First, a quick advertisement: I have some spots open still for a new league. If you’re interested, post in the comments below or email me. It’s a niche format = small entry fee, auction draft, 2 QB 1 RB 2 WR 1 TE 2 Flex 1 D 1K + some custom scoring. Will definitely be more fun than a vanilla ESPN league!

The Basics

I’m not going to tell you who to draft (other than don’t pick Andrew Luck). After all, people I am in leagues with might read this! Instead, I will focus on helpful strategies. The common theme you will notice is identifying value and mispriced assets. Yes, it’s not a whole lot different than stock picking!

Know The Market

This is going to sound obvious, but make sure you know what the consensus is. Look at rankings and average draft positions. These are available on all the major websites.

You may love a lesser known player and want to take him in the third round, but if he is expected to go in the seventh round, there is no reason to reach. Wait until the fifth or sixth round if you’re nervous or, better yet, watch the players who are rated just ahead of him. If there are only two or three higher rated players left, then you have some risk. If there are still six or eight other players at the same position, you can probably wait a little longer.

Understand Opportunity Cost

A lot of people advocate value based drafting (VBD). VBD essentially says to look at marginal return. It compares available players to a baseline, say the marginal starting RB (as in a RB who is only good enough to start on one team in your league). It then says draft the player with the most upside to that marginal player. This is good, practical advice as the only way to win your league is to have enough top end starters.

However, this is like playing checkers instead of chess. I look at the expected value of my upcoming pick compared to what will be available in the next round at that position. This allows you to maximize your roster.

For example, when my turn comes in the third round, I may think the best player left is a certain WR rather than the highest rated RB remaining. However, if I don’t take that RB, the group of RBs available to me in the 4th round will be mediocre whereas there will still be some solid WRs.

Therefore, I am better off picking the RB in the 3rd round and a WR in the 4th, even if neither of those are my ideal picks, because the combo of the two is better than the better WR in the 3rd and a high bust risk RB in the 4th. You always need to be peeking ahead to optimize your opportunity set.

The Early Rounds

DO: Take the sure thing
DON’T: Pick based on what you hope someone will be

A lot of big mistakes get made in the first four rounds. People talk themselves into players, whether it be a rookie, a player on a new team, or an ascending player who looks like he’ll have a bigger role this year. They look at the potential best case, which is reasonable, but assign too high a probability to it.

I’ll give an example of a player I screwed up on last year. I drafted the Broncos’ rookie RB Royce Freeman too high. He had a lot of buzz, it looked like they were going to run a lot, and there was seemingly little competition. It was a good setup for someone.

The problem was their other rookie back stole the job away. Don’t assume the guy who starts the season on top of the depth chart will end it there. Good situations don’t always produce good players.

The key in the early rounds is not making mistakes. You’re better off reducing risk and taking a player with less upside but more certainty of being a valuable starter. If you get four above average starters in your first four picks, your team will be in the race all year. If you have two busts, your team is probably done even if you hit big on the other two.

Middle Rounds

DO: Look for players in favorable situations with uncertain opportunities
DON’T: Draft marginal safe starters

This is a little bit the opposite of the early rounds, because the risk/reward has changed. You win your league finding breakout players in the mid rounds.

The best way to find overachievers is to look for favorable team situations where the individual player’s expectations are low. Usually this happens where a team is expected to be high scoring and they have one star but an opportunity for a second star to emerge. This is what happened with JuJu Smith-Schuster last year in Pittsburgh.

Another case would be where you take the lesser back in a timeshare because you think he can give you replacement value most weeks, but if his partner gets injured, he will vault to a top 10 RB. Or if there is a team whose star player left in free agency and there are two or three young players who may step up, but the market isn’t sure which one it will be. Often, these are not successful picks, but when they hit, they hit big.

If you were to extrapolate from what types of players you want in these rounds to which ones you don’t, you would conclude don’t draft those marginal starters. Yet, people love to spend the middle rounds drafting veteran receivers who will give you 7 pts/wk or starting RBs who get lots of carries but hardly ever touchdowns. These players have little to no value even if there season stats look good. You can usually find an equivalent player on the waiver wire.

The Later Rounds

DO: Swing for the fences
DON’T: Take OK players to fill out your bench

The main thing people forget is most of the back half of your draft ends up being cut eventually to make room for waiver pickups during the season. These picks don’t tend to make a difference. Therefore, there is little value in taking safe players that you’ll only start in a bye week.

Let’s do a thought experiment: Would you rather have a player who gives you four weeks of 15+ points and 10 weeks of nothing or the player who gives you 14 weeks of 6-10 points? Most people take the latter because he has more points over the season.

The problem with that thinking is the second player is giving you the bare minimum to get off your bench. Ideally, he would be on your bench…which means he is really no better than a bench player who gives you 0. Those four weeks of 15 points though are really valuable.

If I don’t want to draft a predictable player with marginal value, what do I suggest instead? Take some fliers! People don’t like to look stupid so they’d rather take a known player than draft a backup RB who won’t play most weeks, if at all. How dumb do you look if you draft Leveon Bell’s backup? He’s a consistent top 5 RB!

Yet, he’s missed games in multiple seasons (not to mention the disaster of last year). I’ve made a living own Leveon’s backups. I gambled on James Conner last year in like the 10th round. In other years, I’d taken DeAngelo Williams late and watched him put up a month of star RB value. So yes, figure out who the backups are to the star RBs who have trouble staying healthy.

One of the best places to take a gamble is at QB. There are enough good QB options that someone solid is always undrafted. The established backup you draft in the next to last round isn’t much better than what you can get on waivers later. You pretty much threw away a pick.

Don’t take the known veteran. Gamble. Maybe a young guy takes a big league forward. Last year, I got Mahomes in most of my leagues in like the 12th round. I didn’t know he’d be MVP. I didn’t even know he’d be good, but I did know there was a chance he’d be great so why not throw the dice.

There are several guys who fit this category this season. Maybe one is obvious, but I suspect the others may not even get drafted in most leagues. And if you’re wrong, you cut him for one of the old vets sitting on waivers. It’s a free option!

Lastly, for those wondering about defense and kickers, obviously you don’t want to be the person who takes one too early. However, don’t be too lazy and just default to taking them last. If you pick late in the last round, then you are going to get the last kicker. If that worries you, get one earlier. The WR you get two rounds from the end will likely be just as bad as the one you take in the last round.

Don’t Forget Waivers!

It’s nice to have a good draft, but you’re not going to win your league without being active in waiver pickups during the season. As I said, most of the back half of your draft picks eventually get cut for players on waivers.

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