We weren't sure.
Everyone read the same news reports, the same Mort and Adam tweets, saw the same video of large men wearing suits walking into buildings. And people worried. There were tense negotiations, there were sighs of exasperation, there were angry declarations.
But after marathon discussions, tons of Chinese take-out and one awkward night in a hot tub with DeMaurice Smith, I'm thrilled that we will, in fact, have a 13th annual edition of the Draft Day Manifesto.
I wasn't sure I wanted to write it again this year, as I try to change a lot of things every year, but some of it has been printed, well, at least 12 times before. My editor demanded it, however, locking me out of my office until I agreed. I responded by organizing unofficial writing sessions with fantasy experts at local high school newspapers.
We were at loggerheads, as ESPN went about its business of putting out a draft kit and I spent a lot of time looking for an old-person dictionary to figure out what loggerheads meant.
But then, as I passed Smith the loofa one night, he said something that really made sense. "Who are you? You're creeping my wife out. Get out before I kick your ass, weirdo."
DeMaurice was right, of course. It was weird. Summer means preparing for the upcoming NFL season. It means prepping for your fantasy football draft. It means the Manifesto, dammit.
And so, a deal was brokered that will guarantee a Manifesto; I agreed to write it, and my editor agreed not to have me fired. A win-win for everyone. So what's up, party people? We're back.
There are some new twists, strategies and trends included, and we will get into all that, and let's make sure that those who are unfamiliar with my writing know that I was joking above. Obviously, I know what loggerheads means.
You see -- or, if you have one of those text-to-voice deals, you hear -- the Manifesto, at its core, is about giving you a blueprint for your draft day. A structure. A refresher/brush-up/get-back-into-the-swing-of-things for those who play or an introduction and primer for those who are deciding to finally take the plunge and try this fantasy thing that everyone's always talking about.
They say winning starts on draft day, but they lie. Winning starts way before, when you are prepping for draft day. So let's get you ready. We're gonna be here for a while, so sit back, put your feet up and start with one basic understanding. Underline it, print it out, read it aloud and make it your ringtone: At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.
Everything leads back to that.
I'm gonna repeat it because it's that important and I get paid by the word.
At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win.
Before you make any decision -- whom to draft, trade, start and sit -- make sure you are following that basic principle: How risky is this move, and does it give me the best chance to win?
Anyone who says they knew at this time last year that Brandon Lloyd would have more fantasy points than Andre Johnson, that Ryan Fitzpatrick would be better than Donovan McNabb and that Danny Woodhead would be significantly better than his training camp teammate Shonn Greene is a liar, and a bad one at that.
I can't predict the future. Don't claim to. Neither can you or anyone else.
That's the first rule of drafting.
All we can do is put ourselves in the best possible position to win, then hope for the best. There are going to be things that surprise you along the way. Like, I've just been informed that I don't, in fact, get paid by the word. And DeMaurice Smith has gotten a restraining order against me. Hmm. Tough 30 seconds there.
But whatever. If I got concerned with every person that sought a restraining order on me I'd never get anything done. So, I can't focus on that. Here's what I want all of us to focus on and focus on this only: Everything we do from this point forward -- from draft day to the end of the season -- is entirely about putting ourselves in the best position for success. Giving ourselves the best odds to win. That simple.
Deciding on a strategy
So, I've already lied to you. First, I didn't really organize unofficial writing sessions at local high schools, I actually just played a lot of "Words with Friends." And second, the previous paragraph is missing something crucial that gets lost a lot, especially in pre-draft strategy articles and discussion. Here's how that key sentence should read:
Everything we do from this point forward -- from draft day to the end of the season -- is entirely about putting ourselves in the best position for success every single week. Giving ourselves the best odds to win each week. That simple.
We hear talk about total points and overall seasons a lot, but this is a weekly game that we play. Every week we pick up new players, we set our lineup, we try to construct our team to win that week, while keeping an eye on the rest of the season and the playoffs.
So this article is ultimately about constructing a team on draft day that gives you the best foundation and odds to win every week.
Because it's a magic number and everything, we have three overarching themes we'll discuss in constructing your team and then go from there. Not surprisingly, they are (1) quarterback, (2) running back/wide receiver and (3) everything else.
1. Vick In A Box
You need a quarterback. A good one. And ideally, his name is Michael Vick.
This year, there are seven elite quarterbacks. In addition to Vick, it's Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo.
That's it. We could see Matt Schaub get into that category but with the emergence of Arian Foster and expected improvement in the Texans' defense, I'm not convinced he gets there. He was brutal in the first half of last season. If you read me last year, you know I love Josh Freeman and, certainly, Ben Roethlisberger will be solid. With Josh McDaniels calling plays, I could easily see Sam Bradford put up numbers like Kyle Orton did early last season, and I have Matthew Stafford (if he stays healthy) high on my sleeper list. And we know that Eli Manning and Matt Ryan, in that order, will be decent if unspectacular.
But for rock-solid, above-average production, it's those seven. You could say Romo is a bit of a risk and shouldn't even be in there and it'd be hard to argue with you, but I'm a Romo believer this year. So maybe it's just six guys. We'll get into why you want one of them in a bit, but first, let's talk about Michael Vick.
Those of you with quivering Jell-O for a backbone, with a profound lack of fantasy cojones, that would rather stand by the punch bowl of life instead of asking the cute stranger to dance, this is not the strategy for you. And that's OK. You're not alone.
Before I set to writing this article, I posted the following simple question on my Facebook page: Should Michael Vick be the No. 1 pick in fantasy?
A whopping 84.6 percent of you said "No." Or, to put it another way, only 15.4 percent of you got it right.
Here's my argument as to why Vick is not only worth a first-round pick, and not only should be the No. 1 quarterback taken, but should be the No. 1 pick overall. It's actually very simple.
If Michael Vick is as good as he was last season and stays healthy all year, you win your league. Period. And he's the only guy you can say that about.
Those of you who just screamed "What about Arian Foster?" at the screen should calm down. I can't hear you and we'll get to him in a bit. But first, let's talk about the numbers: Vick finished with 300 fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring, second overall (Foster had 313) and was the highest-scoring fantasy quarterback. Rodgers finished second among quarterbacks with 292 points.
OK, so it was a very good year. But not even the best one, right, Arian Foster supporters?
Wrong. Foster played all 16 games and Vick played only (for all intents and purposes) 11. You can't look at season totals because we don't play with season totals. We play week-to-week. And when you look week-to-week, Vick blows everyone out of the water.
In the 11 games he finished (more on that in a second), Vick averaged 27 points.
Rodgers played 14 games in which he finished the game and averaged 20 points per game.
That's a seven-point difference. But just for kicks, let's try it with every game they played. Here's their point-per-game averages:
Vick: 300 points in 12 games for 25 points per game.
Rodgers: 292 points in 15 games for 19.5 points per game.
It's still a five-points-per-game difference between Vick and the guy everyone else is telling you to take first among quarterbacks. As for the rest of the field? I took the top 10 quarterbacks after Vick last year (so numbers 2-11) on a points-per-game basis. Again, we're looking at winning week-to-week, so the per-game averages are more important to us than the season totals. The average weekly points scored for those 10 quarterbacks was 16.8. Vick was 8.2 points-per-game better than the average starting quarterback last year. Eight points is a lot.
