- Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston’s Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.
Whether you are new to fantasy football or simply want a refresher on the basics, following Field Yates’ 10 rules will make sure you leave your draft with a solid team, ready to compete for your league championship.
There are many ideas that my good friend and former colleague Matthew Berry has shared over the years that are worth passing along at any time.
My favorite one might just be his suggestion to anyone that plays fantasy football to bring aboard one new person to the game each and every year. While it may feel like everyone you know plays fantasy football, it’s both invigorating and fulfilling when you can find someone who has not yet had that experience and bring him or her along for the ride.
And if you’re one of those people who is new to this fantasy football thing, you’re in the right place!
As best we can, we’re going to outline the things that you need to know about how to draft your fantasy football team.
1. Draft for value
This is the first and most important rule that I can share: your draft is about finding value. If you’ve never played fantasy football before, the highest-scoring players on average are also names you are most familiar with: the quarterbacks. You may look at Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady’s stats (both real and fantasy) from last year and think: “Hey, Brady was the fourth-highest-scoring player in all of fantasy, I’m getting him at pick eight and this is a steal!” Not so fast.
While Brady is the GOAT, he’s also a quarterback — a position that contrasts to the real world of football in fantasy because it’s easy to find one. The top 12 quarterbacks in scoring average last season posted at least 18.8 points per game. Only three total running backs scored at least 18.8 fantasy points per game, and you will be starting at least two running backs every single week and just one quarterback, making the top backs that much more valuable. It’s a supply-and-demand issue: quality running backs, wide receivers and tight ends are harder to find than quarterbacks, so prioritize them early.
2. Specifically, prioritize those running backs
Every year is different in fantasy, but the most relatable challenge you’ll face in fantasy is struggling to find reliable running backs. A total of 29 running backs scored at least 150 points during the 2021 season, compared to 44 wide receivers. The value of an elite running back stems from several factors, including the consistent lack of them year over year. Moreover, an elite running back has a better chance in any given week to score a touchdown than any other position on the field; the last time a tight end or wide receiver led the league in points (real points) scored amongst non-kickers was Randy Moss in 2007. If you can get your hands on a Jonathan Taylor or Austin Ekeler early, your roster is already shaping up nicely.
3. But don’t forget about receivers, either
While in an “all things being equal scenario” I would prefer to take an elite running back over any other position, wide receivers are extremely important as well! What you will notice is that in the first two rounds, most picks — if not all of them — will be running backs, wide receivers and the occasional tight end. Keep this in mind: running back and wide receiver are the only positions of which you must play at least two each week.
There’s greater need across any league for wide receivers and running backs compared to quarterbacks, tight ends, kicker and your defense/special teams (each of those slots includes only one starter, although a tight end can be your flex), so there is an inherent value in wide receivers and running backs that must be accounted for. And if you play in a league that uses points-per-reception (PPR) scoring, receivers are going to have a leg up on the competition, as you are awarded one point for each catch a player accrues during a game. The definition of a receiver’s duties is to catch the ball, so those points can pile up!
4. And yes, you can be patient on quarterbacks
Even if you haven’t played fantasy football before, you may already be familiar with the school of thought that prevails from many fantasy experts: don’t hurry into drafting a quarterback. We highlighted in Rule 1 that there are lots of quality quarterbacks in fantasy football, even if there are those that project in a tier above the rest (e.g. Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen). But each year there are quarterbacks who exceed preseason expectations and if you are using an early-round pick — say round two — on a quarterback to bypass a wide receiver or running back, you essentially need that quarterback to be leaps and bounds better than average.
While we’ve seen historic quarterback seasons of late — Mahomes and Jackson’s first full seasons as starters both saw them both win the MVP award — those came during years when no one was expecting them to be the best QB in fantasy, thus you weren’t selecting them early. You can take a Mahomes or Allen or Jackson early and be perfectly fine — a great quarterback won’t hurt you — but you can also wait and find a player in round 10 or 12 who proves to have incredible upside: players such as Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Derek Carr come to mind.
