The Draft Day Manifesto 2010 edition

As we start the 2010 edition of the Draft Day Manifesto, I will quote Stan and Kyle from "South Park," to opine, quite assuredly.

"Oh my God, you killed Kenny!

"You bastard!"

And by "Kenny," of course, I mean the stud fantasy running back.

And by "You," I mean the 2009 NFL season.

"Bastard," of course, is just a light-hearted epithet and should in no way suggest that the 2009 NFL season was born out of wedlock. I'll tell you what it did do, however. It mocked convention, pulled the pants down on highly drafted running backs and shoved the idea of the work-horse back into a locker with a head-full of paste while chanting taunts and insinuations of awkward personal interaction, non-mainstream clothing choices and/or a name that rhymes with a body part.

Instead of trying to figure out if that last paragraph was funny or just overwritten (a hint: both) allow me to reintroduce myself (Howdy! I'm your friendly neighborhood TMR. Can I take your drink order?) while telling the new kids in class that I've been writing a version of this column for more than a decade now, updating it every year.

There are always new twists, strategies and trends, but the Manifesto, at its core, is about giving you a blueprint for your draft day. A structure, if you will. Or even if you won't. What do I care? I already got your drink order.

And while it serves as a refresher/brush-up/get-back-into-the-swing-of-things for those who play, it's also an introduction and primer for those who are deciding to finally take the plunge and try the damn thing everyone's talking about. And winning starts on draft day, so let's get you ready for it.

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, make a big sign that you can hang on your wall next to your TMR Fathead: At its fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win. Everything leads back to that. Before you make any decision -- who 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 Miles Austin would score more fantasy points than Larry Fitzgerald, that Jerome Harrison would finish with more points than Brandon Jacobs and that Brett Favre would not only play but have a better fantasy year than Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Tom Brady 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. And you shouldn't try. That's the first rule of drafting. There are more, which we'll get to in due time. But it's important to remember that rule as we take the first step.

Deciding on a strategy

If we don't learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Someone smart said that once. I think it was the guy who keeps drafting Ronnie Brown. Speaking of dream crushers, take a quick glance at the top 20 running backs drafted last year, according to our ESPN average draft results:

1. Adrian Peterson
2. Michael Turner
3. Maurice Jones-Drew
4. Matt Forte
5. Chris Johnson
6. DeAngelo Williams
7. Steven Jackson
8. Frank Gore
9. LaDainian Tomlinson
10. Brandon Jacobs
11. Steve Slaton
12. Marion Barber
13. Clinton Portis
14. Brian Westbrook
15. Ronnie Brown
16. Kevin Smith
17. Thomas Jones
18. Ryan Grant
19. Willie Parker
20. Pierre Thomas

Now, let's look at the top 20 running backs last year in terms of ESPN standard scoring.

1. Chris Johnson
2. Adrian Peterson
3. Maurice Jones-Drew
4. Ray Rice
5. Thomas Jones
6. Frank Gore
7. Ricky Williams
8. Ryan Grant
9. Joseph Addai
10. Steven Jackson
11. Jonathan Stewart
12. Jamaal Charles
13. DeAngelo Williams
14. Rashard Mendenhall
15. Cedric Benson
16. Fred Jackson
17. Knowshon Moreno
18. Matt Forte
19. Pierre Thomas
20. LaDainian Tomlinson.

Only 11 names make both lists. Only 55 percent of the running backs drafted in the top 50 (not including running back No. 21, Darren McFadden, who had an average draft position of 50.2) came somewhat close to returning the value of their position. And if you owned Forte or Tomlinson last year, you'd probably argue that number is too high.

It's not that ESPN users drafted poorly. Those results mirror the consensus ranks of ESPN and other sites, and match the average draft positions at other sites as well. Those running backs -- or collectively, "Kenny" -- didn't live up to their draft-day value for basically one of two reasons: injury or ineffectiveness. We'll deal with ineffectiveness in a second, but let's talk injury. Should we be that shocked?

