Nine rules for drafting in fantasy football

Dec 25, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball during the second quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

If you're new to the world of fantasy football, welcome!

Here's what I can promise you: Fantasy football will make your Sundays a better experience throughout the regular season. Whether you root for a particular team or not, the allure of fantasy football stems in part from giving you a vested interest in the result of a game that you might otherwise watch only because it happens to be on.

However, there's so much more than that. Playing fantasy football is a hobby that can be shared among family members, peers and strangers alike. It's a chance to reconnect -- or stay connected -- to people from your past. As a proud graduate of Wesleyan University, I can tell you that there is hardly an occasion when the league that I play in with my closest college friends does not come up in conversation.

Sure, fantasy football is a competition, but it's also an exercise in strategy, roster management, foresight and decision-making, and above all else, it's fun. Enjoy it!

For those who might be unfamiliar with the draft process -- or for those simply looking to hone their skills further -- here are my nine rules of drafting. If you're an experienced fantasy football player, much of this information is well known to you, but it might not hurt to take a quick refresher course. Make sure you check out all of our other great ESPN fantasy content, including rankings, features and much more.

1. Draft based on value

There's a temptation while you're in the ESPN draft platform to try to fill your starting lineup first. I get it. It's natural. Those players are going to carry your team, right? Well, sort of. You see, there's a different level of value in each starter. On average, a starting running back whom you can rely upon each and every week is the most valuable entity in fantasy football. Hello, Le'Veon Bell. After that come wide receivers of the same ilk. Quarterbacks and tight ends are next, followed by defenses and kickers.

There are fewer elite-level running backs and wide receivers on the board at any time than there are quarterbacks. Exactly 14 running backs and 18 wide receivers scored more than 200 points last season. Reliable players at those positions are fleeting. Even if it means drafting four straight running backs to start your draft, always be mindful of value. The team you end up with on draft day is not the team you will rely upon all season, as trades and pickups off the waiver wire will be weekly endeavors.

Value, value, value early.

2. Be patient with quarterbacks

This rule ties into the first one, as we've already highlighted how important running backs and wide receivers are, based on the dearth of consistently reliable options. The opposite holds true for quarterbacks. There are plenty to go around. Consider that 52.4 percent of weekly top-10 quarterback performances last season came from quarterbacks who weren't drafted in the majority of leagues. Be it surprise standouts (think Alex Smith) or perpetually overlooked quarterbacks (Philip Rivers, who has thrown for 4,200-plus yards and 28-plus touchdowns in five straight seasons), there is almost always late-round value.

In 2017, the difference between the sixth-best quarterback for the season and the 18th-best signal-caller was a mere three points per game. Yes, that's a gap, but it's not a massive one. The No. 6 quarterback drafted went, on average, 74 slots ahead of the No. 18 quarterback drafted. That's a massive gulf.

Patience pays off.

3. Use your final picks on a defense and a kicker

When it comes to predictability, defenses are hard to peg. Sure, we know which defenses will likely be very good this year, but pinpointing exactly which one will be the best for fantasy is difficult. Over the past four years, the top-scoring fantasy defense was drafted 14th, 14th, sixth and 16th among defenses. Rather than reaching a few rounds earlier because you want to secure a "no-brainer" defense, just wait. Not only is it hard to estimate which teams will be truly dominant, but there are also plenty of streaming options for in-season management.

As for kickers, there are more than enough quality options to wait until your final rounds. Draft a kicker who plays for an offense you have confidence in. But remember, even kickers surprise. Greg Zuerlein, who topped all kickers in 2017 despite missing two games, wasn't drafted in 99.3 percent of leagues last season. Even when you peg the top kicker correctly -- as was the case when Stephen Gostkowski was drafted first among kickers and finished tops in scoring in 2013, 2014 and 2015 -- the return isn't significant. The second-best kicker in each of those seasons was within 10 points of Gostkowski, who was being drafted -- on average -- ahead of the likes of Le'Veon Bell and Philip Rivers in 2013, DeAndre Hopkins and Tony Romo in 2014 and Carson Palmer and Devonta Freeman in 2015.

In my book, defenses should be reserved for the final three rounds, with kickers going last overall.

4. In the late rounds, roll some dice

Early on, you'll want to stock your roster with "sure things" at wide receiver and running back (or perhaps an elite tight end) as best you can, saving some later-round picks for your quarterback, kicker and defense. But be prepared to roll the dice late and bet on players with talent, even if they have mitigating circumstances.

