50 Tips and Strategies for Winning at Fantasy Football
Introduction – There are no certainties in fantasy football. There are ways to stake the odds in your favor, though. Fantasy football is just like playing poker or blackjack; if a fantasy owner plays the odds, then that owner is going to win more than he loses.
Winning a fantasy football championship involves managing four aspects of your season: the fantasy draft, free agency, trades and starting line-ups. Here are 50 tips and strategies which should help you throughout the entire fantasy football season.
Fantasy Draft Tips
The draft is the foundation of your season. If you have a bad draft, you’re almost certain to have a bad season. While other aspects of the game are important, the fantasy draft is the most important.
In the following fantasy draft preparation tips, you can read general tips, draft tips and auction strategies.
Draft Preparation Tips
1. Learn the Players – If you’re a rookie, learn the starters on every team and then learn the key moves of the offseason. If you’ve been playing fantasy football a few years, make sure you know all the NFL free agent moves in the offseason, as well the blue chip rookies coming into the league. Make it your goal to know by heart every player who is drafted, and not be that guy at the draft who is asking, "Where does he play?" or "What position is he?"
2. Know Your System – Know the scoring system and rules for your league. If you must only start one running back, then you don’t have to obsess about runners. If you have to start two QBs, then drafting quarterbacks high becomes more important. If your league gives a point for a reception, then star wide receivers and tight ends become much more viable high round selections.
3. Make a List – Make your own draft list, preferably separate ones for each position: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end (if needed), kicker, defense. This lets you organize your thoughts and deliberate about which players you want before you’re on the clock. Don’t walk into the draft with a list out of a fantasy football magazine, because those lists were made months before and may not take into account the latest roster and injury news.
4. Chart Injuries – Some players are injury prone. When you’re making a draft list, keep in mind those guys who have been hurt a lot in the recent past. That doesn’t mean they’ll be injured again, but fantasy football is a game of playing the odds.
5. Look Inside the Numbers – There are always a few players who "came on" at the end of last year. Especially with younger guys, try to spot some who might not have led the league for the entire season, but who finished strongly in the last 6 weeks or so of the previous regular season. A lot of times, those players become the middle round "sleepers" of the next season. If you have access to a site like My Fantasy League, you can look at the previous year’s stats by week or blocks of weeks.
6. Watch preseason, But Not Too Closely – Some people will tell you preseason doesn’t matter. I’ve always said that 50% of it matters; you just don’t know which 50%. I watch the rookie players in preseason, mainly to see if their athleticism is up to NFL standards. Once they get on the field, you can start to learn if a rookie running back has the speed and cutting ability to be a star in the fantasy season. The rest is so murky that I wouldn’t put too much stock in preseason results.
Fantasy Draft Day Advice
Draft day is the best day of the fantasy football year. It’s a day of infinite possibilities, when you can still build the perfect team. I’ve always said draft day is like Christmas morning for adult men. To make sure you don’t get a bag of coal on Christmas morning, keep the following tips in mind during your fantasy league’s draft.
7. Get a Running Game – It seems one or two more NFL teams are moving to running-back-by-committee every year. This means the pool of superstar runners is shrinking. You could argue that means you should draft another position, especially lower in the first round, but this fact actually makes the superstar running back even more valuable. If you target a running back who should get most of the carries, has the potential for a lot of touchdowns and has a reasonably healthy history, then you need to draft him over the star receiver.
8. Be Flexible – "Getting a running game" doesn’t mean you should pass over All-Pro receivers for marginal running backs. There comes a point (usually early) in every draft where you are crossing your fingers and hoping for a big year from a RB who is either always hurt or only sharing carries with another guy. When you reach that point, start drafting the best player available.
9. Watch Bye Weeks – Keep an eye on the bye weeks of the players you are drafting. You don’t want too many players at the same position with the same bye week. The later in the season the bye week comes, though, the less I would worry about it. With trades and free agency and the usual evolution of a roster, you have no idea what your roster is going to look like in the second half of your season.