Last year, of running backs who compiled at least 150 rushing attempts, do you know how many played 16 games? Fifteen. That's it. Fifteen. (In order of attempts: Johnson, Thomas Jones, Peterson, Jones-Drew, Grant, Forte, Rice, Moreno, Mendenhall, Ricky Williams, Fred Jackson, Stewart, Carnell Williams, Beanie Wells, LeSean McCoy).

Running backs get hurt. Also, the sky is blue, ice melts and I'm losing my hair. We know all of this. As for ineffectiveness ...

Every situation is different. Friend-of-the-podcast Steve Slaton had a trigger-happy coach before getting banged up, Brandon Jacobs wasn't the best running back on a team that turned much more pass-happy than in previous years and friend-of-the-podcast Forte suffered from a change in quarterback and a poor offensive line. I'd say there's a podcast curse, but we also had Peterson and Jones-Drew on last year, so yeah, no convenient excuse for Slaton and Forte.

One thing that certainly didn't help top-20 picks such as Jacobs, Slaton and guys such as Willie Parker, Marion Barber, Brian Westbrook and Ronnie Brown is, well, "the other guy."

As ESPN Stats & Information stud Keith Hawkins points out: In 2009, there were 17 teams that had at least two players carry the ball at least 100 times each. Here's how it breaks down for the past decade:

2009: 17
2008: 16
2007: 17
2006: 15
2005: 13
2004: 10
2003: 13
2002: 13
2001: 12
2000: 7

Just to further underscore the point, last year there were four teams (Dolphins, Ravens, Jets, Saints) that had more than 20 rush TDs, and each of those teams had two Kennys in the regular season who carried the ball at least 100 times. Now, the Packers had 20 rush TDs, the most touchdowns by a team that had just one player in triple-digit carries, but keep in mind that Aaron Rodgers had five of those scores.

So let's recap: Fewer running backs getting a majority of the carries, issues staying healthy and lots of volatility and turnover ... wait, what are we all excited about again?

Among the many things I am known for 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 Heath Bell and Luke Gregerson this year is not so much skills but rather Bell gets the call in the ninth inning. But there is a lot of turnover in that position, so 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 sort of feel that way with running backs this year. You're paying too much for role and opportunity when there's a very good chance what you paid for could vanish into thin air. It's why Ryan Mathews, whom every NFL talent evaluator had lower than C.J. Spiller in April's NFL draft, is going to go well ahead of the new Bills running back in fantasy this summer.

So, instead of "Don't Pay for Saves," it's "Don't Go Nuts for Kenny." Yeah, as slogans go, it's a work in progress. But don't let the name distract you from the understanding that, of any position, there's both the most depth and the most scarcity at running back. Let me explain. No, there is no time. Let me sum up. Points to you if you get the reference, while I tell you that as of early July, there are only 11 teams that have an unquestioned, no-debate, he's-the-main-dude-at-running-back guy: the Vikings, Packers, Falcons, Rams, 49ers, Titans, Jaguars, Steelers, Bengals, Ravens and Chargers. You could make a case for the Bears, but after Matt Forte's disappointing season, the signing of Chester Taylor and a new offensive coordinator in town, I say it's still a question mark. There are situations that could turn into a one-guy deal -- the Texans, Redskins, Patriots, Browns, Lions and Seahawks -- but right now there are too many questions with either player personnel or coaching philosophy.

So, basically only one third of the league has a main guy, and we play, at a minimum, 20 running backs in an ESPN standard league. So there's 11 Kennys for 20 slots? That's scarce, my friend. (Don't worry. I used the term loosely. We don't actually have to hang out or anything).

But, what it also means is that there are 21 teams on which multiple running backs touch the ball enough to be significant to fantasy. Hence, depth. And, with so many RBBCs (running back by committees), it means solo fantasy running back scoring, the amount of points a single Kenny scores for his team, is down overall.

