Fantasy football is like pizza. No matter the specifics, it’s good. There are a lot of ways to play fantasy football, just like there is no shortage of pizza styles, and all of them are satisfying. Just because all of them are good, however, doesn’t mean they’re equal. Some types of pizza are undeniably better than others, and some fantasy football formats are clearly superior. Are you in one of the right leagues?
The traditional fantasy football format, where owners use a snake draft to fill a roster with typical starting positions, still reigns supreme, but its preeminence is being threatened as never before. As the fantasy community grows more savvy, leagues with more complex formats are becoming increasingly popular. No one rides a bike with training wheels forever, right? So why are you still playing the novice’s version of fantasy football?
In this primer for specialized leagues, we run down three of the most common changes fantasy owners introduce to increase the fun quotient of their leagues. All fantasy football leagues are good, but some are better. The fantasy community smiles upon owners in the following types of leagues.
Quarterback-related draft strategy in traditional leagues is beyond tired. Even the worst owner in your league understands that you can always find quarterback value late. One simply needs to look back to last year to find mountains of evidence that support waiting on the quarterback position. Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor were all ranked 15th or worse at the position in ADP. They all finished ninth or better in fantasy points per game.
There’s another problem that leagues with traditional one-QB formats face. Every year I play in a handful of industry leagues, which feature some of the most respected members of the expert community. In one such league that requires just one starting quarterback, Bortles was not selected. Neither was Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan or Ryan Fitzpatrick. It simply didn’t make sense for most owners to grab a backup quarterback. Bortles, Dalton, Ryan and Fitzpatrick are all key players in the real-life game, but they can be waiver-wire fodder in even the most competitive one-quarterback fantasy leagues.
Luckily, there’s an obvious solution for this issue: two-quarterback, or better still, superflex leagues. The two-QB format is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of starting one quarterback, every owner has to start two. Superflex puts a spin on that by adding a flex position at which owners are allowed to start a quarterback, running back, receiver or tight end. Ninety-nine times out of 100, you’ll want a second quarterback in your lineup, but this doesn’t force a zero on owners who don’t have a second quarterback to use due to injuries, byes or any other reason.
The need for a second quarterback completely changes the calculus for attacking the position in drafts. When you’re compelled to start two, you can’t wait as comfortably on the position. Do you lock up one of the top passers early? Do you try to grab two mid-tier quarterbacks, such as Derek Carr and Jameis Winston, in the middle rounds? When do you dive back in for your second quarterback? In a 12-team league, do you try to come out with three and squeeze four owners out of a backup? These are questions that would never enter the mind of an owner in a traditional league, but ones that owners challenging themselves in a superflex format would have to answer before sitting down at the draft table.
More strategy is a good thing in fantasy leagues. More players in a starting lineup means the best teams have a better chance of rising to the top of the standings. Not only does it put a greater emphasis on depth, but it also lessens the chance that one outlier score decides a matchup, two outcomes that should be goals for any fantasy league worth its salt. Adding a superflex position is the best change you can make to your league. Narrowly edging…
The Auction Draft
You’re really still snake drafting, huh? Anyone who has played fantasy football for more than a year or two can conduct a snake draft on autopilot and end up with a great team. It’s just not that hard: Target consistent, high-floor players early, get depth at receiver and running back, wait on the quarterback position, and swing for the fences with high-upside players late. Sure, you still have to target and land the right players, but that overarching strategy will always point you in the right direction.
The checkers-to-chess analogy is time-tested and well understood, but it doesn’t come close to depicting the schism between drafts and auctions. If drafts are the fantasy football version of checkers, auctions are the planning of the invasion of Normandy. There’s simply no comparing the two as though they’re part of the same universe. Any semi-experienced fantasy owner can do a snake draft by rote. Even the most seasoned owners need to spend significant time preparing for an auction. Drafts are perfectly fine, but auctions are far and away the superior way to fill your league’s rosters.
The first and most obvious appeal of an auction is its inherent egalitarianism. Every fantasy owner in every league would love to have Antonio Brown this season. If your league uses a draft, though, you better hope you have the first or second pick. Otherwise, you don’t have even a glimmer of hope to land the NFL’s best receiver.
