The first thing you should know is that Thomas Wilson's last name isn't actually Wilson. It has been changed to provide anonymity, but I bring it up because I want to assure you that everything else you are about to read is true.
Thomas is the commissioner of a 12-team re-draft league based in Indiana, formed by school buddies in 2008. It's a job he takes seriously. As he explains, "Hundreds of emails a week, even during the offseason ... it's a real league." It's a league filled with traditions, including the fact that the winner gets to choose the draft location the next year. As champion the year of our story, Thomas had chosen a remote cabin in the woods.
I get it, Thomas. Draft day is serious business. Can't be distracted by anything else that weekend. Not other friends, not romantic partners, not one of your league members in jail.
"Yeah," Thomas said, "a few months before the draft, we found out that one of our members got into a bit of a legal scuffle. He was pleading guilty to a charge that carried with it a three-year mandatory minimum sentence."
OK, Thomas, that's not a "bit of a legal scuffle." A bit of a legal scuffle is a speeding ticket. A bit of a legal scuffle is a cop yelling at you and threatening to arrest you. A bit of a legal scuffle is trying to figure out how to tell your wife you watched two episodes of "Big Brother" without her and then deleted them. (She doesn't read my column, you guys, so mum's the word, OK?)
"Well," Thomas continued, "'Either way, there was a fundamental misunderstanding over the legality of certain controlled substances and, most importantly, Guy's (not his real name) sentencing hearing was the day before our draft."
A meeting was quickly called of the Council of Elders, a subgroup within the league, to decide on a course of action. Obviously, they had to notify the league in a tactful way, and a modification of the constitution began to allow for caretaker managers.
But Thomas, well, Thomas is one of us. A fantasy football player. A commish. A fanatic.
And he did what we all do. What you're doing right now. He researched. And researched. And researched some more. Poring over the state's Department of Corrections website to see how lineup changes could possibly be made from jail. Weekly phone calls? Letters? Do they get email access?
But Thomas didn't stop there. No, he kept reading. Every inch of the website, every piece of information he could find. This was his league mate he was talking about. This was his draft day. And he is the commissioner.
It took a while, but Thomas found out that the three-year sentence for this crime could actually be served in any way the judge sees fit. Three years in jail, two years in jail and one year home detention ... completely up to the judge's discretion.
So ... you're saying there's a chance?
"Yeah," Thomas continued, "But a slim one. The prosecutors were pushing hard for all jail time, and even his own lawyer was saying he's getting at least a year in the slammer. No way around it."
But you don't become the commissioner of a league by taking the easy way out. Or taking "no" at face value. So Thomas knew that if he wanted, he could write a letter to the judge on Guy's behalf, asking for leniency. If the judge wants, he can consider such letters in making his/her decision.
It's not an easy letter to write, of course. It could wind up in public record with his name on it, and it's a long shot.
But, as Thomas says: "Of course I had to write the letter. Not because he's a good guy who just screwed up, although that's true. Not because some of our country's laws are screwed up, although they are. No, I had to write the letter because I'm the commissioner, and this incarceration was going to totally screw up our league."
So Thomas wrote the letter. His wife is a public defender, so she gave Thomas strategic advice on exactly what kind of language to use. Writing and rewriting, making sure every word was carefully considered and every phrase was strong, Thomas did draft after draft. "I poured my soul onto that page," he remembers.
Draft weekend comes soon and the league has gathered, ratifying the new constitution that involved a convoluted autodraft scheme for Guy when suddenly, an email pops up to the league.
"I'm coming to the draft. I need a ride."
It was Guy!
He had gotten three years' home detention, no jail time. And the detention wouldn't start for another two weeks, so he could attend the draft in person.
And are you ready for this?
The judge, in rendering his lenient judgment, read Thomas' entire letter from the bench as justification!
"When Guy got to the cabin, he told us that as soon the hearing was over, his parents walked up, embraced him and then had one simple question, uttered with a bewildered sense of urgency: 'Who wrote that letter? He said he knew you and your family, and we've never even heard of him.'"
"Oh him? He's my fantasy football commissioner."
You're damn right he is.
And for his part, Thomas doesn't think he lied about the part that referenced family. "After exchanging hundreds of emails a week for half a decade, including some of the most personally offensive insults imaginable, I truly believe there is no closer social relationship than that forged by a proper fantasy league."
Well said, Thomas, and it brings us meandering slowly into the 17th edition of the Draft Day Manifesto. Between the preparation, the location, the traditions, the picking of the order, the actual selections and everything else that goes into it, there's no day more important than draft day. Even if you're in jail.