10. Chart League Rosters – Keep track of what kind of positions all of your opponents have filled during the draft. I usually write down the players drafted on a rosters page set aside for each team. You might prefer making a rudimentary list of teams with player positions under each team name. When a quarterback is drafted by Team X, for example, you can make a mark that Team X has drafted 1 quarterback. This way, you have some idea of individual team needs and what position those teams are likely to draft soon.
11. Consult Your Draft Board – When a player is drafted off of your draft list, mark through the player’s name or highlight it with a yellow marker. This way, you can see how many of your top players remain or if one highly-rated player is sliding in the draft. If you have one player who is surrounded by a bunch of scratch-outs or yellow, that’s a guy you should be drafting soon.
12. Consult a Doctor – You don’t want to find out later the guy who was sliding is injured, though. There’s nothing worse than drafting some player you think is a great value, only to have one of your rivals tell you a few picks later, "By the way, he tore an ACL last night in the game." In the weeks and days before the draft, you might consult a site like Football Injuries to make sure you aren’t blindsided. This site offers injury reports for a once-a-year fee. If you don’t want to pay, then consult KFFL’s Hot Off the Wire for daily injury news.
13. Don’t Drink and Draft – Stay sober during your entire draft. A lot of owners start out with solid teams in the early rounds, but are drunk by the second half of the draft. While your fellow owners will probably enjoy your performance, you won’t find it funny when they drub you when the games start. Enjoy a beer, just not too many.
14. Don’t Get Mad – Don’t lose your cool when the draft doesn’t go your way. In one of my local drafts, there’s a guy who always get mad by other peoples’ drafts. If someone drafts his backup, then he drafts one of their backups. The two spend half the season haggling over a trade for backups. Meanwhile, he probably dropped down his draft board to grab this running back handcuff, passing over somebody he had rated higher. He never understands that his opponent probably drafted "his" player because he was more valuable, and therefore the opponent isn’t going to trade the player for someone he passed over.
15. Own the Late Rounds – If you do your homework, you can pick up a handful of players in the late rounds with the potential for break-out years. While your opponents rifle through printed off lists and dated fantasy magazines, you can be grabbing sleeper after sleeper in the late rounds.
16. Stay Away From Gimmicks – In one of my leagues, one of the owners is enamoured with the idea that the position is deep. Every year, he makes certain he is the last owner to draft a quarterback. It’s like he’s trying to make a point and show everyone the way. Of course, he ends up grabbing Rex Grossman and Brodie Croyle and their like every year and spends the first month of the season scrambling to find a real fantasy starter at QB.
17. Wait on Kickers – On the other hand, if you choose to be the last owner to draft a field goal kicker, that’s okay. The turnover at the position is huge. Kicking numbers are unpredictable, because a kicker from a good offense is better than one from a great offense. The year Peyton Manning broke the touchdown record, Mike Vanderjagt wasn’t much of a fantasy kicker. When Tom Brady broke Manning’s record, Stephen Gostkowski wasn’t much of a fantasy kicker. All either kicker did was kick extra points. At the same time, the year Neal Rackers was the NFL’s #1 kicker, he went undrafted in most leagues.
18. Keep Your Secrets – Don’t let opponents look at your cheat sheets in the draft, no matter how nice they ask. Don’t give advice to your opponents. Don’t give tips on a sleeper pick that you’ve had your eye on. I know this sounds elementary, but fantasy owners like to show off their knowledge of the subject, so it bears a reminder. As sure as you help out one of your opponents, that sleeper pick will keep you out of the playoffs.
Auction Draft Strategies
Fantasy football auctions are a little different than fantasy drafts. Drafts have more structure, so you know what you’re getting into. Auctions allow every player to have the same opportunity at the same players. So no one automatically gets Ladainian Tomlinson by getting #1 overall pick. Here’s more information about the auction draft, and here are some tips for getting ahead in your local auction.
19. Play the Market – An auction draft is essentially a buyers market. Everyone starts with the same money, but a few will spend most of that money right off. If you save a sizable portion of your money until the first rush of buying ends, you can find bargain players in the middle to late stages of the draft.
