The Basics of Fantasy Football

Fantasy football is played by millions of people every year.  Both men and women of all ages play.  Some play for prizes, some play for pride, while others just play to be social.  No matter what your reason may be for playing fantasy football, you can have fun at it and even win your league championship!

My goal here is to make sure people have a reliable place to learn about fantasy football.  After all, even though your friends in the league might say they will teach you everything you need to know along the way, will they be there to explain a concept at midnight?  And will they share “everything” you need to know before you draft or play against them?  Or maybe you simply prefer to not have to ask questions.  It helps to have an objective, all-encompassing source of information you can turn to any hour of the day.

So what is fantasy football and how do you play it?  Fantasy football is a game based on the performance of professional football players in the National Football League (NFL).  In fantasy football, you choose which NFL players are on your fantasy team.  The performance of these football players on the actual football field each week determines your fantasy team’s score.  Your score is then compared to the scores of other fantasy teams competing with you in your group.

Leagues
Your group is called a league. Leagues consist of 2 or more, usually 4-16, fantasy teams.  Leagues can be formed among friends, family, co-workers, or even strangers who sign up for a public league online.  These leagues are usually created between June and August, and compete throughout the course of the NFL season, which runs from September until January.

Each league has a format and a scoring system.  You can play in a head-to-head format, in which your fantasy team competes against a different fantasy team each week, and earns a win or a loss from the outcome.  At some point during the last month of the NFL season, this type of league will take its top 2-8 teams and put them through a 1-3 week tournament known as the fantasy playoffs.  The winner of the fantasy playoffs is crowned the fantasy league champion.

Another way to play fantasy football is in a points-based format.  In a points league, each fantasy team’s points are tallied on a weekly basis.  These points accumulate over the course of the season.  At the end of the fantasy football season, the fantasy team with the most points wins.

Finally, there is the less-popular salary cap league.  In this type of league, each owner is given a certain amount of play money (salary cap) they can spend on fantasy players.  Each fantasy player carries a monetary value.  Every week, each owner is to fill their roster with the fantasy players they think will score them the most points without exceeding their salary cap.  Owners can select the same players as other owners (everyone builds their roster in private).  The points from each week accumulate, and the owner who has scored the most points over the course of the season wins.

Scoring
Scoring varies from league to league.  Traditionally, running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers earn 6 points for any touchdown they score, and quarterbacks receive 4 points for each touchdown they throw.  Points for yardage gained on the field is usually part of a league’s scoring system as well.  Typically, fantasy players earn a point for every 7 yards of receiving, for every 10 yards of rushing, and for every 25 yards of passing they produce on the field of play.

Traditional leagues also include points for kickers and team defenses.  Kickers receive points based on making field goals and extra points.  They normally earn a point for extra points made and a 3, 4, or 5 points for each field goal made, depending on the distance of the kicker.  Kickers also typically get penalized for missing extra points and short field goal attempts.  Defenses are traditionally awarded points for sacks, fumble recoveries, and interceptions.  They also receive or lose points based on how many points they allow the opposing offense to scoring during a game.

Leagues that strictly follow traditional or “standard” scoring at each position are known as “standard leagues.”  Many fantasy football leagues use more creative, non-traditional scoring systems.  They might change the point totals for touchdowns, or they might award points for receptions, rushing attempts, pass completions, or kick return yardage.  Negative points are sometimes used to penalize fantasy teams if their players fumble or throw an interception.  And in some leagues, bonus points are given to fantasy players if reach key milestones during a game, such as 100 yards rushing or 300 yards passing.

Your league’s scoring system is usually described in your league’s settings online.  And the scoring is typically agreed upon by the league’s members before they begin drafting players for their rosters.

Rosters
Just like scoring systems, rosters vary from league to league.  The traditional fantasy football roster consists of 8 positions: 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 2 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 kicker, and a defense.  Fantasy teams also have a number of bench positions on their roster.  These bench positions allow fantasy owners to stash extra players that they might want to use in place of one of their starters on any given week of football.  Many leagues these days use variations of the traditional roster, such as two quarterbacks, four wide receivers or no kickers.

At this point, you may be wondering about defense position.  Unlike the other positions, this one is not filled by a pro football player.  It is filled by an owner’s choice of an NFL defense in its entirety, for example, the Dallas Cowboys defense.  Your fantasy defense receives points for key plays made by any member of that defense on the playing field, such as an interception or a sack.  You are also penalized for any points that your fantasy defense allows in a football game.  A defense is essentially another player on your fantasy football league.

Finally, some fantasy leagues use individual defensive players (IDP) instead of team defenses.  These leagues are usually made for more advanced levels of fantasy football.  Their rosters have extra positions for defense linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs, and a scoring system that credits them for their performance on the field.

Drafting Players
So how do you go about picking players for your fantasy football team?  This is done through a process known as the draft. In a league’s draft, fantasy owners take turns picking players.  Although there are many creative ways to go about it, a typical draft starts with one owner picking a player, followed by another owner picking a player, and then another owner picking a player until each owner has selected one player for their roster.  This process of picking one player for each fantasy team is known as a round.  After the first round is complete, each owner picks another player – this time in reverse order of the first round.  The drafting of players continues back and forth like this until everyone’s roster is full.

When a player is selected by an owner, that player is no longer available to any of the other owners.  So the order in which the owners draft their players is important.  The draft order is created using any method that everyone in the league can agree on.  Most online leagues come with an application that randomly determines the draft order.  Other leagues find creative ways to draw straws, or they use some kind of performance marker (such as the reverse order of the final standings from the previous year), to decide their draft order.  Any method of creating a draft order is acceptable, as long as all the owners in the league consider it fair.

