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How to Lose a League in 10 Ways
Paul Sandy
2003

The owner who finishes with the worst record in my fantasy football league buys the beer for the following year’s draft. It’s written into our league constitution. Even worse, he has to suffer the humiliation of serving drinks to fellow owners. By the time the sixteenth round is in the books, the poor guy has typically made several dozen trips to the beverage cooler. I don’t imagine the tips are all that great.

Although I’ve never been designated beer guy for our draft, I started wondering what it would take to finish dead last. The following list represents 10 mistakes I believe owners will make on draft day and leading up to draft day. Unless you strive for Bengal-esque futility, I suggest you shift your strategy to avoid these errors.

1. Draft a quarterback in Round 1.
It wasn’t long ago that Steve Young and Brett Favre graced the covers of fantasy football magazines as consensus number one picks. But those days are over. Based on the drafts I’ve seen so far in 2003, fantasy owners are pursuing quarterbacks with the urgency of a diseased turtle. Even the NFL’s premier passers (Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Daunte Culpepper) are falling to the second or third rounds.

Why the sudden distaste for quarterbacks? More than anything, it can be attributed to be the fantasy football community’s passion for running backs. Witness the SOFA experts’ draft http://www.sofaleague.com/draft/draft.htm, in which 14 of the first 15 picks were running backs. With such an emphasis on the running game, quarterbacks have taken a back seat. In fact, more and more owners now even favor receivers over quarterbacks. And rightly so, the difference between the top quarterback and the 10th ranked quarterback isn’t all that great.

Whatever the reason, don’t fight the trend. If you blow a first-round pick on a quarterback, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself irrevocably thin at running back and receiver – positions which are clearly harder to fill than quarterback. Wait until at least the second round to draft your passer. Better yet, delay your selection until you have at least a few running backs and receivers in the stable.

2. Underestimate the importance of the last half of your draft.
After their starting lineups are filled, many owners tend to relax. They lose focus. They forget to record draft picks. They increase their beer consumption. And, more often than not, they spend the rest of the season trying to recover.

It has been well-documented here at The Huddle that about half of all players will fail to live up to expectations. No matter how confident you are that this is Corey Dillon’s year, there’s a good chance he will disappoint. And if he does disappoint, who will you have to fill his shoes? The simple answer is you need to draft backups and sleepers who are poised for breakout seasons.

Every draft pick counts. If it’s the tenth round of your draft and you’re thinking that all the guys left on your draft sheet are scrubs, you’re either unprepared or you’ve had one too many fermented beverages. Each year, without exception, late round picks emerge as fantasy starters. Trust me. Owners typically don’t stumble upon the Tiki Barbers or Koren Robinsons of the draft by mere happenstance. They come prepared with a list of late-round gems and they keep their heads in the game until the final pick is announced.

3. Draft with tunnel vision.
It always amazes me when an owner tells me a month before his draft that he’s going to pick running backs in each of the first two rounds, followed by a receiver, then a quarterback. While it’s good to have a plan, experienced owners monitor every selection in the league and adapt their strategy based on the flow of the draft. Go ahead and project the first three or four rounds of your draft. However, count on owners making a few picks that have the rest of the league scratching their collective heads. When that happens, don’t be afraid to react by tossing your draft plan in the wastebasket and taking advantage.

Tracking your fellow owners’ rosters as players are selected can become quite burdensome for some drafters. If you feel like it’s causing you more harm than good, go ahead and scale your draft tracking to a few of the owners who draft immediately before and after you. Knowing that the two guys sitting next to you in the draft order already have selected their starting quarterback can give you the confidence you need to delay your own QB selection another round – and nab that running back everyone has their eye on.

4. Over-analyze the preseason.
Let me take you back to 2002. The Oakland Raiders offense, under the guidance of a new head coach, looked lost for the entire preseason. Rich Gannon failed to throw a touchdown pass in four games. In the midst of his slump, many owners pushed the panic button and dropped him and other Raider stars several spots in their rankings. The result? Gannon went on to lead many fantasy leagues in passing, Charlie Garner accumulated more than 1,800 yards of total offense, Jerry Rice was his usual self, and fantasy owners who were so sure of the Raiders’ demise wiped egg off their faces all season.

The preseason is a bit of an enigma for fantasy football participants. Gannon looked horrible, but in reality wasn’t. Kurt Warner looked equally bad, and was. So how do you factor in preseason performance when formulating your rankings? Keep things in perspective. NFL players understand that the preseason doesn’t count for anything and so should you. Receivers who are guaranteed a starting spot typically aren’t going to risk injury by making a catch in traffic. Workhorse running backs will step out of bounds when they’d normally challenge linebackers. Don’t bump the fantasy studs down your board based on a couple poor preseason games alone.

Also, pay close attention to injuries – not only to players on your draft sheet but players surrounding them as well. If Ahman Green is averaging less than two yards per carry, is it because he has lost a step or because two of Green Bay’s starting linemen are injured? Many preseason injuries can be dismissed as the normal bumps and bruises that come with getting back into game shape. However, when a quarterback suffers an injury to his arm or hand, take heed. Likewise, when a running back or receiver sustains a leg or foot injury, it should trigger a red flag. Depending on the severity, these often have a direct and lasting impact on performance.

