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Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Dilemmas For 2015

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of RotoWire.com. He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.

Draft Strategy 2015

How are you approaching your fantasy football league's overall strategy this season? It's easy to just say "take best player available" or be agnostic about your first-round pick in a draft. But once you chose a position to spend your first-round draft pick on, you've chosen a path the rest of your draft. Take a QB and you'll be behind on gathering WR and RB. Take Rob Gronkowski at TE and you're behind on QB, WR and RB. Here are the trends I'm seeing in my drafts so far and the strategies I've chosen.

First Round

The first wrinkle to 2015 draft strategy is that the first-round has never been as wide open. As many as seven players could be justified at the top spot (Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Le'Veon Bell, Adrian Peterson). In the last 15 years of fantasy football there hasn't been a year where more than three or four players could arguably be taken first overall. Typically, it's one to three running backs everyone obsesses about at the top of the draft with maybe a rare quarterback or elite wide receiver thrown into the mix. Bell would be a clear No. 1 but for his two-game suspension.

In my leagues, I've seen five different players drafted first overall. Take Antonio Brown, for example. I've seem him taken first overall. I took him at No. 2 overall in my NFFC league. And I took him 10th in our Las Vegas staff league that drafted in July. League context matters a lot, of course, as the NFFC is a PPR league and the Las Vegas league is a standard format, but it's almost unprecedented that a player taken No. 1 overall in many leagues would fall as far as 10th routinely in other formats.

The takeaway is that the value of the No. 1 overall pick and a higher pick in the first round is less valuable than ever. The player you hope to get at No. 1 or No. 3 may end up being there for you later in the first round.

Draft Slot Selections

The decline in the value of a top draft pick has had the largest impact on the selection of your draft slot (in leagues where you can choose). Typically, the ideal draft slot is to get somewhere in the top 2-5 picks to assure you can get one of the few every-down and rare dominant running backs. For example in 2012, everyone wanted to get in the top three to get Arian Foster, Ray Rice or LeSean McCoy, or maybe the top five if someone wanted Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson.

This year, it's better to take a draft slot in the middle to late first round. And the many top pick options throw a real wrench in third-round reversal drafts (3RR) where the first overall selection picks last in both the second and third round (before taking the first pick in the fourth round and then following a regular snake draft format draft thereafter). The 3RR format was devised as a way to balance the draft position luck where the owner getting the windfall of a sure-fire running back early in the first round would be offset by a penalty of drafting later in the third round. This year that penalty is excessive. In 3RR formats, the top 1-4 spots are now the worst choices. In my NFFC draft, which uses 3RR, my choices for draft slots were: 7, 6, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

WR-WR Early

The other trend I've noticed is that wide receiver drops off faster than you think. In my book, there was a top 17 at wide receiver before the preseason. And that's now down to a top 15 with season-ending injuries to Kelvin Benjamin and Jordy Nelson. In almost all formats that means the top-15 WRs don't make it to the fourth round and rarely to the last of the third round. And that problem is exacerbated in PPR formats. In my NFFC draft, those 17 wide receivers were gone before the eighth pick in the third round (we drafted before the Benjamin and Nelson injuries).

As a result, if you begin your draft by starting with a RB in the first round or two, you are going to be chasing WR the rest of the way. And my historical studies have shown that mid-tier RBs (according to average draft position or ADP) outperform mid-tier WRs. The result is that taking WRs early this year may be the most viable strategy even at the top of the first round. Usually I advocate taking one of those every-down and rare dominant running backs at the top of the first round. But this year in the NFFC, for example, I bypassed Adrian Peterson -- who I think will have his typical 1,200 yard, 10-touchdown season at a minimum -- at the No. 2 overall draft slot for a top WR.

Mid-Tier Running Backs

If you start your draft by selecting wide receivers early, I'd focus on gathering quantity over quality in the middle rounds. I like a lot of the rookie running backs this year. Melvin Gordon may lose receptions on third downs, but he'll get the ball steadily enough on first and second down as a first-round draft pick in a good offense to justify a third-round selection in fantasy leagues. Ameer Abdullah, Todd Gurley and Tevin Coleman also interest me if the price is right. I'm banking on Frank Gore staying productive in a high-powered offense even if his per-play production slips as he'll stay on the field due to his blocking skills. I'll take Joseph Randle on the theory any back behind Dallas' offensive line can be productive. Lamar Miller and his 5.1 YPC is underrated. Alfred Morris is the one back I'll take as early as the fourth round to get some floor at the position. Sure, he won't help you in PPR, but he won't lose his job with a bad week and has been productive despite a roller coaster of chaos at quarterback. Mark Ingram could have a breakout year if the Saints run more and if he can stay healthy. Ryan Mathews is behind an injury-prone running back in a great offensive environment.

