Look Before You Leap

It is that time of year again. NFL free agency has played itself out.  The NFL draft is complete.  And ESPN and Yahoo! have started up their fantasy football sites for the upcoming football season.  2014 fantasy football has finally arrived!  But before you race out to start drafting a new team, take a moment to consider the following five suggestions:

1. Avoid drafting too early
For those who love playing fantasy football, the temptation to draft a team the first chance they get can be overwhelming.  Though the excitement of a new team might quench your offseason thirst, this new fantasy team of yours could find itself in trouble before the season ever begins.  Injuries during training camp and preseason play can wreak havoc on fantasy rosters, as can contract disputes and on-field competition – just ask those who used a draft pick on Seattle’s QB heir-apparent Matt Flynn two summers ago only to watch rookie Russell Wilson steal the starting job.

The ideal time to draft is during the period between the third full weekend of preseason and the beginning of the regular season.  Unfortunately, that is a 10-day window that only includes one weekend, so that may not work well with your late-summer plans.  But the general idea is this: drafting later in the summer rather than sooner allows these unforeseen preseason issues to play out without damaging your roster, which could pay big dividends come December.

For those who are just itching to get started, try your hand at a few mock drafts over the next month or two.  Not only could they help you hold off on assembling your new team; they can also make you more savvy and prepared for your actual draft.

2. Take a pass on rookies
Rookies are a risky prospect in fantasy football.  Even great rookies like Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson needed some time to get acclimated to the speed and size of the game in the NFL before consistently producing great fantasy numbers.  And a number of promising rookies, such as Ryan Leaf, never really adapt to the pro level of play.

That said, rookies appear to be succeeding in their first year at a greater rate than usual these days.  But which ones will and which ones won’t can be tough to anticipate.  So unless you are in a dynasty league, it is usually best to stick with veterans who have already demonstrated they can excel in the NFL.

3. Study strength of schedule
Even NFL players are human.  Despite their skill and athleticism, there are defenses who, by virtue of their talent and style of play, can challenge and significantly impact an offensive player’s fantasy production.  The strength of schedule for each NFL team changes from season to season.  And not all team schedules are created equal.  So fantasy owners would do well to study them and use them to tweak their cheatsheets.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to elevate a mediocre player over an elite one based on strength of schedule.  Elite players tend to be elite regardless of the competition.  But when trying to decide between players of equal skill for your fantasy squad, a solid handle on the strength of their schedules can give you that added edge.  Remember, the devil is in the details….

4. Don’t chase too hard after last year’s leaders
Last year’s top fantasy running back was someone not predicted to be the top running back.  It was supposed to be Adrian Peterson, not Jamaal Charles.  By the end of the season, a number of fantasy owners were left wishing they had Charles on their roster.  That sentiment has a way of carrying over to the next season, when all-too-often the previous year’s top producers get crowned as the preseason fantasy favorites at their respective positions.  Yet history tells us that most of them will not repeat as their position’s top point-getter.

But who should you pursue instead?  Accurately predicting the upcoming fantasy leaderboard is quite the challenge.  Injuries, fluky performances, and unforeseen issues will randomly take their toll on the final numbers.  It is anyone’s guess how it will all play out.  Your best bet is to pursue the most skilled players at their position, such as Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore last season’s fantasy leaders.  Just be careful not to give up the farm trying to get them.

5. Know your league’s settings
Fantasy football has standard scoring and roster settings that many leagues follow – and that many other leagues do not.  The leagues that customize these settings can use any number of variations of them.  As these settings change, so does the relative value of the fantasy players in that league.  In one league, quarterbacks may be more valuable than running backs.  In another league, wide receivers might gain an edge by being awarded points per reception – as would running backs that haul in a lot of receptions out of the backfield.  It all depends on your league’s scoring and roster settings.

Going into a draft without taking these settings into account is flirting with fantasy football disaster.  Study your league’s scoring and roster settings, and then develop your cheatsheet accordingly.

 

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