I decided to do that for all the positions, taking the top points-per-game scorers at each position and comparing that player to the average of the next 10 guys at that position.
Points per game difference between top scorer and next 10 at position
As you can plainly see, Vick was significantly better at his position, compared to the next 10 best guys, than the best player at any other position. Interesting that Gates was No. 2, huh? We'll get to him in a little while, but let's stop with fantasy points and just talk stats for a second.
You think you know how good Vick was last season, right? Well, I'm not convinced that you do. This is super-simplistic math, but it doesn't make it any less true. If you take what Vick did last year in the 11 games he finished and then extrapolated it to 16 games, those numbers would be 4,318 passing yards and 31 passing touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Those numbers last season would have put him fifth in total passing yards and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns. Those numbers would have equaled approximately 278 fantasy points ... or one point less than Peyton Manning scored last season.
And that's before Vick's run for even one yard.
His rushing numbers work out to 959 yards and 13 touchdowns with one lost fumble, good for approximately 171 points, which would have made Vick the 16th-best fantasy running back last season.
So again, this is all very loosey-goosey math, but just to get a sense of the potential we're talking about, extrapolated over a 16-game schedule last season, Michael Vick would have scored 449 points.
You heard me. Four. Four. Nine. Think Foster had a good season last year? Because his 313 points were peanuts compared to that. It was 136 points short, to be exact. Or, to put another way, two points more than Gates last season. Think about it. The difference between a 16-game Vick last season and No. 2 Arian Foster was Antonio Gates.
The difference between a 16-game Vick last year and the No. 3 player, Rodgers (292 points) is 157 points. Last season, Cedric Benson scored 158 points. That's what we're talking about with Vick; Aaron Rodgers and Cedric Benson rolled into one.
Look, you can poke all sorts of holes in this argument, and I acknowledge that. Vick is not without his flaws. You could draft a running back or wide receiver in the first round and wait a round or two and still get a very good (and "safer") quarterback than Michael Vick. But there are no guarantees; Tom Brady was as rock solid as they come until Bernard Pollard rolled over on his leg, and his "season for the ages" was worth only 386 points. (Four-four-nine!) And in the end, there is not one other quarterback, nay, player out there that has the potential that Vick has this fall to put together the best fantasy season ever.
Vick is certainly more injury prone than others, but Rodgers left one game early and missed another in the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-17), finishing with 1, 0, 34 and 13 points. Only one elite performance when you really needed him.
I asked the great Mike Polikoff, who oversees our league manager product, to poll the results from last season. Of all the teams that made the championship game last year in our standard 10 team leagues, I wondered what player showed up the most? Here's the top 30:
Players appearing on championship rosters, 2010 fantasy season
We're gonna come back to this list a few times, but a couple of things jump out at me: Not just that Vick was No. 1 by far, but that only one other quarterback made it: Philip Rivers, at No. 28. The list is comprised of nine running backs, nine wide receivers, four tight ends, four defenses, two kickers and two quarterbacks.
Now this list is skewed, of course, by late-season heroics and key waiver-wire pickups. I'm not suggesting you need to build your draft strategy around Deion Branch and the Falcons' D/ST. And you can certainly argue part of what pushed Vick to the top of this list is that he cost nothing to acquire. He was a late-round pick or free-agent pickup in almost every league, so even getting so-so production from your draft added to what Vick did as a free agent catapulted these teams to the finals.
Fair enough, we'll get to draft value in a second. But the point I want to drive home here is there's only two quarterbacks on this list and Vick, in just 12 games, was the only player in the league to be on more than one of every five teams that played for the big prize.
We always say you can't win your league in the first round but you could lose it. Well, this year, you could actually win it in the first round too. In fact, I'll argue that even if you get, say, 12 games out of Vick and five games with a waiver wire quarterback, you'll be in better shape than with any other quarterback (whom you'll have to replace for one bye week anyway). Think about guys such as Fitzpatrick, Orton, Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill, Bradford, Tim Tebow late, even Josh Freeman early in the year. All were available on waiver wires and gave you solid production when started in favorable matchups.
Could Vick fall short of last year? Absolutely and for many reasons. But with everything in place from the get-go, he could also do it again.
Or, dare to dream, be even better.
If You Don't Get Vick
You want one of those other six guys I just mentioned. Here's why, and it goes back to what we said at the start: Putting yourself in the best position to win.
It's because of the consistency of those quarterbacks. I looked at the top 10 drafted quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers over the past three years. I then looked at the top 10 scorers for each position in each of the past three years. I won't chart you to death here, because what I found should not shock you.
Last season, only five of the top 10 drafted running backs finished as a top-10 running back. In 2009, it again was five out of 10. And in 2008, it was just four of 10. Only one running back makes all six lists (drafted top 10, finished top 10): Adrian Peterson (Chris Johnson has made the list for the past two years).
For wide receivers, it was similar numbers: In 2010 and 2009, only five of the top-10 wide receivers drafted finished as a top-10 wide receiver. In 2008, it was just four. And only one guy appears on all six lists (drafted top 10, finished top 10): Andre Johnson. (Though Roddy White has been on the list the past two years, as has Reggie Wayne. Sigh.)
We're not talking about first round, we're talking about the first 10 guys drafted, no matter what round they went in. This is probably going into the fourth and fifth round for some of these wideouts.
And over three years and 60 picks (with some overlap of players), only three guys make every list. Three. AP, CJ2K, Andre.
But quarterbacks? Much more consistent, at least compared to the guys they're throwing and handing off to.
In 2010, six of the top 10 quarterbacks finished in the top 10 of quarterback scoring. (And it would have been seven of 10 if any of you had listened to me about Jay Cutler. Serves you all right.)
In 2009, it was seven of 10 (and McNabb, drafted eighth among QBs that year, finished 11th.)
2008 was a really weird year, with Brady's injury (and Romo missing three games) plus guys such as Derek Anderson being drafted in the top 10. It was also Rodgers' first year as a starter and Kurt Warner rising from the dead in Arizona.
And yet, there were still four top-10 drafted guys that made the top 10 scorers, five if you want to count Cassel (filling in for Brady) and Romo finished 12th in scoring despite missing three games.
More importantly, if you count "NE QB" as one person, five quarterbacks make all three lists (Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and "NE QB"). On a per-game basis, Romo would make it as well. And guess what? Add Michael Vick and that's our seven.
It's what we talked about in the beginning. These quarterbacks put you in a much better position to win. They are the most consistent, they have a much better chance of returning your investment.
Unless you draft Vick, you should need only one quarterback on your roster. (With Vick's injury concerns, I'd draft a guy like Bradford or Stafford, two guys I love this year, as a late-round sleeper. And yes, I know Stafford is also an injury risk. Still love him. Point is, a Vick owner should have someone else, but no need to draft that backup before you have a starting lineup, excluding defense and kicker, of course.
2. Running Backs and Wide Receivers, Wide Receivers and Running Backs
Another interesting nugget from Katherine Sharp of the crack ESPN Stats & Information team: Last season, 21 teams had at least two running backs with 100-plus touches (rushes + receptions).