Used to be, if nothing else, you knew a team's main running back was touching the ball 20 to 30 times a game. You didn't know how many times a wide receiver would get the ball thrown his way. Now, with more running backs in time-share situations, more teams throwing the ball all over the place and more uncertainty than ever, to paraphrase William Goldman, nobody knows anything.

This year, more than any I can remember in recent history, draft strategy is all over the place. To me, there are questions after the top five of Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore and Ray Rice (my order). Steven Jackson and Michael Turner have injury issues, as do Andre Johnson and his quarterback. Plus, do you really want to draft a quarterback in the first round? The first round will feature guys such as Rashard Mendenhall, who has only one year of "doing it" to his credit, or Larry Fitzgerald, with unproven Matt Leinart throwing to him.

Look, if I get a shot at Chris Johnson, Peterson, Jones-Drew, Gore or Rice … I'm taking it. Those guys are studs and worth the price. But after that? Best player available, and often the best player available isn't going to be a Kenny.

We've talked in previous years about going running back/running back, some folks discussed wideout/wideout last year and I was advocating needing an elite wide receiver very early. But I want to expand that into a larger equation of best player available.

I know what you're thinking: Thanks, genius. Should I also avoid a kicker in the first round?

Let me define that best player available a little further. My basic take is that if you can't get at least one of the elite, non-committee running backs, you can wait on that position. You will have to mix and match, playing the matchup game during the season, but it's not a season-killer if you don't get a 20-touches-a-game back. In fact, only 15 of the top 50 scorers last year were running backs. (And only 30 of the top 100 scorers, actually.)

More than half of those 15 (Ray Rice, Thomas Jones, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Jonathan Stewart, Jamaal Charles, Rashard Mendenhall and Cedric Benson) were drafted in the fourth round or later, if at all, last season.

By devaluing running backs, it allows you to use resources elsewhere to dominate at other positions. Like at quarterback. There's a steep drop-off this year among quarterbacks after the top seven (Brees, Rodgers, Peyton, Brady, Schaub, Romo, Rivers) and I'll throw Favre in there if he comes back (which he will). Ideally, you get one of those eight. There are a lot of quarterbacks I like later, actually, as sleepers, but there's a clear top eight, and I don't want to be one of the two guys on the outside looking in because I spent three of my first four picks on Kennys.

What about wide receivers? In this column last year I talked about needing elite wideouts in the first few rounds, and ideally two of them in the first three rounds. Well, other than Calvin Johnson (cough), the wideouts were a fairly consistent bunch.

Check out the top 20 wideouts drafted and the top 20 scorers at the position:

Thirteen guys make both lists, and No. 21 on the drafted list was DeSean Jackson, so I'm calling it 14. That's 67 percent. I'll also say that anyone who drafted Terrell Owens that high got what they deserved; I don't know how many times I talked about that dude as being totally done and a huge bust, but it was a lot.

There are going to be injuries (such as with Calvin and Boldin) and guys who just don't get it done (Williams, T.O., T.J.) … but generally speaking, wide receivers are more consistent than Kennys.

They are also scarcer. Last season, there were 11 wide receivers in the top 50 and only 23 in the top 100. They are even scarcer than running backs. However, due to the nature of the position, they are more likely than any other position to gain significant value through ways other than injury (to others). Injury provides equal opportunity for all positions; it just comes down to luck (good or bad, depending on whether you own the starter or backup) as to what player at what position will go down next.

A quick aside before we proceed: I choose "top 100" for a reason. If you take out all the kickers and defenses, player No. 101 last year was Austin Collie (101 fantasy points, coincidentally). He scored, on average, six fantasy points per week, which I believe is replacement level. Meaning, you can find a guy on the waiver wire who will score you six points a game.

Now, before you leap through your screen to leave an angry, misspelled comment on the ESPN the Conversation page (no longer beta!), I am aware that Collie's not the ideal example because he didn't play the whole season. His name isn't important. And free-agent pickups are an important subject, but not something we're concerned with on draft day.

The point is, there are about 100 fantasy-relevant players among quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. They all need to be drafted. Back to those wide receivers.

