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Football Strategy Guide

How To Play Fantasy Football

Millions of people play fantasy football (NFL) every year. You are one of those people, and if you want to improve in your leagues or DFS contests, you've come to the right place. We'll cover the basics here as well as some subtle and often overlooked more intermediate and advanced strategy concepts – all in plain language anyone can understand.

Welcome to RotoWire's official NFL Fantasy Football Strategy Guide!

Understand the Value of Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks typically dominate the total points leaderboard in most formats, but their values depend on several things including your scoring system, the number of teams in your league, the number of starting quarterbacks (including quarterback-eligible flex positions) and the required number of starting position players (RB, WR).

Scoring System

Whether quarterbacks get 3, 4, or 6 points per passing touchdown, whether and how much they get docked for interceptions and how many points they get per passing yard all matter. Your league's scoring for passing yards and TDs also affects the value of quarterbacks who run – the less credit given for passing stats, the more the running quarterbacks stand out relative to their peers. Point-per-reception (PPR) leagues add more relative value to position players and remove value from all quarterbacks.

Take What the Draft Gives You

People often ask whether they should go RB/RB at Pick 9 in a 12-team standard league, or if it would be better to go RB/WR. The answer is "It depends."

Each individual league is like its own separate economy. If running backs are flying off the board, then you should push up the values of the remaining backs and push down the value of players at other positions who will necessarily be available at a relative discount. If receivers are pushed up, it's the opposite. Every prior valuation system should be adjusted to the specific dynamic of your particular draft.

Assuming neutral inflation, i.e., neither backs nor receivers are unduly pushed up beyond ADP, you should go with the best RB or WR available in the first two rounds, and any combination thereof is permissible. Even so, different choices here will have consequences which you must address later in your draft.

RB/RB

Running backs typically score more points than receivers. That's because they usually have more opportunities for touchdowns and they rack up both passing and rushing yards. Also, given their higher volume of touches, their scoring is less volatile than that of receivers, i.e., you can count on more consistent week-to-week production from them than you can from receivers.

But by losing out on elite receivers, you're rolling the dice on mediocre ones who are almost impossible to predict on a weekly basis. Moreover, running backs are more injury prone, so your most precious investments are more likely to lose their value if you go RB/RB.

WR/WR

Receivers are typically more durable than running backs, but they're limited (with rare exceptions) to receiving yards and scores, they see fewer than half the touches that comparable backs do and their production is more volatile.

However, top receivers are reliable over the long haul, and by drafting them, you avoid the nearly impossible task of choosing which mediocre ones to start week to week. Moreover, should one or two of your middle or late-round backs win a starting job, it's far easier to count on their production than it would be for a comparable receiver.

WR/RB or RB/WR

This is a fine option, too, and gives you some added flexibility.

Where Should I Draft a Tight End?

Elite tight ends are difference-makers, so it's perfectly fine to draft a Mark Andrews or Travis Kelce in Rounds 2-3, depending on your format. Our policy is to pay up for elite tight ends if they come at a fair price or slight discount, but to avoid the mid-tier in Rounds 5-8, barring a significant discount.

Usually, you can find a couple high-upside players at the position cheaply in the double-digit rounds, so unless the player is virtually assured of 100-plus targets and red-zone work, it's better to wait and speculate. Typical leagues require only one starting TE, so even off you miss at the position on draft day, there are almost always quality options on the waiver wire.

Understanding League Formats

The format of your league can have a big impact on your strategy:

PPR Leagues (Point-per reception)

In leagues that award a point-per reception, possession receivers and pass-catching running backs get a significant boost. All good receivers get a modest boost. Backs who don't catch passes and quarterbacks merit downgrades.

Auction vs. Draft

More leagues have begun to use auctions to acquire players, the strategy for which requires a separate and lengthy discussion you will find later in this guide. The same principles regarding the value of various positions apply, however, with dollars substituting for rounds in your calculus. But bidding and nominating strategy, i.e., how to maximize your budget in the auction, requires a different skill set than that of a draft.

Best Ball Leagues

In best ball leagues, the contributions of the highest-scoring players you drafted are automatically counted by the host software you play on. Each week you earn the points of the best performers from the players you have. The winner of a Best Ball league is the player whose team racks up the highest overall point total when the season ends. Best Ball takes the guesswork out of setting your lineups each week, and the strategy is a bit different than in regular leagues.

