Some people probably envision fantasy football as a safe haven from the daily rat-race. A wonderful magical place where you can collect names of all your favorite football players on computer screen, and if you are lucky enough, a big pile of other people's money comes your way as a Christmas present. All you have to do is pick some names.
And it can be like that. Picking names is easy. We all know who the best players are. We have last year’s stats at our disposal. We watch the highlights. This is going to be a piece of cake. Well, maybe that is what the guy or gal in the next cubicle thinks. God bless them and thank them for the money. Where would be without our losers, our own personal Christmas Club accounts?
But this article isn't necessarily about winning your office league you blatantly named the Acme Pigeon League. This is more about what it takes to compete when you go the next level, a level many Huddle subscribers have achieved. (shameless plug)
I have played the national contests since the beginning of national contests. I actually got into fantasy football only after being a fantasy baseball player during the late 80's. Back in those early days, there were only a few fantasy magazines. The league I played in had 25 team leagues. One chance in 25. My understanding of fair odds was a bit undeveloped back then. However my ego was just as big if not bigger than it is today. Odds? Phhht.
Anyway, in those wretched contests, you would pick your players out of the salaried list on the magazine page. It was a cap league. Then you would mail in your player picks, and call an 800 number if you wanted to change your lineup from week to week. The whole adventure was quite cumbersome back then, and information was primitive compared to today's media blast of all things NFL. It was the fantasy dark ages. But we knew we were on to something.
Soon small leagues began popping up all over the place. I was lucky enough to get in on the round-up of 10 locals for a league. I believe that was in 1993. I drafted Joe Montana in the first round. I quickly leaned my first lesson in fantasy football. (well, besides the lesson of playing in a 25 team league through the mail) Don't draft a quarterback in the first round. Especially if he just got traded to the team you root for and you are drafting them through homer-vision glasses. Actually, I guess that was two lessons for the price of one.
Needless to say, I didn't win my local. After my experience playing in the salary games, I had thought I would crush these newbie weenies. What a bummer it was when I didn't.
But I had no draft strategy. I was just picking names and filling positions. I had no plan. I had no clue. I had no Sunday ticket. I had ESPN highlights and a newspaper box score.
Well, that old league broke up after a few years. I did win a championship in the last season, but I'll be damned if I know how. Probably the Huddle. It was about that time that the internet came into prominence and the hobby was revolutionized.
A plethora of fantasy hosting sites and public leagues were soon available. We were not constrained by the group of people we could pool in our own towns. We could play friends and complete strangers from across the world! The level of competition rose as the better players sought each other out.
Soon, along came the World Championship of Fantasy Football, A national high stakes fantasy league with a six figure grand prize. I went to Vegas for that event in 2003 I believe it was. It was the year that Curtis Martin suffered an injury in the first game that inflicted statistical misery on his entire season. And it was the year that the previously steady Eddie George matched Curtis Martin's feat of a career low in TDs. I hit the exacta.
That was the first and last time I went to Vegas for WCOFF. But, another lesson learned. When you are playing with a group of people as fanatical as you, you need to raise your play to the next level. Playing it "safe" and drafting two aging running backs in the first two rounds because the cheat sheet said it was okay probably won't get you where you need to go.
Luckily WCOFF and the other high-stakes games that have proliferated, offers online formats now as well, and I have become a regular of those over the last several years. The level of competition is excellent. And after nearly two decades in the hobby, my play has elevated to the point where I want to play with the best players, and I am only satisfied if I defeat them, of course.
But to get here, I had to graduate beyond the thinking of just picking names. I had to make lots of mistakes. I had to begin to think outside the box. I had to formulate a really solid strategy going into drafts. I had to reject homerism. I had to throw away the traditional cheat-sheet mentality, the traditional stud running back mentality, the follow the crowd mentality.
Now, I can almost hear some of you out there groaning. "Oh boy, I read all this way and this is one of these "do the opposite" articles that have become so popular." No. That is not what this is about. I was writing those articles 3-4 years ago.
I wrote an article around that time called Draft the Players You Really Want. Yes, I have come full circle in a way. I am picking names of guys I like when I draft fantasy teams. But I am wiser now.
Look, admit it. When you make your personal cheat-sheet (assuming you do) there are players on that list that you really like more than others. But sometimes you end up drafting those players you might not like as much, because they are a perceived "bargain" at that point in the draft. And I used to ascribe to that theory of Value Based Drafting. I still do, but in a limited way.
When I am formulating a draft strategy, there comes a point when I know the players I really want to target, and I know the players I might want to draft if the price was right. But there are always a lot of players I don't want at any price. Players I just don't feel good about. Players that I feel are vastly overvalued by the fantasy community. Players whose risks outweigh the rewards.
Yes, I have an extensive list of players I want nothing to do with. It isn't really even a list so much as a mental notation. That would be a cumbersome list, because there are more players I don't want than I do want. I have become quite picky.
And part of the reason is this: There are a core of players that make up a majority of championship teams. When you get down to the playoff rounds in big contests like WCOFF where you are playing other league champions for the overall prize, it is not uncommon at all for many of the same players to be on many different rosters. These players effectively cancel each other out in the playoffs.
But the point is that there is a common theme of players on rosters of the championship level teams. My job is to get in on as many of those guys as possible. I try to conduct "no-fluff" drafts. Make every pick count. Go right for the jugular. There are only so many players that end up in the top ten of their positions. And great bench players are points that are not on your opponents rosters. You can never have too many great players.
