A new fantasy football season is upon us, and if you tuned out after February's Super Bowl, you certainly have a lot of catching up to do.
The 2023 NFL offseason was substantially tamer than the chaotic 2022 installment, but we still saw a flurry of action that will bring massive changes to this season's fantasy football landscape.
The Playbook takes a thorough position-by-position look at that landscape and offers advice and information that can help you make sound decisions not only on draft day but in the weeks leading up to Week 1 and throughout the season. The focus will primarily be on average-sized, season-long leagues, but I didn't forget those of you who, like me, are in more nuanced leagues, including dynasty, keeper, superflex and best ball.
If you're a regular reader of my work, first of all, thank you! Second of all, this will seem quite different (unless you only read my Taylor Swift meets fantasy football piece, of course). Instead of going heavy on data, numbers and charts, this is a strategy piece for both beginners and advanced players that shows you how I apply all that I've learned during my many years as a fantasy player and during an offseason of research. Note that I originally published a version of this article in 2021, but it is a living document I make substantial updates to each year.
Bear with me and I'll cover as many bases as possible in a relatively short amount of time.
What to do with your first two draft picks
Our quest to identify the perfect fantasy football strategy evolves year after year, but at the end of the day, finding quality running backs remains the most important goal.
Of course, how exactly you find those quality options remains an industry-wide debate.
Some will tell you to load up early and often, while others opine that some form of the Zero RB strategy is your ticket to a fantasy title. If you're not familiar, Zero RB is a drafting philosophy that involves not selecting any running backs until at least the middle portion of your draft, instead loading up on wide receivers (and perhaps an elite tight end) in the first several rounds. Then, when top backs inevitably get injured, your opponents' rosters get worse and you can use your stashed backs and waivers to fill your RB slots, giving you an edge on the field.
What do I think? I think that it depends on whom you're drafting with and how your draft is progressing. That's a bit of a cop-out, but it also follows suit with my general drafting strategy of never (OK, rarely) allowing biases, emotion or need stand in the way of maximizing value.
In the eighth annual MFL10 of Death best-ball draft, held in May 2021, I knew I was drafting with some of the sharpest players in the industry and was fully aware that many of them were on the Zero RB train, which was sure to mean a heavier dose of wide receivers in the first few rounds. This allowed me to grab Alvin Kamara fifth overall, Nick Chubb 20th, D'Andre Swift 29th, Josh Jacobs 53rd and Leonard Fournette 125th (the first four were picked within the first five rounds). I picked all five backs later (some way later) than their average draft position (ADP) at the time, so while I was a step behind at receiver, I built myself a sizable edge at running back and had a weekly edge in the flex. I rolled with a similar strategy the year prior (four RBs in the first seven rounds) and spent two of my first three picks on RBs in 2022 (in addition to taking the discount on Jacobs in the sixth round). Did it work? Well, prepare yourself for the first of several not-so-humble brags in this piece: I won the league in both 2020 and 2022, and, despite almost no production from my injury-plagued receiver room, I finished third in 2021.
OK, that covers leagues against 11 humans who think almost exclusively about fantasy football year-round, but what about a more casual league? In past versions of this piece, I showed ADP data that indicated most drafters were still leaning heavily on RBs in the early rounds. Recent 2023 best-ball ADP data shows a considerable change. Whereas 2022 had a RB selected with seven of the first 11 picks (and 14 of the first 25), 2023 data shows four of the first 11 picks (and nine of the first 25) as RBs. This season, you should expect more WRs than RBs to be off the board right out of the gate and throughout the entire draft.
So, the question is, do you follow the new trend and avoid RBs early or stack a pair of RB1s with your first two picks? It somewhat depends on where you're drafting in the first round, but the best way to maximize your entire lineup is going to be a mix of both.
If you have the first overall pick, the right answer -- in my opinion -- is to select WR Justin Jefferson. However, RBs Austin Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey have similar upside and while the position is more susceptible to injury, RB is a tougher position to fill, so I have no particular qualms going that direction. Past that, it's dealer's choice, with star WRs Ja'Marr Chase, Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs, TE Travis Kelce and RBs Bijan Robinson, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor all viable options.
I'm generally a proponent of aiming for the earliest possible pick in your draft, but because of the lack of clarity at 1.1, picking closer to the Round 1/2 turn will provide a ton of value in 2023. I'll get more into the weeds on draft strategy throughout this piece, but ...