Lotta guys touching the rock. More guys touching the ball, more chances for fantasy goodness.
Among the many things I am known for (What's your favorite? Don't say balding!) is my longtime baseball saying of "Don't Pay for Saves!" For those of who don't play fantasy baseball, the idea behind that credo is that saves are just one category. And often, what you were paying for, by using a high draft pick or being the top bidder for a closer, was opportunity. The difference between Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters this year is not skills as much as it is that Kimbrel gets the call in the ninth inning and Venters usually does not. But there is a lot of turnover in that position (although less this year than normal), so in a 10-team mixed league, you have chances to find saves cheaply elsewhere and you can use your draft resources (high draft picks or auction money) to build in other areas.
I feel that way with running backs and wide receivers. Michael Vick last year was a crazy anomaly. And thanks to injuries to Romo and Big Ben's suspension, we saw Josh Freeman sneak in the top 10. But generally speaking, it's rare for a quarterback to come out of nowhere and be a stud. Yes, there is the occasional Kurt Warner, or Brett Favre's first year in Minnesota, not to mention guys who get on a hot streak for a few games, like Fitzpatrick and Tebow did last year or, like Tyler Thigpen in Kansas City a few seasons ago.
But for the most part, it is rare for a quarterback to come out of nowhere and be consistently starter worthy (a top-10 quarterback). But for running backs and wide receivers?
Well, I looked at the top 20 fantasy scorers at both running back and wide receiver for the past three years. More importantly, how many of those top 20 (starters at both positions in a standard 10-team league) were actually not drafted in the top 20? In other words, how many breakout guys were there?
2008: Eight of top 20 running backs were not in the top 20 running backs by average draft position. Nine of top 20 overall wide receivers were not in the top 20 receivers by average draft position.
2009: Nine of top 20 running backs were not in the top 20 running backs by average draft position. Seven of top 20 overall wide receivers were not in the top 20 receivers by average draft position.
2010: Eight of top 20 running backs were not in the top 20 running backs by average draft position. Ten of top 20 overall wide receivers were not in the top 20 receivers by average draft position.
To be exact, over the past three seasons, 43 percent of "starting" running backs and wide receivers have come by their roles despite not being drafted as such.
Look, I had Arian Foster as a big-time sleeper even before Ben Tate got injured (I liked him in June! Check the archives!) but not even in my wildest dreams did I think he'd do what he did last year. There are lots of guys like that. OK, not exactly like that, but guys such as Peyton Hillis or Stevie Johnson who, for one reason or another, will outperform their draft day value.
The problem, of course, is we don't know who those guys will be. We have some sleeper ideas, of course, but the only thing we know for sure is that guys will emerge, whoever they might be. Which is why I want your roster to ultimately look like this:
One quarterback (two if you have Vick), one tight end, one defense and one kicker ... and the rest are all running backs and wide receivers. Once again, it's about giving yourself the best odds at success. In lieu of knowing who'll break out, we'll grab as many potential guys as possible. Only one or two need to hit.
So, instead of "Don't Pay for Saves," it's "Quantity over Quality," which could easily be a slogan for my college years. The more running backs and wideouts you've got, the better chance you have to hit pay dirt.
It also gives you the most flexibility during the year. Remember, this is about constructing a team that can win every week. We don't play a year-long game. We (ideally) play 17 weekly games. If you have a stud quarterback, you're starting him. Period. Kickers are kickers and we'll talk defense and tight ends in a bit, but basically, you're starting the one you have and that's it. And that leaves 12 (or 11 on a team with Vick) wideouts and runners for five starting roles. Between matchups, performance and your team's depth, you should be able to maximize that every week. Or at least give yourself the best odds of doing so.
Picking the right players in the right rounds
So we're loading up on running backs and wide receivers, but what about at the top of the draft? We know we want an elite quarterback (hopefully Vick) in the first four rounds, but what about the other rounds?
Let's start with the wide receivers. My feeling is that touchdowns are generally impossible to predict. Don't hand me red-zone targets, either. Danny Amendola was tied for the NFL lead in that category last year and had three whole scores. Last year, Lance Moore had more touchdowns than Larry Fitzgerald or Reggie Wayne. Tampa Bay rookie Mike Williams had more than consensus No. 1 Andre Johnson, and Joel Dreesen had the same as Chad Ochocinco.
Instead of touchdowns, I like to judge consistent players based on yardage.
Do you know how many wide receivers had five or more 100-yard games last year? I mean, five is not that many, right? Basically once every three games, right?
The answer is seven. Thirty-two teams, three main receivers each and only seven players of more than 90 guys had five or more 100-yard receiving games: Mike Wallace (seven), Andre Johnson (six), Brandon Lloyd (six), Roddy White (five), Dwayne Bowe (five), Greg Jennings (five) and Miles Austin (five).
Do you know how many of those seven had at least five 100 yard games the previous season? Only three: Johnson, Austin and Jennings. And only Johnson and Jennings make the list each of the past three years.
Other than providing a good counter argument for those that don't like Jennings because of Jermichael Finley's presence, I say that what the fact above points to is that there are only a handful of elite guys at this position. You need one of them.
Let's move on and look at the running backs from last season who had five or more 100-yard games (total yards).
Per Elias Sports Bureau, there were 17 of them, more than twice as many as wide receivers. Those runners were (number of 100 total yard games in parentheses):
Jamaal Charles (13)
Arian Foster (12)
Darren McFadden (10)
Steven Jackson (9)
Maurice Jones-Drew (9)
LeSean McCoy (9)
Adrian Peterson (9)
Ray Rice (9)
Chris Johnson (8)
Ahmad Bradshaw (7)
Matt Forte (7)
Frank Gore (7)
Peyton Hillis (7)
Michael Turner (7)
Knowshon Moreno (6)
LaDainian Tomlinson (6)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5)
The repeaters from the year before on this list? Johnson, Rice, Steven Jackson, Peterson, Jones-Drew, Gore, Charles, Forte.
And on the list for three straight years? Peterson, Jackson, Johnson, Jones-Drew, Gore and Forte actually. There are more elite guys and more running backs who get yardage in a more consistent manner than wideouts who can do the same. And more means more opportunity to stock up on them early in the draft.
I look at the upper tier of running backs and I think you'd be good with any one of them as your lead back: Peterson, Johnson, Charles, Foster, McCoy, Mendenhall, Turner, Gore, Rice, Jones-Drew, Jackson, McFadden. Some are better than others, some carry more risk than others, but 12 guys that I consider elite and then a lot of depth at the position beyond that. Depending on where DeAngelo Williams lands, he could potentially be on that list, if Moreno doesn't get competition in Denver, he could be there under John Fox, I know a lot of people are excited about Jonathan Stewart without DeAngelo Williams there (I'm lukewarm but someone will grab him early) and I absolutely love LeGarrette Blount this year.
By another token, there are only six wideouts whom I feel are elite: Andre Johnson, Roddy White, Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks and I feel Mike Wallace gets there this year. Larry Fitzgerald could join them with a real quarterback and Vincent Jackson certainly has the potential, but it's a much shorter list. Which means you need to get at least one elite wideout early, as they are rare.