Touchdowns are impossible to predict. Last year, Jacoby Jones had more touchdowns than Santonio Holmes, Anquan Boldin, Wes Welker and, ahem, Calvin Johnson. Todd Heap and Fred Davis had more than Terrell Owens, who everyone besides me had as a top-20 wide receiver last year. (I had him outside my top 30. I definitely missed on some but I nailed T.O. This has nothing to do with anything but for the fact that I wanted to once again point out that T.O. sucks.)

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 ... nine. More than in previous seasons, actually. Thirty-two teams, three main receivers each. Only nine receivers had five or more 100-yard games: Andre Johnson (6), Vincent Jackson (6), Wes Welker (6), DeSean Jackson (6), Reggie Wayne (5), Hines Ward (5), Randy Moss (5), Greg Jennings (5) and Miles Austin (5).

Do you know how many of those guys also had at least five 100-yard games the previous season? Only two: Johnson and Jennings.

Other than making me look twice at Jennings for this season, 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 or ideally two of them. And by waiting on running backs, you can do that.

Let's move on and look at the running backs from last season who had five or more 100-yard games (total yards).

There were 17 of them. Almost double the amount of receivers. In order, they were:

Chris Johnson (13)
Ray Rice (12)
Steven Jackson (11)

Adrian Peterson (10)
Maurice Jones-Drew (8)
Frank Gore (8)
Cedric Benson (8)
DeAngelo Williams (7)
Ryan Grant (7)
Rashard Mendenhall (7)
Thomas Jones (7)
Jamaal Charles (6)
Fred Jackson (6)
Matt Forte (6)
Jonathan Stewart (5)
Pierre Thomas (5)
Ricky Williams (5)

The repeat performers from 2008 are Peterson, Forte, DeAngelo Williams, Jackson, Gore, Jones, Johnson, Thomas and Jones-Drew. More names, more consistency year to year.

So, to recap: There are more running backs who get yardage in a more consistent manner than wideouts who can do the same. And many of those running backs will be available later than the top couple of rounds.

As a result, take the best player available. Look, points come from everywhere, but they still seem to come most consistently from running backs. The difference now is that the point differential between running backs and the others is not as great, and there are more running backs contributing to point totals (but contributing less in terms of total points) than before.

Think of it this way: In a standard 10-team league, you are playing at least two running backs, two wide receivers and a flex, which is another player drawn from the two positions. So, in total, 50 players make up the bulk of your rushing/receiving corps. A combined 53 players (remember, 30 of top-100 scorers last season were running backs, 23 were wide receivers) for, in essence, 50 starting slots.

Works out nicely, right? Except that we don't know who all of those 50 guys are. Oh, I have some likely candidates. But there will be the Mike Sims-Walkers and Jerome Harrisons of the world who no one sees coming. There will be injuries and most importantly, there will be people who draft more than the "five players" they should.

You need to be one of those folks who drafts more than they should.

And that's the crux of this year's Manifesto. We're devaluing running backs and we're grabbing a ton of them. Quantity, not quality, kids.

Value and points come from all over the draft board. The season is a long one and there will be many surprises along the way. The important thing is to have the depth and roster flexibility to weather whatever the season throws at you. We get 16 slots in an ESPN standard league, right? I want you to wind up with a roster that has one quarterback, one tight end, one defense and one kicker. And yes, 12 -- count 'em, 12 -- combined running backs and wide receivers.

I asked the great Mike Polikoff, who oversees our League Manager product here, to look up last year's average weekly score for teams that made the playoffs in our standard leagues. He broke it down by week and by what place a team finished, but in essence, taking all the teams' weekly averages and dividing by 13 (the games played before the playoffs), it comes out to 93 points a week.

I think you can count on 14 points a week combined from your kicker and defense. Some weeks it'll be more, maybe some weeks less, but I say it works out to about 15 points a game on average. (If you had the 49ers D/ST and Nate Kaeding last year, both No. 1 at their positions, it works out to 19 points a game. Having No. 10 at both positions (Vikings D/ST and Jeff Reed) it works out to 14 points a game).