In summary: In an ideal world, I'm getting at least one star RB and one star WR with those first two picks (though two RBs is fine if the board calls for it) and then aggressively attacking a deep wide receiver position, while also waiting to pounce on a value at quarterback and tight end in the middle rounds.
State of the positions
Now that you have a general idea of how to attack the first round or so of your draft, let's check in on how each fantasy position shapes up this year.
Quarterback: The 'big three' followed by plenty of quality depth
The quarterback position was a bit bizarre last season, as none (literally none) of perennial fantasy stars Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Matthew Stafford finished top 10 among QBs in fantasy points. None!
Meanwhile, career backup Geno Smith delivered the elusive age-31 breakout campaign and was the top-scoring fantasy QB not named Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts or Joe Burrow. Who saw that coming?
Despite the shocking falloff of so many seasoned veterans, the top of the fantasy leaderboard wasn't particularly surprising, with Mahomes, Allen and Hurts pacing the field. Those three comprise the top tier at QB this season, though they will cost you a pretty penny (likely a second or early third-round pick). That may be a tough pill to swallow considering the opportunity cost of passing on top RB and WR options in that area. Typically, I'll be waiting a bit longer and attacking the next tier or two, which is loaded with upside options. They include Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields, Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, some of whom will be available as late as the seventh round. That's a pretty good group of nine QBs and likely the area you want to attack. Past that, things get a little hairier with the likes of Prescott, Daniel Jones and Tua Tagovailoa offering the most upside. Otherwise, it's a hefty tier of fringe QB1s, including Kirk Cousins, Smith, Rodgers and Wilson.
It wasn't long ago that a superstar QB, like Mahomes, Allen or Hurts, would be a first-round pick in all fantasy leagues. The industry has wised up in that department, and casual drafters have caught on as well, but that top tier is more expensive than it's been in some time. The good news is that you can still feel comfortable passing on that trio and coming away with a solid starter with upside.
In summary: There are eight or nine quarterbacks with whom you can feel pretty comfortable as your QB1 this season, so while you should try to land one from that group, you don't need to reach on one of the "big three."
Running back: At a crossroads
Last season, I wrote here that many top fantasy running backs were approaching a dangerous age and we could be in for a youth movement at the position. It seems I may have been one year early, as the age-27 or 28 backs I mentioned stayed fantasy relevant for most of the season (Ekeler, Henry, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Aaron Jones each managed a top-12 fantasy campaign, while James Conner and Ezekiel Elliott were often in lineups). Of course, Cook, Fournette and Elliott have since been released and the rest of the group is now one year closer to the proverbial cliff.
Check this out: Even after a bit of an outlier in 2022, the average age of top-15 fantasy RBs over the past five years is 24.5, and only three of the 75 RBs (or 4%) in the sample were 28 or older to begin the season. Why is that notable? Ekeler (28), Henry (29), Jones (28), Conner (28), Cook (28) and Kamara (28) are all early-round (or early-ish) draft picks entering their age-28 or older season. Prior to 2022, age 27 was a bit concerning as well, which is notable for McCaffrey (27), Chubb (27) and Joe Mixon (27).
The question is, can we still count on these veterans who have proven elite/reliable the past half-decade and remain positioned for big workloads, or should we fade them in anticipation of a mass exodus from standout production and instead lean into youth? Robinson (21), Taylor (24), Breece Hall (22), Travis Etienne Jr. (24), Jahmyr Gibbs (21), Dameon Pierce (23), Rachaad White (24), Kenneth Walker III (22) and J.K. Dobbins (24) are among the "24 and under" backs who very well could overtake the veterans and make the leap to RB1 status (if they haven't already) in 2023. Because of this potential youth movement, fading RB out of the gate and then swinging at some youngsters in the third through seventh round is a viable strategy.
We discussed the concept of Zero RB above, and one of the intriguing offsets of that approach -- modified Zero RB, as it were -- suggests grabbing one RB early and then ignoring the position until way later in the draft. Here's the thing: If you spend only one of your first four or five picks on a back, you're likely going to enter the season with an uneasy feeling at the RB2 spot. And, honestly, that's OK. With the well-documented high injury rate at the position, it's more likely than not you'll be able to fill that spot with a midround pick in the short-term and a bench stash or waiver add later in the year. This strategy has its merits, so don't be afraid to execute it if the board isn't supplying much RB value. I took multiple early round RBs in the prior examples, but, as you'll see later, I'm not afraid to fade the RB2 slot when the board calls for a different strategy.