5. Kickers and defenses come last
When you are conducting your draft, it’s going to be hard not to fixate on your starting lineup, which populates as you make your picks. And while you may think to yourself that the players that are your starters — and likely in your lineup every week barring an injury or bye — are in all cases more valuable than players you project as backups, that is not the case. Fantasy football is unpredictable by design, but defenses and kickers are especially so. I’m here to tell you the next person you meet who predicted that the Cowboys would be the best fantasy defense in 2021 will be the first. There was zero preseason buzz on them. None.
Fantasy points for defenses are predicated on things that are hard to forecast (defensive/special teams touchdowns), so defenses are just tricky to size up going into the season. Moreover, the Cowboys averaged just 9.6 fantasy points per game last season, far from a dominant performance, despite being the highest-scoring in the NFL. Absent extremely rare cases, the edge you are gaining if you guess right on the top-scoring defenses by drafting them early is offset by the price you are paying.
Kickers are similar in that there are unpredictable standouts every year (Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson was the top kicker last season after hardly a preseason murmur), while the top scorers simply aren’t gaining you a massive edge (Carlson scored just 10.1 points per game). The prudent play is to be patient and simply wait until near the end of your draft and take the kicker you like best that falls to you.
6. Stack up that bench
So if you’re wondering where you go after your early running back and wide receiver picks, the answer is … go right back to the well. The best value in the middle rounds will be players that in a perfect world could hardly play for your roster. What do I mean by that? Well, if you absolutely crush your first four or five picks, those could be your weekly starters at running back and wide receiver. But given the fickle nature of fantasy football, it’s hard to ace all your early picks, so having strong depth is essential. Given that you’ll need at least four running backs and wide receivers in your lineup every week (and up to five total), those positions are already essential to your roster. Factor in struggling performers, injuries and bye weeks and you’ll need a deep bench at those spots in order to ensure you can power through rough patches.
7. And target upside
Fantasy football is not a game that you are rewarded for finishing in the middle. You play a different opponent every week, but ultimately your fortunes are brightest if you have a roster with legitimate upside. When you’re making your draft picks, keep upside in mind. Here’s an example: if you think Ravens second-year wide receiver Rashod Bateman is destined for a breakout this season, he represents a much higher upside play than — as an example — A.J. Green, who has a clear role and could be productive in Arizona in his second season as a Cardinal, but is more likely going to be akin to the player he was last season. Roll the dice, swing for the fences, shoot for the stars. Whatever high-upside analogy you want to use, do that.
8. Know the rules, know the lingo
This may seem too obvious to mention, but a gentle reminder: it’s important to know the rules and know a little bit of the lingo. The standard settings for an ESPN league can be found on your league info page and your starting lineup will include a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a flex (which can be any RB/WR/TE), a tight end, a kicker and a defense/special teams. But it’s important to know if the league you are playing in has any modified settings or even more rudimentary distinctions such as whether it is a PPR (points per reception) league or not. The easiest way to get more info: just ask!
Learn more about league rules and scoring settings here.
9. Your draft-day roster is not your final roster
We could probably do a whole different piece on the basic rules of managing the waiver wire, but I’ll start by reminding that it’s an essential tool for any successful manager. So much so that we’re here to remind you that the team you draft is far from the team that you’ll end up with at the end of the season. The only certainty for all fantasy football rosters is that there will be change, be it due to struggling players, bye-week fill-ins, waiver-wire adds or in-season trades. So, while the draft is your starting point, be prepared to be dynamic.
10. Have fun!
Fantasy football can become an extremely competitive endeavor. I’ve been guilty in the past and will surely be guilty again in the future of putting too much emotional energy into how a matchup plays out when the reality is virtually all of it is out of my control. We get just 18 regular-season Sundays to enjoy during a given NFL season, so rather than letting early-season blues wear you down and make you wish you hadn’t signed you up for fantasy football in the first place, just remember that this is a game that we should all be playing for fun. Let’s enjoy it!
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