Do the middle rounds of your draft make you feel a bit uneasy? It could be that you ate too many buffalo wings. More likely, it’s because you haven’t developed a good mid-round draft strategy.
When the talk turns to fantasy football during the NFL preseason, owners inevitably get in some pretty heated debates about the top players. Who should be the first pick? How will Terrell Owens do in Philly? Can Deuce McAllister carry Ahman Green’s jock? Meanwhile, outside of the occasional sleeper discussion, the strengths and shortcomings of middle-round players are rarely discussed. More notably, the importance of mid-round draft picks is often underestimated.
Without hesitation, miscalculating the significance of the middle rounds of the draft is the cardinal sin in fantasy football. There is an adage that should be ingrained in the minds of every fantasy football owner – from the greenest rookie to the most seasoned veteran:
Fantasy football championships are lost in the beginning rounds of the draft.
Fantasy football championships are won in the middle rounds of the draft.
What this means is that a bad pick in the first few rounds will cost you dearly. But a bad pick in the later rounds will only hurt your team’s chances slightly. Great picks in the early rounds are expected and won’t give you much of an advantage over your opponents. But great picks in the later rounds are extraordinary and can give you a huge advantage – an advantage that should lead to at least a playoff berth and possibly the league crown.
Understanding the importance of the middle of the draft is only half the battle. The other half is getting prepared. Unlike the beginning rounds, which are occupied by players who are closely scrutinized by the media, the later rounds can be quite a bit more menacing. Information on mid-round players is harder to come by. There aren’t any hard-fast rules like the Stud Running Back Theory to help you in Rounds 5-10.
You’re on your own.
That’s what makes the middle part of the draft so interesting and at the same time so intimidating. Your knowledge of players and your skill as a drafter are magnified. If you’re planning on “winging it” after the first four rounds, you better also plan on being out of the hunt for the playoffs by midseason.
On the other hand, if you want to win your league, along with the praise of your fellow league owners, here are seven basic tips to help bring your mid-round frustration level down a couple notches.
1. Use the 30/70 Formula
Every fantasy fanatic has a different schedule and different life commitments. One guy can read three fantasy publications, make a daily check of a dozen bookmarked websites and watch 20 preseason games. Another may barely have enough time to watch SportsCenter between bringing little Suzy to band practice and Timmy to soccer. In either case or for any situation in between, the 30/70 Formula applies.
The 30/70 Formula isn’t some magic, intelligence-enhancing elixir made with beer, lime juice and the blood of a live chicken. It’s simply a general guideline that suggests 30 percent of your draft preparation should be spent scouting and grading the top ten players at each position. The remaining 70 percent of your time should be dedicated to learning everything you can about lower-tier, lesser-known players.
The thinking behind the 30/70 Formula is that all the owners in your league are generally going to have the same players ranked at the tops of their cheatsheets. They may be in a different order, but all of the familiar names will be there. Since for the most part everyone has the same players ranked highly, it is very difficult for you to get any advantage early in the draft. The only thing you have to avoid is making a colossal mistake, such as drafting a player who got injured during the preseason. Spending 30 percent of your time studying the top tier players is more than enough preparation to help you avoid such a blunder.
Seventy percent of your preparation may seem like an excessive amount of time to be studying the likes of Dennis Northcutt, Donte’ Stallworth and Duce Staley, but any insight you can get on players at this level will pay back ten-fold over knowledge about a first-round stud. That’s because every owner in your league will know if a high-profile player like Shaun Alexander tweaks his groin. But a much smaller percentage of your league will dig deep enough to discover whether or not Buffalo receiver Josh Reed is impressing coaches and is poised for a great year. A juicy tidbit of information like this could give you a decisive edge over your opponents.
The 30/70 Formula will help put you on the fast track to mid-draft domination. Use it as a blueprint for your draft preparation and you’ll better understand the strengths and weaknesses of lower-profile players. This knowledge is the key to building a winning team.
2. Stock Up On Wide Receivers
Mid-round wide receivers are like the bottomless cups of coffee you can get at Denny’s. They’re cheap. There’s an endless supply. And they can be every bit as good as the four dollar java you get at Starbucks.
In this case, Starbucks is the first three or four rounds of the draft. Now don’t get me wrong. Starbucks is nice. Everyone wears clean clothes. The employees are good looking. The floors aren’t sticky. But oh boy, it’s expensive … and so are early-round receivers. Every early pick you spend on a receiver, is a pick that could’ve been spent on a running back, a position that typically has a much shorter supply of quality players. Most people would be better off going to Starbucks once, and then heading to Denny’s.