One thing you do need to watch out for, though, is the RB "dead zone" that has been a popular point of discussion in the industry in recent years. Once the top group of backs are off the board (generally after Round 2 or 3) it becomes hard to add value to your team by drafting running backs because of the severe drop-off in talent/situation and because you're passing on reliable, star players at other positions, especially wide receiver.
Consider your current RB options in the fifth and sixth rounds of 12-team drafts: Pierce, Dobbins, Cam Akers, Miles Sanders, Alexander Mattison, D'Andre Swift and PUP candidate Javonte Williams. And then consider your WR options in the same range: Chris Godwin, Christian Watson, DJ Moore, Terry McLaurin, Jerry Jeudy, Drake London, Michael Pittman Jr., Christian Kirk, Diontae Johnson, Mike Evans, Mike Williams, Tyler Lockett and Brandon Aiyuk.
Look, fantasy football is a tough game, but sometimes it doesn't have to be complicated. For the most part, you want to be adding wide receivers in this range ... and that's the case even in a year when I'd argue these groups are closer than they've been in a long time.
I should add that the gap in talent between the two positions only gets wider from there, as the running backs available in the middle rounds fall in the range of a 130- to 170-point projection, while the WRs in the same vicinity are in the 170- to 200-range. You're essentially throwing darts at backs with major roadblocks to success/upside instead of picking reliable and/or high-pedigree breakout WR candidates.
In summary: Take an elite back early if you can, but don't push it if the value isn't there. Ideally you won't wait too long, because when you get past the first few rounds, the value is at wide receiver, not at running back.
Wide receiver: Superstars and dart throws
I just ran through the overload of intriguing wide receivers available in the middle rounds, and especially after yet another strong rookie class in 2022, the position remains stocked with talent and depth.
Though we have a ton of good options, ordering the receivers does start to get a bit tricky around this area of the draft. The likes of Jaylen Waddle, Tee Higgins and DeVonta Smith aren't clearly the No. 1 receiver on their own team, DK Metcalf, Chris Olave, Amari Cooper and 31-year-old Keenan Allen have added competition for targets and the dynamic Evans/Godwin duo will need to deal with a huge downgrade at QB. That's just the beginning of the question marks.
Can Deebo Samuel pay off a third-round ADP after a rough 2022 season? Is Christian Watson in line for a breakout after a strong finish to his rookie season? How will DJ Moore, DeAndre Hopkins and Calvin Ridley produce in their new homes? Will Terry McLaurin and/or Jerry Jeudy ever reach WR1 status? Can Drake London break out in a run-heavy Atlanta offense? Will Diontae Johnson score a single touchdown this season?
There are a lot of tough questions in that paragraph, and that's only a partial list of players you'll be considering in the early-to-middle rounds. The good news is that all of these receivers figure to provide starting-caliber production, but they're all super close in value, which means you can monitor your draft's progression and take advantage of some very large tiers of similar players. In fact, there's so much uncertainty and depth that you'll be spending late-round picks on players who could easily find themselves in the WR3 mix as early as Week 1.
One warning I'll throw out here is to make sure you're properly identifying viable sleepers. Think about this: Over the past five seasons, 43 of the top 50 wide receivers in fantasy points per game (PPG) were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft (19 were first-rounders). Pedigree matters.
And it matters for rookies, too.
Of the 304 wide receivers picked in the 2013-2022 NFL drafts, only 29 (9.5%) finished as a top-35 fantasy WR as a rookie (four finished in the top 12). Of those 29, only two (Hill, St. Brown) were picked after the third round. Exceptions happen, but history tells us to avoid reaching on players with low hit rates and focus instead on high-pedigree players.
Speaking of high-pedigree players, I did some offseason research in order to determine if it was worthwhile to target post-hype, second-year receivers who struggled as rookies. The answer: It depends on just how much they struggled. The magic number seems to be "90," as in, if a wide receiver did not finish in the top 90 at the position in fantasy points as a rookie, you can all but throw in the towel.
