I have played fantasy football for a very long time. You, too, have perhaps played fantasy football for a very long time. Something like 40 million of us do, CNN reported last year, and the business has grown into a billion-dollar endeavor as more and more people have piled in.
There are two ways to win a fantasy football league. The first is to seek out a league with a bunch of people who don’t follow football closely, take advantage of their lack of knowledge, and trick them into drafting bad players instead of simply auto-drafting. The second way is to put lots of thought and preparation into your team, and then get lucky. In other words, there’s no easy way to win a competitive league, but there are some key strategies to follow.
Whether 2021 is your first time or your 20th time playing fantasy football, here are five tricks of the trade that I hope lead you to dominance this fall.
1. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s fine to auto-draft.
There’s a reason some fantasy GMs don’t want the other teams in their league to auto-draft: The machines have become pretty smart. You’ll wind up with a perfectly fine fantasy football team if you let a robot pick for you. Will you win your league? Probably not. But the auto-draft functions at ESPN, Yahoo, CBS, and other fantasy platforms will generally make it easy for you to field a competent roster.
These algorithms take the highest-ranked consensus player (consensus on the part of “experts” or computers, anyway), and they’ll gradually fill out your roster from there. You will not wind up taking a defense or a kicker in the fifth round.
2. If you’re not auto-drafting, put some thought into your picks.
You won’t do a better job than a machine if you do zero research and then punch in manual picks on the fly. To prepare, cross-reference some cheat sheets to see how different players stack up across them all. That makes it less likely you’ll find an outlier, fall in love with that player, and draft him way too early. ESPN, CBS, and NBC all provide fantasy rankings. Get the lay of the land, and give yourself a chance to get lucky once toe meets leather.
3. You need running backs, and you need them early.
Running backs are, generally speaking, the most valuable producers in most fantasy formats. They get the ball the most, they get carries when teams are right near the goal line, and in an NFL that increasingly relies on backs to be pass-catchers, they rack up even more points in PPR (point per reception) leagues.
Someone in your league might decide they can find a running back later in the draft or on the waiver wire later in the year. They’ll rationalize the decision by noting that running backs rise and fall quickly in the modern NFL. They do, but everyone else will also be looking to snap up some breakout star who runs for three touchdowns in Week 6. Better to grab one early. This same advice tracks if you’re using an auction draft format: Invest in dependable RBs.
4. Most tight ends are pretty much the same. Most.
The highest ranked TE in #NFLTop100 history. 🙌
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) August 28, 2021
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller are worth early fantasy picks because they are essentially wide receivers in tight ends’ bodies. The San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle might turn out to be similarly valuable. After that, things get tricky.
I do not feel confident telling you that your season depends on whether you draft the fourth-ranked or ninth-ranked tight end on your board, especially if that ninth-ranked tight end is a young player who appears to have some upside. Maybe look at Kyle Pitts, the Atlanta Falcons rookie whom cheat sheets have ranked around No. 6 among tight ends. He might be top-three. Similarly, someone like the Baltimore Ravens’ Mark Andrews might be ranked fourth or fifth on your board and turn out to be the seventh or eighth most valuable TE.
5. Do not draft a defense or a kicker until well after you think you need one.
For one thing, it’s incredibly hard to predict which of these players will get you the most fantasy points—especially kickers, whose output often comes down to how often their offenses stall in field goal range without scoring a touchdown. For another, the difference between the best and the rest is just not that big at these positions. In a standard scoring format in 2020, the most valuable fantasy defense (the Los Angeles Rams) was worth 9.9 points per week. The 12th-best defense (i.e., the worst starting defense in a 12-team fantasy league) was the New England Patriots at 5.6.
It’s fun to say you have the best kicker in your league. It just won’t help you win the league.
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