And so, we're here to once again get you ready for the day that my very first commissioner, Don Smith, would always remark, "It's only the best day of the year."
So sit back. Put your feet up. May I take your drink order? Because we are going to be here a while. As always, the Manifesto has something for everyone. Some basic stuff for beginners, some advanced theory for longtime players and at least one new joke for my editor.
Some things about the Manifesto remain unchanged. It's long, there's some blatant promotion for my New York Times best-selling book "Fantasy Life" (now available as a free app!), and it starts with the secret to winning fantasy football.
At a fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis. That's it. That simple. Everything leads back to that. Everything.
A year ago, everyone was talking about rookie wide receivers, but no one thought the guy who had missed the preseason with a hammy injury and didn't get on the field until game No. 5 would put up the second-best fantasy season by a rookie wideout in NFL history ... in just 12 games. That a third-string running back from the Broncos would outscore LeSean McCoy; that Joe Flacco would finish outside the top 12 in fantasy scoring among QBs but still score more than Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Or that pretty much everyone would outscore a healthy Adrian Peterson.
You can't predict the future. I definitely can't predict the future. No one can predict the future. Those who try to are doomed to fail. So all you can do is play the odds. Put yourself in the best position to win, hope for the best and let the chips fall where they may. Do that and you won't win every single time, but you will more often than not. That's true in life as well.
What follows now are 15 thoughts on how to put yourself in the best possible position to win.
1. There are many ways to win
As you start your draft prep, realize there is no magic bullet. No one-size-fits-all strategy, no "right" way to do it. There are many, many paths to championship glory. On the right is a list of the 20 most common players on ESPN.com championship game participants last year. So of the two teams in the finals, there were eight different running backs on more than a quarter of them. Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Eddie Lacy and Matt Forte were first-rounders last year, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant and Le'Veon Bell were second-rounders. Jordy Nelson went in the third round last year on average, while Antonio Brown, Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski went solidly in the fourth round. Based on average draft position, it's highly unlikely that a team owned all these players. They likely owned one or two of them and then fortified the roster with guys like Jeremy Maclin or T.Y Hilton (both with eighth-round ADPs) along with a 13th-rounder like Jeremy Hill or Mike Evans.
Of course, playing the waiver wire is important, and Hill and Evans were available on many of them early in the season, just like C.J. Anderson was and, of course, the man they call OBJ.
You could have easily won your league last year if you went RB-RB (Forte and Murray), if you went RB-WR (Charles and Brown) or WR-WR at the turn (Dez-Brown). Hell, even the QB-TE combo of Aaron Rodgers (20 percent ownership on championship teams) and Jimmy Graham (16 percent) worked for some people last year. Rodgers and Graham had the ninth- and 10th-highest ADPs on opening night.
So we'll talk about scarcity of positions and an overview of each position in a bit, but the No. 1 takeaway here is I don't want you to get too hung up on "gotta take a ___ in the first round" or "I'm waiting on ___." There are many ways to win, so let the draft come to you.
2. It's a weekly game
This is such an obvious one, but you'd be amazed at how many people ignore this. I've been screaming this from the rooftops, er, writing about it in the Manifesto for many seasons now, but we don't play a yearly game. In the preseason you hear analysts talk about how many points a player had last year, his touchdown totals, what he did during a certain stretch. And on TV, where time is very limited, I'm guilty of doing that a bit as well.
But it's not the correct lens through which to view things. Fantasy football is not a season-long game. It's a series of 13 one-week regular-season contests and, if you do it right, a few more one-week contests after that.
This is a very important point to remember as you construct your team on draft day. You are building a team to compete on a weekly basis. What's the best collection of players you can acquire that gives you the most options and the best chance at success every week, knowing that each week presents its own challenges and opportunities?
Well, we're going to answer that. Or write so long that you forget about this question entirely.
3. Your magic number is 93
We've looked at this for three years now, and for three years, it's really remarkable. The average playoff team in an ESPN standard league scored 93 points a week. There will be weeks when you score more and lose, weeks where you score less and win, and every league is different. But it's a solid number for our purposes here. Get to that number every week in our standard game, and you'll often win enough games to make the playoffs.
Your goal is to start a lineup that gets to 93 points a week. Now, there are many, many ways to get there, but let's just pick a way and make a sheet that lists the starting positions and assigns projected points to target from those spots:
Could your QB score 20 and your RB1 get 11? Of course. Many ways to get to 93. But forget specific players for a second, I just want to concentrate on a simple exercise to visualize how you'll arrive at that total on a weekly basis and where points get distributed.