Free Agents
After the draft is complete, all players that were not drafted are considered free agents.  In other words, they are available to any fantasy team in the league.  If a fantasy owner wants one of the free agents, he or she can add the player to their roster.  However, if their roster is already full, they need to also drop a player from their roster to make room for the free agent.  The player that is dropped then goes into the free agent pool, making him available to all of the other fantasy teams in the league.

Waivers
One person’s garbage is another person’s treasure, so the saying goes.  When an fantasy team owner drops a player from their team, another owner may want to add the new free agent to their team.  But what if two or more owners want the free agent?  Is it first come, first serve?  What keeps the owner who sits by the computer all day from snatching up new free agents before any of the other owners get back on the internet?

Fantasy football controls the situation using a process known as waivers.  When a player is dropped from a team, that player has to go through “waivers” before truly becoming a free agent.  The waiver period lasts 1-5 days, depending on your league’s settings.  During that time, each of the league’s owners decide if they want to add the dropped player to their team during the waiver period.

As the waiver period closes, the requests for the player are reviewed and checked against the league’s waiver list.  The waiver list is the order in which the league’s teams will be awarded a player on waivers.  The team highest on the waiver list that wants the recently dropped player gets to add him to their team.  After the player is awarded, the waiver list is changed so that the team who received the player moves to the bottom of the waiver list.

Your league’s waiver list is created by giving the highest spot on the list to the team that had the last spot in the draft order.  This gives that team a chance to make up for their back-of-the-line position in the draft.  The waiver list then continues in reverse order of the draft, leaving the team who had the first pick in the draft at the bottom of the waiver list.

In some leagues, the waiver list is adjusted at the beginning of each week of the season in reverse order of the league standings.  This gives the team currently in last place a better opportunity to improve their team that week.  But the concept is still the same.  Once a team is awarded a player on waivers that week, they fall to the back of the line as other players on waivers are processed that same week.

If no one tries to add a dropped player during the waiver period, that player becomes a free agent, and is available to any team who wants to add him after that at no cost.

Trades
Another way to add a new player to your team is through a trade.  You can trade any of your players to another team for any of their players.  The first step is to make an offer to the other owner.  That owner can accept your offer, reject it, or offer a counterproposal.  If you are offered a counterproposal, you now have the option of accepting it, rejecting it, or countering it with a new offer.

However, to keep an owner from taking advantage of another owner, most leagues give the other owners a couple of days to vote against a trade.  The vote is not about whether you wanted one of the players or don’t want to see a certain owner gain a certain player; it is about whether the trade is fair to both trading partners.  If there are enough votes against the trades (usually 50% or more owners voting against it), the trade will be reviewed by the head of the league, who is known as the commissioner.  The commissioner will then decide whether to allow the trade to take place.

Commissioners
The commissioner controls all of the administrative settings for the league, such as roster size scoring, competition style and the size of the league.  The commissioner also handles issues that come up with trades and proposals to make changes the league.  Because the commissioner also owns a fantasy team in the league, this person is usually someone everyone in the league trusts to run the league fairly.
 In some leagues, the web site hosting the fantasy league automatically controls all of the league’s administrative functions based on standard default settings, and there may be no recourse for disputes.

Where to Play
Fantasy football was originally played among co-workers in the 1960s who kept track of their players and all of their scoring on paper.  While you can still play on paper, most people play fantasy football online using web sites that offer great visuals for rosters, scoring, and league standings.  They usually feature adjustable league settings, online drafts, automatic live scoring, player statistics, and automated waivers.

These web sites offer leagues with standard settings and customizable settings.  The leagues can be private (open to only those in your group of friends) or they can be public (open to anyone who wants to join).  Private leagues can be a lot of fun because everyone playing tends to know one another.  But others who do not have friends or family willing to play fantasy football can use public leagues as a great way to find a place to play.

Some of the more popular places to play fantasy football online are ESPN.com, Yahoo, CBSSports.com, and NFL.com.  Each fantasy football website has its own level of variety, ease, and complexity.  There are as many opinions about where to play as there are people who play fantasy football.  Your best approach may be to look into each of these websites (and others that are out there) and decide for yourself which one appeals to you the most.

Keep in mind that while many of these leagues are free, others require money to join them.  The leagues that are free usually offer no prizes other than a digital trophy at the end of the season.  The leagues that require money typically give cash prizes to the team or teams that finish at the top of their league.

Every league has its own characteristics, so take some time to find the type of league that works best for you.

Popular Variations
Fantasy football can be played using any number of variations of standard play.  Some of the more popular alternatives are flex positions, auction drafts, and salary cap leagues.

1. Flex Positions
In addition to the normal roster positions such as quarterback and running backs, some leagues offer flex positions.  A flex position is a position on your roster that can be filled by more than one football position.  For example, a league with flex positions might allow you to fill a position with either a running back, a wide receiver, or a tight end.  On your roster, that position would read, “RB/WR/TE”. Flex positions add flexibility to your roster.  They also add new dimensions and strategies to the game.

2. Auction Drafts
Some leagues prefer to hold an auction to draft their players.  In these leagues, each owner is given a certain amount of fantasy money they can spend on drafting players.  The players are then auctioned off one by one.  Your job is build a winning team without spending all of your fantasy money.

3. Dynasty Leagues
In dynasty leagues, fantasy teams are created and kept for several years.  After each season, the league’s owners are allowed to keep a certain number of players on their roster for the next season.  The rest of the players go back into the general pool of players that can be drafted before the next season begins.

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