How to play fantasy football

by Rafael Zamorano on May 3, 2013 @ 11:20:20 PDT

 


If you're reading this article, it most likely means you've already taken the first steps toward joining the millions of people who invest time (and in some cases money) into the great big world of fantasy football. What started out as an innocent, friendly pastime in Oakland back in the early 1960s has slowly but surely evolved into a multi-million dollar industry with some fantasy leagues paying a million dollars to the top .

Let us be the first to welcome you aboard into what will more than likely become an obsession for you rather than a simple pastime!

League types

The first thing you need to know as you start operating in the fantasy football world is what kind of league you want to play in. There are various league types that can be classified according to several different criteria.

Scoring formats

As discussed in-depth within our strategy reports, knowing your league's scoring system is one of the most important items a fantasy player needs to account for each year. Study it inside out so you do not have any questions, because it will dictate which players are more valuable during the course of the upcoming season!

The most basic type of league from a scoring perspective would be the "touchdown league", which is also known more commonly as "basic scoring" leagues. In this league, your fantasy team accumulates points every time a player on your team scores a touchdown, but that's basically it. No points are awarded for yardage or other statistics, making this a very simple league. The emergence of much more complex scoring systems that add to the excitement and overall playing experience has left touchdown leagues' popularity in decline. This format, however, is clearly the easiest for the very casual fan.

A second type of league - currently the most popular one - is the "Performance League." In these leagues, attention is focused on other aspects of a player's performance besides how many times he can reach the end zone. Touchdowns still constitute the most important statistic to add fantasy points, while other statistics are considered, such as yardage, whether it be passing, rushing, receiving - even return yardage - in some hardcore leagues. Completions, receptions and any other stat that is susceptible of being recorded can be used. Even negative stats like interceptions, lost fumbles or missed field goals can be taken in account as negative fantasy points.

The third type is a variant of the performance league as bonus points are awarded when players reach certain plateaus during the game. For instance, your player(s) could receive points for reaching 100 rushing yards or scoring a touchdown of over 40 yards, etc.

Duration

From duration standpoint, fantasy football leagues can be classified into three types. The first type is the basic "single-year," in which the duration of the league is, as its name clearly suggests, just one year. This means that after one season has ended, in order to play again the following season, you have to re-start the whole league and, by extension, every fantasy team from scratch.

A second type would be the "keeper league," in which a certain percentage of players on the fantasy roster are passed over to the next year, while the rest of the players are released and added to the free-agent pool where they, along with the incoming rookies, will be drafted during the offseason. In this kind of league, a certain premium is put on younger players; fantasy owners should not only be focused on winning the current season, but setting up their squad for the future. Maintaining a strong enough team to be competitive for the following years is the primary intention. These leagues require a longer commitment from members as gameplay is expected to extend for a number of seasons.

The third type is a variant of the keeper league and is referred to as the "dynasty league." In this type of league, the complete roster is passed on year after year. This type of league most resembles the NFL as the yearly draft consists of only the incoming rookies (along with veteran players not currently on a fantasy roster), and each owner must decide which veterans to cut in order to make room on the roster for the rookies. Like the keeper leagues, the dynasty leagues require a long-term commitment from members as game-play is supposed to be continuous for many years. Also, like "keeper leagues," fantasy players build their team to win today but also look toward the future by stashing away players for long-term use. For example, a rookie quarterback not starting this season may have tremendous value three or four years down the road, and depending upon the depth of the league, some teams will look to stash these players away for future use.

Other variations

While the most common criteria to differentiate fantasy football leagues are scoring format and duration, there are other variations that should be considered when choosing the type of league you want to play in. For instance, some leagues include a salary cap. In salary cap leagues, players are tagged with "prices" before the draft, forcing owners to adjust their picks accordingly to stay below the cap.