That’s not the case in an auction, where every owner has a chance to get Brown. The egalitarian spirit doesn’t end there, either. You could get Brown and Odell Beckham Jr., if you so choose. You could pair the top receiver with, say, Todd Gurley, giving you an enviable one-two punch at the fantasy game’s two most important positions. In short, you can do anything in an auction, so long as you stay within the prescribed budget (of fictional dollars, just for the record), which is typically $200.
The strategy never ends in an auction. It starts with creating a line-item budget before the festivities begin, giving you a roadmap for how you’d like to build your team. If you do want Brown or Beckham, for example, you’re going to have to plan to spend $50 to $55 on your top receiver. Planning on going cheap at quarterback, the auction version of waiting on the position? In a traditional format, you’ll likely only need $7 to $10 for the position, at most. Your pre-auction budget is the foundation for everything you do. It will help you know when to spend that extra dollar or two for a player and when to back off, and those decisions are crucial in any auction.
Of course, you don’t check strategy at the door once your auction begins. Just as there is a draft order in a standard draft, there is a nominating order in an auction. This does not snake, but rather goes in a continuous circle until an auction ends. When it’s your turn, you can nominate any player who has yet to be called, and then the bidding begins.
Every dollar that is spent on one player cannot be spent on another. Taking that one step further, every dollar that is spent on a player you don’t like is, in your eyes, a dollar one of your leaguemates has flushed down the toilet. One rock-solid nomination strategy, especially early in auctions, is to throw out high-priced players you do not want.
Let’s say, for example, that you don’t buy the Ezekiel Elliott hype. It’s certain that at least a handful of owners in your league do, and they’ll be willing to pay upwards of $40 for his services. That’s $40 that they won’t be able to spend on someone like Lamar Miller. Or, perhaps feeling set at running back, they won’t even think about going after another top option at the position. In essence, that’s $40 off the table for a player you didn’t want to begin with, and that makes your actual running back targets more accessible.
Auction strategy does not end there. From being aggressive early to making sure you’re not stuck at the end of positional tiers, the auction requires an owner to be alert and adhering to both strategy and tactics from start to finish. The auction format gives you the freedom to craft your team however you please, while the draft format is rigid and all too often forces owners into boxes based on where they slot in the order. The choice between the two should be simple. After all, this is about having fun, right? Nothing is more fun than the auction.
Let’s start with something that should be obvious to everyone by now. Full PPR leagues are an abomination and have no place in the fantasy football world. Do you really want to play in a league where a zero-yard reception is effectively the same as a 10-yard run? Going back to the pizza analogy at the start of the column, a full PPR league is like a pizza from Little Caesars or Papa John’s or any other fill-in-the-blank fast-food pizza. Sure, I’ll eat it, but I won’t be thrilled about it, and I’ll judge whoever ordered it.
Half-point-per-reception leagues, therefore, are only part of this column because the full PPR format has become so commonplace these days. It used to make sense when running backs dominated the fantasy world and receivers needed the field tilted in their favor. Those days are long gone, but the full PPR anachronism remains. If you have to give out points for catching the ball, I’d cap it at 0.25, but 0.5 might be the best some of you can do.
So how does 0.5-PPR differ from the full PPR large swaths of owners have become accustomed to over the years? It doesn’t affect the players at the top of the food chain. You shouldn’t be sliding the elite receivers or backs like Todd Gurley and David Johnson down your cheat sheets because they only get half a point for doing one of the most fundamental sporting acts known to man rather than a full point. The players most affected are those for whom receptions are the very lifeblood of their careers and, on the flip side, running backs who do not catch many passes.
That means players like Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead and his acolytes (Theo Riddick, Dion Lewis, Charles Sims, et al.) lose value as the points associated with receptions decrease. Conversely, backs like Thomas Rawls, Jeremy Hill, Matt Jones and Chris Ivory are more valuable. They’re not going to catch any more passes, of course, but they won’t fall as far behind pass-catching backs and receivers as they do in silly full PPR leagues.
Want to make your fantasy league the best it can be? Add a superflex (and perhaps another regular flex spot or two while you’re at it), get rid of the draft in favor of the auction, and award exactly zero points for receptions. Then order yourself the most delicious pizza at your disposal. You’ve earned it.
Photos: Alex Brandon/AP (Newton), Leon Halip/Getty Images (Dalton), Jared Wickerham/AP (Brown), Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images (Miller)