So we need another 78 points per game. Think about that number when constructing your team.

The big eight quarterbacks I mentioned averaged at least 15 points a game, with Brees and Peyton (only counting 15 weeks for him) averaging 17 a game and Rodgers 19 per.

After the elite eight quarterbacks, there's a definite drop-off but a lot of solid guys I like. I think Jay Cutler has a big (fantasy) year under Mike Martz and Kevin Kolb flourishes in Philly. I think Joe Flacco takes advantage of Anquan Boldin, that Eli Manning remains solid and that Donovan McNabb shows up Philly. I like Chad Henne with Marshall, Alex Smith with a year under him (and with Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis to throw to at the start of the season), an always serviceable Matt Ryan, Jason Campbell in an offense that plays to his strong arm and will be down and throwing a lot, Mark Sanchez now with some weapons and a confidence-building postseason, plus guys such as Vince Young (better than you think last year), David Garrard (always underrated) and Kyle Orton (see Young, Vince).

In short (OK, too late), you don't need a backup QB because there will always be someone solid to grab off the wire for bye weeks.

So now you're looking at needing around 60 points from your two running backs, two wideouts, flex and tight end. I lump them all together here because it's more about that 60 number than six guys getting 10 a game. You'll have guys who will go four receptions for 40 yards and tight ends who will catch three scores in a game. It's about getting guys who have good enough matchups and are involved in the offense enough to get you to that number each week.

Tight end is so deep this year you'll have a good one (though, if you are using my "devalue running backs" theory, you ideally get Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark or, if you believe, Vernon Davis).

Bottom line? Take two elite receivers early. By early, I mean two in the first four rounds. You need to get one of the big eight quarterbacks, and hopefully you can land one of the big two (Brees or Rodgers). Ideally you get at least one of the big 11 running backs who I consider "safe." The order in which you get those players will be determined by "best player available."

But then load up on depth.

Running backs, wideouts, more wideouts, more runners. And when in doubt, go running back. The point is … you'll have two studs this way. You just don't know who yet. By having that much depth to play with, however, you'll be able to mix and match throughout the season and find the Jamaal Charles of the world. Do this, and you should find your 60 points. Then, it's Playoff City, baby!

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 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, but if you're already all set and want to get on with the strategy, just skip ahead to the next section.

Fantasy Football 2010

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, at most, only one or two people are getting a shot at Chris Johnson this year. In an auction, everyone has a shot at CJ. 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 eliminate, or at least 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 MJD's kneel down last year. 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.

Second, what rules are you playing by? 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 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 have got to have these two things.

Nothing makes a league less fun than a shady commish or a gray area around the rules. And there's always 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 e-mail wars over rules confusion. Save the angry e-mails for deciding who loves the TMR more, baby! (See my colleague AJ Mass' primer on how to construct a league constitution.)

At the beginning of the baseball season this year, 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.

Third, where are you playing out the league? You know I am a company man, so I'll just merely 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; an iPhone app plus an iPhone Draft Kit; the ability to integrate your league and team with your Facebook, MySpace 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 we now have something called FAAB (free agent acquisition budget). 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), 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? Just have to pay the most. But once you run out, you run out, so be careful. Now, instead of having to be online all day every day (or compete with the guy who is) it adds another level of strategy to a game that many accuse of being luck based. It's really bitchin'. There's tons of ways to do it, but my suggestion is to allow $0 bids and do FAAB bidding every night.

Now are you convinced to play here? As you may have heard, it's 100 percent free to play. So if your long-term league has been playing elsewhere, set up a second "mirror league" here on ESPN. A taste test, if you will. And just see which one you like better. It costs you nothing except maybe an hour to set up the second league and, considering how much time you spend on your league every year, don't you want the best experience? The most fun, the most timely injury updates, the most tools in the game, the easiest interface, etc. Just try it. And if you hate it, I'll shut up. I promise.

