes before it gets to me. As do basically all the other RBs I would consider here. But somehow Davante Adams is still there. Now, I had always planned to wait on WR, but come on. It’s Davante Adams, a guy who could legit get 180 targets this season and, to me, is the clear-cut WR2 this season. So I took Adams.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” No, Mike Tyson wasn’t talking about fantasy football, but the sentiment here is accurate. The successful fantasy managers are the ones who are prepared to react. No two drafts fall the same way, and with the draft timer ticking toward zero, you need to keep your composure and not panic when the three guys you wanted go the three picks before your turn.
Just realize that player value changes all the time, with every practice, tweet, coach comment and more. And players’ values change within a draft as well, as everyone approaches the draft differently and suddenly certain positions are more scarce or more abundant than they were two rounds ago. Once you draft Dalvin Cook, for example, Alexander Mattison has a much greater value to you than he does to other players in your league.
And here’s the other thing: Once the season starts, it’s mostly out the window anyway. I mean, look at the top 10 WRs in ADP last season. Wide receiver is traditionally one of the most consistent positions.
1. DeAndre Hopkins
2. Michael Thomas
3. Davante Adams
4. Julio Jones
5. Tyreek Hill
6. Odell Beckham Jr.
7. JuJu Smith-Schuster
8. Antonio Brown
9. Mike Evans
10. Keenan Allen
Here were the top 10 WRs in total points for the 2019 season (PPR scoring):
1. Michael Thomas
2. Chris Godwin
3. Julio Jones
4. “My little” Cooper Kupp
5. DeAndre Hopkins
6. Keenan Allen
7. Julian Edelman
8. Allen Robinson II
9. Kenny Golladay
10. Amari Cooper
By the way, 11th and 12th were DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry, two other guys who weren’t drafted anywhere near the top 10 (and Parker was a free-agent pickup in most leagues).
So Thomas, Julio, Hopkins and Allen returned top-10 value among the first 10 WRs off the board. Sure, when healthy, Adams, Hill and Evans did as well, but that’s sort of the point. Injuries are part of the game. And this is just about the top 10, where the high draft picks represent players most fantasy managers feel are “safest.” It gets worse the further you go down the list, at every position.
So I’m a big believer, especially as you get further into the draft, that you should just get your guys. Don’t sweat rankings or what some people think are good values (or bad). None of that matters, and it will all change. I want you to win, I really do. But not as bad as you do. No one will know your league, your rules, your tendencies better than you.
Above all else, trust yourself.
Habit 7: They understand that the draft is just the first step to success
You don’t have to win the league during your draft. In fact, it’s very unlikely that you will. If your fantasy football season is a house — and at this point in the article why wouldn’t it be? — the draft is merely the foundation. You’re just trying to acquire the building blocks of your team. If there’s a run on quarterbacks, instead of forcing it and taking a lower-tier guy, grab another running back. Give yourself some surplus so you have something to trade. Trust me, another lower-tier QB will still be there next round.
And this goes to what I was talking about in terms of not sweating rankings or ADP too much and going for upside. Because you’re likely dropping some of these guys on the way to glory anyway.
Look at the 2019 playoffs in ESPN leagues. Four of the six “players” most rostered by ESPN playoff teams last season were not drafted, on average, in the first nine rounds:
• Lamar Jackson: 124.4 ADP, on a playoff team in 68.8% of leagues
• Patriots D/ST: 141.7 ADP, on a playoff team in 64.7% of leagues
• Austin Ekeler: 91.6 ADP, on a playoff team in 63.9% of leagues
• Darren Waller: Undrafted, on a playoff team in 63.4% of leagues
This is not some one-year anomaly, either. In 2018, the seven most popular “players” on playoff rosters were picked in the 12th round or later, with three of them not getting drafted at all. In 2017, it was six of the top nine that weren’t drafted.
Now we move on to the championship round. Of the 35 most popular “players” on teams that advanced to championship week last season, 24 were either considered when picking in the first two rounds or not taken until the 13th round at the earliest (with 10 being completely undrafted, on average).