So let's put this to use and just for giggles, let's say we have pick No. 6 in an ESPN standard draft. Using our link to the latest ADPs, let's just take the player going sixth in each round and see where that nets us out. Pick six as I write this turns out to be Arian Foster, but hours before I turned this in the news came out about his groin injury, so let's just call it Marshawn Lynch, who is going fifth in ESPN leagues at this time. Anyway, we go to our projections chart and see what we project for Lynch. Rounding up, we project 14 points per game for Lynch. So, instead of 13 in the first RB slot, we put down Marshawn Lynch's name and the projected point total (14).
We are now one point over our target projection. As you fill in players during your draft, continue to update the chart. For this exercise, I stayed in the No. 6 spot in each round with an eye on trying to fill a starting lineup, so if I needed a different position, I took the next player after pick six at that position. Here's who was drafted, in order, by using ADP on ESPN:
Marshawn Lynch, Demaryius Thomas, T.Y. Hilton, Lamar Miller, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce and Cam Newton were the starters, followed by LeGarrette Blount, Martavis Bryant, Doug Martin and Breshad Perriman for the first four bench spots. Plus, I took the sixth-highest defense and kicker by ADP.
Now the chart looks like this, including each player's projected per-game point total:
There you go. As you go through your draft, it's just an easy way to see where you are, if you are hitting the correct targets and where there are holes in your team. Especially if you find yourself going QB early or making a run on one position, you don't have to worry about winding up with a slightly lower-quality player at another position, as you're making that difference up with your first choices.
If you don't play in an ESPN standard league, you can still approximate the target total based on last year's league (or however many years of data you have) ... and if it's a new league, hopefully you can extrapolate a little bit. It's not crucial that you nail the projections, but just that you have a guideline for a balanced team.
Because even if you wound up with this exact team in an ESPN standard 10-team league, there will be weeks where Odell Beckham Jr.'s hammy has kept him out, or Cam's ribs won't allow him to throw or Lamar Miller is playing the Jets' run defense and you're not really feeling it, and so on and so forth. But that's OK, because this isn't the lineup we are starting every week. Oh, there are some major pieces here, but remember, this is a weekly game.
Every week, we need to put out the best possible lineup (no duh) with the hopes that we are scoring at least 93 points a week. So how do we draft in order to be able to present the best possible lineup every week?
Well, as we discussed above, we have to realize that we can't predict the future, and to try is futile. You should also remember "fantasy football success, at its fundamental level, is about minimizing risk and putting yourself in the best position to win on a weekly basis."
And we do that by realizing that while we can't predict the future, we can predict a range of outcomes and feel fairly good about that range. In other words, I don't know what Andrew Luck is going to do this season, but I feel much more confident that his range of outcomes, barring some crazy injury, is somewhere between QB1 overall and QB5. Someone like Eli Manning, however, has a much broader range. He could finish as QB5 or so -- from Week 9 on last season, he had the sixth-most fantasy points among QBs -- and he could finish as QB15, as well. Much wider range of outcomes for Eli.
4. Players' range of potential outcomes: yearly
I was talking to my friend Jonathan Bales about this idea recently, the idea of evaluating players more on the range of potential outcomes and less on other factors, including their specific position. He's one of the DraftKings.com pros, so he looks at it through a DFS (daily fantasy sports) prism, whereas I (at least for the purposes of this column) am looking at it through a season-long lens, but we are in agreement on the basic idea behind it, regardless of what format you play.
Timeout for a quick story.
Not surprisingly, many of our reporters, anchors and analysts here at ESPN have sources and contacts within the NFL. And one week, one person here with a very close relationship with a head coach pulled me aside. "Hey," he said, "I just spoke to [NFL head coach] about the game Sunday. He said, 'Watch out for [an obscure wide receiver].'"
"Really?" I said, "How so?"
"Guy has had an amazing week of practice. And they discovered a weakness in the [other team's] defense. They think this guy is gonna create all sorts of mismatches this week. They're gonna feed him the ball a ton." Then, he finished by saying, "This is the week ___ becomes a household name."
This is a great piece of info, obviously. I liked the guy's talent -- he was someone I had mentioned in the preseason to keep an eye on -- and now he was finally getting his chance.
So I mention this obscure player on my podcast, I put him in the "If you're getting desperate" section of "Love/Hate," and on Fantasy Football Now I mention him as an interesting cheap play for DFS. I get some head-scratching "Really?" on Twitter, but I am standing by the call.