20. Set a Spending Cap – In the early stages, set a spending limit on certain positions in which you won’t go higher than that amount. I generally set a cap for each position, budgeting how much I want to spend on running backs and receivers and the like. As the draft goes on, you might adjust as the market for positions is revealed, but you’ll at least have a rough guideline to work with.
21. Don’t Tip Your Hand – Most auctions go around the room and let owners throw out players’ names when it’s their turn. When it comes your turn, throw out the name of a player you don’t want, but who is likely to cause a bidding war. For instance, if you don’t want to spend the money you know Peyton Manning is going to cost, throw his name out, knowing several teams will bid on him and someone will spend big money early.
22. Tempt Your Opponents – If you have an opponent whom you know is a major fan of a player or a team, start bidding on that player or players. That way, you force your opponent to bid on those players early when there’s still a lot of money in the market. Don’t let them get out cheap.
23. Spend When Appropriate – Teams need stars to build around, so don’t be afraid to spend on those one or two "can’t-miss" players you want on your roster. Avoid spending all your money on a handful of players, though. With the NFL injury rate, there is no such thing as a can’t miss player in fantasy football.
24. Set Player Tiers – When you make your list of players, consider listing them in tiers. That way, you can be sure you’ll get a Tier 1 running back, for instance. As long as you have multiple options on your list of players that are about the same in your eyes, then there’s no reason to overbid on a player. Once that tier of players starts to empty, you know it’s time to start bidding.
25. Be Opportunistic – Often for no reason at all, there will be a momentary lull in an auction bid where a player goes for less than he’s worth. Maybe this is just after a couple of major bids and people are leery of spending their whole bankroll. Whatever the case, stay alert and steal any players when it appears other owners have stopped bidding too soon.
26. Corner the Market – Try to be one of the last players to have money left. This way, you’ll be able to collect a number of sleepers in the late rounds of auction bidding. There’s always going to be one or two people with the same strategy, so you’ll still need to pick your spots. But if you are one of the last few teams with money, you can still get the talented players left with targeted aggression.
Regular Season Tips
Once the fantasy draft is over, you have to manage the team you drafted. Inevitably, some of your picks will look genius, while others will disappoint due to injuries or poor play. A bad draft will ruin your season, but even a team with a great draft probably won’t win the title if they don’t manage their team right after the draft.
One of the most underrated aspects of fantasy football is starting line-ups. Knowing when and who to start can be worth that extra win or two that puts you in the playoffs. This is sometimes harder than you think, since you don’t have a Ladainian Tomlinson no-brainer starter at every position. Nagging injuries are the bane of every team owner’s fantasy career.
27. Start Your Best Line-Up – That is, don’t set your line-up on Monday and then leave it at that. In the NFL preseason and regular season, keep track of the latest players news every day. Visit a page like KFFL Hot Off The Wire, whichcontains the latest injury news and roster transactions. Hot Off The Wire takes a minute or two a day to look at. This way, you cut down on the chance you start an inactive player or a guy who will only play a few plays.
28. Know the Injury Report – There are four injury statuses in the NFL: probable, questionable, doubtful and out. Probable means a 25% chance of playing, while questionable means 50% and doubtful means 75% of playing. I would almost always play a star when they are probable and bench him when he is doubtful. Questionable is always iffy, so you need to learn your player’s tendencies.
29. Beware the Broncos and Patriots – Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichik are notorious in fantasy football circles for their secretive nature. Shanahan has named one starter in the week and played another on game day. Belichik is highly secretive with team injuries. Both Shanahan and Belichik have been fined by the league before, only to release injury reports with half their roster listed as questionable. While all NFL coaches are sparse with their information, these two (and their coaching understudies around the league) are the worst, in my opinion.
