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Fantasy Football 101: Planning for and understanding your draft

In this installment of our fantasy football series, we look at some key pre-draft fantasy football tools to check out before drafting.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Fantasy football is right around the corner. Today we look at your pre-draft planning – what are some things to consider before your draft in the next week or two?

Understand your league’s scoring

To be successful in fantasy football, you need to score points. And to score points, you need players who will score the most points IN YOUR LEAGUE’S SCORING SYSTEM. You will find a variety of lists online that will rank players for you, but those are only as good as the scoring system that was used to generate those lists. Look at your scoring system and rate your players accordingly.

The most obvious example of this is whether your league is a PPR (points per reception) league or not. When fantasy football started to take off a decade or two ago, many NFL teams used bellcow running backs who churned out points, while receivers were something of an afterthought in offensive game plans. As a result, the fantasy teams who were able to draft the top running backs early in the draft could literally “run away” with the league championship.

To balance the field a bit, the idea of PPR was introduced as a way to artificially boots the value of wide receivers to put their scoring on par with that of running backs. Although today, with the more pass-happy NFL, and more receivers reaching 1,000 receiving yards than running backs reaching 1,000 rushing yards, the need for PPR scoring is somewhat obsolete. But many leagues still use it, although some have scaled it back so you only get 0.5 or 0.25 points per reception.

Another scoring variable to take a close look at is your league’s setting for passing touchdowns. Some leagues will give a full six points, while others will scale it back to only four or five points. The reason for less points on passing touchdowns is to prevent one position group from dominating your weekly scoring. If your league gives out six points per touchdown pass, getting a great passing quarterback is pretty important to winning. But if your league only gives out four points per touchdown pass, a great quarterback won’t dominate your league, and the rushing quarterbacks have more relative value.

One final variable that you may notice is bonus points for longer field goals. In the NFL all field goals of all lengths are worth three points. In fantasy all field goals of all lengths are worth three points – unless you are in a league where your commissioner likes to get cute with the scoring. If you are in such a league, you may see longer field goals get four or five points.

Field goals are already quite random from week to week and adding the bonus points to the field goals just adds to the weekly variability of your scoring. Adding randomness like this in the scoring is fine if you are in a league with inexperienced players where no money is involved. But most serious leagues won’t have this because they will try to cut out any unnecessary, artificial randomness to the weekly scoring results, letting your success be more dependent on how well you draft, add, and drop players.

Do not enter your draft with a predetermined position for each round

Some people like to enter their draft with a pre-set positional plan such as “zero-RB” (no running backs in the first few rounds), or RB-WR-RB-WR (alternating between running backs and wide receivers each of the first few rounds), or RB-RB (taking a running back with their first few picks), or some other variant. Entering your draft with a pre-set positional plan is essentially like drafting for NEED in the NFL Draft, instead of selecting the best player available.

Ultimately the key to your draft is getting the best positional value with your picks, and that ultimately depends on which players fall to you. I’ve won leagues where I made RB’s my top three picks, and I’ve won leagues where I didn’t draft a RB until my third pick. The key was taking the best players who fell to me and not pursuing lesser players in an attempt to follow some silly pre-draft strategy with certain positions in certain rounds.

Understand your starting roster spots

Most leagues are going to have nine starters, with eight of them from the following positions: QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, TE, Kicker, Defense. That ninth, and final roster spot is usually a flex player, meaning it can come from one of several positions. That flex will usually be either a RB/WR, or a WR/TE, or a RB/WR/TE. That flex position may seem insignificant, but it is more important to your draft strategy than you may realize.

If your flex can be an RB, then a fantasy player who likes to load up on RB’s can grab three of them early, knowing that all three can be starters. But if your flex can’t be an RB then you have to weigh whether having that third RB (who is a non-starting backup) trumps drafting a good second WR (who will be a starter for you).

Also, let’s say you have an eye on tight ends like Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, and Kyle Rudolph (for example) as mid-round targets who you think would be great values at that point. But what if you have a chance to grab Rob Gronkowski early on? If you can start a tight end at your flex position, the Gronkowski pick is more palatable, because you can still get one of those other TE’s who you covet in the mid-rounds and start both. But if you can only start one tight end, you may be more hesitant to grab Gronkowski, knowing that drafting him would cause you to pass over any great values at TE who fall to you later in the draft.

Ultimately, the more players you can start from a given position group, the more flexibility you have with that position, and the more you can do with it in the draft.

Disclaimer: In the past 17 years I’ve won the championship in exactly 50 percent of the leagues in which I’ve participated. Over that span, I’ve been able to learn what some of the key factors are in building a good team that will give you the best chance for fantasy football success. In these fantasy 101 posts, my goal is to share some of what I’ve learned with our readers to help them build better fantasy football teams.