The game comes, and on the second play, they run a play for him. He is wide open about 20 yards down the field, the QB throws him the ball and ... the guy drops it. The next series they look to him on the first play and there's a miscommunication. Either the QB badly misfired or the guy ran the wrong route. Incomplete.
The QB barely looks his way again for the rest of the game and he finishes with something like one catch for 16 yards on three targets. Grrrreat.
Later, I actually got a chance to talk to that head coach and I asked him about that specific player (still, by the way, obscure and now on a new team). He remembered exactly what I was talking about and said everything I had heard was true. "We planned on getting him the ball in a big way. [The QB] just wanted no part of him after that drop. Didn't work out."
My point in telling you that story is that even when you know what is going to happen -- even when you know that there is an exact plan in place for a player -- there's still no guarantee that it will be executed correctly.
Do all the scouting and film watching you want. Crunch every single number you can. Have the head coach tell you a guy is getting the ball and it's still not rock-solid. Player projection is very hard and inexact, whether it's for a lineup specific to one week or for the entire season. As a result, I'm much less worried about a particular projection than I am about a range of projections, or potential outcomes. In short (too late!), for every player I draft (or buy during an auction) I want a range of outcomes that are one of two things:
1. Guys with high floors during the course of a season
2. Guys who could wind up as an elite option at a position in any one given week
We'll explore these two types of players in a bit, but I want to remind you (again!) about what I said at the top of this: At a fundamental level, fantasy football is all about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis.
The way we do that, of course, is by answering one simple question:
What's most likely to happen?
Every decision -- whom to draft, whom to start, whom to pick up, whom to deal, everything -- all comes back to that.
WHAT'S. MOST. LIKELY. TO. HAPPEN?
It's not tough to figure out.
Adrian Peterson has scored double-digit touchdowns every season he has played more than one game. What's most likely to happen this season?
No player in the NFL has ever caught 16 touchdowns or more in back-to-back seasons. Dez Bryant caught 16 last season. What's most likely to happen?
Since 1970, only six times has a quarterback rushed for more than 800 yards. No QB has ever done so in consecutive seasons and only one (Michael Vick in 2004 and 2006) has done it more than once. Russell Wilson rushed for 849 yards last season. What's most likely to happen?
It doesn't always happen, but again, more often than not, players come back to the mean. Do I think Bryant and Wilson will have big years? Of course, and my ranks reflect that. But do I think Dez matches or exceeds his touchdown total from last season? No. Do I think Wilson's rushing takes a hit as well? Yes.
It's a very simple exercise. What's most likely to happen? Answer that question for yourself before every move and then, of course, act accordingly. Put the odds forever in your favor, Katniss, and more often than not, it'll work out.
Remember: You don't need to be perfect. You just need to win more often than not. You don't need to beat every team. You just need to outscore the one you play in your league each week.
So let's talk about No. 1, guys with high floors during the course of a season.
Too often, people evaluate a player only in terms of what he could do in a positive manner, the best-case scenario for that player. People also tend to have recency bias, meaning we think only about how the player performed in the near past, not looking at a larger body of work.
But just as important as what heights a player could reach is also what could happen if it all falls apart. Injuries are a whole different subject, but one of the reasons why Aaron Rodgers is worth a second-round pick (and I have no issue if you want to take him in the first) is not because he is awesome (though he is), but rather because he is safe.
In every season in which Rodgers has been the starter for at least 15 games (he played in just nine in 2013), he has been a top-two fantasy quarterback. Every. Single. Year. He is as safe a thing as there is in fantasy football. He has a high floor. To be clear, I am not advocating selecting a QB in the first two rounds -- we'll talk positions in a bit and as I said, there are many ways to win -- but if you were to take Rodgers or Andrew Luck early, that's one of the big reasons why you should: High floor.
Since 2012, there are only two running backs who have averaged more than 1,300 rushing yards and nine touchdowns a season: Marshawn Lynch and ... Alfred Morris. There is nothing sexy about Morris, and his limitations in the passing game keep his ceiling low, but his floor is high. I love Morris this year, especially at his current fourth-round ADP on ESPN, but the point is, again ... range of outcomes.
Assuming health, the range of outcomes for Morris is somewhere between No. 7 and 13 at running back this season. High floor, limited range of outcomes. Meanwhile, someone like Justin Forsett, who has a much shorter track record of being a top fantasy running back, is older and has a new offensive coordinator this season. Now, the new offensive coordinator is fantasy-friendly, the Ravens say they are keeping most of what they did last season under Gary Kubiak and it's a very good offensive line. So he could easily repeat. It could also all go downhill. There is a wide range of outcomes for Forsett.
