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Draft Strategy: Basic Principles of Roster Construction

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.


Fantasy Football Drafting Basics

It's been more than six years since I last outlined some basic principles for building a strong fantasy football teams. Because some things about the NFL have changed since then as well as some trends in the fantasy game itself, an update was overdue. It follows below:


1. Understand the Value (or lack thereof) of Quarterbacks in Your League.

Quarterbacks typically dominate the total points leader board in most formats, but their values depend on several things including your scoring system, the number of teams in your league, the number of starting quarterbacks (including quarterback-eligible flex positions) and the required number of starting position players (RB, WR).

A. Scoring system

Whether quarterbacks get 3, 4 or 6 points per passing touchdown matters, whether and how much quarterbacks get docked for interceptions matter (though not usually all that much) and how many points per passing yard matters. It also affects the value of quarterbacks who run - the less credit given for passing stats, the more the running quarterbacks stand out relative to their peers. Point-per-reception (PPR) leagues add more relative value to position players and remove value from all quarterbacks.

B. League Size

There are 32 teams in the NFL, and typically 15-20 of them at most have quarterbacks you'd be willing to use, probably less when you take into account bye weeks, weather conditions and matchups. In a 12-team league that starts just one-QB, you can almost always find quality quarterbacking late in your draft, or on the waiver wire. Accordingly, in most formats of that sort, you should wait until the middle to late rounds to draft one unless an elite one falls significantly below ADP. In a 14-team league (or deeper), the position typically becomes far more scarce, as the waiver wire is usually fairly barren during the year, and owners are therefore inclined to draft a backup QB earlier. That means you wait on QBs at your peril, though the other positions in deeper leagues are scarce also - so you'll have tougher choices to make.

C. Number of Quarterbacks Started

In two-quarterback leagues, or leagues where you can start a second QB as a flex (essentially 2-QB leagues), the value of the position skyrockets, and getting two competent starting ones is almost essential and something on which it's worth spending early picks.

D. Number of Position Players Started

The number of starting position players (RB, WR) is crucially important to determining the value of quarterbacks. If you start 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, and one FLEX (RB/WR), the ratio of position players to QB is 6:1. That's high, and it diminishes the value of QBs relative to position players. If you start 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, then the ratio is just 4:1 which is low, and it's more permissible to draft QBs early. In a 14-team league, this ratio is often the tiebreaker for me when it comes to deciding whether to wait on quarterbacks.

Once you've figured out the value of quarterbacks, the rest of your job is typically easier. If their value is relatively low, you punt the position and load up on WR/RB unless a star QB falls so far below ADP that you have to take him. (We're talking Aaron Rodgers slipping to Round 3 in a 12-team 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 RB/WR league). In a 14-team league with those starting requirements, Rodgers would have to slip to the middle of Round 2. In a 14-team league with 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, Rodgers is a first-round pick.

2. Take What the Draft Gives You

People often ask whether they should go RB/RB at Pick 9 in a 12-team standard league*, or if it would be better to go RB/WR. The answer is it depends.

Typically in a standard format, you should go with the best RB or WR available in the first two rounds, and any combination thereof is permissible. Even so, different choices here will have consequences which you must address later in your draft.

A. RB/RB - Running backs typically score more points than receivers. That's because they usually have more opportunities for touchdowns and they rack up both passing and rushing yards. Also, given their higher volume of touches, their scoring is less volatile than that of receivers, i.e., you can count on more consistent week-to-week production from them than you can from receivers.

But by losing out on elite receivers, you're rolling the dice on mediocre ones who are almost impossible to predict on a weekly basis. Moreover, running backs are more injury prone, so your most precious investments are more likely to lose their value if you go RB/RB.

B. WR/WR

Receivers are typically more durable than running backs, but they're limited (with rare exceptions) to receiving yards and scores, they see less than half the touches that comparable backs do and they're production is more volatile, i.e., it's less consistent on a weekly basis.

But top receivers are reliable over the long haul, and by drafting them, you avoid the nearly impossible task of choosing which mediocre ones to start week to week. Moreover, should one or two of your middle or late-round backs win a starting job, it's far easier to count on their production than it would be for a comparable receiver. Finally, because the league has evolved toward more running back committees, there are typically more useful backs than there used to be, and more who emerge over the course of the season.

