Rule No. 1
Your first fantasy rule to draft by is you must go running back/running back in the first two rounds. Look, it's all about depth. In a standard ESPN 10-team league, you have to play one quarterback and two wide receivers, but can play up to three running backs. The difference between the No. 1 quarterback last season (Peyton Manning) and the No. 10 (Vince Young) averaged out to just five points per game. Yet the difference between last season's No. 1 running back (LaDainian Tomlinson) and the No. 30 back (Julius Jones) was 14 points per game. It's two field goals a week versus two touchdowns. There's a lot of depth at quarterback and at wide receiver. You can get a productive one in the later rounds, but if you take a quarterback or receiver in the first two rounds, in Rounds 3 and 4 you'll find yourself saying things like "Uh, is Samkon Gado still available?" And no one wants that.
Rule No. 2
Your second fantasy rule to draft by is to not get dazzled by rookie hype anywhere except running back. Look, I get it. They're rookies. They're sexy. They're filled with upside. They're also filled with the broken dreams of many a fantasy owner. In the past six years, only three rookie receivers have had over 1,000 yards: Anquan Boldin, Michael Clayton and Marques Colston. And over that same time span, Vince Young is the only rookie to crack the top-10 among fantasy quarterbacks, and he was No. 10. For every rookie that steps up, there are a dozen examples like Mike Williams and Troy Williamson who do nothing. So go ahead, take Calvin Johnson in the eighth round. I'll take D.J. Hackett or Devery Henderson in the 11th and get the same stats.
Rule No. 3
Your third fantasy rule to draft by is you must handcuff your stud running back. By "handcuff" we mean take the backup to that player. So if Clinton Portis goes down, like he did last season, you're not worried. You just plug in Ladell Betts and ride him to glory, like many owners did in 2006. It seems obvious, but I can't tell you how many drafts I've been in where the L.T. owner doesn't take Michael Turner. And you know what? If you have to go a round early to make sure you get him, so what? Instead of grabbing another wide receiver you'll just end up cutting, protect your biggest investment, and then you can spend the season worry free.
Rule No. 4
Your fourth fantasy rule to draft by is to wait on wide receivers, because statistically speaking, they're a dime a dozen. Look, you score in fantasy football the same way you score in real football by touching the ball. And the only players guaranteed to touch the ball multiple times per game are running backs and quarterbacks. Receivers are very inconsistent. Consider Chad Johnson, one of the best, who had 11 weeks last season with 10 or fewer fantasy points. Or how about this: It varies a little by scoring system, but last year, the 20th-best receiver, Terry Glenn, had 88 points. The 50th-best receiver, Santonio Holmes, had 51. That's 37 points over the course of a season, or fewer than three points a game. Think about that. The difference between No. 20 and No. 50 is less than three points a game. From a fantasy standpoint, they're basically all the same.
Rule No. 5
Your fifth fantasy rule to draft by is to remember that we play with numbers, not names. Donald Driver's not nearly as big a name as others, but did you know that over the past three years, only Torry Holt and Chad Johnson have more receiving yards than him? Did you know that last season, only one wide receiver had more receptions than Detroit's Mike Furrey? And the No. 1 guy was another player without a big name, Andre Johnson of the Texans. I could do this all day. Here's another one: Despite the fact that Betts started only eight games last season, there were only seven running backs with more total yards from scrimmage. Lee Evans of the Buffalo Bills had more receiving yards and only two fewer touchdowns than Holt. Names are sexy, but we play with stats. Know your stats.