I'm not going to do this for every player. Everything else you read/hear/see from me (and everyone else) this preseason will be about player evaluation, so I'm keeping this mostly to theory and strategy.
So I want players with a high floor. That consistency, week in and week out, is what wins championships. Every week there will be players who go off -- on your team and on your opponent's -- and unless it's a seven-touchdown game from Peyton Manning or something, in general what will win the week for you is the other guys, getting solid production from the rest of your lineup. Every roster spot matters.
I wanted to try to figure out a way to valuate "high floor" for the full season from a drafting point of view, so here's what I did: I looked at where every player finished, in terms of fantasy points at his position, for the past three years. I weighed the 2014 season at 50 percent, 2013 at 35 percent and 2012 at 15 percent. The idea is that most recent production should count the most, but a player's recent body of work should count for something. And since there is less data (and, in theory, more inherent risk) with younger players, if a player didn't appear in a season, he got a 40th-place finish at quarterback and tight end and a 90th-place finish at running back and wide receiver.
So using this criteria, here's the top 10 at running back in terms of their three-year average finish at the position, a "safety score" if you will (or even if you won't):
Upside, expected plans of the team, health and much more need to be taken into account. Missing a year really kills you in this exercise, but that's sort of the point. We are looking for safety in all facets, including just being on the field. So, no, I am not suggesting you draft Joique Bell over Eddie Lacy this year. Or even Morris over Lacy. But I am saying that maybe those two, along with Frank Gore and especially DeMarco Murray, are being undervalued a bit this year. Bell is banged up as of this writing and I totally get the Ameer Abdullah fear (and upside), but the hate's gone too far. Anyway, it was an interesting exercise. I did this for every other position and then I also did it for all the positions combined. And the overall top 20 had something very interesting. Of the 20 "safest" players the past three years, 12 of them were either quarterbacks or tight ends. We'll come back to this point, but for now, here's the list:
In the meantime, whether you look at the list or not and whether you want to use that barometer or completely ignore it, I urge you to do one thing ... and that is to have an opinion on the range of outcomes for every player. Even if you just take a rankings sheet and quickly go down the list making notations like "wide," "medium" or "small." Doing this exercise will help reshape how you view each player and guide you through the draft.
If you want extra credit, I suggest taking our projections, along with a few other sources, and creating a range of projections. So when you are doing the sheet we discussed up above, when you draft, say, Marshawn Lynch, you can write "11-16" for a range of potential points per week he could get. And now, instead of shooting for 93 points (or whatever your target is) you can aim for more of a range, say 90-100 for a week.
As I said before, I want players who either have a high floor or could wind up as an elite option at a position in any one given week. Because that brings us to our next point ...
5. Players' range of potential outcomes: weekly
There is another kind of player you should be stocking your team with, especially as you move toward the middle and later rounds of your draft or auction. And that's a player who has a very high weekly ceiling.
Again, this is a weekly game. So, obviously, every single week you are going to look at all the available players to you -- on your roster and in the free-agent pool -- and decide on a starting lineup.
Obvious as it seems, that's actually a huge step that gets overlooked a lot in fantasy. Because it's not just enough to have a good player, you need to know when to start that player. Jonas Gray had an awesome four-touchdown game, but very few people started him that week in season-long play. And then, of course, he was pretty much useless the rest of the year.
Compare that to Knile Davis. Also a late-round draft pick last year (ADP of 140.8 on opening night), he was ranked as a top-10 running back in our consensus ranks heading into Week 3 last season. Jamaal Charles was banged up and Davis was getting the start against a (at that time) struggling Miami defense. Davis responded with a 132 yards and a score. A day that was enjoyed by many owners ... because you felt confident in starting him, knowing he would get a lot of carries, and we have seen his talent when Charles has been hurt before.
So while Davis had a low point total for the season, he had a very strong range of potential outcomes in Week 3.
I went back and looked at the ESPN consensus rankings for every position, for every week last season. During the course of the 17-week season, 20 different quarterbacks were ranked in the top 10 at least one week. In other words, ranked as a starter in ESPN standard leagues.
Meanwhile, 56 different running backs, 47 wide receivers and 22 tight ends were ranked as top-20 options at their respective position at least one week.
It takes a village. This is a very simple but very important concept; not every player on your team needs to start every week. In fact, they can't. You just want players who can start for you some weeks. Some of them will be the every-week building blocks we discussed earlier, but others will be just weekly rentals.