5. Spend your free time projecting stats.
For most of us, fantasy football is a hobby, not a profession. Therefore, you only have so many minutes in a day that you can dedicate to draft preparation. While I won’t go so far as to say projecting stats and building value-based spreadsheets is a complete waste of time, your energy can probably be better spent on information gathering. That’s because when you get right down to the heart of fantasy football, it’s guesswork. You may read about some mystical mathematical formula that will tell you who to draft, but in the end it’s just someone’s guess in the guise of Microsoft Excel.

The only edge you can gain in fantasy football is knowledge. And that’s why I suggest you put aside numbers in favor of words. Read. Read. Read. If LaDanian Tomlinson sprains his ankle just hours before your draft, you should know who’s going to get his carries by the time his big toe touches the ice tub.

To achieve this level of fantasy aptitude, follow the Team Links button at the top of this page, select a local publication and start reading. Browse the local beat writers for each of the NFL teams. Local reporting provides more insight than you’ll find on ESPN or CBS. Visit the member forums on this site and see what local fans have observed. If yours is a league with several years’ worth of history, look back on previous drafts for owner trends.

Do this, and when your commissioner raises his mug of Budweiser and declares the start of the draft, you’ll be prepared with rankings based on sound research and a thorough understanding of the NFL landscape.

6. Draft Michael Bennett.
At some point, perhaps as early as the eighth round, you’ll be tempted to take a gamble on Bennett. You’ll convince yourself that he will be healthy at the midway point and fuel your team’s late-season playoff push. Don’t do it. In fact, cross Bennett off your list completely.

While spending a late-round pick on a top running back may seem like a bargain, in actuality, the price is too high. The primary reason to avoid Bennett has nothing to do with the nature of his injury. It’s all about what you’re sacrificing in favor of a player who will not see your starting lineup until Week 9 at the earliest. First, you’re passing up the opportunity to select the next Donald Driver (see #2 above). Remember, every draft pick counts. Why dedicate a pick to a player who will get you squat for half the year when you could land an every-week contributor?

Second, and perhaps more important, is your roster configuration. With so many teams on bye week at once, it’s critical to have multiple backups available at each position. Again, if Bennett is absorbing a roster slot, he is doing so at the expense of another player (unless your league has an IR rule). Not only does this cripple your team in terms of dealing with injuries and bye weeks, it may also prevent you from having the freedom to acquire a hot free agent who could be a difference maker.

7. Invest heavily in players from one NFL team.
As with stock holdings, it’s advantageous to diversify your fantasy football players as much as possible. While the Rams and Raiders boast a plethora of high-scoring stars, owning three or more weekly starters from any one team is too risky. In addition to setting yourself up for a painful bye week, you’re putting all your proverbial eggs in one team’s basket. All it takes is a key injury to a quarterback or even an offensive lineman to bring an entire offense – and your entire fantasy team – to its knees.

On a side note, many owners actively seek out quarterback-receiver connections (i.e. drafting both Warner and Holt). I’ve actually seen this work on a couple separate occasions, so I’m hesitant to dismiss this theory all together. However, the risk doesn’t seem to be worth the reward. Draft the players who you believe will score your team the most points in each position. Period. Exclamation point. If that lands you a QB-WR connection, so be it.

8. Live in the past.
Let’s get a few things straight. Emmitt Smith will never again rush for 20 touchdowns. Brett Favre is no longer a top five quarterback. Jerry Porter should be drafted before Tim Brown. And trust me; Barry Sanders isn’t coming out of retirement. If you enjoy the novelty of seeing future Hall-of-Famers on your roster, go for it. However, understand that overpaying these veterans – all of whom are past their prime – is the surest way to end up in your league’s cellar.

9. Let your emotions be your guide.
My father was an excellent teacher. When I was growing up, he passed along his wisdom to me on many occasions. He taught me how to fish, to hammer a nail, to swim, to read and write. But the lesson that had the greatest impact took place every Sunday in the fall and winter. We’d sit in the family room and he’d teach me to love the Green Bay Packers and hate the Minnesota Vikings. I was an excellent student.

Even so, when it comes to fantasy football, I have learned to put my emotions aside. I don’t feel like I need to draft a third-string Packer receiver to complete my fantasy squad. I don’t avoid choosing Vikings. On the contrary, there was a stint in the mid-1990s where the dreaded Cris Carter was a mainstay on my fantasy team. All he did was catch touchdowns … and lead my team to a championship.

The point is, to succeed in fantasy football you need to draft players who will give you the best opportunity to win your league. Eventually, that will mean putting your emotions on the backburner and selecting a player you despise or bypassing your favorite player.

10. Overemphasize the running back position.
The notion that you need two stud running backs to win in fantasy football has gotten a bit out of hand. It’s gotten to the point where many owners don’t consider any position other than running back in the first two rounds. Some even go so far as to select a running back in each of the first three rounds.

There is no question that running backs are critical. However, you can’t win with Wayne Chrebet and Tai Streets as your starting receivers, so don’t get carried away. More importantly, if the situation dictates, don’t be afraid to break from the norm and take a receiver in one or both of the first two rounds. If it’s your pick and your decision is between Jamal Lewis and Terrell Owens, you really ought to take Owens. He is a top tier receiver, whereas Lewis is at best a second-tier running back. While you may be sacrificing quality at running back, you can make up ground by selecting several mid-tier backs in the class of James Stewart, Garrison Hearst and Amos Zereoue.