We’ve made it to August, which means the NFL season is just over a month away. Over the next few months, millions of Americans will join their in person or online war rooms to partake in a fantasy football manager’s most important event of the year: the fantasy draft.
Whether you’re a fantasy expert who’s won his or her league for a decade or you’re a first time fantasy player, there are a set of general guidelines you can follow and techniques you can employ to put yourself in the best position to win your league year after year. Even if you can’t name a single player on the NFL team in your city other than the quarterback, there are ways you can game draft night to make up for your lack of player knowledge. And if you’re already extremely knowledgeable about the fantasy statistics and projections of the bulk of the players around the league, the following tips will almost assuredly allow you to finish near the top of your fantasy league.
I have been playing fantasy football for about 15 years and have won multiple fantasy league titles in that time frame. Even in years when I may not have paid too much attention to NFL league news or player projections, I’ve used some of my personal tried and true methods on draft night to put together teams that continually make it to my leagues’ playoffs by the end of the season. I have compiled a list of my top 10 draft tips that I personally use each year and I’m giving them away right here for free. So scroll through the remainder of this article, employ the following tips on your fantasy draft night, and be sure to come back and let me know when you’ve won whatever prize your league gives out this December.
1. Target Running Backs
There’s one position that is by far the most valuable in fantasy football: running back. It may be tempting to draft a big name wide receiver in the first round, or even to take a QB like Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. But I cannot stress enough how important it is to have multiple quality running backs.
You can rationalize this purely from a numbers standpoint. Say you’re in a 10-team fantasy league. Scoring is roughly the same for running backs and receivers, but which position is more abundant in the NFL? Each of the 32 teams in the league have at least two or three guys who are more than serviceable from a fantasy perspective. However, while a few teams have some sort of a tandem at running back, typically only the starter is a prime candidate for your fantasy team. That means there are about 35-40 running backs who will see significant playing time and provide a substantial return on your investment in the draft, compared to the 75-plus receivers who would do the same.
Depending on your draft position in the first round, it can make sense to take one of the top tier receivers at that time. However, since it’s extremely important to build depth and it’s tougher to find quality running backs, I suggest picking your two starting running backs by no later than round 4 of the draft.
2. Prioritize Best Available Talent Over Roster Needs
I’ve seen plenty of people who want to fill out their starting lineup before they consider drafting any backups. That’s what most of the default auto-drafts do to a certain degree. But from my experience, it’s far more important to take the best player available when your pick rolls around than just going down the line to check off the boxes.
There isn’t too much to add to this straightforward philosophy of drafting. If you prioritize talent over what position you think your team needs, you’ll put together a dangerous team that you’ll be more happy with by the end of the draft. You can’t possibly end up with too many good receivers or running backs, and even a really good backup quarterback can be beneficial for multiple reasons.
Football is a dangerous sport, so real-life injuries are almost certainly going to affect your fantasy team. That’s why it’s essential to have as many guys on the roster who can put up significant points as you can get your hands on. And if you ever feel during the season that you have a player or two who might not be useful for your team but would appeal to another manager in your league, it’s never bad to have extra trade bait lying around your roster.
3. Pay Attention to What Other Managers are Doing
Most drafts have a relatively short time window for selecting players. Once you make a pick, the search for your next pick before the order snakes back around can be rather frantic. However, it’s important to be aware of the running ticker and observe who is flying off the board as you’re considering your next round’s target.
Here’s a perfect example for why this is necessary: Let’s say you’ve waited to draft your first quarterback a little later in the draft, but everyone else in your league has already taken a starter by, we’ll say round 5. When round 6 rolls around, you’re trying to decide between taking a receiver you’re fond of or checking off the QB position in your lineup. But if you know everyone else in your league has their QB already, odds are that nobody will be drafting another for at least a couple rounds. That makes your decision an easy one. Take the receiver now, then get your quarterback next round or two rounds from now if you’re feeling a little risky.
It’s especially important to know what roster needs the managers drafting closest to you have going into each round. Since the draft snakes, you’ll alternate drafting before one team and after another team all night. Use this knowledge to plan ahead what you think your opponents will do to give you insight into the direction you should go each round.
4. Don’t Panic Buy a QB
This goes hand in hand with tip #3. It’s very tempting to want to draft a quarterback once you see three or four QBs get taken off the board. But don’t rush to get in on the QB market earlier than you should.
Quarterbacks are definitely the most important piece of an NFL team in real life. But on a fantasy team, that’s not so much the case. This is because their scoring is typically different that other skill positions in fantasy leagues. Passing yards and passing touchdowns are worth less than rushing or receiving yards and TDs in fantasy, and while quarterbacks will put up far more yards through the air than any one receiver will, that doesn’t always equate to more fantasy points.
The premier QBs typically average around 22 fantasy points per game and their points are limited in potential by the structure of the scoring system. Last season, 11 quarterbacks in the league average more than 20 points per game. While a 3 or 4-point swing can sometimes determine a weekly matchup, let’s be honest. Is a couple more points per week really going to make a huge difference in the win column? I think not, especially when early draft rounds contain the cash cows in fantasy at receiver and running back.