Dynasty Leagues

Another keeper format is referred to as a "dynasty" league, in which owners select large rosters of players and can keep many of them from year to year (thus, building a dynasty). The fun of these leagues is being able to take risks on players who have not fully reached their potential, and then to follow their careers without having to worry about having to re-draft or use one of your limited keeper slots on those players each year. For example: In one Rotowire football league, which we drafted at a yearly staff retreat in Vegas, we were each allowed to select one college player that we could keep on our roster once they made it to the NFL.

One common question regardless of keeper format is how many players should be kept from year to year. There are leagues that let you keep one player per year to those that let you keep up to three quarters of your roster. Many of us like leagues that let you keep more players than fewer, just to create a greater incentive to trade for prospects and gamble on upside during the season. But leagues that allow too many keepers can de-emphasize the draft and make it harder for the bottom half of the league (or, in many cases, new owners who take over for bottom half drop-outs) to contend from year to year.

IDP Leagues

Individual Defensive Player leagues are more common these days, with so many varied starting requirements it's nearly impossible to say what's standard. As a rule, defensive players get one point per tackle, several points for sacks and interceptions and six points for TDs. As such, players who make a lot of tackles – typically middle and inside linebackers – are the most valuable commodities, followed by outside linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks and defensive ends. IDPs rarely score enough to merit anything better than a middle-to-late round pick, but there are some exceptions for particular scoring systems.

When to Draft a WR or QB Early

If this is your first year doing fantasy football, or half of your league is new to the game, you should probably ignore much of the advice below.

In leagues like that, just take two running backs out of the gate, wait on quarterbacks, and stock up on back up running backs and wideouts in rounds three through six. Just as when you're playing poker against beginners, there's not much point in doing anything fancy.

But fantasy football has been popular for a while now, so we imagine most of you have lots of experience in leagues, and also that your league-mates aren't fools, either. For that reason, the "automatically draft two-RB strategy" won't work for everyone, especially in deeper leagues with 14 or 16 teams.

Consider that if everyone employed that strategy, then there would necessarily be one owner who had the worst combo of backs. And so in most experienced leagues where everyone is using their early picks on backs, it's going to make sense for some of you to grab a wideout or quarterback early on occasion.

Late in the first round, you might want to draft a superstar wide receiver over an aging running back. Or maybe snag a top-tier quarterback over a risky running back with a late first round ADP. In that case, you'll grab a solid starting back early in Round 2, and then fill in with multiple upside plays at running back in the middle and later rounds.

If one of those guys hits, and there's a good chance one will, you'll have your two backs and a superstar at QB or WR, to boot. The key point is that a top-3 wide receiver is more reliable than any but a handful of backs. There might be slightly more week to week variance among receiver stats, but year to year, the top wideouts are far more reliable than a late first-round running back.

If you pick early in the first round, you pretty much have to take a premium running back because you're not likely to get one you want on the way back. But late in Round 2 and early in Round 3, it's a great time to lock down two excellent receivers. Again, you can draft multiple upside backs in the middle rounds, and you'll most likely be better off than someone who gambled on an aging or unsettled second back early.

Some proponents of the must-draft-backs-in-the-first-two-rounds theory will point out that running backs are more reliable because they touch the ball 20 times per game at a minimum, whereas wideouts only get the ball four or five times. But running backs touch the ball with lots of players between them and the goal line. Receivers sometimes get it with none.

Consider also that receivers average 14, 15, and sometimes close to 20 yards per touch. A top running back averages close to five, and workhorse backs often produce less than that.

We might also consider a failed run – one of less than two yards when there's more than seven yards to go for a first down – the equivalent of an incomplete pass. There's really no difference fantasy-wise, so running backs don't get as many more touches as it seems. And even a successful short-yardage conversion isn't worth anything if it's not around the goal line.

Moreover, running backs are more likely to get hurt due to their large number of touches. In fact, running backs get drilled on all 20 touches even when they get nothing for it, whereas receivers don't get hit all that often on incomplete passes (going over the middle, maybe, but otherwise, they usually get off scot free).

Finally, because running backs get the ball so reliably, it's easier to expect production out of a fill-in starter, than a fill-in receiver who might see just two passes thrown his way. If you don't have reliable receivers, you're much more likely to get a zero from a roster spot with a guy you just picked up off the waiver wire. In a league with experienced owners, then, you're much better off taking what the draft gives you and going for value than blindly adhering to the strategy that everyone else is following.

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