Another important criterion would be the "championship determining system". In "head-to-head" competition, each team is paired up against another one on a weekly basis, and the sum of the individual fantasy points earned by the players determine which team "wins" that week. In these leagues, the most common variation would have the teams with the most wins qualifying into a single-elimination, three-round playoff system that is played through the last weeks of the regular system. There's also a less common setup in which the team with the most wins at the end of the NFL's regular season play is declared the champion.

In "total points" competition, there typically are not any weekly head-to-head matches; instead, fantasy points are accumulated over the course of the season, and the team with the most at the end of the year is crowned champion.

A relatively newer variation exists where fantasy points per se are not awarded to players based on performance. Instead, a certain value is given to each individual player at the beginning of the season, and this value increases or decreases week by week depending on the players' performance (similar to stock at the exchange). In these "stock leagues" there is no draft, so theoretically all of the teams could have the same exact roster. However, rosters are much reduced in comparison to other fantasy leagues; in order to cope with players' bye weeks, owners are forced to drop and add players on weekly basis. These "trades" are also limited, and due to the weekly variations of your franchise's value, you might not be able to afford to re-sign a player you just dropped the week before. The league winner would be the team with the highest total franchise value at the end of the season. Much like a stock portfolio, the goal is to obtain the most return on your investment - players, in this case - by the season's end.

Draft Day

Without a doubt, the single most important date in fantasy football is the day you draft your team. You can overcome a bad draft day by good trading and waiver wire pickups, but you should still consider that about 50 percent of your fantasy football success is determined by your draft. There are three types of drafts, and understanding how they work will assist you in preparing for a successful draft day.

Serpentine

This type of draft, which is also referred to as an "S draft" or "snake" setup, has the picking order reversed in even rounds from the way it's established in uneven rounds. For example, if Round 1 has 1-A, 2-B, 3-C, 4-D, 5-E, 6-F, 7-G, 8-H, Round 2 would be: 1-H, 2-G, 3-F, 4-E, 5-D, 6-C, 7-B, 8-A, with Round 3 reverting to the order used in Round 1 and so forth. This type of draft is mostly used in redraft leagues and is also commonly the original draft in keeper and dynasty leagues since it is the most even way to stock up the teams.

Straight

This draft is the same as the one used in the NFL, as the order used in Round 1 is basically the same for all rounds. This type of draft is normally used after the first year of play in keeper and dynasty leagues in order to promote parity among franchises by giving the worst teams the earlier selections in each round and the best teams the later picks in each round. This format is also used often in keeper leagues because it doesn't penalize a team with a poor record by placing them at No. 1 overall with their next pick at No. 24 overall like a serpentine format would.

Auctions

This kind of draft, which has basically been stolen from fantasy baseball, is not really a draft in the classic sense at all. Instead, players are auctioned off with all teams having an equal opportunity to purchase all players. The catch here is that these are salary-capped leagues, meaning you have to avoid going overboard for a few players and then having to fill out the majority of your roster spots with bottom-barrel priced players.

The bidding wars make the auctions exciting, but beware of the owners who are just trying to push the prices up. You should also keep in mind that it can take a while for everybody to fill their rosters so be prepared to invest some time in this. Often the tail end of an auction draft will resemble a serpentine or straight draft; as most teams may not have a lot of money available in their budget at that point and players continue to roll off the board at their initial (typically the lowest bid amount possible) bid price. Teams with money in their pockets at that point can really control the board if they choose to.

Positions

While in "real" football, teams are often said to be built from the ground up, with positions like left tackles or cornerbacks raking in the big money, but things are very different in fantasy football. Understanding the specific value of the different positions is paramount in developing not only a draft strategy but also in assessing trades and waiver wire pickups.

Every league is slightly different in terms of the positions they use and the starting lineups, which are composed of those positions. Just like knowing your scoring system is incredibly important, knowing your position requirements and the number of starters you have to play each week. Most leagues force you to play two running backs weekly, others may allow you to only play one, and others could allow you to play four each week!