There will be players who emerge, and playing the waiver wire will be crucial to your success. But for every C.J. Anderson or Odell Beckham Jr., there's a lot of Bernard Pierce, Jonas Gray, Benny Cunningham, Boobie Dixon, Bryce Brown and Terrance West types who proved to be (mostly) useless.
Here's a crazy stat: Of the 145 players who were ranked as a starter at some point last year, approximately 18 percent of them were not drafted last year in ESPN standard leagues.
In other words, the majority of your starters this year are going to come from the group of guys you draft/purchase at auction. So in assembling your team, realize that you want players who have the potential for a high weekly ceiling. Someone who, if the situation is right, could be an elite option in a given week. That will never happen for someone like Anquan Boldin. That could happen for someone like Davante Adams. If anything happens to Randall Cobb or Jordy Nelson, Adams would be an immediate top-15 wideout. That just won't happen with a guy like Boldin.
So build your team with guys who have either a high yearlong floor or the potential for a high range of outcomes in any given week. Because if you do that, you'll ...
6. Have the most pieces to choose from every week to build an optimal lineup
This is simply about roster construction. As you build your team, you'll know where your consistent week-to-week studs are and where you will need more depth to patch together pieces. If you wind up with Aaron Rodgers or Rob Gronkowski, you don't need a second QB or TE. On the other hand, if you wait on those positions, you'll want more than one to mix and match.
I don't know who this year's C.J. Anderson is or even this year's Mohamed Sanu, who was useful for a few weeks there. But what I do know is that those players are coming. And that's why I want as many "lottery tickets" on my roster as possible, for when guys like that pop. When in doubt, go running back. You can never have too many of them. It's easier to find replacement players at all other positions. Speaking of positions ...
7. First or Last
I discussed this some in this year's ESPN The Magazine's Fantasy Football Guide, and it's more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule. My take on the positions this year is that I basically want to be one of the first to grab a guy at a position or the last. In general, I'm a "best player available" kind of drafter. I don't subscribe to the idea that you must get a running back early or that you must wait on a quarterback or that you must anything, frankly. The value of a player in the draft-day marketplace is dictated by his average draft position (ADP), so the fact that there are quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and at least one tight end being taken in the first two rounds of most drafts means that there are players at every position worth your consideration. Your league's scoring, your personal preferences and draft slot will dictate which position you go after first, but wherever you go, my rule of thumb this year is to be one of the first to draft a position or the last.
Take quarterback, for example. There is a clear tier there, with Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. Rodgers is money in the bank and Luck was already the second-best fantasy QB last season, then the Colts added Andre Johnson and a good pass-blocking running back in Frank Gore. Both signal-callers are worthy of early-round selections. But if they're gone, I'm waiting in a 10- or 12-team league. Did you know, on a points-per-game basis, Drew Brees was less than two points per game better than Ryan Tannehill last season? That there were 14 different quarterbacks who averaged more than 16 fantasy points per game last season? With injury concerns about Peyton Manning, the Saints losing Jimmy Graham and seemingly headed to a more run-based approach, and questions about the repeatability of Russell Wilson's rushing, if I don't get one of those two QBs, I'll be fine waiting to see who is left after nine or 11 teams have rostered theirs. Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Tony Romo and Eli Manning (a top-10 QB last year with a healthy Victor Cruz and a full year of Odell Beckham Jr.), in addition to the aforementioned Peyton, Wilson, Brees and Tannehill? Whomever you get will be fine because ultimately, by waiting on quarterback, you're gaining an advantage at another position. Another position like ... running back.
I can't believe I am saying this, but I don't actually hate this year's running back selections (ducks). I know, I know, there comes a point where it gets ugly, but that point comes later this season than it has in recent years. I still have all running backs in my top five this year, so yeah, I want a stud early. But if I don't get a bell cow No. 1 running back, I am OK waiting a bit. Now, I'm not waiting forever and I am not an advocate of a theory some folks call "zero RB," but I am fine with being the last guy to get his No. 1 running back, in the middle of Round 2 or even in Round 3 if the draft breaks a certain way. And then waiting even longer and loading up on running backs in the middle rounds.
The past few years I've been a big proponent of basically making your No. 2 running back a committee. This is a slightly different way of saying what we discussed earlier. That after the few bell cow running backs, there are a bunch of question marks. But during the course of the season, some of those question marks will emerge as usable players for a week or two, or longer. What I wrote last year was to just roster a lot of questionable runners with injury or playing-time concerns and some of them will pop. And it worked, as guys like Ahmad Bradshaw, Jeremy Hill, Joique Bell, Mark Ingram, Lamar Miller, Tre Mason and Jonathan Stewart were among the backup running backs or committee guys who emerged as legit and useful starters during the season. And that doesn't include guys who weren't drafted in many leagues, like Justin Forsett, C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, LeGarrette Blount and Isaiah Crowell, all of whom emerged as startable runners at various points of the season. That's why you need to roster as many of them as possible, to maximize your chances of owning one who pops.