Arian, Arian, Arian
Can he repeat? If you've read me for at all in the past two years (I took a bunch of heat for liking him as a rookie in Week 15 of '09), you know I love this guy. But can he repeat? History says no.
Mark Malzewski of ESPN Stats & Information pulled the numbers on every running back in the last 20 years who has had at least 18 touchdowns in a season and looked at what they did the following year.
Running backs with 18+ TDs (rushing and receiving) since 1991
It has happened 23 times since 1991. And of those 23, the running back met or exceeded the 18 touchdowns only nine times. And those nine times were done by Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Shaun Alexander, Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson. Five players in 20 years. And the three most recent guys to do it -- DeAngelo, Peterson and the last year of Tomlinson -- haven't been able to repeat. History says Foster will be good, but not as good as last season.
3. Everything Else
Let's discuss kickers, defenses and tight ends.
First, kickers. Don't you dare take a kicker until the last round! You say it's obvious, but then, every draft I am in, I always see at least one person take a kicker before the last round. Heck, Nate Kaeding's average draft position last season was the 11th round!
Among the other players that went around the 11th round last year were Darren McFadden, Santonio Holmes, Ben Roethlisberger and Thomas Jones. Kaeding finished 14th among kickers in scoring.
Let's look at two numbers: 150 and 121. Those numbers are the scoring totals of Sebastian Janikowski (last year's No. 1 kicker) and Billy Cundiff, last year's No. 10.
Assuming you could have even predicted Janikowski would be the No. 1 kicker, which no one could have (he was the 15th kicker taken on average last year), he was only 29 points better than the 10th-best kicker (ostensibly, the last guy you wind up with in a standard-size league).
Over the course of a 16-game fantasy football season, that's less than two points a game. Two. And that's assuming you correctly predicted who the best kicker will be, which is nigh impossible, and two points a game ain't that much of an incentive to play that particular lottery when you're passing up on the chance to draft a guy with real upside, like McFadden turned out to have.
Bottom line? The only thing I hate more than kickers are people who draft them before the last round.
OK, defenses. Somewhat of the same theory here. If you want a more detailed analysis of fantasy defense and why you shouldn't waste anything but a late draft pick on them, read Christopher Harris' column on this very subject.
Remember the chart showing the top 30 players owned by championship-game teams? There were four defenses listed; the most common were the Patriots, drafted 14th among defenses last year. Then came the Bears (drafted 10th), Steelers (last year's No. 6 defense by ADP) and Falcons (selected 26th among defenses!).
Defenses are hard to predict and good defenses on the gridiron don't always make good defenses on the fantasy stats sheet. (As Chris Harris points out, last year's 12th-best fantasy defense was Arizona, which gave up 27 points a game). More importantly, it's fairly easy to spot-start defenses based on matchups. The Falcons had a solid defense, to be sure, but they showed up on that list of championship-playing teams because Atlanta had Carolina twice, Seattle and the Saints at home during the fantasy playoffs. Many fantasy owners rode the playoff-bound Falcons into their own fantasy title game. Anyway, Harris' article gives a lot more stats on why it's not a great idea to waste anything other than a very late-round pick on a defense. Check it out or just take my word for it and move on.
Which brings us, finally, to tight ends.
Remember this chart from earlier?
Points per game difference between top scorer and next 10 at position
I was using it to prop up my "Vick should be No. 1" argument, but now I want to look at it for tight ends to fully demonstrate how dominant Antonio Gates was. He played in only 10 games and was still the second-highest scoring tight end in the league, averaging a league-leading 13.4 points per game.
Here's some other tight ends:
Dallas Clark: 8.5 points per game (in six games).
Owen Daniels: 9.5 points per game (final four games only, once fully healthy).
Jermichael Finley: 8.5 points per game in only four games.
Jason Witten: 8.3 points per game
Jacob Tamme: 8.2 points per game)
Vernon Davis: 8.1 points per game
Marcedes Lewis: 7.4 points per game
Rob Gronkowski: 6.7 points per game
Kellen Winslow: 6 points per game
Chris Cooley: 6 points per game
Tony Gonzalez: 6 points per game
Zach Miller: 6 points per game
Dustin Keller: 5.9 points per game
Brandon Pettigrew: 5.5 points per game
Now, many of these tight ends had big games here and there, exploiting the Bills for two touchdowns and helping you win that week, for example. But generally speaking, they are all about the same. Are Clark, Witten, Davis, Finley and Daniels (sleeper!) better than Cooley and Winslow? Yes. But the point differential between these guys is something like 20 to 30 yards a game. Not insignificant, but not must-haves either.
And look, it's one year, a lot can happen, and you don't want to draw too many conclusions from just one season. But I think I'm in pretty safe territory when I say that Antonio Gates is something special. And the advantage he gives you above all the other tight ends is more pronounced than any other QB, RB or WR you would be able to draft in the third or fourth round, where Gates is likely to be drafted this year.
One more chart, this one showing the predictability of positions. Basically, where was a guy drafted (ADP) and where he finished in terms of fantasy points for the year. This is for the top 10 QBs and TEs and top 20 RBs and WRs from last season:
2010 "starting" skills position players, draft-day versus final value
So, we find that there is about a 10-spot differential in value between a starting running back and wide receiver versus the value you get out of the shallower but more cost-effective quarterback and tight ends positions. There is much more movement in the ranks of the starting running backs and wide receivers and that leads to more opportunities for players to emerge, because guess what? For every wide receiver or running back drafted in the top 20 that doesn't end the year that way, there's a wide receiver or running back drafted outside of the top 20 that makes that leap into start-dom. Remember this sentence? "To be exact, over the past three seasons, 43 percent of 'starting' running backs and wide receivers have come by their roles despite not being drafted as such." That's why you need as many of these guys as possible, to give yourself the best possible chance to get these surprise starters and win, week after week.
Here is the same research for the past three seasons. I'll spare you the names, these are just the results:
2010 "starting" skills position players, draft-day versus final value
The 2008 year for QBs was heavily influenced by the Brady and Romo injuries, but fair is fair. Quarterback isn't immune from the randomness of football. Still, over the past three seasons, quarterback and tight end represent a much better invest on your draft pick than, generally speaking, running backs and wide receivers.
So when using a high draft pick (first four rounds), why not use two of them on a quarterback and Antonio Gates? Even if you have to reach for Gates, it's worth it. He gives you that much of an advantage over everyone else at that position, every single week.
Look, we're generalizing here, which is always dangerous and it doesn't deal with specific players; people who drafted Adrian Peterson in the first round last season and grabbed Philip Rivers late were probably pretty happy with their teams. You'll find many player combinations that will work out and many that will fail. But in terms of theory, many more RBs and WRs will emerge and are much more likely to have good games based on matchups or opportunities than quarterbacks and tight ends.
To put it another way -- and pay attention, this is important here -- if you head into a matchup every week with a clear-cut advantage at tight end and quarterback, you are much more likely to win. To wit, I will do everything I can to get Michael Vick and Antonio Gates on every team I own this year.