Running Backs

At one time, it was tough to argue with KFFL contributor James Eberspacher, who stated it best a few years ago when he wrote: "Running backs are the Holy Grail of fantasy football."

In recent years, the evolution of the game has pushed running backs down the importance scale once you get past a few elite players at the position.

Running backs still have a large role in fantasy success, though it has become easier to find value in later rounds. Consider that running backs are able to score touchdowns by rushing, receiving and sometimes even passing. They can add fantasy points by accumulating yardage on the ground and through the air. Basically, they are more likely to accumulate almost any kind of fantasy-worthy stat except kicking and defensive stats. They tend to give the most opportunities to accumulate fantasy points for you.

Last, but not least, consider that stud running backs are scarce. Most of the 32 teams in the NFL use a running back-by-committee system. Having the "starter" on your team is not always enough. It is not out of the question by any means to use two of the first three picks in your draft on running backs, but that trend is going away with wide receivers stepping up their production.

Quarterbacks

Contrary to what some people might believe, quarterbacks are not as important in fantasy football as you might think beforehand. Unless your team's quarterback enjoys a Tom Brady 2007-like season (which is extremely rare), after the few elite quarterbacks there is really not much of a drop-off fantasy-wise between the rest of the starting fantasy quarterbacks. You most likely will only have to line up one quarterback every week, so that means there shouldn't be any shortage at the position, either.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Although most fantasy leagues have different roster spots for wideouts and tight ends, there are some leagues that do not differentiate between the two. This is easily the position with the most depth fantasy-wise. Even if you must line up three wideouts and a tight end every week, consider that each team has at least two starting wideouts and, in some cases, slot receivers on some NFL teams are nearly as productive as the wideouts. That means there is anywhere from 64 to 96 potential "starting" receivers in the NFL.

It isn't easy, however, to find a wideout or tight end that can consistently put up huge numbers week in and week out, since there is only a small group of elite receivers. For the most part, even the perceived "best" receivers in the NFL will have their highs and lows from a fantasy standpoint.

If your fantasy league has separate roster spot for tight ends, an elite tight end could do wonders for you. Until recently, fantasy owners didn't have a lot to work with at the tight end position in terms of high-quality options. Often, fantasy players simply had just two or three options to look at early. However, the depth among the high-end options at tight end has continued to grow in recent years, so it is no longer necessary to acquire a marquee tight end in early rounds. Now, you have the flexibility of focusing on other key areas while acquiring your tight end in the early middle rounds.

Place Kickers

For the most part, the difference from the top place kickers in the NFL and the rest is not too big from a fantasy standpoint. If a high-powered offensive team scores heaps of touchdowns, it might mean that the place kicker is only scoring extra points instead of field goals.

We won't go as far as saying low-round draft picks exist so you can select kickers, because a top-scoring kicker can make the difference for your fantasy team. However, this is not a position you should be investing a high or even intermediate draft pick on.

Defense/Special Teams

Some leagues separate defense and special teams into separate categories; however, most fantasy football leagues award points for defensive and special teams statistics as a whole. This means that the production of the whole defensive unit and the whole special teams units are merged into one roster spot. Here the statistics that are compiled to award points are usually sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, defensive touchdowns, safeties and return touchdowns.

As fantasy football software continues to evolve, fantasy leagues are starting to use more scoring criteria, too. For example, points can also be awarded depending on how many points your defensive unit allowed (i.e. 10 fantasy points for a shutout, six fantasy points for nine or less, three fantasy points for 17 or less, and so on). Some leagues are also starting to work in yardage allowed as a statistical benchmark. Understanding the scoring format for your league is extremely important when it comes to valuing defenses.

There are a few very dominant defenses that score a good deal of defensive touchdowns, but sometimes these teams end up being overrated on draft day and are picked too highly. The last thing you want to be known as is that person who selected a "D" in the fifth round! Too many factors change each year with defenses that you can easily find a "sleeper" defense later in the draft or even work the waiver wire throughout the season for a defense with an ideal matchup.

