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Effectively drafting for keeper leagues requires a different mindset

Bob Cunningham

If you're at all like me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of fantasy football competition for you is the realism... you know, getting the opportunity to function in a similar capacity as the NFL's general managers, making player personnel decisions that can make or break your franchise. I just love that.

That's why for me, keeper leagues are the only way to go. I enjoy them a great deal more than the standard draft-a-new-team-every-year, single-season concept.

For the purposes of this feature, "keeper" is defined as any league which allows owners to retain at least one player from the previous season's roster. It should be pointed out, however, that leagues which allow only one or two retainees really don't fit the parameters of a true keeper league.

A keeper league really means you retain everyone from the previous year. When you conduct your preseason draft, you're required to make a cut for every player you select. That's when some truly testing decisions come into play. Decision-making directly determines winners and losers, so the format should encourage that.

Other benefits of a keeper league include reaping the rewards of a good initial draft for several years, rather than just one. It also allows for owners to cultivate young players who might not be of much value when initially acquired, but could end up winning a title two or three years into the future.

I also like the idea of having to make a decision at some point whether to stick with a gameplan, or abandon and begin contemplating next season. I'm not referring to "sandbagging" -- I discourage the practice in any and all league formats -- but with a keeper league, you can trade decent veteran players to contenders for draft picks and/or younger players and give yourself the opportunity to bounce back quickly from a subpar season.

Fortunately, I haven't often been in the position of having to do that.

When planning for an initial keeper league draft, there are some different factors to consider compared to assembling a roster you will call yours for only one year. But before I go into that, allow me to make one point very clear right here: Studs are studs. Star players are valuable in any league, regardless of circumstances (unless they're severly injured, of course). I would dare to say that the first few rounds of a keeper league draft should look very similar to any other draft. It's in the middle and late rounds where the men separate themselves from the boys.

Okay, let's take a look at a few considerations:

In a standard single-season league, age is a very small consideration. As long as the player in question can be productive for the season in question, he has value. A productive 32-year-old running back has just as much value, all other factors being equal, as a 26-year-old.

But in a keeper league, age is much more of a consideration. An owner who drafts too many guys on the wrong side of 30 is, at best, going to contend for only a year or two before being forced to rebuild his roster. At worst, he'll endure a frustrating, injury-plagued, losing season with no foreseeable cure in sight. That aforementioned 26-year-old back now has significantly more value than the 32-year-old, because of expected shelf life.

That doesn't mean owners should avoid anyone in their 30s, of course. But take a player like Oakland's Tim Brown for example. In a single-season league, Brown still has legitimate value as an owner's fourth or fifth WR. In a league that carries 21 players on the roster, Brown might be a 12th round pick. In a keeper league, Brown would likely be selected much later, if at all. Nearly 40 and now the third receiver on his team, Brown's value in a keeper league is much more limited... perhaps as a backup for the owner fortunate enough to secure Jerry Porter in an earlier round.

Even Brown's teammate, Jerry Rice, takes a hit on value in a keeper league. Yes, Rice is still a good option in a keeper league because he remains the No. 1 WR on a team that throws effectively. But his owner would be wise to supplant his receiver depth chart with younger emerging players, so that when Rice does finally run out of gas (age 50?), the gun will remain loaded. That consideration simply doesn't exist in a single-season format.

This is where the two formats differ the most. In a single-season league, you can't afford to seriously consider anybody who isn't virtually guaranteed a starting job this season. You typically don't have the roster space for such luxuries.

In a keeper league, you want at least a handful of guys just like that. Generally rookies or young veterans awaiting their opportunity, a keeper league owner is wise to acquire just about anyone with talent. Because if the stud-to-be doesn't get his chance this year, it might come next year or even the year after that. Most rookies, except the very cream of the NFL draft, fall into this category. In a single-season league, Tennessee RB Chris Brown has limited value, because incumbent Eddie George is likely to keep that job for at least one more season. Brown's worth a late-round gamble for the owner of George, in case George gets hurt, but that's probably it.

In a keeper league, Brown should go much earlier. George's time at Tennessee appears to be nearing an end, and Brown is the odds-on favorite at this early juncture to succeed him. A patient keeper league owner might be rewarded for his 15th round pick with a budding star back... in 2004 or 2005.

This is obviously a consideration in any league, but arguably even moreso in keeper leagues because owners have the luxury of time to prove themselves correct. If you draft Dallas' QB Chad Hutchinson, for example, believing that he will eventually become productive with Bill Parcells as the new Cowboys head coach, you can afford to be patient and see if that comes to fruition.

In a single-season league, you need to focus almost exclusively on the preseason to determine which way Parcells is leaning, and make your assessment accordingly. You might believe Hutchinson has all the tools to be a star (I don't, actually), but if you don't believe it can happen this season, you can't take him even if you're confident Parcells is the right coach for him. Hutchinson could throw for 30 TDs in 2004, and that doesn't help you even one micro-bit this season.

You're less concerned with what other owners are doing
In a single-season league, you have to be ultra-aware on Draft Day to what your league rivals are up to. If, for instance, there's a big run on kickers in the eighth round, you'll probably find yourself taking a kicker then as well to assure you get one who can be productive.

In a keeper league, the urgency isn't as dramatic. Sure, you might miss out on a good kicker at the time. But you could land another valuable youngster and take your kicker late. You give up some kicking points now, but gain QB or RB or WR points later on with a savvy selection. In single-season leagues, it's harder to pull that strategy off. Not impossible, mind you... just more difficult.

Bottom line, keeper leagues require more of true NFL GM-thinking... short-term and long-term. That's why it's so much fun.