Can you make an argument that Clark or Finley could outscore Gates and that much of his production last year was due to all the injuries to other receiving options on San Diego? Of course. But he's also the safest guy out there. Over the past four years, Gates has 44 touchdowns, most of any tight end. Clark is second with 34. Gates also is the leader is yards per game over the past four years (Witten is second).
If someone else has his eye on Gates and beats you to him, don't worry. Same rule applies as with the top tier of quarterbacks; there's an elite and then there's "the rest." Between Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis, you'll get your guy. Yes, tight end is deep and maybe you'll be OK week-to-week with Tony Moeaki or Brandon Pettigrew, two guys I like a lot this season, but once you get beyond the elite guys, I find that the depth at this position has made the whole lot look a lot like kickers; yes, any given week, one will go off, and at the end of the year, you'll have a bunch of guys who'll have scored 60-90 points. But good luck figuring out which one to start from week to week. It's gonna be a bumpy ride. The only advantage to this quagmire of talent is that, if you lose your tight end, you'll be able to pick one up and be on par with everyone else.
So, to recap, my very long draft strategy this year can be boiled down this way:
1. Get an elite quarterback. Ideally Vick but definitely one of the top seven.
2. Get an elite tight end. Ideally Gates, but definitely one of the top five.
3. Your roster should have just one kicker, one defense, one elite tight end, one quarterback (unless you feel like you need Vick insurance, in which case you can grab a nice arm late) and the rest need to be nothing but wide receivers and running backs. We know players will pop, we know they'll likely be running backs and wide receivers, we just don't know who they'll be, so the idea is to maximize your chances at getting one of those players. Panning for gold, as it were.
4. Your first four picks should include one quarterback, one running back, one wide receiver and either Gates or another wide receiver or running back.
5. Your next 10 picks will be the best available running backs and wide receivers, with the only exception being one of the other four elite tight ends in the fifth or sixth round if you don't get Gates.
6. You will end with a defense and kicker.
That's my theory. There are tons of others written about elsewhere in this draft kit, and as your draft (or auction!) unfolds, you'll have to adjust on the fly. Which is why I highly recommend our mock draft lobby (now with eight-, 10- and 12-team leagues) to practice different strategies.
Whatever strategy you decide on, you now need to set up your league, which means five huge things have to be decided:
1. Is it a draft? Or is it an auction?
2. What are the other rules of the game?
3. Where are we playing it out?
4. Where/when are we doing the draft?
5. What shall we eat?
Let's take them one by one. If you're already all set and want to get on with more draft day prep, just skip ahead to the next section.
1. Is it a draft? Or is it an auction?
First, I highly recommend an auction. The argument against was always that, to do it correctly, everyone needed to be in the same room. Now, thanks to our auction draft software, that's no longer a concern.
It's more engaging, it's more fun and, most importantly, it's the truest test of skill. In a draft, maybe three people, at most, are getting a shot at Adrian Peterson this year. In an auction, everyone has a shot at AP. In fact, everyone has a shot at every player. It's about money management, reading your competitors, calling their bluffs, identifying value and reacting quickly. Those who complain that luck plays too big a part in fantasy football can limit a lot of it by using an auction.
Yes, luck will still play a part during the season because of scheduling, injuries and the occasional fantasy heartbreak-type play, like Stevie Johnson's drop against the Steelers. But this gets rid of the constriction on a draft. You wanna brag about how smart you are? How much more brilliant you are than anyone else? Then even the playing field and give everyone a shot at every player.
Try it once and you'll be hooked. And if you've never tried it, you can do it now in our free mock draft and auction lobby. Right now. Go ahead. This article will still be here later. Actually, come back, don't come back, I don't care. I've already got your click. Anyway, auctions are the way to go. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.
2. What are the other rules of the game?
I like the 10-team standard version we offer and I also like 12-team. I like standard slightly more than PPR; I'm not a fan of leagues that use individual defensive players (IDP), but those who play that way swear by it. I like keeper leagues and I insist on a free-agent acquisition budget (FAAB -- more on that in a second). I like two weeks per playoff matchup (the way we do it with standard leagues here on ESPN, so one bad week doesn't kill an entire season) and four teams making the playoffs in a 10-team league.
But whatever way you play, you must have two things: a strong commissioner and an iron-clad constitution. If you play in a public league on ESPN, you're fine. The rules are set up very clearly. But if you're in a private league you've got to have those two things.
Nothing makes a league less fun than a shady commish or a gray area around the rules. And there's always a gray area if there is no constitution. For the love of all that is pure and good, if your league doesn't have a written set of rules before draft day, write some down before you draft. Insist on your league manager drafting a written constitution, and try to think of every possible circumstance. Tiebreakers, penalties for collusion, everything. This is supposed to be fun, and nothing sucks that out quicker than angry email wars over rules confusion. Save the angry emails for deciding who loves the TMR the most, baby!
(If you're not sure where to start, see my colleague AJ Mass' primer on how to construct a league constitution.)
At the beginning of the baseball season two years ago, I wrote what turned out to be one of my favorite columns ever. It was all about my very first fantasy league, a baseball league that continues to this day, 26 years later. I highly recommend you read it, and not just because I'm a shameless panderer for clicks. First, you'll get to see actual video of dorky 14-year-old me at my first draft. Seriously, not to be missed, for lovers and haters alike.
Second, most of it relates to all leagues, not just baseball. It's as good a blueprint on how to run and participate in a league as anything else that's out there. It's a relatively quick read. In addition, I'll do an updated and expanded version of this soon. In the meantime, I also wrote a column last year detailing the different types of fun rules and ideas of "what makes a league great." Check it out.
If there's one rule I want you to strongly consider, however, it's the Free Agent Acquisition Budget, or FAAB. If you play fantasy baseball, you are probably familiar with the concept, but it's relatively new for fantasy football. The idea is very simple.
After the draft, every team is given a set amount of "money" for its FAAB. Let's say it's $100. Then, once or more a week -- you can set up the frequency and the day(s) -- you have an auction of free agents. Instead of waivers or first-come/first-serve, this is a much fairer way to distribute the hot backup running back that just got the starting gig or the emerging rookie wideout. Just like in an auction, with FAAB bidding, everyone has a shot at every single free agent.
You want the guy so bad you can taste it? You just have to pay the most. But once you run out, you run out, so be careful whom you bid on. Now, instead of having to be online all day every day (or competing with the guy who is), it adds another level of strategy to a game many accuse of being luck-based. It's really dope, or it would be if people still used that word. I'm at loggerheads with those who don't.
Anyway, there are tons of ways to do it, but my suggestion is to allow $0 bids and do FAAB bidding every night.
3. Where are we playing it out?
You know I am a company man, so I'll just mention that everything you and your league need is here and free on ESPN.com. And here's the thing: I've played on other sites. I'm not trashing other sites. Many of them are very solid. But -- and I am being honest here -- the best experience is on ESPN.com. And if you don't believe me, it's because you haven't tried it recently.
We've added watch lists (so you can track free agents); injury and roster alerts; player comparison features; the ability to make roster moves from any mobile phone, not to mention specific free apps for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry; the ability to integrate your league and team with your Facebook and Twitter; improved autodraft features (including targeting both players and slots); and, of course, we still have free live scoring with our awesome FantasyCast application.