Rule No. 6
Your sixth rule to draft by is to not draft a kicker until the last round. Every year, I think this is the most obvious thing in the universe. And then every year, I see things like Adam Vinatieri having an average draft position of 87th. And so I am back again, to continue my mission. As long as there is one person out there who drafts a kicker before the last round, my work on this Earth is not done. Look, first off, you can't predict kickers. The best fantasy kicker last season, Robbie Gould, was undrafted in almost every league. But even if you knew who the No. 1 kicker would be, it doesn't matter. The difference between Gould's 155 fantasy points last season and the 122 points that No. 12 kicker John Carney put up is just 33 points. That's barely two points a game over the course of a season. You really want to waste a valuable draft pick on something you can't predict and whose upside is, at best, a point or two a game? What? Under penalty of my coming to your house, grabbing you by the shirt and yelling at you, do not take a kicker before the last round.
Rule No. 7
Your seventh fantasy rule to draft by is that you can't win your league in the first few rounds, but you can lose it. Early on, the goal is to minimize risk. So why are people taking Steve Smith and Chad Johnson ahead of Marvin Harrison? It's not just that Marvin and I both went to Syracuse. Harrison has had at least 10 touchdowns in eight straight seasons. Johnson has done it only once and never with Carson Palmer. Also, Smith has had 10 or more touchdowns in only one season (2005). And he's got some quarterback issues this season, don't you think? Look, they're all great players, but in the early rounds, I want safe, I want consistent, I want money in the bank. That's Harrison, the No. 1 wide receiver who sometimes isn't even the first receiver drafted from his team. Go Syracuse.
Rule No. 8
Your eighth fantasy rule to draft by is not to be scared by the running back by committee. Normally we hate these, but last year there were a number of shared situations where both backs were fantasy producers. Bush and McAllister, Addai and Rhodes and most effectively, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. This year, I expect a lot of teams to do what Jacksonville did. Take pressure off a young quarterback by running the ball a lot, using two backs to keep it fresh. Both Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts should see a lot of time, helping Jason Campbell. Same for Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson, DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, and Jerious Norwood and Warrick Dunn. Don't ignore a player just because he is in a time-share. In many of the cases, both running backs will be, as I like to say, filled with fantasy goodness.
Rule No. 9
Your ninth rule to draft by is to identify a sleeper is by seeing how they ended the previous season. I like to look at the last four games. Check Vincent Jackson of the Chargers. Over his last four games in 2006, he had three touchdowns and more yards than Anquan Boldin; D.J. Hackett of Seattle had the same yards and one more touchdown than Reggie Wayne; Santonio Holmes was eighth in the NFL in receiving yards over the last four games last year. By the way, Ronald Curry of the Raiders was fifth. Those four guys -- Jackson, Hackett, Holmes and Curry -- plus Mark Clayton of the Ravens all had more receiving yards over the last four games than guys like Torry Holt, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith and Javon Walker. I like all five players as sleepers this year. So as you are doing draft prep and trying to identify sleepers, take a look at the last four games. By the way, over the last four games, only three quarterbacks had more touchdown passes than Jay Cutler.
Rule No. 10
Your tenth rule to draft by is concentrate on facts and ignore the myths. People love to talk about contract years, but listen to this list of names: Chris Simms, Chris Brown from Tennessee, Dominic Rhodes, Drew Bennett, Jason Witten, Kevin Curtis, Reche Caldwell. All of them were in a contract year last year and none of them were the bust-out sleeper many predicted. Here's another list: Reggie Williams, Ernest Wilford and Michael Clayton. All of them were third-year wide receivers last year. That's another myth and my buddy Tristan Cockroft exposes it very well in our ESPN.com Draft Kit. Feel free to believe the myths, just know that you're wrong.
Rule No. 11
Your 11th rule to draft by is to look closely at the schedule. I'm not really worried about bye weeks. It's one week, if you have to take it on the chin, so what? But if fantasy football is all about matchups -- and it is -- and the whole point of this thing is to win -- and it is -- then why wouldn't you look at who a player faces in Weeks 14, 15 and 16 before drafting them?
