By Joe Pollock
Before I let the cat out of the bag and reveal
Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are fantastic fantasy assets, but they aren't winning you your league. You need that first pick in your snake draft or $50+ player in auction to hit, but for most teams that player is a requisite for baseline success, not a piece that will carry you to a championship. You need to hit your first-round pick out of the park, but its the guys drafted later like Todd Gurley & Alvin Kamara in 2017 and Jordan Howard & DeMarco Murray in 2016 that set the great fantasy players apart from the good ones.
When casual or introductory-level fantasy players see teams stacked with more studs than a thoroughbred farm, it's easy for them to write off the season and think they just didn't get lucky this year. When you've played in a league for seven years, and that same guy finishes in the championship game year-after-year, it becomes pretty apparent that there's more to it than luck.
So how do they do it? What's the difference between you and the guy who had Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram, DeAndre Hopkins & Alvin Kamara on top of the stud he grabbed in the first last year? Assuming you spend the same amount of time researching statistical trends and watching game film, the only logical explanation has to be draft strategy. Are you using a tiered draft board to make your selections? If not, you should be.
Don't Shed a Tier
If you're playing fantasy football merely for bragging rights in your eight-team standard scoring water-cooler league, maybe you don't need a precision-honed draft strategy. For the rest of us that play in higher stakes leagues with stiffer competition, we need every advantage we can get. Enter the tiered draft board.
If your draft board doesn't look at least a little bit like this, your preparation may need some adjustment. I'm not talking about the rankings. Those are subjective. What I am talking about is the underlying strategy. Without distinct tiers, a draft can be overwhelming. When you only have 30 seconds to select a player each round things can get dicey. Or what if you have to make a split-second decision in auction about whether or not to bump it up to $15 for an elite talent like Aaron Rodgers or wait it out for Matt Stafford and Philip Rivers? For a combined total of less than $15, you could have a matchup-based powerhouse duo. The only way to make sure you're effectively maximizing your point potential at each specific draft position is to tier your rankings. I prefer to take the tiered approach even one step further and separate out my board position-by-position as I've done in this graphic with QBs. You'll want a big board as well, but the positional rankings can help identify players who you may think can buck the differential scoring trends at each position. Guys like that may make you may want to reach a few picks. That's okay in the framework of this strategy.
No Two Players in Fantasy are Created Equal
So how did I become the guy that consistently finds the Alvin Kamara, Jordan Howard, Todd Gurley, DeMarco Murray, or even 2015's Devonta Freeman & David Johnson? What was the strategy that helped set my teams apart year-in and year-out? I call it upside drafting. Every year I watch the same guys make the same draft mistakes. If you're a consistency expert like Bob Lung, this article might not be for you. There's merit to the idea that consistency can win championships, but that's not my game. I'm all about the ceiling.
If you are all about consistency-based drafting, check out Bob's new book The 2018 Fantasy Football Consistency Guide. For listeners and readers of The Fantasy Takeaway, Bob's offering a 15% discount. Just enter Promo Code: FFTakeaway, or FFTakeawayVIP (for the VIP version) at checkout. If you're like me and you think players like Tyreek Hill & Marvin Jones can be essential pieces that help you drink all the free beers and put on that championship belt at your yearly Buffalo Wild Wings season-end party, keep reading.
Identifying High-Upside Options
When you're drafting a solid fantasy football team, it's imperative that you take into account team construction. Great fantasy analysts put together unbelievable lists of players, and some of them do it with tremendous accuracy. That said, if you draft without roster construction in mind, you might end up being that guy crying in his beer after finishing number one in points but missing the playoffs because your team couldn't hack it week-to-week. You better make sure that first round pick hits, so don't take chances on guys like Saquon Barkley in redraft if you've still got a David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott on the board. Those guys have been in the league, and they've done it before.