Whether it's because these guys are not currently slated to be starters, because they don't have extensive track records of production or because they might be in the very early stages of their careers, there are players every year who bust out of nowhere and become fantasy factors. You can afford to swing for the fences because the reality is that the roster you draft is nowhere near what the roster you'll finish the season with will be.

Examples of late-round fliers I like include Colts RB Nyheim Hines and WR Deon Cain, Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin, Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki and Seahawks RB Chris Carson.

5. Stacking

Is it fine for me to draft multiple players from the same team? Yes, it is. I get the concern, though. People sometimes wonder if they're increasing the risk by having players from the same offense on their roster, with the logic being that if the offense performs poorly in a given week, their team is more likely to lose.

Don't overthink this one too much. Good receivers are often good in part because of good quarterbacks. The brilliance of DeAndre Hopkins despite poor quarterback play once Deshaun Watson got hurt is really remarkable and a rare exception. Of the top 20 pass-catchers in 2017 (WR and TE only), nine of them played with a top-10 quarterback. Having multiple Saints, Packers, Patriots or Steelers in your lineup is not a bad thing, as long as you keep one crucial factor in mind.

6. Be mindful of bye weeks

Right next to each player's name in the ESPN draft interface is a little number indicating his team's bye week. Should you adjust your draft strategy substantially based on bye weeks? No, but that said, it's not a bad idea to keep those bye weeks in mind when you're lining up your top picks, meaning the players you expect to roster and rely upon all season.

Make a mental note of when these gaps in your lineup will occur when drafting your backups. Also, file away for the regular season that it isn't bad business to think about potential waiver wire pickups a week early in order to fill those bye-week slots before the pickings get too slim.

7. Understand when to handcuff

For those unfamiliar with the term, when you "handcuff a player" on your roster, it means you add his direct/projected backup on his NFL team, so as to protect yourself in the event that your starter gets hurt. For example, if you used your first-round pick on Todd Gurley II, you'd later invest in Malcolm Brown, one of his backups in Los Angeles. Now, do you have to handcuff your very best players? No, you don't. Be judicious, as a handcuff does not provide any certain value.

Let's say you paired Gurley and Brown last season. In that case, you got, well, virtually zero utility from Brown, as Gurley dominated for 15 games, sitting out Week 17 with the Rams locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC. If you rostered Brown all season, he collected dust for you on the bench, though for those who made it to their league championships, Brown did produce nine points in Week 17.

Handcuffed running backs sometimes don't see any time and in most cases don't produce at the same level as the starter. So when does it make sense to draft them? One instance would be in the event that the top-rated player has an injury or other concern at the time of the draft. (If you are at all concerned about Dalvin Cook's knee coming off of an ACL tear, you can take Latavius Murray). Another case is if you think the backup carries so much upside that he eventually will get more playing time. This logic might apply if you opt to draft D'Onta Foreman with the expectation that, in time, he will supplant Lamar Miller.

The short version on handcuffs: sometimes but not always.

8. Where to draft backups

In standard leagues, QB and TE are positions that have just one slot to be utilized each week, as there are only a select few tight ends productive enough to garner flex consideration. This leads many to wonder if drafting a backup is superfluous. As we highlighted earlier, there is so much depth at quarterback, with 15 quarterbacks logging more than 224 points, which comes out to 14 points per game if they played in all 16 contests.

If you wind up with a top-tier quarterback, one who lands in the consensus top-five rankings at the position, there's really no need to select a backup. The reality is that if you have him on your roster, you're going to start Aaron Rodgers every single week he plays. In the event that you need to add a quarterback either just for the bye week or as an injury replacement, there's depth aplenty on the waiver wire. If you waited until the double-digit rounds for a quarterback and found yourself with a signal-caller ranked outside of the top 10, I have no issue with doubling up, particularly if your second quarterback is an upside play such as Patrick Mahomes.

As for tight ends, my feeling is that you should not draft a second tight end. There aren't nearly as many upside plays at tight end as there are at quarterback. If your starter at tight end struggles, you're almost always going to be able to add a sufficient option from the waiver wire when the time comes for you to make the move.

9. As best you can, know the room

For those drafting for the first time, this rule will be tough for obvious reasons. For those who are drafting with a few seasons under their belts -- particularly with the same group -- take note. As much as you can, try to get a feel for how others operate during the draft. Some people are willing to be patient on quarterbacks, some are intent on adding wide receivers early, some are willing to roll the dice on injury-concern players, some have a favorite NFL team from which they like to pick. There are plenty of examples of trends such as these that you can learn over time and, hopefully, use to your advantage. Although this is more of a rule to keep in mind as you grow more experienced in the fantasy realm, the upshot is to pay attention to who is picking whom, even when you're not the one on the clock.