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Fantasy Football 101: Basic Strategy

10 Basic Fantasy Football Strategy Tips

By Chris Liss, RotoWire Managing Editor     Originally published on June 18, 2004

Basic Fantasy Football Strategy

This article is part of our fantasy football help series.

For the most common types of fantasy football leagues, there are certain fundamental principles that are important to keep in mind. We enumerate the 10 most important ones below.

1. Draft Running Backs Early

In the most common leagues that number 10 to 14 teams and require a 1-QB, 2-RB, 2- or 3-WR starting lineup, running back will, more often than not, wind up being the position that determines who wins and who loses the league.

Because NFL teams typically feature only one running back and two wide receivers, there are fewer productive running backs to go around. So securing good ones early, preferably in first and second rounds, is especially important, because if you wait, the pickings are likely to be slim.

Moreover, a good running back gets the ball 25 times per game or more, whereas a good wide receiver catches only five passes per game. As a result, wideout production is harder to count on from game-to-game.

Finally, because you are only required to start one quarterback, there are likely to be a lot more good options there in the middle rounds than at the running back position.

2. Wait on Quarterbacks

While you may be tempted to take a quarterback with a mid to late first-round pick, donít do it. In real football, the quarterback is the most important player on the field, but in fantasy, itís all relative.

In a 10-team league, the worst starting quarterback drafted will be the NFLís 10th best (assuming some owners donít draft more than one early – in which case theyíll really be hurting elsewhere). Thatís because each team only needs to start one quarterback.

While starting running backs will go at least 20 deep – and often deeper as savvy fantasy owners often draft three or more running backs in the early rounds, knowing that the position is so scarce – just about every quarterback drafted will be one projected to be in the top half of the NFL in overall production.

That means that even if youíre the last owner in your league to pick a signal-caller, good options should be available in the middle or even later rounds.

Moreover, there are almost certain to be young quarterbacks on your leagueís waiver wire who could emerge as solid starters. Unlike emerging running backs who will get snatched up right away by desperate owners, emerging QBs wonít be in as much demand and will therefore be largely available if you need one.

3. Pick Safe Early, Upside Late

Unless you luck into a superstar running back who has a record-breaking touchdown year with your first pick, your early round-selections are more likely to ruin your chances to win than they are to put you over the top.

Why? Because most teams will get good production from their first two picks, and if you donít, youíll be at a big disadvantage. Stick with a safe and steady player over one who could be great, but who carries more risk.

Itís better to have a running back who is a virtual lock for 1,000-plus yards and 10-plus TDs than an injury-prone one, who could put up huge numbers but is likely to miss a large chunk of the season.

In the later rounds, however, itís almost always better to roll the dice on players with upside than proven mediocrities. Proven mediocrities are sure to do something, but most likely it wonít be much more than what you can get from the better unrostered players in your leagueís free-agent pool at any point during the season.

But a highly talented, unproven player in a potentially explosive offense can carry your team if he pans out. Chances are, he wonít pan out, but if you draft three or four of these lottery tickets late, one or two of them may win your league for you.

4. Draft Kickers and Defenses Late

In most league formats, kickers score a relatively small percentage of a teamís points, and therefore thereís not a whole lot of difference between the best kicker and the 12th-best kicker.

Moreover, a kickerís output is so highly team- and luck-dependent that it varies a lot from year to year, and itís therefore difficult to predict which kickers will produce.

Defenses should also be picked late.

5. Draft Before the Dropoff

Most people come to their fantasy drafts with a cheat sheet that lists the players by position in order of their draft-worthiness, and when itís their turn to pick, they take the highest player on the list at the position they need most. While thereís nothing wrong with using a list like that, itís important to identify the dropoff between consecutive picks.

For example, there may be very little difference between the fifth- and 10th-best wideout on your list, but a big difference between the 10th- and 11th-best. If the 10th wideout is available in the fourth or fifth round, youíd be wise to grab him because you know that if you let him go, the dropoff to the next one is steep. But if the 10th one gets picked right before your turn, and you know that thereís not a lot of difference between the 11th and 19th, then youíd be wise to choose a player at another position where thereís more risk of a dropoff before your next pick.

6. Get Your Starís Backup

If you draft a top running back early, itís important that you get their backups. Spending a late-middle round pick is necessary to reduce your risk.

But thereís no point in drafting an elite quarterback's backup, because thereís virtually no chance that he would come close to putting up the same kind of numbers.

7. Get Young RBs with Low Mileage

Look, itís hard enough to find good starting running backs, period, and so weíre not telling you not to draft older, top-tier running backs. But all things being roughly equal, itís better to get a younger guy with low mileage.

NFL running backs have a very short shelf life, and you can see the seeds of decline in heavily worked ones. Obviously, a huge, fast, bruising back guaranteed to get 25 carries a game has to be a first- round pick, but in the middle rounds, go with young guys rather than older ones.

8. Stay Away from Rookie Receivers

In general, rookie wideouts simply donít produce. Over the years, very few rookie wide receivers have crossed the 1,000 yard mark in their rookie season.

9. Buy Low, Sell High, Be Patient

If your first-round, star running back has a rough first couple weeks, donít panic and deal him for a guy who has had a big first two weeks out of the blue.

The key when evaluating your struggling star is to ask whether anything (other than his slow start) has fundamentally changed since you drafted him. If heís still healthy, his offensive line is still intact and the team is still committed to giving him the ball 25 times per game, then you should value him as much as you did when you picked him. And if there are struggling players on other teams who fit that description, youíll want to make an offer on them and buy them while their perceived value may be a little bit low.

Conversely, if you have a running back who has racked up great numbers over the first couple weeks, but who has done so at the expense of weak defenses or who may lose carries to a veteran back set to return from an injury, you should try to shop him around when his value is at its peak.

10. Donít Overplay Matchups

Weekly production from your fantasy players is to some extent dependent on the quality of the opponent theyíre facing. In other words, itís a lot easier for them to rack up yards and touchdowns against a poor defense than it is against a top unit.

For that reason, itís important to take the schedule into account when filling out your lineup each week. While this is a wise thing to do when two players are roughly equal, all too often fantasy owners will bench a star when heís facing a tough secondary and start a medium-level or up-and-coming player who faces an easier matchup.

While the up-and-comer may be a nice player who can easily exploit a weak matchup, you can never sit a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player in his prime nless heís injured, even if heís going against the best defense in the league.