by Matthew Hill
Fantasy football can be a cruel game. Injuries, surprising performances, suspensions, and unexpected player roles can all derail the most methodically planned fantasy seasons. So, when I write that last season I was able to finish in the money in 14 of 22 draft only/best ball leagues, I fully recognize that it would be foolish to expect to win at that same rate every year.
At the same time, when you are able to cash at a 63% rate on nearly two dozen drafts, it would be equally foolish not to take time to examine the make up of those teams in a search for repeatable strategies for 2018. Despite the fact that the drafts were spread out over a broad range of dates (first one began on February 17th with the final league concluding its draft on July 25th) and there being some variation to its setting (all best ball but in addition to the mostly “traditional” draft only “flex” leagues, there were several draft only “deep rosters” and auctions), there were a number of common factors amongst my winning rosters.
The following five strategies/principles played a major factor in my draft-only success last season. I fully expect each strategy/principle to be just as likely to lead to winning results in 2018.
- Target rookie running backs prior to the draft.
The ADP’s of rookie running backs follow a predictable trajectory. Their ADPs slowly rise from their initial ADP with significant bumps happening right after they find a home after the NFL draft, as well as every time they make a highlight-worthy play during a preseason game.
By the time traditional draft season rolls around in mid-August, much of a rookie’s early value has been depleted. This is why those first best ball drafts in the late winter/early spring are such a prime time to grab rookie running backs on the cheap. You just have to make sure you target the right ones.
Owners taking part in early best ball drafts need to research and identify rookie running backs that fit a certain profile. Obviously there will be high-profile backs each year that will carry with them early round ADPs from the start (think Ezekiel Elliot and Leonard Fournette in recent drafts and Saquon Barkley this year). These are backs that are expected to go early in the NFL Draft and with that, can all but be assured of a heavy workload from week one on. While that expectation will already be factored into their opening ADP’s, there is still some value to be had as often these likely “bell cow” backs can initially be had in the third of early best ball drafts before their ascent into the second round after NFL draft day.
The real value comes from receiving backs that are likely to step right into 3rd down roles for their new teams. Looking back at drafts from last February and early March, Christian McCaffery was could often be had for in the 8th, 9th, and even 10th round, while Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara were early teen mainstays. Obviously last spring, no one could have predicted just how productive Hunt and Kamara would end up being in 2018. However, those that did their homework prior to early drafts would have felt good about their chances of exceeding value as likely passing down backs, with the size to earn early-down work, further inflating their worth.
- Target players with clear roles.
NFL depth charts are fluid. Between free agency movement, the draft, and surprising preseason performances, change is a given. This is why it is so important to target players who will have clear, established roles headed into 2018. This means early down backs with mediocre production, quarterbacks that are expected to have to compete for their job this preseason, and players that saw their roles diminish over the course of 2017 need to be largely avoided. Quality passing down backs, quarterbacks sitting securely at the top of the depth chart, and heavily targeted receivers can all be taken with confidence in early drafts and help secure a high floor.
- Target players with favorable health histories.
Similar to making players with clear roles a priority, targeting players with a history of not missing time is another key to building a high floor and negating the amount of uncertainty that comes with drafting early. Yes, I understand that that you cannot predict injuries and I know that there is much debate about if being “injury prone” is even a fair label to put on a player. All I know is that I didn’t own a single share of Jordan Reed last season (to use one example). On the flipside, Golden Tate was one of my most-owned players (He’s missed a total of one game in the past seven seasons). Some guys just seem to stay on the field more and when you are drafting in the early spring (or the week before the season starts for that matter) and you are not allowed to make any transactions during the season, I want to draft lineups with guys who historically give me the best chance to field full lineups over the course of sixteen weeks.
- Always take the best player available in the early rounds.
I am a “Zero RB guy.” I love to load my head-to-head rosters with stud wide receivers. Like many, I wait on quarterback. There are simply too many productive passers to make them a priority.
When it comes to best ball, however, my head-to-head biases are put aside as I look to employ the “value based drafting” strategy. Simply put, take the best value available early and fill out your roster based on your optimal roster construction in the mid/late rounds. This might mean starting RB-RB-RB, if the value dictates it (Which can be maddeningly difficult for us “Zero RB” truthers!). It might even mean that you’re the first one to select a quarterback if you find yourself in a draft where everyone is playing a game of “QB chicken” to see who will be the first to select from one of fantasy’s deepest positions. Every player has a point where his draft position screams “value,” and it would be wise not to ignore that value in order to stockpile lesser players from other positions.
- Don’t worry about having too many shares of a player.
Best ball drafts can be addicting. They are fun, compelling, low maintenance and inexpensive. As such, enthusiasts often play them by the dozen and even hundreds. When an owner takes place in such a high number of drafts, the question is often asked, “Do you try to limit your shares of a player?”
The fear is that if you were to own to many shares of a player that if he were to get injured, it would decimate a large percentage of your leagues. Yes, it stinks when some of your highest owned players gets hurt or underperforms (For me, those players were named Enuwa, Olsen, Snead, and Garcon.). However, if enough of your highly owned sleepers hit (In my case I had numerous shares of Kamara, Woods, Chris Thompson, and Ginn.) your teams will still put up points.
Ultimately, like any form of fantasy, you want to have fun and you want to feel good about your results. Do your research, get your guys, and hope for productive, injury-free seasons.