Still, while plenty of teams were starting both free-agent pickups Forsett and Anderson down the stretch last year, I'd hate to count on that. Again, what's most likely to happen? You find two top-10 running backs on the waiver wire? Or you roll with at least one stud you drafted? Personally, I want at least one stud this year at running back, and if Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Le'Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy and Marshawn Lynch are there, great. I'll get one early. But if not, I will grab a stud at another position and then get a Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, Jeremy Hill or C.J. Anderson early in the second. Going down further, Lamar Miller, Jonathan Stewart, LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram and Justin Forsett all have warts but all should be solid. The point is, there comes a juncture where there's a bit of sameness to the runners, and I'm not bypassing Antonio Brown or Rob Gronkowski in the second half of the first round just to grab a running back so I have a running back. Be among the first or last to grab that No. 1 running back, I'm telling you.
When I first sat down to write this -- that's right, I'm not like the weird guy down the hall who stands to type all day, what with his "healthy back" and "wanting blood to flow" malarkey -- my initial thought was the "first or last" mentality would work for all positions except wide receiver. The position was so deep, I thought. And no doubt, it's the easiest place to find a guy who pops, especially given all the new passing rules (if you breathe on a guy, it's 15 yards) and the fact that it's easier than ever for talented rookies to make an impact. But as you dig deeper, there is absolutely an upper tier of guys, and I definitely want one of Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson. I will say Calvin makes me nervous this year and I think you can make a case for Randall Cobb and Alshon Jeffery to be on that list.
According to Tristan H. Cockcroft's consistency ratings, which track how a player performed versus all others on a week-to-week basis, there were 20 different wideouts who were startable at least half the time last season, which is a nice number, but not as deep as you think. The upper tier still makes a difference every week and, frankly, at the elite levels receiver is more consistent than any other position except quarterback. But because of the depth at the position, if I don't get one of the elite guys, I am OK on waiting and stockpiling in the middle rounds. In other words, say it with me, class: "I want to be first or last."
At tight end, it's Rob Gronkowski's world, we just live in it. With 55 career touchdowns in 65 games, Gronk's scoring rate is the very definition of fantasy football goodness. Having proved he can stay healthy all season long, having been top 15 in the NFL (and first among tight ends) in targets (in just 15 games!), and having one of the best offenses in the NFL go through him ... Gronk is a one-man tier at tight end. After the free-agency frenzy subsided in March, I was asked whose fantasy value took the biggest spike and I said Gronkowski, even though his team made no significant moves. And the reason, very simply, is that with Jimmy Graham going to Seattle (fewest pass attempts last season) and Julius Thomas to Jacksonville (just 16 passing touchdowns total last season), there's not really any other elite, or even very good, tight ends. So if I am not the first guy to get a tight end (Gronk), I want to be the last. Do I like guys like Greg Olsen or Travis Kelce more than others? Sure. But other than Gronk, they are all basically the same. Thomas and Graham are now mortal, Antonio Gates is suspended for four games and will miss a fifth because of a bye, and with pretty much the rest of the tight ends, the weeks they score touchdowns you'll be thrilled, the weeks they don't, you won't. Going back to the consistency ratings again, last season there were 11 different tight ends who were "startable" (top 10 for the week) for at least a third of the season, but not startable more than nine times. That's enough to drive you mad. And if you subscribe to the theory that touchdowns are mostly fluky, it's worth noting the difference last season between tight end No. 2 and tight end No. 21 was just 10 yards per game. One point per week. That's it.
First or last doesn't mean you wait forever and it doesn't mean you can't be second with a guy like Andrew Luck or Jimmy Graham ... and for running back and wide receiver, you just have to be one of the first. Ultimately, you want elite production from at least one or two positions and you won't get that if you're just chasing every run or stuck in some sort of "I must get a running back in the first no matter where I am drafting or what has happened before me" mindset.
As for kicker and defense, we say it every year. Wait on both. Five of the top 10 fantasy defenses last season weren't even drafted. The difference between kicker No. 1 and kicker No. 10 was less than two points per week.
If you're not among the first, wait and clean up on the other positions. Here's some other quick pieces of advice.
