The football season may be two months away, and plenty of NFL roster spots are still up for grabs between now and then, but just because the depth charts aren't written in stone doesn't mean it's not too early to get a leg up on scouting for the fantasy season.
"High-stakes players start right after the Super Bowl as fantasy analysts prepare for the NFL Draft," says Jake Ciely, a senior writer at Roto Experts and Fantasy Sports Network. "Your typical serious player — the one who plays in a few leagues, always wants to win, gets involved in daily fantasy sports — starts in late-June/early-July."
There's a period before the summer that may be too early to seriously think about fantasy football, because opinions and analysis will change and it might just be a waste of time to start ranking players. But right now we're entering the sweet spot in the calendar for quality prep work and information overload. Here's Ciely's breakdown of what you should be doing during the summer months to produce a championship fantasy roster.
"You should already be visiting every fantasy website you can," he says. "As much as I'd love to say, 'Hey, just read my stuff,' I'm not perfect — no one analyst is. You need to build a knowledge base from various sources to avoid biases and form your own opinions. July is when you find out about undervalued and unknown players who could help you win a title."
"You need to pay attention to position battles," he says. "If the highly touted running back you liked is failing to produce, you need to adjust your rankings. However, don't go crazy with the preseason 'breakout' guys. Those unknown players who put up big numbers against the second- and third-team defenses rarely, if ever, turn into productive NFL players. When watching preseason position battles, it's only for the known players with realistic upside."
Your Most Important Pick
Most fantasy drafts will be held at the end of August and early September ahead of the season opener Thursday, Sept. 10. When your league holds its draft, the most important player you'll select this season will be your quarterback. In the past, running backs were crucial. Not anymore. Inconsistent carries, platoon backfields, short-yardage touchdown vultures, and pass-heavy offenses have finally leaked into heady fantasy philosophy.
Now your QB1 will make or break your season. So guys are drafting them earlier in spots where other positions were traditionally tabbed.
"Anyone who has played fantasy football for years has heard, 'Wait on your quarterback.' This started when studies proved that grabbing two mid-range quarterbacks, or even streaming options off the wire, could produce numbers close to the top five quarterbacks," Ciely says. "Therefore, it was smart to draft all other positions to get the best value return. However, this strategy has become so popular that the value is swinging in the other direction."
Take a QB early this year. But not too early.
"You still shouldn't take a quarterback in Round 1. Ever. There are a few exceptions such as two-quarterback leagues or six-points-per-passing-touchdown setups," he says. "But when Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers start sliding out of the Top 20 picks, it's your time to act. Both quarterbacks had 30-plus fantasy points in numerous games. Once they slip into the late second/early third round, pounce."
Where and when to take a QB is the most important decision you'll face during the draft. Outside Luck and Rodgers, Ciely says the best plan of action is to wait. "I wouldn't draft Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, etc. in Rounds 3–4," he says. "I'd wait to see if they fell to Round 5, or take just a Ryan Tannehill type in Rounds 9–10 and be ecstatic."
The Next Big Thing in Fantasy Football
As previously mentioned, the days of drafting RBs with your first two picks are over. Fantasy football is a game of trends, and one that's gaining popularity among experts is what Ciely calls the "zero RB" method.
"That doesn't mean you draft zero running backs," he says. "It means you avoid running backs in the first four to five rounds. Similar to quarterbacks, the strategy is that there is significant value in mid-round running backs or waiver wire pickups. The attrition rate for running backs is high, and there are always a few that pop up on waivers and provide at least RB2 value — C.J. Anderson and Justin Forsett are prime examples from last year. And that's just two. There were several players that gave you a few weeks of RB2 production."
While it may seem radical, placing less of an emphasis on the RB position could easily backfire. If multiple owners do it in your league, you'll all be fighting to pick up the same guys off waivers or late in the draft. There is also a bit of luck involved in paying RB roulette because for every C.J. Anderson last year, there was a Matt Asiata.
"By going zero-RB, you can't afford to miss on most of your mid-round picks or get shut out of the waiver pickups," Ciely says. "There is an underlying best strategy here: buck the trends. If everyone wants to wait on quarterbacks, enjoy the immense value of Luck in the third round. If several owners want to go zero-RB, bask in the glory of two or three rock-solid RBs.
"The worst mistake you can make is getting caught in the same strategy fad as everyone else," he says. "The way you win leagues is by finding the best value, not following the crowd."
And by preparing better and earlier than everyone else.