The middle rounds of every fantasy draft are rich with promising receivers. Plan on budgeting at least 2-3 mid-round picks for wideouts. Having depth at this position is critical since WR is typically the most unpredictable and unreliable position in fantasy football. Fortunately, all it takes is one mega-sleeper to rock your league.
Yes, the middle rounds of the draft are made for wide receivers. Think about this year’s top 10-15 wideouts. At some point in their careers virtually every single one of them was available in the middle round or late rounds of a fantasy draft. (Randy Moss is the only possible exception.) That’s a very encouraging thought. It means that in the blink of an eye, a WR can go from average to great.
The problem is with so many receivers out there, it can be a tad overwhelming trying to figure out who has a good chance to be one of this year’s breakout wideouts. A good place to start is last year’s final point totals for receivers. As you compile your preseason research, mark each receiver with a plus or minus sign based on whether you think they’re going to have a better or worse season. Pay particularly close attention to changes in a receiver’s surroundings. Was there a quarterback change? A coaching change? A new offensive coordinator? Did the team sign a quality running back or lose one to free agency? A receiver? How does the strength of schedule look? All of these have a big impact on a receiver’s opportunity for success.
Also check to see who finished last year strong. Success and confidence frequently carry over from one season to another. Make note of which receivers are in their third and fourth years. A lot of wideouts take this long to fully develop. Be wary of receivers with preseason leg injuries – especially significant hamstring and groin damage. These take a lot of time to heal and can linger all season long. Last year, Eric Moulds suffered a slight groin tear and went on to be one of fantasy’s biggest busts. Also, think twice about receivers who switch teams. They frequently struggle in their first year in a new system.
3. Don’t get Carried Away with Backups
There’s a trend in fantasy football called “handcuffing.” In the simplest terms, handcuffing is insurance. It means to draft the backup of a player who’s already on your team. The strategy typically applies to the running back position. For example, an owner might be inclined to “handcuff” Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes, thinking that if Holmes gets hurt, Johnson will be available as a replacement.
Handcuffing certainly makes sense in some situations. For example, over the last couple seasons Marshall Faulk’s knee problems have caused almost as much discomfort for fantasy owners as Mike Ditka’s incessant drug commercials. If you draft Faulk, by all means invest a pick in his backup – probably rookie Steven Jackson.
However, don’t over do it. In recent years, many Curtis Martin owners have felt obligated to take LaMont Jordan, who is second on New York’s depth chart. Throughout his career, Jordan has shown signs of being great. But in fantasy football, opportunity is everything and Martin is Mr. Durability. Rather than committing yourself to spending a pick on Jordan, consider drafting a running back or receiver who has a better chance at seeing the field.
Another reason to avoid handcuffing running backs is that NFL depth charts are not trustworthy. Last season, Brandon Bennett was presumed to be the number two running back behind Corey Dillon. But when Dillon went down, rookie Rudi Johnson became the workhorse. Two years ago, Ahman Green suffered a minor injury and missed a couple games. An owner who handcuffed backup Rondell Mealey to Green would’ve been supremely disappointed when a week later Najeh Davenport, who was third on the depth chart, assumed most of the carries.
Some owners take the handcuffing phenomenon too far. I’ve seen rosters where an owner has drafted four total running backs. Two of them are starters and the other two are the backups to those starters. For example, an owner this year might take Shaun Alexander, Maurice Morris, Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. The thinking behind this strategy is that the owner has a monopoly on the running games of Seattle and Pittsburgh. The fantasy team’s running back position is foolproof because even if a starter is injured or benched, the owner is covered. That’s all fine and dandy, but this strategy doesn’t account for the likelihood that either Seattle’s or Pittsburgh’s running game (or both) might be awful. A sure-fire way to sink a fantasy team is to bet big on one or two teams.
Considering these risks and question marks, you’re probably better off backing up only your top running back, and only then if he has a habit of getting injury. By limiting your handcuffing to the single running back who you have the most invested in, you’ll have more flexibility with your mid- and late-round picks. This will put you in a better position to draft your sleepers and those players who you believe are on the verge of a great season.