Someone is almost always going to decide to take a Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes in one of the first three rounds, but when you see that happen, don’t panic and think that your team will be ruined if you don’t have a top 5 QB on the roster. I’m almost always the last person to draft a quarterback in my leagues and I have a slew of virtual championship trophies to show for it.
5. Load Up on Skill Positions
As we’ve already discussed, receivers and running backs should be the focal point of your draft. These are not only the guys who can potentially put up dozens of points in a week, they’re also the ones who take up most of your starting lineup slots. And due to the nature of the game of football, they are also, unfortunately, the most likely players to get injured. This is why it’s extremely important to get as many high-quality skill players as you can at all levels of the draft.
The fantasy teams I draft are a haven for running backs and wide receivers. My leagues typically contain two starting lineup slots for each of the two positions, along with one flex position. That means you’ll have to field a lineup with five running backs and receivers each week, as opposed to just one quarterback and one tight end. The numbers alone dictate why it’s important to have as many good skill players as you can.
You’ll only need a maximum of two quarterbacks on the roster. NEVER draft more than that. I also don’t recommend getting a backup tight end, as they can typically be streamed in the event your starter is out for a game or has a bye. But you’ll never be sorry that you have too many serviceable running backs or receivers. Fill your starting lineup out with A+ backs and receivers, then take as many high-quality players that you can get at those positions. As I mentioned before, backups serve an important role in filling in for injuries or bye weeks, as well as tempting other managers with trade offers that could benefit your team.
6. Take Note of Player Bye Weeks
Each NFL team has one bye week during the season, which means the players on that team won’t be playing a game the week of the bye. The bye week is listed somewhere close to the player’s name on draft sites because it’s an important statistic for keen-eyed fantasy managers.
We’ve already established that you want to draft the best players possible in each round on draft night. But sometimes picking between two or three players can be made easier if one or more of them has conflicting bye weeks with other guys you’ve already selected. This typically isn’t something to overly focus on in early rounds, but as a general rule, you want to stay away from drafting more than about three guys with the same bye weeks for your team. That’s because, if these players are going to be your every week starters, then having multiple of them guaranteed to be unavailable any one week is detrimental to your team.
Now, it’s important to stress that a bye week should not prevent you from taking someone you believe is by far the best option for your team. After all, it is just one week that they’ll certainly be out of the lineup. This is more a way to help make your mind up if you’re struggling to decide between a few guys who are similar in potential. It also will become a problem if you start to assemble a team where multiple bye weeks are common, as that then stretches this singular week problem across multiple of your weekly matchups.
This is the most important rule of the bye weeks: Don’t, under any circumstances, draft two quarterbacks with the same bye. In tip #5 you learned that you should only draft a maximum of two QBs, with your backup ideally only playing in the week your starter is on a bye. Therefore, the whole point of taking a second QB is that you want him to be available when your starter is not, meaning they absolutely cannot have the same bye week.
Let the bye week be a singular factor rather than the sole factor for your decision to draft a player. It’s not the end of the world if two or three guys on your roster share the same bye, but you don’t want to see the same one or two numbers come up repeatedly when scrolling down the “bye” column of your depth chart.
7. Avoid Multiple Players on the Same Team
I’ll explain this tip with a story of my own experience. Last season, I drafted Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, and Jared Cook in one of my leagues, three dudes who played for the Los Angeles Chargers. I typically liked having all of these guys, and although Ekeler missed a chunk of the season with an injury, the trio usually performed pretty well when they were all healthy. But every team will have some weeks during the season where they struggle. And when an entire offense struggles, the last thing you want is to have two or three starters from that offense on your fantasy team.
This is especially important when considering a QB-WR duo. Now, there are some pretty safe plays when going this route, such as taking Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs together or Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. But usually, I stay away from a play like this. Because if your quarterback struggles, your receiver automatically does the same. And it’s hard to win a fantasy matchup when that occurs.
There is one exception to this rule that I’d like to address, and that’s when you decide to draft a player who is very talented but is highly susceptible to injury. This is common in running backs, such as guys like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. If you draft one of these backs in an early round, it’s a good idea to also take their backup with one of your late round selections. This is because if they do happen to get hurt, usually the offensive scheme is good enough that a second string running back can find success in his starter’s absence.
So while it can sometimes make sense to pick more than one player from a singular NFL team, there is an inherent risk that comes with it. Just be mindful of what implications are potentially at play if you do decide to go that route.
8. Draft at Least One Sleeper
If you have played fantasy football for multiple years, you’re well aware that there are some excellent fantasy assets by mid-season who went undrafted in your league. The waiver wire is a commodity for improving your team over the course of the season, and there will certainly be some free agents who explode onto the fantasy scene as the season progresses. So why not take a shot at securing one of those guys for your team before the season even begins?