Fourth, where are you holding the draft/auction? It may not be possible because of circumstances, but if there is any way possible 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 leaguemates 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.

Finally, 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.

Keeper leagues

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 Adrian Peterson, Drew Brees and Randy Moss. But that's it -- other than an elite tight end, which might be OK to keep.

I made the point already, but I'll make it again a different way. Guys like Lee Evans are 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. It's just not worth reaching for a guy like that in the draft, or keeping him or trading for him.

Oh, and you should never dump a quarterback or running back to keep a tight end unless it's one of the top three guys. Tight end is really deep this year, as we'll explore shortly.

Never, ever keep a kicker. I don't care if you're Stephen Gostkowski's old prom date or you once shared a cab with Ryan Longwell or happen to actually be Mason Crosby, 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 sixth-round pick for Rashard Mendenhall -- 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 Mendenhall, because he is a first-round pick and it's only costing you a sixth. But what if it's Philip Rivers and he's gonna cost a fourth-round pick? Well, I throw him back.

The way I have him ranked, Rivers would be a guy I'd take in the fifth round. Even when you factor in the fact that all the guys who are kept will thin 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 Michael Crabtree.

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.

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 for 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 the fantasy sports, so your goal is to minimize bad luck as much as you can by loading up on those sure things.

Draft preparation

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.

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 can 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 Shool, 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, this is a perfect Spencer Havner situation! Get him in there!"

Speaking of knowledge being power: I know this sounds stupid, but you'd be amazed at 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 Reggie Bush is actually valuable if they do. 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 Ben Tate at the top of your sleeper list, you've checked the latest info on Welker's injury and you can't wait to grab Toby Gerhart and, in the process, screw over Adrian Peterson's owner.

But now, time to get serious. You're going to need to do some paperwork prior to 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 have a really good, easy-to-print version in our ESPN.com draft kit, and they will be updated throughout the preseason. But whichever site's you like, print them out and bring them 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 list/magazine/book you choose to go with, just bring one. Too much info can clutter things up. Decide ahead of time whose is the best fit for you, and go with that. If one has Rivers over Romo 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. I say Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Brent Celek and Vernon Davis are the elite guys.

The next tier has about seven guys. So you may say to yourself, "I don't want my tight end to be worse than, say, Chris Cooley." So the big four are off the board plus Owen Daniels, Jermichael Finley, Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen, because one guy in your league doesn't realize Mike Martz never throws to tight ends. You don't freak out because you look at your list and see Jason Witten, Kellen Winslow, the aforementioned Cooley and Visanthe Shiancoe 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 that you'll get one of those other guys on the way back. Or even better, a quick glance shows seven of the 10 teams in your league have a tight end, 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 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 kind of stuff is amassing as much high-upside depth as possible. The better the player 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 Jeremy Maclin as your young wide receiver with upside, you're not out of luck. Pierre Garcon 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. You can see every team online in our draft rooms but I still do it by pen and paper because I like to see every team at a glance.

If it's a keeper league, make sure you fill in who has been kept before you draft. And hey, if you are a member of Insider (or RotoPass) you get a free Draft Analyzer, which is an easy computer program that helps keep track of all this stuff for you during the draft. (I am nothing if not a company man.)

But if you're old school like me, with pen and paper, here's what you do: Let's say Team 1 takes Chris Johnson. You write down "CJ" in one of Team 1's RB slots. Team 2 goes with Adrian Peterson 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.

Say it's the 10th round and you need a backup quarterback, but there's a sleeper wide receiver you want to grab as well. You look at your sheet, see most everyone has two quarterbacks, and according to your quarterback tiers, Chad Henne, Jason Campbell, Matt Moore (whom I kinda like as well) and Vince Young are still out there. So you should be OK when it comes around to you next. You don't need to burn the pick here. Conversely, the three teams picking after you all need wide receivers, so you better grab the guy now or never get him. You grab your receiver and then get a decent No. 2 quarterback next time around.