4. Don’t Underestimate Tight Ends
Few things in fantasy football are as frustrating as the tight end position. One week your tight end will surge for 75 yards and a touchdown. The next he’ll catch one pass for seven yards. For many owners, this roller coaster ride of production continues every week of the season. But for those lucky few who land a top tight end, there are more peaks than valleys.
Because consistent tight ends are rare, their cost can be quite high. Tony Gonzalez, the undisputed top tight end in fantasy football, has elevated his game to a point where he likely won’t be available to you in the middle rounds of your draft. He’s expected to be taken in third or fourth round in most 12-team leagues.
Other top tier tight ends might slip to the fifth round or beyond, but are these players worth it? In a word: Yes. Last season, Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap averaged a combined 7.36 fantasy points per game (1 pt. per 10 yards receiving, 6 pts. per TD). The next four tight ends – Marcus Pollard, Boo Williams, Daniel Graham and Alge Crumpler – averaged 4.43 points per game. After that, the player averages quickly drop below four points per game.
With such a steep drop off, a top tight end can give you anywhere from a three-point advantage when you’re playing against a player like Crumpler to a seven-point advantage when you’re opponent starts Anthony Becht. You will be hard pressed to find another player or position in fantasy football that you can gain a bigger edge over your opponents than a top tier tight end like Tony Gonzalez.
The problem in 2004 for tight ends is that the top tier appears to be shrinking and that’s going to make getting one on your team even more difficult. Shannon Sharpe retired this offseason. Most owners will downgrade Jeremy Shockey because he will likely be catching passes at some point this season from a rookie quarterback. That brings the top tier down to Gonzalez and Heap. Kellen Winslow Jr. might also sneak into the top tier on some cheatsheets, but as a rookie he’s is a risky pick. With the supply so short, don’t be surprised to see the best tight ends disappear in the early rounds of the draft.
Meanwhile, the middle tier has the potential for substantial growth this year. More and more teams are using tight ends as a receiving threat because they presents a tremendous matchup challenge for opposing defenses. Safeties are too small to cover them. Linebackers are too slow. Coaches and general managers have made drafting and acquiring tights end with the right combination of size and speed a priority. Consequently, there is an abundance of young talent at the position. Expect tight ends like Boo Williams, Daniel Graham, Randy McMichael, Dallas Clark, Erron Kinney and Jason Witten – all of whom have been in the league less than five years – to continue their development into weekly fantasy starters.
If Gonzalez or Heap drops to the fifth round in your draft, don’t think twice about snatching either of these stud tight ends up. They provide tremendous value at this point in the draft. However, if neither player is available, consider waiting until the seventh, eighth or even ninth round to select your starting tight end. Growth in the second tier of tight ends should permit you to delay your selection until this point and still get a quality player.
5. Wait Until the Late Rounds for Kickers and Defenses
While kickers and defenses can certainly be difference makers on any given week in fantasy football, you can fill these positions in the later rounds and still get quality.
The primary reason to delay your selection of kickers and defenses is that they’re highly unpredictable. In 2002, Jeff Wilkins finished the season as the 22nd ranked kicker in the league, scoring just over 90 points. That same year, Tampa’s defense finished the season as the clear number one team in fantasy football regardless of league scoring rules. Last season, both experienced a reversal of fortune. Wilkins suddenly became fantasy football’s top kicker when he scored 163 points on the season. Fantasy owners were surprised to see the Buccaneers defense finish well outside of the Top 10.
Every year, without fail, there are late-round or un-drafted kickers and defenses that emerge as viable weekly starters. Who would’ve predicted at the beginning of last season that the Minnesota Vikings, largely considered the laughingstock defense in the NFL, would intercept 29 passes (second best in the league for that category)? The Vikings provided above-average scoring for most fantasy owners. Did anyone think old man Gary Anderson would finish fifth in scoring among kickers with 123 points? The man is pushing 50 years old.
Another reason to wait is that even if you don’t find a decent starter in the late rounds, quality can be found in your league’s free agent pool. There are 32 teams in the NFL. In a 12-team fantasy league, each of your opponents will start one kicker. Assuming each owner carries a backup, there will be 22 kickers who are “off the market” (11 opponents x 2 kickers = 22 kickers). You will have two on your roster. Plus there will be eight available through free agency. That means you can choose from at least 10 kickers on any given week – even more in smaller leagues and those not requiring owners to carry two kickers. The point is if your regular starter isn’t panning out, there will be plenty of other options. The same is true for team defenses.