I'm going not going to hit on all those. But if I can grab three or four of those backs in rounds three to seven, I believe I'll be better off than the owner who took running backs early and now has to pick among mid-tier WRs. I'm not as intrigued by Jarvis Landry, Amari Cooper, Golden Tate, Vincent Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and others in those rounds.

The hard part about those mid-tier receivers is that they'll be tough to mix and match throughout the season. If Maclin or Landry has a bad week, are you confident in starting him the next week? You'll likely leave points on your bench when they go off. Meanwhile, running backs are more binary in nature -- they either have a starting or time-share role or they don't. It's much easier to mix and match running backs each week. Plus, if one becomes a starter and your wide receivers live up to expectations (which they do as much or more than any other position), you have a very strong team.

Don't Take a QB Until Very Late

Quarterback is as deep as ever this season. While Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers are the leading quarterbacks and certainly shouldn't be skipped if they fall to the third our fourth round in a 12- to 14-team league that starts one QB, there's plenty of viable options if you wait. And there are even livable options if you are the last to take a quarterback in your league. While Luck and Rogers are a clear top two, there's little consensus from No. 3 to 9.

In our 14 team, non-PPR Las Vegas league I was the last to take a quarterback and took the 15th quarterback off the board and wound up with Matthew Stafford. I'm not a big fan of Stafford given his mediocre YPA totals despite having the game's best wide receiver, but he's on a team that throws a ton. Last season, Detroit had the best defense it has had in years and Stafford threw 602 times. With better health from Calvin Johnson this season, Stafford seems a good bet to throw 600 times or more again. That will work fine for the 11th round as I was able to stock up on mid-tier RBs and other positions while others took QBs.

In my 16-team RotoWire staff "steak" league (where bottom half in total points has to buy the upper half a steak dinner) I was able to buy Ryan Tannehill for $9 (out of a $200 budget) in the auction. I was among the last to take a starting quarterback. You can survive if you wait and wait to fill the position.

Gronk or Bust at TE

Similarly if you're bulking up on mid-tier running backs and forgoing quarterback, you typically want to wait on a TE as well. This year at TE, it's either take Gronkowski in the first round or wait until the end for me. I haven't seen Gronkowski fall below the first round in any of my drafts. I don't like taking Gronkowski in the first round due to his injury risk and since tight end is historically an injury-prone position. Jimmy Graham's price is usually too high (in second or third round) as there's a lot of risk with him moving from one of the league's top pass offenses to one of its top rushing offenses. I took Travis Kelce in the fourth round of the 14-team Las Vegas staff league (non-PPR), but typically I don't view him as a great option around there given how Kansas City doesn't pass the ball deep and he's had just one good season. After those three, the next six or seven TEs look about equal. If I wait on tight end I'm usually looking for Tyler Eifert as an upside play, Kyle Rudolph as a cheap bounce-back option (Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner still loves his tight ends) or one of the Colts tight ends for cheap just to get any stake in the Indy passing game (maybe one gets hurt and you own the other).

Heavy on Reserve RBs

If you are drafting before the final week of the preseason, I'd typically take as many reserve running backs as possible. Go for all the long shots (David Cobb, Duke Johnson, David Johnson, Charles Sims, James White, Cameron Artis-Payne) or running backs in the mix who are the cheapest (Terrance West, Zac Stacy). As long as your league has liberal free-agent rules, allowing you to freely make weekly pickups, there are almost always wide receivers available for bye weeks or when injuries strike. Backup quarterbacks can be had as well. These options may not be great, but you won't take a zero. Meanwhile if any of these running backs find a starting or significant role, you've gained a huge asset. In what league have you ever been where running backs during the season are not in short supply?

Kicker and Team D Last

Make your last two picks your kicker and your defense. I'm very dogmatic about this. Even in IDP leagues. Those positions are widely available on the waiver wire. Assuming your league has liberal free agency, you're never going to be without a starting kicker or defense. History has also shown that experts and the wisdom of the crowds (as measured by ADP) are terrible at picking the top options at kicker or defense.

Remember how last year everyone loved Seattle's team defense? Seattle went in the ninth round in one of my experts drafts last year. Seattle finished sixth in fantasy scoring among defenses in most formats. And the difference between the No. 1 and No. 14 defense was just 3.5 fantasy points per week.

Similarly for IDPs with so many options available on the waiver wire and many unknowns becoming star players mid-season, I'd rather spend resources elsewhere. About the only place I'd spend an extra dollar would be if you have to start defensive ends or defensive tackles. At those positions players who have high tackle totals and amass sacks are rare. But even then I'd rather spend that extra dollar on a high upside running back.

So to recap, my strategy has been to go WR early, a lot of RBs in the middle rounds, wait on TE and QB, a bench with even more RBs and K and Team D as your last selections. But with the first-round so wide open this season, the good news is almost any strategy is possible this year if you disagree.