You've always been able to customize the league the way you want if it was a private, custom league. But now we have eight- and 12-team league options for our public leagues as well (along with the standard 10-team). In fact, you can now create a public league with custom settings and let folks join. So if you don't have nine friends who want to play, create the public league you want and meet new friends over the Internet. It's not nearly as creepy as it sounds!
But the best part is that we are now in the second year of offering FAAB support for your league. You can set up bids, contingencies, keep track of how much you and everyone else has left in their budgets. If you're a commish who's had to run FAAB by hand and make sense of nine owners' bids every Tuesday night, you're going to love this option. Trust me, it's fabulous. Yes, I went there. But admit it, you're impressed I waited this long to do it.
4. Where/when are we doing the draft?
It may not be possible because of circumstances, but if there is any possible way, you must do the draft (or auction!) in person. It's so much more fun, it becomes an event, the trash talk flows, you get to know your league mates better you guys (and gals!) will have tons of jokes and memories for a long time. It will enhance your league and make it even more fun.
5. What shall we eat?
I'm a fan of surf and turf, but pub fare is also very appropriate. But whatever you decide on, eat after your draft. Much more enjoyable to look over rosters and look at teams during dinner than nervously thinking about the upcoming draft during dinner. Trust me here. OK, back to work.
If you are in a keeper league, you obviously need to figure out whom to keep. You keep your difference-makers, and that's it. I define a difference-maker as someone who is clearly better than most of the others at his position. Guys like Tom Brady, Jamaal Charles, Roddy White, Antonio Gates, etc. But that's it. You're not keeping a defense, a kicker or anything else except the top few tight ends.
No disrespect to one of the great wide receivers of our time, but guys like Hines Ward? They're a dime a dozen. The difference between a 1,200-yard wide receiver and an 800-yard scrub is 25 yards a game. Less than three fantasy points a week. If it's not worth reaching for a guy like that in the draft, then it goes double for keeping him or trading for him before draft day.
You should never dump a quarterback or running back to keep a tight end unless it's one of the big five (Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis and Jason Witten). All the other tight ends are pretty much the same, so there's no need to burn up a keeper making sure you have one when the bottom end of the draft and the free-agent pool will be lousy with them.
Never, ever keep a kicker. I don't care if Adam Vinatieri once saved your kitten from a tree, if David Akers paid for your grandmother's new hip or you happen to actually be Sebastian Janikowski, let 'em all go.
And you'll never find me keeping a defense unless the rules say I have to.
If you are in a league in which you have a penalty for keeping a guy -- like, you have to give up a fifth-round pick for Arian Foster -- you need to decide what is more valuable: the pick or that player. Fantasy sports are all about value. So in this blatantly obvious case, you keep Foster, because he is a first-round pick and it's only costing you a fifth. But what if it's Matt Schaub and he's gonna cost a fourth-round pick? Well, I throw him back. Even when you factor in all the players who will be kept at good value and will thin out the player pool, I can get him cheaper by throwing him back and using the fourth-round slot on someone I really like, such as Dez Bryant.
If you find yourself in a gray area about whether or not a player is worth keeping at his draft slot, then I suggest you mock the keeper draft. Go through every roster and figure out the obvious and likely keepers and lay them all out on a draft board. Then fill out the rest of the draft board based on rankings and team needs. The guy keeping Michael Vick probably isn't going to grab Peyton Manning even if he's the most talented player left on the board, you know what I mean? So if you're trying to figure out whether you should keep Peyton or throw him back, and your mock shows it's likely that both Manning and Philip Rivers will be there when it's your turn to pick in that round, maybe you toss him back and keep another running back instead.
So what about those prospects? Look, unless you are in a very deep league and/or a league in which you keep a lot of players, I don't like keeping "projects." The average life span of an NFL player is something like five years. It's not like baseball where you can stash a guy away in the minors. Unless the guy is going to help you this year, he doesn't belong on your roster.
For every Aaron Rodgers you hang on to, there are a lot more players like Matt Leinart out there. How many years in a row has someone in your league held on to Reggie Bush waiting for him to be more than just a No. 3 back? There's still a black hole in my heart marking the number of years I waited on Kevan Barlow back in the day.
You keep elite guys who can play. Maybe you keep one project at most, but otherwise you need to stick with as close to sure things as you can. I keep saying this, but frankly, some of you aren't that bright (not you, the other guys reading this), so I'll say it again: Fantasy football is by far the most luck-based of all fantasy sports, so your goal is to minimize bad luck as much as you can by loading up on those sure things.
And now for something completely nerdy
If you are in a keeper league with a salary cap, I suggest doing keeper-league inflation. What the hell is that, you ask? Well, basically, keeper leagues always have guys kept well below their value. I'm proud to have Ahmad Bradshaw for $2 in my keeper league. As a result, the prices of available players will go up in the auction, because there is less talent available but relatively more money to spend.
So you look at your handy ESPN running back rankings and you see we list Bradshaw at 18. OK, we say he will be worth $18 this year in a start-from-scratch-league auction. But that's only in a start-from-scratch auction. A better judge of what to pay for Bradshaw in your keeper league will come about if you spend a little time calculating draft inflation.
I cannot take credit for the formula, and this has been written about elsewhere, but here's how you do it. Let's say it's an ESPN standard auction league. That means a 10-team league with 16-man rosters and a $200 cap.
That means there is a total of $2,000 (10 x $200) of available money to spend in your league. Now you add up how much each team has spent on keepers. For simplicity's sake, let's say each team has kept five players at an average of $10 apiece. So each team spent a total of $50, for a total of $500 (10 x $50) spent.
OK, here's where we get even nerdier. Take whatever price list you have decided to use and calculate how much "value" is being protected. For example, my Ahmad Bradshaw is projected to go for $18 this year. While I have him at a $2 PRICE, his VALUE is $18.
So you add up all the VALUE on the teams. Again, for simplicity's sake, let's say every team is protecting $100 worth of value. So the total value being protected is $1,000 (10 x $100). And while the total value being protected is $1,000, the total price spent is only $500.
So you subtract both numbers from your starting values; $2,000 (total money available) minus $1,000 (value protected) equals $1,000 of value left.
Do the other one: $2,000 (total money available) minus $500 (total price protected) equals $1,500 of money left.
This means at the auction, $1,500 of money is chasing only $1,000 of value. So you now divide money left by value left. 1,500/1,000 = 1.5. This means every dollar in your league is actually worth $1.50.
This is your draft inflation price: 1.5. So let's say Chris Johnson comes up for auction. And your trusty ESPN draft kit has him listed at $56. You quickly multiply $56 by 1.5 to come up with $84. That's his value in this league.
The bidding gets to $70 and people drop out. That's 14 bucks more than he's worth, people say. But you know that's actually a bargain for CJ2K. You're saving $14!
This is an extreme example; draft inflation is more likely to be 20 percent to 30 percent, but it should clarify the point. Draft inflation calculation is time-consuming and can be a little confusing, but if you want those money lists to actually help, you need to do this. Every dollar counts! And where it really helps is with the superstars. Because the prices get so ridiculous, it causes the unprepared to drop out, thus the stars end up becoming the biggest bargains.