8. You need to nail rounds 1 and 2
It seems obvious, but really, really, really think about your first two picks. About 30 percent of your production should come from these two players. Ask anyone who took Adrian Peterson last year. Obviously, there was no way to know about his off-the-field issues, but I bring that up just as an example of how a poor first pick can derail a season. (The average drafter of Peterson last year finished between sixth and seventh in ESPN leagues).
It's why I'm OK with an Antonio Brown in the first or any of the elite WRs in the second. Why I am OK with Gronkowski, Rodgers or Luck in one of the first two rounds. Barring injury, all will be elite at their positions, have a high floor and a fairly narrow range of outcomes. I always say ... you can't win your league in the first two rounds, but you can lose it.
9. You down with ADP?
So here's a secret that never really gets talked about. The ADP on whatever site you play is greatly influenced by the default rankings on that site's draft lobby. Obviously we hope everyone plays for free on ESPN.com, where we have the No. 1 mobile app (also free), but we recognize some people are stuck with insane commissioners who won't move the league and so ... it's very important to be aware of two things:
1. What the ADPs are for the site you play on
2. Where you differ from the ADP of that site
Those discrepancies are what you'll exploit as you go through the draft. Take your rankings (or whatever rankings sheet you plan on going into the draft with) and compare them with the ADP of the site you're playing on, making notes of players that are going too high or too low for you. If a guy is going in the 10th round, there's no reason to waste a sixth-round pick on him, you know?
10. Well ... just how early are we talking?
That said about ADP, understand every draft and league is different. A question I get all the time is some version of, "I have pick No. 3 and I really like Antonio Brown. Is that too early?"
And my answer is always no. Look, I have Brown toward the end of the first round, so yes, if I had to pick third I would go a different way. But it's your team, not mine. You're the one who has to live with it all season. Please realize that all rankings -- including mine -- are guidelines and not hard and fast. They are not designed to be followed dogmatically. Brown won't be there when it's your turn in the second, so if you want him, this is your only chance. Grab him. It's not like you're gonna lose your league because you have Antonio Brown on your team, you know? Of course, this is also another argument for doing an auction, where you can truly go after the all players you really want.
11. It's not just what you do, but how you do it
For those that do an in-person draft, understand that there is a mental game as well with your fellow league mates. As such, 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, "Fortunately, you didn't grab the correct guy" -- will do wonders to rattle your less-confident league mates.
12. OK, yes, this is a blatant plug, but it's also good advice
Practice makes perfect. Yeah, I'm a company man, but the fact remains: The more you do something, the better you get at it, my career notwithstanding. We have free mock draft and auction lobbies open 24/7. Particpate in mocks with us during our #MockDraftMonday each week in August. Either way, just jump in and practice drafting. And try picking from different spots. Try different things. See what happens if you go RB/RB. Or go back-to-back with wideouts. Try drafting a QB early one time and late in another mock. The more scenarios you face, the less fazed you'll be when something screwy happens in your real draft. Oh, and if you join a mock draft, don't leave until it's over. The people that join a mock draft and then leave early are among the worst people in fantasy football. If you don't have time, don't do it. But if you join, stick it out.
13. Bye, bye, bye
Don't sweat bye weeks. So much can happen during a season in terms of injuries, role changes and what constitutes a good or poor matchup, you're not gonna know what you want to do in a given week until you're setting your lineup that week. So get the best player, period. There's even an argument to be made for trying to have every player have the same bye week. Yes, you take it on the chin one week, but you're at full strength every other week and all your opponents are not. Ken Daube calls this "bye week stacking," and if it has a catchy name, it has to work, right?
14. Best team possible means best team possible
By that same token, I never worry about things like whether a player is on the same team as another guy I've already drafted. You're trying to get the best possible team, period. I don't seek it out but I don't avoid it, either. If the next-best guy available is the wide receiver for your quarterback, so be it. Don't get cute or overthink it. Peyton Manning doesn't know you also have Demaryius Thomas on your team and more importantly, he doesn't care. If Peyton and DT are the two best players available when they come up in your draft, have at it.
15. In August, you know nothing about what December will look like
I also never really worry about fantasy playoff schedules or schedules in general. We just don't know how defenses will perform. Remember how worried people were about facing Carolina's defense at the beginning of last season? People drafted them second and then after the Panthers' slow start, were dropping them by midseason. You weren't worried about your running back facing the Lions last August, but you sure were in December. Draft the best team possible.
Bonus: Have fun!
Whether it's angry tweets or insane message board posts or people feeling miserable, I often see way too many forget that this is a hobby. We do this for fun.
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.