Towards the end of the first round, Rudi Johnson looks even better when you realize he gets San Francisco and Cleveland in Weeks 15 and 16. And bump Brandon Jacobs up the sleeper list a bit. The Giants face very favorable run defenses in Philadelphia, Washington and Buffalo in their final three games. And hey, he's a fantasy hall of famer, no doubt, but Maurice Jones-Drew has his work cut out for him in Weeks 14 and 15 (versus Carolina and at Pittsburgh). Before drafting, make sure you know who your guys are playing at the most important time of the year.
Rule No. 12
Rule No. 12 to draft by is to know the tendencies of a head coach. Lots of people are high on Philip Rivers this year, but while I like his skills, Norv Turner has never had a top-10 fantasy quarterback. Rivers will pass for more yards, but in the red zone, Norv likes to run. And that was before he got LaDainian Tomlinson. By the way, the loss of Norv in San Francisco hurts Frank Gore's value and drops him out of my top 3. Cam Cameron, the new guy in Miami, likes to involve his running back in the passing game, so Ronnie Brown's value goes up in league where you get points for receptions. Whether it's Mike Martz back in Detroit -- only one team attempted more passes last year than the Lions -- or Ken Whisenhunt saying he wants to focus more on the run in Arizona, knowing how coaches will use their real-life players will help you decide where to draft them.
Rule No. 13
Rule No. 13 to draft by is to look at all stats, not just the obvious ones. Like Red Zone targets. Knowing who the team is throwing to inside the 20 can help identify sleepers like Jerricho Cotchery, who was targeted over 20 percent of the time, which was tops on the Jets. Are you looking for another reason to like DeAngelo Williams this year? DeShaun Foster converted only 2 of 10 runs from inside the 3-yard line last year for touchdowns. If your league gives negative points for fumbles, it's worth noting that no running back last year fumbled more than Frank Gore. Fantasy football is all about stats and it's important you know to look at red zone targets, touches, all the nerdy ones -- you heard me -- not just the obvious ones. Because a little research will go a long way.
Rule No. 14
The 14th rule to draft by is when it comes to quarterback this year, there's the top 6 and everyone else. Hopefully, you manage to grab one of Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Marc Bulger or Donovan McNabb. Those six are a cut above everyone else. If you don't get one of those six, I want you to wait until very late to draft a QB, because from a fantasy perspective, they are all the same. Based on projected points in a standard ESPN league, the difference between guys like Matt Hasslebeck, Philip Rivers, Vince Young, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Matt Leinart and Ben Roethlisberger is less than three points a game. There are some I like more than others, but statistically speaking, they're the same player and you don't need to waste an early pick. Load up on RB and WR and grab whoever is left in the 9th round. By the way, if you're looking for a guy that's going outside the top 6 but could be a top-5 quarterback before all is said and done, check out Jon Kitna. You heard me. I said Jon Kitna. Look, they've got no running game, they'll be behind every game, he's got three very good wide receivers and by the way, last year only one team attempted more passes than the Detroit Lions. The bottom line is try to grab one of the top 6 quarterbacks in the 3rd or 4th round, but if you don't, just wait until the 9th or 10th round because they are all the same. And go Jon Kitna.
Rule No. 15
Rule No. 15 is to concentrate more on the skills of players than actual roles. People get hung up on the terms starter, No. 3 wide receiver and change-of-pace back. And none of that matters in fantasy. What does matter is production and talented players find a way to produce. Last year, Fred Taylor was the starter for the Jaguars. But Maurice Jones-Drew had more skills and the better fantasy season. Clinton Portis is the starter, but his yards per carry average last year was much lower than Ladell Betts' in about the same amount of carries. Reggie Wayne might be a No. 2 wide receiver, but over the past three years, only four wideouts have more receiving yards. Julius Jones is going in the 8th round and is the "backup" to Marion Barber, but people forget he had 1,200 total yards last year. Everyone is talking about Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, but Mike Furrey had the second-most receptions in the NFL last year. Ignore what role a player has and concentrate on skills. Because, whether a guy is on the field for the first play or not doesn't matter in fantasy, production does.