By delaying your selection of defenses and kickers until the late rounds of your draft, you can concentrate your middle-round efforts on quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends. These positions are easier to rank and they’re significantly more difficult to fill through free agency.
6. Avoid Injured Players
Last season’s most notable preseason casualties were Minnesota running back Michael Bennett and Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick. Neither player suffered an injury that kept them out for the entire season, but looking back many fantasy owners might’ve been better off if they had.
When Vick sustained his broken leg, the prognosis was optimistic. The media speculated that he would be back in the lineup by Week 6. The worst-case scenario had him returning in Week 7. The stories of Vick’s return put the wheels in motion for many fantasy owners. “I’ll draft Vick in the middle of the draft,” owners mused, “and when he comes back in Week 6, it will be like a shot of adrenaline for my team.”
Uh-uh. Didn’t happen. Vick’s return date was pushed back from Week 6 to Week 7. Then moved from Week 7 until Week 9. Then to Week 11. Finally, the great debate about Vick’s return concluded in Week 13 when he played a few series against Houston. He didn’t get his first start until Week 14 against Carolina. Vick’s performance in that game was amazing. He rushed for 141 yards. But in the final three games of the season, Vick posted average numbers. Was one great game worthy of a draft pick and a roster spot for the entire year?
Up north in Minnesota, a similar story unfolded. Before the preseason even got underway, Michael Bennett was diagnosed with a foot injury. Surgery was required. Comments by the coaching staff and team doctors suggested that the team could have Bennett back by midseason. Owners who drafted the speedy running back in Round 8 or 9 thought they were getting a steal. Bennett would make a triumphant return around Week 7 and be the catalyst their teams’ needed to make the playoffs.
Nope. Wrong again. Although Bennett returned to action only a week or two behind schedule, he was rusty and didn’t end up starting until Week 12. Owners who drafted the ball carrier were rewarded with three decent performances before the season ended, but nothing that brought back memories of his huge stats in 2002. Bennett finished the season with one touchdown and one 100-yard rushing game. Did the owners who drafted Bennett get value for their mid- or late-round pick?
No matter how tempting it is when you see an injured superstar’s name lingering on your draft board in Round 7 or 8, it’s probably best to steer clear. Can you afford to spend one of your mid-round picks? Yes. But the real cost comes once the season starts. Your injured stud will look good on paper, but he’s going to be dead weight on your team. The roster spot he’ll occupy could be used to acquire a hot free agent or pick up a much needed bye-week replacement player. So while it’s possible that you might get a burst of points late in the season, you’ll lose a roster spot and, along with it, the flexibility to acquire this year’s Rudi Johnson or Anquan Boldin.
Next time you’re considering selecting a player who has sustained a significant injury, consider two things: 1) the actual recovery time is probably longer than what people are saying, and 2) the injured player will occupy a roster spot that you might be able to put to better use at some point during the season.
7. Reject Conventional Thinking
Finally, as you prepare for this year’s draft, keep in mind that there are no guarantees in fantasy football. The majority of the experts might be predicting a breakout year for Javon Walker. But trust your own instincts and research. If a lot of people are high on Walker his value will be inflated. Conversely, the respective values of Robert Ferguson and Donald Drivers might be deflated. By not buying into the hype, you could get a mid-round steal.
Take a look at Minnesota’s backfield last year during the preseason. When Michael Bennett injured his foot, there was a lot of hype surrounding Doug Chapman. After a couple preseason games Chapman didn’t show much. Suddenly fantasy owners were giddy about the potential of rookie Onterrio Smith. Vikings head coach Mike Tice declared Smith the steal of the NFL draft. He was the first Minnesota running back taken in many fantasy drafts. Meanwhile, very little attention was given to Moe Williams, who was the most proven running back on the team. Williams went on to score eight touchdowns and rack up more than 1,300 all-purpose yards.
The point here is the best time to jump off a player’s bandwagon is often just as everyone else is jumping on. The best time to jump on a player’s bandwagon is often just as everyone else is jumping off.
The great thing about the middle rounds of your draft is that you don’t have to get a great player with every pick. You can take calculated risks. You can reach for players. You can stray from your cheatsheet rankings. All you need to do is discover and draft one or two truly special players and you could be on your way to the promise land. Using these seven tips for your draft preparation and research is the first step toward achieving this mid-round success.