"Flex" position

The "flex" position has become quite popular in recent years. A "flex" simply means you have another starting lineup spot where you can play a player from different positions. Some leagues may restrict this to another running back or wide receiver. Some out there will allow you to play an additional quarterback or tight end or any combination of the four key positions.

Having a "flex" in your lineup is important. For example, if you have the ability to start a third running back it creates even more value for an already crucial position. This requires you to put even more stock into adding a lot of talent and depth there. The ability to start a second quarterback can force you to select a better-than-average No. 2 quarterback as an option to work in weekly. It comes down to your league's scoring system in determining which position can have the most value in this spot on a weekly basis!

Individual Defensive Players

Individual defensive players (IDPs) represent one of the newer trends in fantasy football, and not all leagues support this feature. Basically, it adds roster spots for individual defensive players (usually broken down in defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs), who can accumulate fantasy points with tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles and, of course, defensive touchdowns.

If your league does include IDPs, then you should consider the scoring system to determine which positions you'll pay more attention to in the draft, among defensive players and intertwined between the offensive players as well. For example, assess if you are better off selecting players who make a lot of tackles (i.e. linebackers), players that can potentially create more turnovers, or sacks and tackles for loss. IDP leagues are a bit more hardcore and require digging a lot deeper on draft day, but it is important to remember the "big name" players are not always the best fantasy options. For example, a cornerback that teams rarely throw toward might not receive a lot of opportunities for tackles or interceptions; the same goes for defensive linemen who face lots of double teams. Look for the players that could be challenged the most by opposing offenses; there are literally tons of players who can overshadow the fantasy output of the "name players" and can be had in the lower rounds of the draft.

Tips on Draft Day

With draft day being the single most important date in fantasy football, there are some rules of thumb you should keep in mind in order to enjoy some success.

First of all, inform yourself. Know which players have retired, which players are already out for the season because of injury, which players have changed teams, which coaches favor a specific style of play, which players are on the verge of breakout years, etc. Information is power, and it's no different in fantasy football. There are several information services, either in print or on the Internet, where you can get all sorts of information. Needless to say KFFL is, by far, your best option.

Be on time for your draft. There's a lot at stake, especially in the first rounds, so show up early to make your picks. In most online leagues, there is an auto-pick feature that automatically selects players for you based on the site's player rankings. Trust us ... you do not want to get your players auto-picked for you. If you can't avoid being late on draft day, then you should at least edit the player rankings to what you want instead of using the site's rankings. You'll thank us for this one later. Or, better yet, just make sure you're available when your league is slated to draft!

Draw up a draft board (or, better yet, have KFFL's customized cheat sheets at your disposal!). For many newcomers to fantasy football, this might seem like overkill. It is definitely not. There are so many players out there, so many offseason moves and basically so many things going on, that it can get difficult to keep tabs on certain players as the draft progresses. Drawing up a draft board is not only a great way of processing information, but it's also the first step toward devising a draft day strategy. 

Have a strategy beforehand. Collecting all sorts of information is useless unless you know how to use it. Know what positions you're targeting in each round. Devising a strategy will let you figure out what to do in very specific scenarios, for example when you need to choose between two comparable players at different positions. Make a plan and see it through, but do not be afraid to change gears if the draft goes a different way. It's important to have a strategy and build around it, but it is equally important not to be married to specific players, which can put you in a downward spiral if something doesn't work out in your favor.

Don't get caught up by last year's numbers. Last year's performance is somewhat a reliable barometer on what a player can achieve in the upcoming season, but you should be mindful of the fact that after breaking any league record, the chances are pretty good that the same player won't be able to repeat the feat for a second year in a row.

Don't get caught up in positional "runs" (a group of players from the same position going quickly during a certain time period) during your draft. At some points in the draft, "runs" on players from certain positions will occur. Remember to avoid getting caught up in these as it's likely that you'll end up reaching for a player that's going higher than he should.