In fact, six of the seven players most rostered by ESPN champions last season were not drafted in most leagues (the only exception was Christian McCaffrey):
• Breshad Perriman: 0.3% drafted, on 27.2% of champion rosters
• A.J. Brown: 5.7% drafted, on 26.8% of champion rosters
• Tyler Higbee: 0.2% drafted, on 21.3% of champion rosters
• DeVante Parker: 9.8% drafted, on 21.2% of champion rosters
• Ryan Tannehill: 0.3% drafted, on 21.2% of champion rosters
• Raheem Mostert: 0.1% drafted, on 19.4% of champion rosters
This is a pattern we see every year. Champions are made of stars who perform, some late-round guys who pop and a few key free-agent pickups along the way. So, in the world of “what’s most likely to happen,” nail the first two rounds, but also be aggressive, especially as your draft gets later.
By the way, it’s worth noting that of the six flex players who made the undrafted portion of this list, three were receivers. I mentioned it earlier and I’ll say it again: Wait on WRs. There is no shortage of quality receivers this season, and just because you have your “starters” doesn’t mean the job is done, right? The draft is not the be-all and end-all, in either direction, for your season. So don’t get too excited or too down on yourself after the draft.
And finally, know that it’s not just about acquiring players (in the draft, via free agency, via trade) but also how you use them. In-season roster decision-making will be crucial for you to get to the promised land. But that’s for “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective In-Season Managers” article.
I ask this every year, and we are making great progress, but our work is not done yet. Look, if you’ve read this far, you’re a gamer. You get it. You know how much fun, how awesome, how addictive fantasy football is. You know how it brings people together. So why keep it all to yourself? I am asking once again of everyone reading this:
Make it your goal to persuade one person in your life who has never played before to try a league this year. We need more women playing, more kids, more senior citizens. Fantasy football is something everyone can enjoy, so ask your parents, your kids, your neighbor, co-worker, someone.
Just one new person.
Help me spread the word. Especially these days, when people are more isolated than ever, we need as many things that can bring us together as possible. What’s better than fantasy football?
If you won’t do it for yourself will you at least do it for me? I can’t rest until every man, woman and child plays fantasy football.
And finally, please remember, above all else, this is a hobby.
WE PLAY THIS FOR FUN.
You remember fun, right? Does anyone remember laughter? Fantasy football is a game. A pastime. Something we do to escape our grind, not worry about anything else going on in the world, and have fun while spending time with friends, family and co-workers.
We all get nervous, we all sweat wins, but ultimately … it’s a game. Remember that, especially when you feel like embarrassing yourself on social media to harass a player, a coach, a fantasy analyst or a league mate. And go easy on your commissioner. That’s a tough job already.
Just calm down, OK? Believe me, I get it. I’ve been in more than my share of email wars and angry text exchanges in years past. So I’m not being holier than thou. I’ve been there, my friend.
But please, I beg of you. There’s plenty of negativity in the world already; there is absolutely no reason for you to add to it over a hobby, or to lose a friendship over it.
So focus on the fun. Every league should have a punishment for last place (voted on by the entire league before the season and only to the level of embarrassment that everyone can handle). Try different league formats — from best ball to superflex to dynasty to a vampire league or one of the many forms of DFS … try them all, play them all.
And as you do, I’ll be here for you all year long, every day with the Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast, four times a week with The Fantasy Show on ESPN+, every Sunday morning on ESPN2 with Fantasy Football Now, and of course every Thursday during the regular season right here with another year of Love/Hate. And as always I’ll be joined and helped by “Thirsty” Kyle Soppe and the Stat-a-Pillar himself, Damian Dabrowski. Thanks to them and, most of all, thanks very much to you. For reading this far and being a part of this amazing world of fantasy football. More than ever, we all need each other.
Matthew Berry — the Talented Mr. Roto — wonders which will end first: Him writing this column or Frank Gore’s career? Right now his money is on him ending the column before Frank hangs it up.
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