How to draft a fantasy football team in nine easy steps

Travis Kelce is one of only a handful of tight ends worth considering in the first three rounds. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

If you're here, don't worry, you're not alone.

A friend, relative or acquaintance may well have gauged your interest in joining his or her fantasy league and you -- correctly -- accepted the invitation.

The only problem?

You aren't familiar with how to even draft a fantasy football team.

No sweat! That's what we are here for.

That's right, every year one of the most enjoyable parts of the start of the new fantasy football season is seeing the growing population of players and introducing those individuals to a game that will change their Sundays forever. Seriously, forever.

Fantasy football is my job and something that offers me a chance at competition each season. But what has always struck me as unique is just how much of a community each league becomes, too. I've met new folks from fantasy football, reconnected with old friends and developed more than a few friendly rivalries along the way.

For those whose maiden voyage into the seas of fantasy football will be made this year, welcome and good luck! It's a decision you won't regret.

And for those who have been there, done that, don't stop reading the column yet. Sure, many of the introductory rules of how to draft might be common practice to you already, but there's always time to sharpen your skills and get ready for the season ahead.

Without further ado, here are my nine rules to introduce you to how to draft your fantasy football team. (Note: Any per-game statistics mentioned below include the threshold of at least eight games played in a season).

1. Value matters

The goal of the draft is not to simply fill out your roster. It's to build a roster strategically, understanding that not all spots are created equally. Specifically, you'll soon find out that there is no more important asset to your roster than a consistently dominant running back in fantasy football. Consider the supply available: There were just 12 running backs in 2018 who averaged at least 15 points per game; 20 wide receivers did the same. A further reveal shows that not only are consistent running backs harder to find but also that top-tier production drops off more precipitously. In 2018, the total number of points scored by the 20th-best running back represented just 46.7 percent of points scored by the top running back. By comparison, the 20th-best wide receiver scored 62.1 percent of the points scored by the top scoring wideout. This is not to say that you must only draft running backs early, but the two premium spots in fantasy football -- running backs and wide receivers -- will and should dominate the early rounds.

2. But quarterbacks score a lot of points, what about them?

Well, you're not wrong on the points part. Quarterbacks, given the scoring in which they are awarded four points for a passing touchdown and one point per 25 passing yards, give you a weekly chance for robust output. A lot of them do, as a matter of fact, which is why patience is the key. In 2018, the gap between the fourth-best scoring quarterback (Deshaun Watson) and 15th-best scoring quarterback (Jameis Winston) was less than three points (20.73 vs. 17.80). That difference is not significant enough to justify early quarterback selections, especially when you consider that just 10 quarterbacks are starting in a league each week (in a standard ESPN league). Our good friend Tristan Cockcroft noted in his consistency rankings for the 2018 season that 19 quarterbacks had at least five top-10 weekly scoring finishes. A lot of quarterbacks are good in fantasy! There will be excellent options available late in your draft at quarterback. Be patient.

3. Keep hammering running backs and wide receivers early

This dovetails with the first two rules, but to be clear: It's OK to be redundant early in the draft. There's a chance -- perhaps a good one -- that you'll draft players for your bench at running back and wide receiver before you even consider a tight end or quarterback and most certainly a defense or a kicker. As you should. Resist the urge to simply select your starters because it makes your roster grid look more balanced. That being said, there are some exceptions ...

4. Such as these three tight ends

Tight end is a unique position in fantasy: It's comparable to a running back in that the stud players are more difficult to find, but because you start only one per week (and generally it is a less common flex option), the urgency to select one is not as high. Moreover, a top-scoring tight end's output is lower than a top-scoring running back's. But there are three tight ends who merit consideration for a pick in the first three rounds: Zach Ertz of the Eagles, Travis Kelce of the Chiefs and George Kittle of the 49ers. All three had over 135 targets in 2018, 24 more than the next highest player at the position (Eric Ebron, 111), when they accounted for eight of the 12 best individual weeks last season. Ertz set an NFL record for tight ends with 116 catches, while Kittle (1,377) and Kelce (1,336) had the two best single-season receiving-yard totals ever by a tight end. In the post-Gronk world, these three rule the roost. If you miss out on these players, you'll be targeting later-round value.