And do you know what happens when the big-ticket items don't go for their full inflated value? Ridiculous bidding wars will break out for Tim Hightower or Derrick Mason near the end of the draft, when lesser players are left on the table and way too much money is left in owners' pockets. Now, I ask you: Who would you rather toss an extra 10 or 20 bucks away on? Chris Johnson or your No. 4 running back?
OK, you've turned in your retention list. Or it's just a start-from-scratch league. So let's prepare for the draft (or auction!).
Obviously, you should be reading as much as possible. I would be checking ESPN.com at least once a day. Read the articles, listen to our daily Fantasy Focus 06010 podcast I do with Nate Ravitz; it's the best thing I do, frankly.
As we get into the regular season, watch our daily Fantasy Focus videocast and our Sunday morning show "Fantasy Football Now" on ESPN2 and ESPN.com. Stop by our chats. I highly recommend our free mobile alerts.
You can stop by the Matthew Berry page where there's, well, a lot of me, including my rankings every week during the season. In addition, you can find my Twitter feed (@MatthewBerryTMR), where I dish out last-minute news, advice and fantasy nuggets; and I answer questions on my Matthew Berry TMR Facebook page.
I find Twitter to be an incredibly helpful tool for finding out news and interacting with fans. If you haven't signed up for Twitter, I would do so; get an application that allows you to get tweets to your phone; and follow, well, lots of folks, starting with me and many of my ESPN brethren. Too many to list here, but almost all of my fantasy colleagues and most of the NFL folks at ESPN, such as Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, are news-spilling machines on that thing.
There's an ESPN iPhone app that I like, and for those who want even more of an edge, you should sign up for ESPN Insider (or get yourself a RotoPass from my site, www.RotoPass.com, which includes Insider as well as access to some other great fantasy sites).
But don't just read fantasy sites. Read the football sections of major newspapers. Watch "SportsCenter" and "NFL Live." And once the season starts, watch games. Not just highlights. Games. See how a guy gets his 100 yards. Was he grinding it out or did he just get a lucky 75-yard gain and got crushed on the other 20 carries? The more info you have, the better.
There are millions of sites devoted to fantasy football. See which you like, which you trust, which you agree with, which you think are for morons. It's all speculation -- some of it more informed than others -- but at the end of the day, we're all just making educated guesses.
Either way, knowledge is power. The more you know -- about players, lineups, injuries, sleepers, coaching changes, schedules, bye weeks, etc. -- the better shape you are in. So prepare as though you are testing to get into Harvard Medical School, because the only thing worse than screwing up on draft day and listening to your buddies say you're a jackass for the next six months is having to sit in front of a TV on Sunday while saying, "Come on, why won't they let Jimmy Clausen throw on first and second down?"
Speaking of knowledge being power: I know this sounds stupid, but you'd be amazed how many people make this mistake as they sign up for more and more leagues and simply assume they know the intricacies. Know your league's rules. Inside and out. (Another reason you need a constitution.)
Like, do you get the same amount of points for a touchdown pass as a touchdown run? If so, quarterbacks are much more valuable than they are in leagues that reward six points for a TD run and just four for a TD pass. Do you get points for receptions? What about return yards? Do you get negative points for turnovers? Bonus points for long plays? Do running backs get points for receptions and receiving yards? Because Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy are top-5 guys in that format. It all matters when prepping for your draft and evaluating players.
OK, you know your league's rules. You've marked draft day on the calendar. You've got Roy Helu at the top of your sleeper list, you've checked the latest info on Frank Gore's injury, and you can't wait to grab Toby Gerhart and, in the process, screw over Adrian Peterson's owner. But now it's time to get serious. You're going to need to do some paperwork before the draft to make the draft easier and more efficient for yourself.
First, get yourself an up-to-the-minute depth chart for every team in the NFL. We'll have a really good, easy-to-print version in our ESPN.com draft kit once free agency is settled, and it will be updated throughout the preseason. But whichever site's you like, print it out and bring it with you. When you're nearing the end of the draft and you need another wide receiver or a starting tight end, the depth charts will come in handy. Trust me. A simple depth chart is one of the best tools you can have.
Whatever draft list you choose to go with, bring only one. Too much info can clutter things up. Decide ahead of time which is the best fit for you and go with that. If one has Brady over Peyton and the other has them reversed, so what? They both rock.
Personally, I like to make my own list. But whatever list you have, you need to prepare it. By that I mean I like to group players into tiers. As an easy example, you'll group your tight ends. Obviously, I say Antonio Gates is in a tier by himself. Then Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley and Vernon Davis are the next tier. After that it's guys like Owen Daniels, Marcedes Lewis, Zach Miller, Chris Cooley, Jimmy Graham and Brandon Pettigrew. And then there's the rest.
The point is, as you move through your draft (or auction!), you could say "I don't buy Berry's 'Gates or bust' theory, so I'll wait, but not too long. So I don't want my tight end to be worse than, say, Chris Cooley." So the big five are off the board, plus Lewis, Daniels, Cooley and Zach Miller. But you don't freak out because you look at your list and see Graham, Pettigrew, Kellen Winslow (whom you like more than I do) and Dustin Keller are still left, and you have two selections in the next six picks.
You can probably take an upside running back with the first of those picks and know you'll get one of those other guys on the way back. Or, even better, a quick glance shows that seven of the 10 teams in your league have a tight end and there are five left that you'd be fine with, so you can wait even longer. Chances are it will be a while before teams start (unwisely) drafting their second tight ends, so you can keep stocking up on other players instead of "wasting" a pick on a tight end before you need to.
This is how you go about amassing as much high-upside depth as possible. The better the players you can stockpile, the better chance you hit pay dirt.
During the draft, it's especially important not to get hung up on one particular player. By dividing your list like this, you'll be better able to see where there is scarcity in the draft and where there is surplus. Like with wide receivers; just because you don't get Percy Harvin or Austin Collie as your young, injury-prone wide receiver with crazy upside, you're not out of luck. Kenny Britt will be just fine.
Another thing you want to do before the draft is prepare a "draft sheet" for every team in the league. This is a sheet that has every team in your league and every position they need to fill. I cannot stress how important this is. As the draft progresses, you are going to want to be able to know who everyone has, what positions they have filled and what they still need.
The computer will keep track of almost all of this, but I like to do it by paper along with the computer. I'm old-school that way, but I also find taking the 10 seconds to write it down helps me remember that player getting taken and get a better overview of how the draft is going for every team at one glance.
Let's say Team 1 takes Adrian Peterson (why is no one listening to me in these examples??). You write "AP" in one of Team 1's RB slots. Team 2 goes with Arian Foster, and you put that name down in that team's No. 1 RB slot. This way you can see at a glance what you need in comparison to every other team. One rule here, though: Don't be that guy who keeps asking "Who was that that just went two picks ago?" throughout the entire draft. If you can't pay attention enough to do this task, then give it up. You're better off focusing your attention elsewhere. But if you can multitask, this little extra work will pave the way for some sly picks in the middle and end of the draft. Like the example we gave with the tight end tiers: You look at your sheet, see that most everyone has a tight end and the three teams after you all need some running back depth. Ryan Williams, whom you really like, is still out there. You grab him now, denying him to the other teams, and you still likely get your tight end with the following pick.
