In my previous two strategy columns I looked at the trend of wide receivers dominating the first two rounds of most fantasy drafts this season. The trend has caused havoc with my usual strategy of trying to be contrarian and taking wide receivers early and often. After participating in about a dozen drafts and auctions, here are my lessons and my game plan for my remaining drafts.
Start with WR or RB ?
Just to recap the market environment this season: fewer running backs than ever are being taken in the first round. An unprecedented number of receivers are being taken in the first two rounds. Other than Rob Gronkowski, most leagues are waiting on tight end and quarterback.
Thus the key decision in the first round of your draft is whether to take a running back or wide receiver. In previous years, taking a wide receiver had two benefits: being contrarian and the better mathematical play. But with wide receiver inflation you lose the contrarian play. It's easier to win when your strategy pays off and few others have a similar game plan. But the basic math still works as far as loading up with wide receivers early. Here's a recap of the benefits of taking wide receivers early:
a) Top wide receivers remain healthier and are safer than players at other positions. The telling stat is only three of the 40 wide receivers taken with a top-15 overall Average Draft Position (ADP) since 1998 have finished the year as busts (which I define as outside the top 30 at the position).
b) In a snake draft, when you take wide receivers early you frequently reap the benefits of other teams passing on second- and third-tier running backs and get good values on running backs later in the draft.
c) Because wide receiver production fluctuates week to week - even Antonio Brown had five games last season where he had fewer than 52 yards receiving (and only caught one touchdown in those games) - it's hard to succeed mixing and matching with lesser options at the position, i.e., it's easy to leave a lot of points on your bench. By taking top wide receivers, you have the peace of mind of plugging them into your lineups every week and not second guessing your matchups, knowing in the long run you'll get plenty of production from those WR slots.
However, wide receivers are so inflated in value this season that top running backs are being depressed to unseen levels. The top two or three running backs are often going after six or eight wide receivers. As a result, the decision between taking a first-round running back and wide receiver has never been tougher.
There's a fairly clear consensus in the top three picks in standard and PPR leagues: Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones. Some ADP rankings (ESPN and MyFantasyLeague standard scoring) have Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson in the top four. But all major contests and league management software have the trio of receivers in the top four. Therefore really the decision point in the draft comes with pick four and it's usually fluid through the end of the first round.
Draft Slot Selections
As a result, if you are in a league where you get to choose your draft slot (often referred to as KDS), it's likely ideal to get one of the top three picks. Next would be pick four or five as you get your choice of a top running back or the top of the next tier of wide receivers. If you are in a 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 penalty for taking an early pick after the top three is too high. In the National Fantasy Football Championship (NFFC), which uses 3RR, my choices for draft slots were: 1,2,3,12,11,10,9,8,7,6,5,4.
Even with seven wide receivers being taken on average in the first round of NFFC drafts and 20 of the first 36 picks, I still think in most cases it's best to begin with at least two or three wide receivers in your draft. 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. I don't think you have to be dogmatic about avoiding running backs early as I'll often take one in the third round. (Thus I'm not a full "Zero RB" convert, though I was on this theory well before it was taken to that extreme).
The caveat is that with the wide receiver inflation this season the top running backs are falling farther in the first round than ever. If you can get two of the top three or five running backs in the first two rounds, you may be getting enough value to offset the mathematical advantage of taking wide receivers early. But it's very close.
Still, I haven't loved many of the teams where I've drafted a running back in the first round. My NFFC team, for example, started with Todd Gurley in the 10th pick. I then took Rob Gronkowski with the 15th pick. Did I get enough value to offset a lack of top wideouts? I later took Andrew Luck in the fifth round to try and get a top player at three positions as a way to differentiate myself from the competition (especially in the larger pool to win the $100K prize).
I like my team and think I got a lot of value by forgoing the end of the second tier of receivers, but I look with envy at the team next to me who began the draft with Dez Bryant
, Brandin Cooks
and T.Y. Hilton
. He had a plethora of strong running back choices in the middle rounds to choose from while I had to snag wide receivers. If you try this strategy, you'll end up having to take upside wide receivers who get more production in yardage and (hopefully) touchdowns than receptions such as Sammy Watkins
and Tyler Lockett
and rely on unknown commodities like DeVante Parker
, Kevin White
and Sterling Shepard
. I'm not sure that's optimal.
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. Guys I like this year include Carlos Hyde
(upside if Chip Kelly runs more plays and has strong breaking tackle stats), Giovani Bernard
, Charles Sims
(both pass catching backs for PPR formats who are playable in time shares and could be top producers if the starter above them gets hurt), Frank Gore
(he's old, but the offense should be good and price is usually cheap) and Matt Jones
(well, before he hurt his shoulder).
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.
The hard part about those mid-tier receivers is that they'll be tough to mix and match throughout the season. If Lockett or Parker 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. Cam Newton
, Andrew Luck
and Aaron Rodgers
are the leading quarterbacks and certainly shouldn't be skipped if they fall to the fourth our fifth round in a 12- to 14-team league that starts one QB, but 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. I'd never take Newton early since his 35 passing touchdowns are so far above his next best season (24). I belive Rodgers and Luck will bounce back and come cheaper than previous years. But I'm otherwise happy to wait and usually take Jameis Winston
or Marcus Mariota
. Both were top players in college, high draft picks and had good rookie seasons. They're the type of quarterbacks that should take big leaps in year two. I've taken both in some leagues.
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 in the 12th round and wound up with Matt Ryan
. I don't love Ryan, but he seems a likely bet for 25+ touchdowns and 4,500 yards. He can work.
If you are in a league that starts two quarterbacks or a league that can start a quarterback in a flex position (also called a Superflex), then it's paramount to get two quality quarterbacks. For example in the Stopa League with an $11,000 prize
, I paid up for Aaron Rodgers
and Blake Bortles
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 or wait until the end for me. 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. Otherwise I'll wait to get Dwayne Allen
late or Austin Seferian-Jenkins
as a last resort. In a league that starts only one tight end, you'll be able to take shots from options on the waiver wire if you go cheap.
Heavy on Reserve RBs
I typically take as many reserve running backs as possible, especially if you draft early in the preseason Go for all the long shots (Josh Ferguson
, James White
, Paul Perkins
, Wendell Smallwood
, C.J. Prosise
, Tevin Coleman
) or running backs in the mix who are the cheapest (James White
, Javorius Allen
). 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.
My strategy for auctions this year has been different. The same wide receiver inflation from snake drafts has spread to auctions. However, in auctions it's possible to go with a more stars and scrubs approach and get more than enough value at running back to offset a weaker wide receiver corps. And very often in auctions a reliable or second tier wide receiver will fall through the cracks and can be obtained at a discount. For example, check out my team in the high-stakes Team Heuvos expert league (organized by Brad Evans of Yahoo! Sports) that features a $200 salary cap and includes two flex spots, one being a superflex. I spent $100 to get Todd Gurley
, Le'Veon Bell
and Devonta Freeman
, but was able to survive at wide receiver thanks to bargains on Randall Cobb
($25) and Jeremy Maclin
($17). Getting those kind of values in a snake draft is very difficult because of the rigidity of ADP and rankings – it's not like Cobb is going to fall to the fifth round. But something similar happens in auctions all the time.
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 in auctions if you can get two or three top running backs for cheap, it's perhaps better to go the other direction.