Here's the data: The 132 WRs selected during Rounds 1 through 3 from 2013 to 2022 have accounted for 153 top-30 wide receiver fantasy campaigns during the span. A hefty 48.3% of those top-30 campaigns were produced by the 22 receivers who were also top 30 as rookies. The number jumps to 64.1% if we include receivers who were top 45 as rookies, and there are plenty of players who were somewhat productive in Year 1 and went on to fantasy relevance and/or stardom, including Hopkins (51st as a rookie), Brandin Cooks (56th), Robert Woods (60th), Tyler Boyd (65th), Allen Robinson II (65th), Godwin (71st), Adams (74th) and Alshon Jeffery (83rd).
Where it gets interesting is at the bottom of the list. Of the 132 WRs in our sample of receivers, 58 finished 90th or worse in wide receiver fantasy points as rookies. Only five of the 58 went on to have a single top-30 season: Nelson Agholor, Marquise Goodwin, Curtis Samuel, Williams and DJ Chark Jr. Williams is the biggest success story from the group, and it took him until his fifth season to crack the top 30. In a nutshell, as long as you're somewhat competent as a rookie, you have a shot at success. If you're all but a nonfactor, you're likely a lost cause.
We saw an example of this last season, as this same article warned you to avoid any post-hype attraction to 2021 early-round WRs who busted as rookies. Anthony Schwartz, Terrace Marshall Jr., D'Wayne Eskridge, Dyami Brown, Amari Rodgers and Tutu Atwell were all outside the top 90 as rookies and the best finish by the group in 2022 was Marshall's 88th.
So who does this study suggest we avoid in 2023? Unfortunately, it's a long list. Tyquan Thornton, Wan'Dale Robinson, David Bell, Skyy Moore, Velus Jones Jr., Jameson Williams, Jalen Tolbert, Danny Gray and John Metchie III comprise the list of 2022 Day 1 and 2 receivers who finished their rookie season 90th or worse in fantasy points. Williams (missed most of the season recovering from a torn ACL suffered in college) and Metchie (missed the entire season while battling leukemia) could prove exceptions, but history tells us that, while maybe one of these guys makes a leap, it's unlikely, so we shouldn't invest much into them. Instead, we can focus high-pedigree rookies or post-hype, second-year players who at least showed some flashes in Year 1. Names that fit that bill include George Pickens, Watson, Jahan Dotson, Alec Pierce and Treylon Burks.
In summary: Ideally, you're grabbing a star receiver early, but the position is deep with veteran talent and a strong corps of talented young stars, so no need to force things. When it comes to early-career sleepers, history shows that pedigree matters. NFL scouts do a pretty good job of identifying the high-ceiling guys, so when in doubt, trust their work.
Tight end: It's Kelce's world
Kelce has paced the tight end position in fantasy points six of the past seven seasons and outscored the next-closest at the position by 101 points in 2022. He's going to cost you a mid-first-round pick this year and he's well worth the investment.
Kelce is obviously not a guarantee to repeat such a massive gap over the rest of the position, but he has a path to it. Whereas Kansas City didn't add any threats to Kelce's generous target share, the likes of Mark Andrews (Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers) and T.J. Hockenson (Jordan Addison) -- our next closest-ranked tight ends -- do have more competition for touches.
Past that intriguing trio, we have a pretty solid group of midrange options, including Darren Waller, George Kittle, Dallas Goedert and Kyle Pitts. This is likely going to be the best area to find value, as they'll generally cost you a sixth- or seventh-round pick.
From there, it's cheap, low-ceiling options like Pat Freiermuth, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Dalton Schultz, Cole Kmet and Tyler Higbee, as well as a few lottery tickets like rookie Dalton Kincaid, Chigoziem Okonkwo, Greg Dulcich and Jelani Woods.
In summary: Grab your tight end when the value is right, and rarely at the expense of a running back or wide receiver you covet early on. You can wait until the middle rounds and still land a solid starter.
D/ST: Same as usual
As the infamous quote by this author in the 2021 version of the Playbook goes, "If you're not streamin', you're not strivin.'" Stream defenses weekly and profit.
The legend that is Daniel Carlson has finished as fantasy's top-scoring kicker each of the past two seasons. However, prior to Carlson, the last No. 1-scoring kicker to even finish in the top 10 the following season was Matt Bryant in 2017. Seriously. Don't draft a kicker before the final round. In fact, don't pick one at all unless forced to. More on that later.
Draft strategy sawdust
Now that we have a pretty good feel for the 2023 fantasy football draft pool, I have a few additional thoughts on draft strategy.