This sheet will save your bacon more than once toward the end of the draft, and that's where leagues are won and lost, not in the first few rounds. Any idiot can take Chris Johnson in the first few picks. It's the guy who grabs the next Stevie Johnson in the double-digit rounds who generally wins the league.
I also like to have a list of sleepers I want to target. When you're in Hour 3 and can't think anymore, you can glance at the sheet and go, "Oh yeah, I wanted to take a gamble on Roy Helu." Or Jordy Nelson. Or Jacoby Ford. Or Matthew Stafford. You then grab them instead of saying, "I can't think of anybody I'll just take my kicker now."
By the way, if it's a salary cap/auction league, I also have a place to keep track of how much money they have left. Those of you with laptops can have a spreadsheet do all this for you, obviously (or if you are using ESPN.com Auction Draft Lobby, we do it for you). If it's a keeper league with a salary cap, you start with how much money each team has left for how many positions to fill.
Draft day: 10 rules to success
OK, it's game day, baby. Time for the big show. Don't bother cramming on the way in or anything stupid like that. It's like a test. You know it or you don't. It's like dropping off your date at the end of the night. If you don't know what you're doing now, the next 10 minutes aren't going to help.
1. This year, more than ever, when given the choice, go veteran over rookie. And ideally, a veteran with the same key personnel around him and the same coaching. Because of the lockout, there's much less time to get plays, timing and familiarity down. The teams that will be best poised for success, especially early on, will be teams like the Colts, Saints and Packers; teams that have been together for a long time and have everything down. I'm sure Julio Jones will be a great NFL player one day but he will struggle initially, as the NFL learning curve will be even steeper for rookies this year.
2. Never show fear. Just be confident. You don't have to be cocky or a jerk, but occasionally sighing a breath of relief when the guy before you picks -- as if to say, "Thank God you didn't grab the correct guy" -- will do wonders to rattle your less-confident leaguemates.
3. If you find yourself getting squeezed out of a position, don't panic! Say you find yourself on the short end of a run on No. 3 running backs. Instead of reaching for a guy like Darren Sproles to start stocking up on lottery tickets, grab the last "elite" quarterback, even if you already have yours. Or grab another decent wide receiver. Give yourself something to trade with. Sproles, or someone just like him, will still be there a round later, trust me. But by getting a surplus somewhere else rather than just grabbing a warm body, you'll be in a position to help yourself later.
4. If you are at one end of a snake draft, grab what you need when you can. Let's say it's your pick and you really want a good wide receiver. You see there are at least eight guys left you could live with. So you grab a third running back and your starting quarterback. But one good run and you're screwed. It's 18 picks until you get to choose again (in a 10-team league). Don't wait. Grab what you need, get surplus later (unless you're in a situation like I described above).
5. Please realize that all rankings -- including mine -- are guidelines and not hard and fast. They are not designed to be followed religiously. I'll often get a question like, "I have the third pick and I really want Andre Johnson. Is that too early?" While, yes, I would rather have Arian Foster than his teammate there, the answer is it's your team. Andre Johnson will not be there when you pick in the second round, and there's no guarantee you can work out a fair trade with his eventual owner, so if you want him, grab him there and don't listen to what anyone else says. Of course, this is yet another reason auctions are better.
6. Practice makes perfect. Yeah, it seems like I am a company shill (and I sort of am), but the fact remains: The more you do something, the better you get at it. My career notwithstanding. As I mentioned above, we have free mock draft and mock auction lobbies open 24/7. Jump in and practice drafting. Try different things. See what happens when you grab Vick in the first round. Or a wide receiver. See who you wind up with if you go wide receiver, wide receiver with your first two picks. The more scenarios you face, the less fazed you'll be when something screwy happens in your real draft.
7. Don't listen to anyone else at the draft! As I said at the start, nobody knows anything! Yes, we analysts probably spend a lot more time looking at stats, trends, players and teams and the like than you do, but that's because you have a life. And we've probably been playing a bit longer. I've been playing fantasy sports since I was 14 and writing about it professionally for a decade. And my fantasy analyst cohorts here at ESPN have similar résumés. But again, you don't have that résumé because you have a life. So we probably have a more informed opinion. But that's all it is, an opinion. An educated guess. Emphasis on the word "guess."
So if I'm telling you that "experts" aren't always right, other people in your league sure as hell aren't. If they mock your pick or sneer at your team who cares? Don't let it rattle you! I often find the loudest guy at the draft is usually the stupidest. I've seen too many good drafts screwed up because someone listened to some loud jerk instead of trusting their own opinions. Listen, you've done the research, you've played the game, heck, you've read this far. You're into it. And your opinion is as good as -- if not better than -- anyone else's in that room.
8. Don't be shy! At ESPN.com, we're here to listen, to advise, to commiserate and to help. Again, stop by our comment and message boards, email us, send me questions on Twitter and Facebook, as those are the places I am on the most. Send in questions to our daily Fantasy Focus podcast, videocast or our daily chats (and three-hour chats on Sunday mornings). It's a long season and we're gonna be there every step of the way with you.
9. When obsessing over whom to take, your first instinct is usually the right one.
10. Have fun! During the 12-plus years that I've been doing this professionally, I've given probably hundreds of interviews to various newspapers, radio stations, blogs, et al, about fantasy football. I get the usual stuff all the time: How did I get my start? Do I really make a living at it? And seriously, what's with the hair?
But the No. 1 question I have gotten in every interview, without fail, is why?
Why has it become so popular? Why should people who have never played it, try it? Why are people so obsessed with it? Why, why, why?
Because it's fun, I answer.
People talk about the competition and camaraderie, the ability to prove they're smarter than everyone else and the added interest they now have in NFL games that they wouldn't normally care about. And all of that is very true.
But I rarely hear folks answer, very simply, because it's fun. I see all over the place about draft-day domination and killing your opponent and crushing everyone in your league. I'm all for it, and make no mistake, fantasy football is a lot more fun when you're winning. It's why we play. And it's important.
But, at least to me, it's only part of the equation. Too many times I see folks getting worked up -- like crazy worked up -- over it. I've seen jobs lost, marriages damaged, friendships destroyed. It's a hobby. It's what we do for fun. Enjoy it a little, OK? Play to win, but smile while you're doing it.
Realize how great this game we all play is, understanding that there is an amount of luck that can't be controlled and that we are about to have 17 weeks' worth of reasons to care about every game.
It's about loving it when your running back vultures a touchdown, getting five field goals from your kicker, being able to call your buddy on Monday morning and just laugh into the phone for five minutes. It's about hilarious team names, cursing your favorite receiver for dropping a touchdown pass and deciding that I don't care if it's a boy or a girl -- I'm naming my first kid Miles.
Remember, we do this for leisure. We all play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over. Well, unless you've really got a shot at the title. And it's not that good a friend. I mean, come on, you can always get a new friend. Or wife.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is in Bart Scott mode for the season. Can't. Wait! Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. He is a charter member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. Cyberstalk the TMR | Be his cyberfriend