It is impossible to predict exactly how a draft will unfold. All the pre-draft prep in the world won’t help you if you don’t have contingency plans in place when the unforeseen happens. That’s why we lead our column on draft strategies every year with a discussion of the difference between strategies and tactics.
The word “strategy” derives from the Greek word strategos, referring to a military general. Put simply, strategy is the overarching plan and coordination of your resources to meet specific goals and objectives. It’s the plan of action put in place by said general. Tactics are used to implement that strategy via short-term decisions that further the long-term goal.
Famed military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” Crudely re-purposing that for the fantasy world, tactics refer to the individual picks you make in a draft. Those picks should be governed by a set of carefully crafted strategies that guide your short-term decisions.
Below are the strategies that will set up the tactical decisions necessary to emerge from your draft with the best possible team.
Don’t get caught up on a specific position in the early rounds
Wide receivers have crashed the first round over the last few seasons, and this year you could see as many as 10 or 11 receivers off the board within the first two rounds of a typical 12-team draft. The reliability of the league's elite receivers combined with the recent bust rate of early-round running backs created a new debate about which position to prioritize. Some fantasy owners insist that focusing on receivers early is the surest way to glory, while others rely on the old standard of grabbing a couple of backs with their first few picks.
Boiling your decision down to a binary question of “backs or receivers?” misses a key point, however. In pretty much every single fantasy league, yards and touchdowns are scored exactly the same for receivers and running backs: A wideout who racks up 100 yards and a touchdown through the air gets you the same number of points as a running back who churns out 100 yards and a score of his own on the ground. There are, of course, questions of position scarcity and reliability at the top of the draft, but the important factor to remember is that there’s no inherent scoring advantage at either position.
All too often, I’m asked if I’d focus on backs or receivers in the first two rounds of my draft. There’s no good answer to that, because the question is based on the faulty premise that you have to go for one or the other. Rather than committing to a back or receiver regardless of who is on the board, fantasy owners should instead target the best available player at either position. In general, there’s no weapon quite like an elite running back, but if Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch are already gone, you can bet I’ll still be thrilled to get Dez Bryant or Antonio Brown. I’m not going to force myself to take a running back if the price isn’t right simply because I wanted, and missed out on, the position’s upper echelon.
As long as you focus on both positions early in your draft, there’s no wrong way to attack the first few rounds. However, veering from that path can result in the most avoidable of draft snafus...
Wait on a quarterback
What was the first year you played fantasy football? I bet that was also the first year you heard the above strategy. While some parts of the fantasy game have changed for those of us who have been playing for a long time, waiting on a quarterback has become axiomatic.
Undoubtedly, we are in a golden era for the forward pass. There have been 11 seasons with at least 40 touchdown passes from quarterbacks in NFL history. Eight of those 11 occurred in 2004 or later, and six have come in the last four seasons. Before 2008, there had been only one 5,000-yard season in NFL history, belonging to Dan Marino in 1984. Now there are eight, in addition to five more 4,900-yard seasons. Twelve of the top 15 single-season passing yards marks happened after the iPad was invented.
It would be hard to fault someone for assuming that quarterbacks are more important than ever in the fantasy game. After all, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck were two of the most consistent players at any position last year. However, being fantasy's top quarterback in 2014 wasn't the only reason Luck was on so many championship teams. It also helped that he didn't get drafted in the early rounds: Luck wasn’t off the board until the fifth round of a typical 12-team draft last year.
The rising tide of the passing game across the NFL has lifted all ships. Quarterbacks may be scoring more than ever, but the top guys at the position are no farther away from those at the back end of the QB1 class than they were 10 years ago, at least from a statistical standpoint. Last year’s No. 12 quarterback by points per game, Jay Cutler, scored 22.3% fewer points per week than Luck. In 2005, 12th-ranked Jake Plummer scored 21.8% fewer points on a weekly basis than No. 1 Donovan McNabb.
The problem with Rodgers and Luck, as it is every year with every early-round quarterback, is opportunity cost. If you take Rodgers or Luck, you forego the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Rob Gronkowski, Jeremy Hill and A.J. Green. Meanwhile, your league-mate who took one of those players can also get Tony Romo or Eli Manning or Ryan Tannehill somewhere between 70 and 80 picks later than you took your quarterback, while you’re grabbing a receiver like Charles Johnson or John Brown in that range.
Taking a quarterback early was not an advisable strategy 20 years ago. It didn’t get any better 10 years ago, either. Assuming you’re in a one-quarterback league, it does not make sense to this day.
Invest in the best offenses
Last season, the top seven scoring teams in the NFL were the Packers, Broncos, Eagles, Patriots, Cowboys, Colts and Steelers. Those teams gave the fantasy community five top-10 quarterbacks, four top-10 running backs, eight top-10 wide receivers and three top-10 tight ends. Even limiting the set to just the Packers, Broncos and Colts, three teams everyone knew would be among the best offensive units in the league, you get three top-five quarterbacks, two top-10 running backs, five top-10 receivers (including four in the top seven) and a pair of top-10 tight ends.
Environment and opportunity are crucial to fantasy football success. Sammy Watkins, for example, could very well be a better pure receiver than Randall Cobb. The latter, however, plays with Rodgers, while the former is stuck with Matt Cassel. That’s the most concise way to explain why owners should target certain offenses just as aggressively as they go after specific players.
For another example, let’s turn our eyes to Denver. In 2013, Eric Decker put up his second straight monster season with Peyton Manning at the helm. He caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns, giving him consecutive top-10 fantasy campaigns. That same year, Emmanuel Sanders, while still a member of the Steelers, had 67 receptions for 740 yards and six scores, finishing the season as the No. 34 receiver in standard-scoring leagues.
That off-season, Decker cashed in by signing a five-year, $36.25 million contract with the Jets that guaranteed him $15 million. The Broncos went out and inked Sanders to a three-year deal worth $6 million guaranteed to replace Decker. Sanders was now in the NFL passing game’s version of Eden, while Decker entered a less-than-ideal situation in New York. The results were predictable.
Sanders ended up posting a career year in 2014, setting career highs across the board with 101 passes for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns while essentially taking over Decker’s spot in the top 10. Decker learned that playing with Geno Smith isn’t quite as fun as playing with Manning, catching just 74 balls for 962 yards and five scores.
Now, did Sanders or Decker fundamentally change as players between 2013 and '14? Of course not. The only meaningful changes either made was the jersey they wore, the quarterback they played with, and offense of which they were part, and that was enough to make Sanders a top-10 receiver and nearly knock Decker out of the top 30.
Environment matters. Fantasy owners should do what they can to invest in the Packers, Broncos, Steelers, Colts and Giants, among other prolific attacks, this season.
Photos: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images (Luck), Mike McGinnis/Getty Images (Lacy), Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Roethlisberger), Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images (Watkins)