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “sleeper,” it simply means a player who is undervalued, lying dormant below the surface of media hype but waiting to rise to power when the season gets underway. This can either be a player who rises from a mid-tier level to elite caliber, or just someone almost unheard of who becomes a reliable starter or role player for fantasy purposes. For example, WR Deebo Samuel was around the 35th receiver taken off the board in 2021’s fantasy drafts, but finished the year as a top 5 wide receiver. And that kind of thing happens pretty much every year to a degree.
The difficulty obviously lies in correctly predicting which players who are not heavily targeted initially will become valuable over the course of the season. I wish I could tell you there was an easy way to achieve this, but that’s simply not the case. Like the stock market, no one knows for sure what is going to happen when entering an NFL season. But there are plenty of sources online you can find that may give you an idea for who experts like as this year’s sleepers.
Here’s just one article written by Seth Trachtman of Yardbarker:
Just a simple Google search will allow you to see several expert opinions on players who may be significantly undervalued going into your draft night. Now, don’t reach for any of these guys too early, but when the time is right in mid- to late rounds, go for at least one of your preferred sleepers and give them a chance over the first few weeks of the season. If they turn into a total bust, you can always keep your eye on the free agency pool to grab the successful sleepers when they inevitably appear.
9. Save Kicker and Defense for Last
I’m going to just be direct here. Your kicker and team defense are by far your least important roster positions. Sure, there will be a couple times in a season when a defense erupts for 25 or 30 fantasy points, but most of the time, you aren’t going to win or lose a game because of the kicker or defense you have in your lineup.
Most people who know what they’re doing in a fantasy draft will wait until the last two rounds to draft these two positions, as they know that having as many quality running backs and receivers as they can get is way more valuable and a kicker or defense, even if it’s the best kicker or defense in the league.
In 2021, two kickers averaged more than 10 fantasy points over the course of the season, with Daniel Carlson leading the pack with 10.2 points per game. Seven kickers averaged between 9.0 and 10.0 points, while eleven more averaged between 8.0 and 9.0 points. Using basic math, we can calculate that there were 20 kickers who averaged between 8.0 and just over 10.0 points per game. It makes no sense from a statistical standpoint to rush to take the best overall kickers in the league for just a one or two-point difference week in and week out.
Defenses are in a similar boat as kickers, but we can look at the same stats for them. The Dallas Cowboys led the way in team defensive fantasy points, averaging 10.9 fantasy points per game (thanks largely to Trevon Diggs). There were then 12 other defenses who averaged between 7.0 and 9.3 points per game over the 18-week season. Most defenses are so largely inconsistent in today’s high-octane NFL that, as we said with the kickers, it just doesn’t make sense to risk missing out on a good sleeper running back or receiver to draft a defense that will assuredly struggle against certain offenses.
Whatever you do, under no circumstances should you take these two positions before the final two rounds of the draft. Save a kicker for your last pick, take a defense right before, and never draft a backup at either position. *
*Bonus tip: Consider your defense’s first week opponent on draft night to increase the odds of them having a successful start to the season for your fantasy team.
10. Don’t Fall in Love with the Players You Draft
It’s easy to get attached to the roster you assemble on draft night, but like a real-life NFL General Manager, you have to remember that this is simply a business. You’ve drafted these players to give you the best chance of winning your league, and you can’t shy away from making moves when the season progresses that would benefit your team further in the long run.
Keep a sharp eye on the free agency pool. If one of your co-managers inexplicably drops a quality player you want, jump on the opportunity. If someone you’ve never heard of has had an incredible start to the season, add him to your team and drop the player you have the lowest expectations for. Pay attention to the other teams in your league and if you listened to my advice and have extra talent at one position that you might be able to offer for some quality pieces in return, offer trades that could take your team another step forward.
It sounds silly to say since we don’t have any verbal or physical interaction with the players on our fantasy teams, but it can be hard to part with the guys you drafted, purely from an egotistical standpoint. We all want to be geniuses and win with the roster we drafted, knowing that who we selected was going to succeed with flying colors, but that’s just not the case. No one really knows for sure who will be great and who won’t, so don’t let your pride get in the way of your ability to make intelligent and rational moves to improve your team.
There we have it. 10 simple tips you can use in your fantasy draft to give yourself a better chance of assembling a dominant team, regardless of your football acumen or fantasy experience. Unfortunately, due to the uncertainty of injuries and other on- and off-field scenarios that may arise, it’s impossible to know for sure if the team you just drafted is destined to win a championship. But these tips will go a long way in giving you the best chance of going down in history as an esteemed fantasy football champion. Or if nothing else, you can at least avoid the awful punishment that awaits the poor soul who comes in last in your league.
I’d love to know your best strategy you employ in your drafts or advice you’d give to less seasoned fantasy players. Leave a comment below if you disagree with any of my tips or would like to provide some input of your own.
Thank you for reading.
Written by Nick Swatson
Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.