C. WR/RB or RB/WR

This is obviously fine, too, and gives you some added flexibility.

3. Where to Draft a Tight End?

Getting an elite tight end in the middle rounds is worthwhile, but keep in mind a few caveats:

A. Tight ends are injury prone - it's a grueling position due to the dual requirements of blocking and receiving.

B. Tight ends typically lack upside - the No. 1 overall tight end often fails to outscore even the No. 10 overall receiver, who often fails to outscore the No. 20 overall running back.

C. You typically are required to start only one of them - they're usually not too scarce, and more talented pass-catching tight ends have come into the league over the last five years, making good ones available late.

That said, once the RB/WR plateau a few rounds into your draft, you should consider a TE or QB.

4. Kickers and Team Defenses

In most scoring systems, these positions are afterthoughts because:

A. They contribute only a small amount of total scoring;

B: You need only start one of them, so plenty of choices are available on the waiver wire; and

C Most importantly, both are so difficult to predict that it's only worth investing a very late-round pick on them.

5. PPR Leagues

In leagues that award a point-per reception, possession receivers and pass-catching running backs get a significant boost. All good receivers get a modest boost. Backs who don't catch passes and quarterbacks merit downgrades.

6. Auction vs. Draft

More leagues have begun to use auctions to acquire players, the strategy for which requires a separate and more lengthy discussion. The same principles regarding the value of various positions apply, however, with dollars substituting for rounds in your calculus. But bidding and nominating strategy, i.e., how to maximize your budget in the auction, requires a different skill set than that of a draft.

7. IDP Leagues

Individual Defensive Player leagues are more common these days, with so many varied starting requirements it's nearly impossible to say what's standard. As a rule, defensive players get one point per tackle, several points for sacks and interceptions and six points for TDs. As such, players who make a lot of tackles - typically middle and inside linebackers - are the most valuable commodities, followed by outside linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks and defensive ends.

IDPs rarely score enough to merit anything better than a middle-to-late round pick, but there are some exceptions for particular scoring systems.

8. Backups

Typically, once you hit the middle rounds of your draft, you should largely be looking for upside - potential game changers who are an injury or depth chart change away from being top players at their positions. Only rarely should you concern yourself about getting your stars' real life backups as insurance - for that, two requirements must be met: (1) The backup is almost certain to inherit the starter's entire role; and (2) The backup is likely capable of producing at least 80 percent or so of what the starter produced. If the starter is also injury prone, that makes the case more compelling and should cause you to reach a round early for the backup.

Otherwise, draft the players with most upside regardless if they're on the same team as your star players.

When to draft a backup quarterback depends on two thing: (1) Quarterback value in your league (See above), and (2) The quality, job security and health/injury proneness of your starter.

9. Distance Scoring Leagues

Some leagues award extra points for longer touchdowns, and in those, you obviously must upgrade big-play players and downgrade slower, possession receivers or plodding, bruising backs, accordingly.

10. Miscellaneous

A. Players on the Same Team

Some people avoid drafting players on the same team because if the team gets shut out, both will necessarily do poorly. Others target players on the same good team because both will likely benefit when the team does well. In my opinion, neither scenario changes your decision: simply take the best player regardless of whether you've drafted his teammate previously.

B. Bye Weeks

There's no reason to worry about them. Everyone has to deal with them, and it's an open question whether it's better to get it over with all at once with multiple players missing from your lineup in one week, or to be slightly compromised over several weeks. The one exception might be taking a backup QB with a different bye than your starter, but otherwise, bye weeks should not affect your draft-day decision making.

C. Strength of Schedule

I tend to ignore this to an extent, but of the three "miscellaneous" factors, it's the most important, especially early in the year when teams are more likely to resemble their preseason configurations. If you know a player is playing against two tough defenses in the first four weeks, you might want to downgrade him a draft slot or two, and upgrade one who has cushy matchups early. But because so much changes year to year, it's foolish to put too much stake in this, especially for games scheduled in November and December.

* By standard league we mean a 12-team one starting 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, six points per rushing/receiving TD, four points per passing TD, one point for every 10 yards rushing/receiving, one point for every 20 yards passing.