5. All right, about defense and kickers

Step 1. Allow me to grab the megaphone. 2. Indulge me as I shout: Draft your defense and kickers in the FINAL two rounds of your draft. Defensive scoring in fantasy is incredibly unpredictable. An awesome defense in real football can be an average one in fantasy, especially because defensive/special teams touchdowns -- which are very difficult to forecast week to week -- play such a huge role in fantasy football. Last year's top-drafted defense was the Jaguars, with an average draft position of 66th overall; they finished as the 10th-best fantasy defense. The Eagles were the No. 2-drafted defense on average and finished 26th in scoring. Take me at my word here: It's hard to predict defense. And, by the way, there's not a massive differential between the top scoring defenses: The second-best scoring defense outpaced the 10th-best scoring defense by just 1.5 points per game last season. For kickers: Just don't overthink it. Find a kicker late and draft one from an offense you believe in. It usually works out. Those who paid an early premium last year for Stephen Gostkowski, the top-drafted kicker, missed out on the likes of James White, James Conner and Matt Ryan, also taken in the same pick range on average. The fifth-best scoring kicker was just two points per game better than the 22nd best. Patience, my friends.

6. Play the lottery late in your draft

Here's the fun part about fantasy football: No matter how much we prepare and -- in some cases -- agonize over our draft, there's so much unknown. It's a projection game, and even the surest of bets can prove futile, while sometimes the out-of-nowhere success story tilts a season. You know who was intrigued by Patrick Mahomes going into last season? Everybody. You know who was expecting him to throw for 50 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards? Nobody. His average draft position was 122, meaning he was a 13th-round pick in 10-team leagues. Nick Chubb went undrafted in 67.4% of leagues and went on to be the sixth-best running back from Weeks 9 to 17. There are countless examples of players who have provided exceptional return on modest investment. As you're getting to the later rounds of the draft, keep upside in mind. Perhaps there's a rookie who is set to begin the season as a backup but might have a chance to grow into a role (e.g., Ravens running back Justice Hill), or a player who has flashed in small doses but never put together a full season of excellence (e.g., Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup). Pick these players! It's better to roll the dice in favor of players with a capped ceiling, as these late-round gems can be league-winners. Of the 15 most common players on championship-winning teams in ESPN Fantasy leagues last season, six of them were taken, on average, in the 11th round or later. The back end of your roster is going to be manipulated a lot during the season, so if these players don't yield production, it's easy enough to cut bait.

7. Handcuffs are important ... selectively

There's a term in fantasy football called "handcuffing," which refers to selecting the backup to a star player (essentially just star running backs) already on your roster to protect yourself in the event that said star suffers an injury. These picks usually come later on in the draft, but is it necessary? Well, it depends. Remember, you are selecting a player who could spend the entire season on your bench, which would limit your flexibility to cultivate depth elsewhere. That being said, here's my take on when to handcuff: If you have a body of work that shows the backup can be a productive player, or if the offense he plays in is very dynamic, it is worth the investment, especially if there are any concerns surrounding the starter (injury history, for example). Case in point: Darrell Henderson is the exciting third-round rookie out of Memphis whom the Rams liked entering the draft. Todd Gurley enters 2019 with concerns over the health of his knee, and this offense is a freight train. Henderson has backfield competition with Malcolm Brown but is definitely worth the late-round flier. If you're either uninspired by the player's skill set or the offense he's playing in, don't bother. Say you snag Leonard Fournette early; I'm less optimistic in identifying the top backup in Jacksonville and whether that player would even carry enough value. Pick wisely.

8. Odds and ends

A few helpful hints that may sound silly but are essential: Know the rules of your league! Scoring systems vary dramatically in fantasy football, so make sure you know what settings are in place and what those settings mean (for instance, PPR means points per reception, as in every catch a player makes, he earns one point). ... Be mindful of bye weeks. If you see during your draft that you've selected five players who share a bye week, store that knowledge. Rosters change too much during the season to be beholden to bye weeks before the games have begun, but keep an eye out. ... If you make a major investment in a top quarterback or tight end, don't bother drafting a backup. If you find yourself on the back end of the run on drafting quarterbacks or tight ends, I'm on board with selecting another to experiment with early on in the season.

9. Know the room

If you're a first-time fantasy player, ignore this one, but file it away for later. If you're a return customer to the world of fantasy, this matters: As best as you can, know and understand the room of players you are drafting with. As you spend more time playing fantasy football with others, you'll pick up on tendencies, strategies and patterns. You might know that a particular fantasy player is an audacious drafter unafraid to go big early; you might know that in a league you play in, quarterbacks always go late, affording you the chance to be very patient. These sometimes subtle trends can prove invaluable.