Even in a tier-based system, no two players are alike. Let's look at Matt Harmon's–by the way I love Matt Harmon‘s work; Reception Perception is incredible–tier four
- Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
- Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
- Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
- Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
- Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
- Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers
- Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
I used this specific example because I read this Matt Harmon piece pre-draft and used it to help inform my personal strategy for the year. We can break down this tier into three distinct categories: Rookies, Low-Upside, and High-Upside. This isn't an exact science. You're going to be wrong sometimes, but if you're right more often than not, this strategy will net you some huge wins, especially in the later rounds.
Rookies: Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette & Kareem Hunt
High Upside: Todd Gurley, Ty Montgomery (I know, I know… I'll explain why I included Monty here in a minute).
Low Upside: Isaiah Crowell, Lamar Miller
The rookies are obvious. Unless someone is a sure thing like Zeke was in 2016, I'm not touching rookies this early in the draft. That may mean I miss out on guys like Kareem Hunt, but if it also means netting 2017's Todd Gurley or 2016's DeMarco Murray, that's just fine with me.
The high upside players are a little harder to spot, but with a combination of excellent research and systematic film study, recognizing them can be a science just as much as it is an art. In identifying Todd Gurley as a breakout candidate in 2017, film study was crucial. Jeff Fisher coached teams boasted offenses that were terrible for running backs. His coaching philosophy, especially later in his career, wasn't conducive to high-upside play at any offensive position. Sean McVay's is. Another thing studying Gurley's 2016 film did that the stats couldn't was illuminate the biggest reason to be hopeful for 2017. Gurley was making business decisions. I don't know if he was hurt or if he just couldn't be compelled to compete play-in and play-out on such an awful team, but he was going down at the bat of an eyelash. His breakout in 2015 showed he had the talent; it was just a change in scheme that was needed for a considerable breakout to occur last year. There won't be a 2017 Todd Gurley in every draft, but there certainly will be value at running back outside of the first round.
Ty Montgomery was one of my biggest busts of 2017. I drafted him everywhere. As a fourth or fifth round pick, my risk analysis showed that Montgomery was a solid investment. Any player in an Aaron Rodgers offense should see substantial opportunity if they're on the field more plays than not. Unfortunately for Ty Montgomery and the fantasy owners that drafted him, he found himself both not on the field and not in an Aaron Rodgers led offense following the two players' respective injuries. Disappointments like this are a part of the high-upside drafting model. A player's future expendability is not a bug of this system; it's a feature. When guys like Montgomery are sent to the IR or the waiver wire, it gives us an opportunity to identify and target high-upside waiver wire guys. In my case, I filled Montgomery's roster spot with Alex Collins after Montgomery went to my IR slot following Week 4. The cyclical nature of the bench in a ceiling-centric drafting model is crucial to its success.
Isaiah Crowell and Lamar Miller fell into the low-upside category for two particular and very distinct reasons. Miller was a player I identified as being in an offense that wasn't conducive to his specific skillset. The numbers and tape both support that conclusion even today. I do have some hope that a Deshaun Watson led offense can be dynamic enough to support a back like Miller, but that's a conversation for another day.
Isaiah Crowell was a player whose opportunity and draft position outshined his ability. When he was being drafted in the late fifth or early sixth round he was worth the risk. In the late second or early third? Forget about it.
Building a Top-to-Bottom High-Upside Draft Strategy that Wins Championships
Now that we've got the fundamental draft strategy building blocks laid out, it's time to talk about building the draft. There are no set rules here, just guidelines that, if correctly implemented, can have you taking home the hardware come late December. There's no one road to fantasy glory. Remaining fluid with your draft strategy is essential to building a quality high-upside team. If you try to force Zero RB or Heavy RB on a draft board that doesn't dictate that particular approach, you're going to fail miserably. The key is doing quality research and trusting that research when it comes time to pull the trigger. Don't worry about the oohs and ahs you'll get from the room when you walk up in the early third and smack that Stefon Diggs sticker up on your league's draft board. Here's a little secret not too many people like to admit: ADP is always wrong. Every year the positional scatter plot showing ADP vs. Fantasy Finish looks like a shotgun blast. Here, check it out:
Running Back ADP vs. Fantasy Finish (2017)
Now with all that laid out on the table, let's talk about the exceptions. There aren't enough roster spots in most leagues to make taking multiple high upside guys at every position feasible. You're going to have to consolidate your resources at one position so you can take chances on another.