30. Visit a Forum – Learn what local fans are saying about a team by visiting a message board. I would suggest a fantasy-specific forum like the Huddle NFL Fantasy Football. Not only does this board have team fanatics, but it also has fans of other teams, to keep the local homers honest. Most importantly, everyone is a fantasy football team owner, meaning they are discussing the fantasy value of every relevant player in the league.
31. Know the Weather – In November and December, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the weather report. Most weeks, you should start your best player available. Sloppy field conditions can slow down offenses, while high winds can kill the numbers for quarterbacks and wide receivers. If the weather gets too bad, you might consider starting someone with better field conditions.
32. Look at the Match-Ups – By the 6th or 8th week of the season, you’ll start to see trends in a football season. Your runner might be going against a really bad run defense, or your QB might be playing one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Don’t just look at your players’ stats. Look at the rankings for the defenses they are playing (break them up by run and pass defenses) and see if you can play the match-ups. If you have a no-brain starter like Ladainian Tomlinson or Tom Brady, play them no matter what, of course.
33. Study the Injuries of Your Opponents – If one of the defenses your team is playing against that week is missing star players due to injuries, you might play a hunch and start a player against even a highly-rated defense. Conversely, if some defense is low-rated, but one or more of their starters is returning from injury, you might ignore their low ratings. In other words, try to analyze why a team is underachieving or overachieving.
Fantasy Football Free Agency
Free agency is the cheapest way you can bolster your roster after the draft. I say cheapest because the only other way is through trades. Unlike trades, free agency allows you to improve your roster without trading away valuable pieces. All you have to do is cut your worst player.
Here are several tips for succeeding in free agency.
34. Be Aggressive Early in the Season – Every year, there are players who come out of nowhere in the NFL. These guys might be a new starter at wide receiver, or a backup forced into a starting role by an injury. There are several guys every year who don’t get drafted, but who become big producers. These guys usually get picked up in the first few weeks of free agency, so be aggressive early on.
35. Target Receivers in Free Agency – One reason you should draft runners higher than receivers is there are more productive receivers to grab in free agency. I remember Anquan Boldin was undrafted in most fantasy drafts his rookie year, so someone in each league got a guy who caught over 100 balls in a free agent move. Boldin’s not the only one. Receiver is the deepest position, and one that can be rounded out early in the season through good free agent moves, which is why the receiver position is the hole that’s easiest to fill.
36. Beware of One-Week Wonders – Even mediocre wide receivers and tight ends have big weeks occasionally. Know that–most of the time–an obscure receiver with a big week is going to return to obscurity soon. Be selective when targeting receivers. Try to figure out why a player suddenly had a big game in the middle of the season.
37. Grab Handcuffs – "Handcuff" is a term for a backup in fantasy football, usually the backup to the starting running back. Keep an eye on handcuff situations. Fantasy football has plenty of examples where a runner goes down and the seemingly third string running becomes the new starter. Ryan Grant with the Green Bay Packers is the latest example. Read any local news from running back coaches and offensive coordinators, because you can get hints at where a team is headed. Keep an eye on an NFL depth chart such as the one maintained at Fantasy Football Toolbox. If you see a running back who might be the starter in case of an injury, take a flyer on him.
38. Fresh Legs Beat Tired Legs – Every year, there are a couple of backup running backs who come off the bench and have a huge second half of the season. These players often end up the starting RB the next season, but often don’t play up to their initial production. It’s my theory that running backs who come into the season midway have fresh legs, and therefore put up big numbers against defenses which have been worn down from half a season of games. Remember Julius Jones his rookie year? Look at Justin Fargas or Ryan Grant from last year.
39. Keep an Eye on Rookies – We all know that most receivers don’t have thousand yard rookie seasons. But some rookie receivers come on in the second half of the season. They might add 500 yards in the second half of the season and still end up well short of a thousand yards. That might not look so great at the end of the season, but if you only had the player on your roster for the second half of the season, you would have had a value player. Look for young receivers coming on as the season progresses and add them in free agency.