Handcuff players wisely and appropriately. In fantasy football terms, "handcuffing" a player means selecting the second-string player who normally subs the starter who is already on your team. This strategy is used most often with running backs; if your starter goes down or loses his job and you let the replacement slip away, you just lost your stats for a premium fantasy position. This is a good contingency plan, especially useful when the starter is injury-prone and/or an aging veteran; it's a bonus if the sub is a young player on the rise.

Keep Bye weeks in mind but don't build your entire team around it. If you end up drafting a bunch of players who share the same bye week, you could be in trouble for that particular matchup. However, if the best available running back happens to have the same Bye week as your other running back, do not let that worry you so much that you pass on him for a much lower back with a different week off. You have to be concerned about the entire season - not just one week!

Last but not least, don't get caught up being too much of a fan. Avoid loading your team with a bunch of players from the team you root for. Chances are, as a fan, you'll tend to overrate these players for fantasy football purposes, because you want them to do well. In other words, don't be a "homer!" (We're not talking about the lovable character from The Simpsons, either!)

After the draft

If you happen to suffer through a bad draft (we've all been there), don't worry, there are still some ways to right the ship. The season doesn't end on draft day; and there are a bunch of things you can do to improve your roster - trades and waiver wire pickups during the course of the year can turn an average team into one that can dominate!

Trades

Not all fantasy owners like trading, generally because they think they'll either get equal value in return, or maybe come out on the losing end. However, if you think a trade can bring some balance to your starting lineup by sacrificing some depth in order to strengthen a weaker roster position, you should go ahead and pull the trigger.

Also, don't be afraid of giving up multiple players for a stud if you can fill those positions adequately with free agents. There's no use in having a lot of players on the bench if you can bring some quality help to your starting lineup right away.

Waiver wire

Probably the best way to pick up a solid contributor after the draft is through the waiver wire. Check the free-agent pool constantly as everyone else in the league will be checking it, too. Picking up players in this manner likely is going to cost you less than a trade because you can literally choose whoever you want to drop in order to make room on your roster. Avoid rushing into nabbing one guy after just one good performance early on as there's always a chance he might be a one-hit wonder. However, also don't think you can sit by idle for several weeks and keep an eye on the player, either. Other teams desperate for help will jump on any player who appears to show signs of life early in the season!

Stay on top of your game

Don't go to sleep after your draft. Fantasy football-related information is produced every single day of the regular season and even a lot of it is produced during the offseason. If you're playing in a keeper on dynasty league, get to know how the other owners operate: who's aggressive in trading, who plays it safe and who's likely to try to pull the wool over your eyes, etc. Monitor the performance of younger players who aren't on your roster as you could stumble on a diamond in the rough. Keep an eye on depth chart movement around the NFL to see which players are earning more minutes and more touches.

Know the fine aspects of your league rules. We've already mentioned the most important differences between fantasy leagues, but there are some more subtle differences as well. Some leagues place dropped players on waivers for a few days before adding them to the free-agent pool, while others add them right away. Some leagues give the owners the right to veto trades. Some leagues tag select players as "undroppable," meaning you can't cut them. Other leagues allow trades only in the first half of the season and so on. All of these tweaks make each playing experience unique, and your best chance for success lies in understanding them to their full extent.

Conclusion

Playing fantasy football is a great way of not only sharing your hobby with other like-minded football enthusiasts but also a great way of taking your football frenzy to another level. Whatever the reasons may be for you playing fantasy football, we're sure that by following these rules and continuing your fantasy football education at our Web site you'll be racking up championships in no time, just as we have been doing for a number of years here at KFFL. Good luck!

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About Rafael Zamorano

Rafael Zamorano is an NFL columnist and editor at ESPNdeportes.com for Latin America. He has been a contributor at KFFL since 2006.

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