Don't get stuck taking the seventh-best running back in your tiered rankings because the top six backs went off the board consecutively to start the draft. This is a prime opportunity to implement high-upside drafting. Take a wide receiver. The safest one over the last four seasons in PPR has been Antonio Brown. He'll be my number one again this year. Don't overthink it. Now say the run of backs that debatably fit into the “workhorse” category continues. Fine. Take another wide receiver. If you've got Antonio Brown and Keenan Allen as your first two picks in a PPR league, you're doing great!
Once the run on backs ends, it's time to start identifying those high upside guys in the upcoming tiers and targeting them. We at The Fantasy Takeaway will be releasing tiered big boards to our loyal Patreon contributors later this offseason. If you're not a contributor and want to see our tiered rankings, head over to Patreon.com/TheFantasyTakeaway and toss us a few bones. We'll make it worth your while. We'll get into specific players both in upcoming articles and on the podcast, but at a rudimentary level, this is when you have to start taking running backs, lots of em. Don't take this year’s version of Mr. Consistency RB12 Frank Gore. Leave him for the consistency drafters like Bob. Go for high upside risky plays like Jerick McKinnon, Kenyan Drake, and Royce Freeman. You'll want to fill your roster with six or seven fliers that could blow up and be 2018's version of Alvin Kamara or Jordan Howard.
Flipping the Script
This tactic isn't just for Zero RB drafting. It works if you've got the opportunity to grab the Ezekiel Elliotts and Le'Veon Bells of the fantasy football world too. If you draw the 1.03, you'll have an excellent opportunity to solidify your RB corps and go high-upside at receiver. Without getting too far into the guys who fall into the later-round, high-upside pass catcher mold, off the top of my head, Emmanuel Sanders, Michael Gallup, Albert Wilson, Geronimo Allison, and Keelan Cole come to mind. Keep an eye on training camp news and check out the late-season production from the previous year to find potential targets. They're out there, and as the offseason begins to wind down and the preseason kicks off they'll present themselves if you know where to look.
So When Should I Draft QB & TE?
Outside of the absolute top tier, there's not a lot to be gained by drafting quarterback or tight end early. In points per game, the number eight quarterback (Kirk Cousins; 17.4) scored only 1.9 points more than the number 18 quarterback (Jameis Winston; 15.5). The uber-late QB strategy isn't entirely compatible with the high-upside drafting model. You can't afford to carry two QBs week-in and week-out and still have room to cycle players at positions of higher value to find those hidden gems. If you want to straight stream, be my guest, but in my experience, the waiver wire gets thin during those bye weeks. My suggestion in this regard is to be opportunistic. Every year guys like Philip Rivers and Matt Stafford are grossly undervalued. Check the early schedule to identify later-round guys with great matchups out the gate. If your player evaluations are accurate, your team should be stable enough to allow for an open roster spot to stream QB for your top guy's bad matchups and bye week as the season wears on. Even better, you can make room by trading two of the high upside guys you identified that pan out for an elite player to make room. It's all about being fluid.
Tight end is a little trickier. Don't grab a middle-tier guy. Outside of the top three at the position, everyone else is a matchup-based play. If the elite tight end market has dried up before you're out of round four, it might just be better to play the waiver wire all season. The Fantasy Takeaway Cheap Dates crushed it in 2017, and we plan to grind even harder in 2018.
So there it is. 2,647 words to explain my strategy for acquiring what amount to six players over the last three seasons. This strategy isn't for everyone. It's stressful, and it's hard work, but if you play in high stakes leagues, you need an edge. This strategy has been that edge for me for the better part of five years. I used to be the consistency drafter. If the fantasy community jumps on the high-upside train, I may be a consistency drafter again. For now, this is my method, and if you do your research and listen to The Fantasy Takeaway, it can be yours' too.