40. Know Who to Cut – There’s nothing worse than cutting a player from your roster one week too early. When you make a free agent pickup, you have to waive someone from your roster. Make sure you protect the players with the most potential, so keep your roster light on field goal kickers and tight ends and defenses. Unless a bye week situation forces you to double up, it’s usually best to keep only one at each position, unless you’re forced to play match-ups with your defense. Stock up on running backs and wide receivers whenever possible.
41. Stockpile Talent – Even though your team is winning and your starting line-up looks unbeatable, that is no reason to ignore free agency. Keep adding productive players to your roster, even if they are sitting on your bench. Even if you have a good bench, continue to stockpile talent. You never know when injuries will decimate your starting line-up. At the very least, those free agents become trade bait.
A player can’t always fill every need in the draft. The players you need to upgrade your roster might not exist in free agency. That’s when you need to trade. In most fantasy seasons, the eventual champion is helped by a solid trade that rounds out his line-up. While the draft and free agency is how you will build a contending team, a mid-season trade is often the difference maker.
42. Pull the Trigger – Don’t be the guy who refuses to trade under any circumstances. Every league seems to have a guy that just refuses to trade. Incidentally, that player never seems to win the league title. Everybody who trades has one that blows up in their face. Just because a trade doesn’t work out for you, though, that doesn’t mean you should shy away from the next one.
43. Target Your Needs – Figure out how you need to improve your team. If your receivers stink, but you have an extra productive running back on the bench, then trade your runner for an upgrade where you team is weak. Also, when evaluating trade offers from other teams, ask yourself how the trade helps your team. If it doesn’t, then turn the offer down.
44. Sell High, Buy Low – Consider trading your players after they have had a big week. There are plenty of players who you might not have confidence to start every week, but who occasionally put up huge numbers. When one of those weeks comes, trade the guy for someone more reliable. Too many owners hold onto the one-week wonders too long.
45. Look at Bye Weeks – Along the same lines, keep an eye on your opponents’ bye week situations. You’re more likely to get a star player from another team when that player is coming up on a bye week. If your potential trade partner is needing a win soon, this advice is really useful. In fact, the more the losses pile up, the more likely an owner will be willing to shake their roster up.
46. Make Trade Proposals – When trading, you want to initiate a significant portion of the talks. Send out trade feelers. That way, you aren’t at the mercy of whatever offer some opponent makes to you. Often, a trade proposal will get the negotiations started. Most trade proposals will never come to anything, so keep the lines of communication open and don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t happen at first.
47. Put Yourself in Their Shoes – Don’t waste time making one-sided trade offers. That almost never works and usually gains you a reputation that makes opponents distrust even your solid trade proposals. Analyze your opponent’s team needs and figure out a trade (advantageous to you) that helps address those needs. If you have a top producing receiver on your bench that an opponent could use, then make an offer to send that receiver instead of some iffy player you picked up in free agency the week before.
48. Mind Your Manners – Message board etiquette is important in fantasy football. When you are offering trades to another league owner, it doesn’t help to berate them on the league message board if they continue to turn down your trade offers. Remember that you are trying to make a sell, so you should approach trades like a professional salesman would. Antagonizing your customer is only going to make them less likely to trade with you.
49. Don’t Help a Friend – If you’re a rookie player and your inaugural season hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to, do not make questionable trades to help some friend who’s contending. This is one of the most contentious parts of fantasy football. If you have questions about what is a good trade, read this article at FootballGuys.com. Just because your season is ruined is not a reason to ruin it for others. Take your beating like a man, learn from your mistakes and come back with a plan next year.
50. Enjoy the Game – You’re playing fantasy football to enjoy it. So don’t take everything too seriously. Prepare to win, but also prepare to lose. You can have the best strategy and the best team on paper and still take a pounding any given season. Injuries can kill the best fantasy team, just like it can a real NFL team.
Once you’ve done everything you can to win the game, sit back and enjoy it for the game it is. Enjoy the trash talking on the message boards. Give as good as you get. Enjoy hitting or missing on free agents and all the trade discussions. Heck, even enjoy the really bad trades you make. Play them up, because people are likely to trade with you again if they think you stink at it.