I start my draft plan with the players I want to target, and try my best to disregard the rest. The players I don't want I consider guppy food. This way I start with less than half the available players to figure into my draft plan. It helps me hone in on a strategy. It cuts down on the mind clutter. And there is plenty of that available as fantasy drafts approach.
Usually my draft plans are already mostly formed before the masses subject me to too much propaganda. (I always wanted to type to too, but that can't be right) I like to know where I stand before camps open, and adjust my thinking during preseason if it becomes apparent I have missed on something.
Once I have my draft position, I simply plug in the players I want at the price I want. It is like a big puzzle. I draw up my entire imaginary draft on paper. And then do version two. And version three. And then my wife taps me in bed and says in a terse voice. "are you ever going to turn that light out." Actually, that is what she used to say. Now she just reaches up and turns out the light.
Using mock drafts and average draft position tools, one can get a rough idea of how drafts will go. The ADP is a godsend, because it does a couple of things. First of all, it creates a false illusion of "how things should go." according to the average consensus. Yes, things "should" go that way, but they don't always go that way.
The ADP which is used in many formats as a "draft-board" can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. It is your worst enemy when they guy you are waiting to draft is at the top of the list, and the guy drafting ahead of you times out and is assigned that player. But it can be your best friend because some players follow it like sheep. Break out the sheers.
The ADP to some degree holds your league-mates at bay, keeping them in an imaginary mental cage. Many players with their extensive cheat sheets will stay in the safe confines of the ADP. I do pay attention to ADP. I use it as a tool. But I don't let it draft for me.
If a player with an ADP of 80 has serious potential of being a top 30 sleeper, I only use the ADP to determine how long I may reasonably and safely wait before drafting him. I don't get hung up about drafting a player a round "early" if I really want that player. I don't let the ADP dictate my final roster. I choose my roster before the draft starts, and come as close to hitting all my marks as I can.
This is not to say that I go into a draft and "overpay" for every player. In every draft there are twists and turns (such as some dill-hole picking players a round before you expect them to) and in every draft there are bargains. The problem is that you can never "plan" for the bargains. You can suspect bargains that may be had, but you can't count on them.
And that is the only rub. You need to formulate a draft plan, or an auction plan that leaves you options. I mean, if you decide to go hard after one position out of the gate, and later in the draft there are players that end up being huge bargains at that same position, you can miss out on potentially huge bargains that you never imagined would be possible. This is even more relevant in auction leagues.
If you are playing in a guppy league, you don't have to out-think the room. You are better off just playing the VBD game and letting the gold fall in your pockets. But if you are playing against serious players, it just isn't that easy. You do have to out-think the room. There will be probably be people with the same kind of plan as yours. And if you are really unlucky you will draft with a guy that read your draft plans on a website. Just one of the pitfalls of being a fantasy writer.
I drafted right next to a guy last year that mirrored me position by position through the first five rounds. I was left wondering which one of us screwed the other the most. Drafting in a friendly little group may allow a comparison of notes to that regard, but in these types of leagues the "Sergeant Schultz" mentality is in play for the most part. " I know nothingk!"
Every season there are unique opportunities. Every season there are angles you may play. For instance, this year there is a quarterback angle that is fairly obvious. We have a proven top ten quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) that we know will miss at least the first 5 weeks. This of course has led to his draft status being discounted. Yes, if you take the Big Ben bait, you need to have a plan for the first 5-6 weeks, but after that you should be in good shape at QB on the cheap. Meanwhile you have cruised through the first part of your draft unencumbered worrying about the quarterback position.
But what if the worst case scenario happens? No, I don't mean what happens if your wife finds out you drafted Big Bender. What if you wait too long and someone else covets Roethlisberger even more than you do? Well, I say that if you have done your homework, your other position players are so strong that you can probably overcome any problems you run into at the QB spot. And of course, you will always have a plan B lined up anyway, just in case.
But using a ploy like this, with Roethlisberger in your "hip pocket" so to speak, maybe your leaguemates surprise you and QBs better than you expected are still left in the later rounds. You have stock-piled studs, sleepers and team depth, and you find you can still get a quality quarterback you like even better than Roethlisberger on the cheap. Maybe Roethlisberger ends up being your backup QB. Now how do you feel? You hit the jackpot!
Or it doesn't even have to be a QB ploy. Is Vincent Jackson worth gambling on this year? I probably won't but who knows? It's possible.
I remember Antonio Gates breakout year of '04 he was drafted ridiculously low. I thought I had a hot sleeper on my hands and I proceeded to build a great team with the sleeper stud Antonio Gates as the sparkling centerpiece. There are undervalued players every season. Brian Westbrook was undervalued most of his career. Hines Ward, Derrick Mason, and Donald Driver have all been undervalued most of their careers. Sometimes the fantasy community sleeps on players year after year. Opportunities are always there.
In any case, I always have an angle. In ultra-competitive leagues or bigger national contests, you need to hit a couple out of the park. And what I have found is that my instincts are usually right, when I stubbornly ignore them (and we all have) it just usually doesn't work out well. If I pass on players I really want, thinking I can get them cheaper because the ADP tells me so, or pick players I am not totally comfortable with, regret usually follows.
This does not always lead to success. I do not dominate every league I play. No way. But I have dominated a few. And what I have found is that even when I swing and miss with a draft strategy, the down times are much less painful when I followed my strategy, followed my gut, and drafted the team I really wanted to draft. When you take your best shot and fail, it is far more palatable than following the consensus and wondering what if...