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 Sidney Rice 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 4 and can't think anymore, you can glance at the sheet and go, "Oh yeah, I wanted to take a gamble on Michael Bush. Or Early Doucet. Or Arian Foster. 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 -- did I mention you can now do auctions on ESPN.com for free? -- I also have a place to see 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.

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 Jamaal Charles 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 Charles 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 Charles 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 $10 a piece. 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 Jamaal Charles is projected to go for $18 this year. While I have him at a $2 PRICE, his VALUE is $18.

Follow me?

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 Maurice Jones-Drew 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 $60 and people, seeing $65, drop out. That's 9 bucks more than he's worth, people say. But you know that's actually a bargain for MJD. You're saving $19!

This is an extreme example; draft inflation is more likely to be 20 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-ticked items don't go for their full inflated value? Ridiculous bidding wars will break out for Tim Hightower or Ahmad Bradshaw 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'd you rather toss an extra 10 to 20 bucks on? MJD or your No. 2/3 running back?

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.

You want to project -- even if you don't feel it -- an air of confidence. Make others sweat. That's my first draft day hint.

1. 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.

2. If you miss out on one of the big four tight ends, wait until the very end, as tight end is fairly deep this year for solid production. In addition to all the guys I mentioned above, I like Zach Miller a lot with Campbell at quarterback, I expect more from Dustin Keller with Sanchez more confident, Heath Miller had another nice year, John Carlson and Kevin Boss should be serviceable. … It's the deepest I've ever seen the fantasy talent pool.

In a standard 10-team league, people generally draft only one tight end, unless they are idiots. In which case, it's fine, because they'll drop one soon. But with more than 10 guys suitable to be played in any given week, there's just no need to reach for an average guy. You'll be fine with the 10th one off the board. Or the 11th. Or the 12th.

By the way, here's a fun stat: Here are the leaders in total touchdowns among tight ends, 2007 to 2009.

Dallas Clark: 27
Antonio Gates: 25
Tony Gonzalez: 21
Vernon Davis: 19
Visanthe Shiancoe: 19
Heath Miller: 16

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 Kenny such as Kevin Faulk, (my go-to example as "just a Kenny") just to have someone, grab another quarterback, even if you already have yours. Or grab another decent wide receiver. Give yourself something to trade with.

Faulk, 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 a lot happier. Last year, in one league, I had the last pick in a 12-team league and, in the fourth round, I needed another running back. But there was no one decent left. So I grabbed Romo even though I already had Drew Brees. After the draft I was able to deal Romo to a team with three Kennys and no real quarterbacks and nabbed myself Ray Rice. That worked out well.

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 No. 1 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. More like 4A, but whatever. 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 Jones-Drew there, the answer is ... it's your team. Andre Johnson will not be there when you pick in the second round, so if you want him, grab him there and don't listen to what anyone else says. Of course, this is yet another reason why auctions are better.

6. 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.

Here are two numbers: 155 and 122.

Let's put those numbers in context, shall we?

Kicker scoring, 2009:

1. Nate Kaeding: 155 points
10. Jeff Reed: 122 points

Assuming you could have even predicted Kaeding would be the No. 1 kicker, which you wouldn't have, he is only 33 points better than the 10th-rated kicker (ostensibly, the last guy you wind up with in a standard-size league).

Thirty-three points.

Over the course of a 16-game fantasy football season, that's two points a game. Two.

And that's assuming you correctly predicted who the best kicker will be. Two points a game ain't that much when you're passing up on the chance to draft the next Miles Austin. Bottom line? The only thing I hate more than kickers are people who draft them before the last round.

7. 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 a quarterback 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.

8. 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, that's 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 -- if not better -- than anyone else's in that room.

9. 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, e-mail us, send me questions on Twitter, as that's the first place I try to answer questions. 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.

Finally ...

Have fun! During the 11 years that I've been doing this professionally, I've probably given 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, 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 -- never skips out on OTAs. He 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. Cyberstalk the TMR | Be his cyberfriend