During my draft, I'm obviously keeping track of whom I've picked and which positions need filling, but I'm never going to pass on an obvious value, even if it's not a position of need. Rarely do I complete a draft in which there wasn't a point at which a player was plummeting well beyond his ADP and I anxiously awaited my opportunity to pounce.
An example of this is the 14-team 2021 FSGA Champions League. I picked 11th and opened with Travis Kelce. I took an RB at 18th overall (Antonio Gibson), but then followed with three wide receivers (Mike Evans, Robert Woods, Tee Higgins) before selecting my second RB in the sixth round (Kareem Hunt). That was a long time to wait for a second back in a 14-team league, but I couldn't pass on that WR value. The next four picks after I took Evans were Chris Carson, James Robinson, Mike Davis and Travis Etienne Jr. Yikes. The next RB picks after Woods -- who was a fringe WR1 before his injury -- were Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. After Higgins, the next RB picks were Chase Edmonds, Myles Gaskin and Trey Sermon. Ouch. Had I forced a second running back earlier, there's no way I would've led the standings all season before falling just short in the title game (nearly my third title in four years ... yes, it still stings).
Passing on value is an obvious recipe for disaster over the long-term, but many do it. There are always players -- think peak Woods, Tyler Lockett (he and DK Metcalf were absolute steals last year), Brandin Cooks, Adam Thielen, Jarvis Landry, Eric Decker, Derrick Mason, Pierre Garcon, Golden Tate, Alshon Jeffery and Julian Edelman -- who consistently fell too far in drafts and often proved solid values. These players aren't new or young or particularly exciting, but I've always feasted with them. Look, unless you're in a tournament, you don't need a home run with every single pick in order to win the title. You need to get to the playoffs first and, from there, you need a competent lineup and some luck. In order to achieve both, having a few reliable starters, like Lockett and Marquise Brown, is key.
Here's something else to think about: I don't think we fully acknowledge as an industry how different our lineups look in the playoffs than they do entering Week 1. And that's why focusing too much on filling out a perfect lineup on draft day isn't as important as collecting the best talent possible. Where is the line? You'll know it when you see it (aka when guys like Lockett and Brown are staring you in the face).
I mentioned the 14-team FSGA Champions League earlier, so let me take you back to the 2018 season of that league. Not unlike the aforementioned 2021 campaign, I drafted for value and ended up with a very Zero RB-friendly squad. My top RBs after the draft were Marshawn Lynch, Duke Johnson, Kerryon Johnson, Jordan Wilkins, Devontae Booker and Latavius Murray. Zero (zero!) of those backs were on my roster in Week 16, but I won the championship with Damien Williams, Jaylen Samuels and Elijah McGuire in my starting lineup. How did I win with that trio? Well, by drafting the best players on the board, as I also had peak Julio Jones, Keenan Allen, Stefon Diggs, Zach Ertz and Patrick Mahomes (OK, maybe that one was lucky). Had I forced myself to pick early-round RBs over Ertz and that WR core, I doubt I win the title in what is a very competitive league.
Call me a value-based drafter. Call me conservative. I don't care. I'm happy as long as you can't call me someone who is willfully giving an edge to my opponents.
The draft is complete, but we're just getting started
OK, so your draft is in the rearview mirror. Your team looks great. There's no way you're losing this title. Your work here is done, right? Wrong.
I'm in a lot of leagues, and most are against industry experts, but I'm also in a few long-running, casual leagues with college friends, family and neighbors. In both situations, there are extremely active managers and there are extremely lax managers. Some (like me) are rarely content and are tinkering with trade offers and waivers often in order to get one step closer to a title. Others attack waivers only when needed (injury, bye weeks) and are the strongest bet to commit the most heinous act of all: ignoring trade proposals (more on this later!)
As you might imagine, the active managers win at a much higher rate than the casual ones. Is it possible to simply hit on nearly every draft pick and compete for a league title? Of course. In a high-variance game like fantasy football, it happens.
In fact, that reminds me of the infamous 2007 season in my long-running, 16-team family and friends dynasty league. With zero fantasy football acumen and only Vikings, Patriots and Miami Hurricanes fandom at his disposal (the perfect storm, as it would turn out), my 13-year-old brother Matthew drafted Patriots Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Stephen Gostkowski, as well as Adrian Peterson and Kellen Winslow II. So, yeah, the top-scoring QB, WR and K, as well as the WR11 (Welker) and top-five finishers at RB and TE. Matt never (or, at least, very rarely) checked his team and still started 9-0. The funny part of the story was Week 10 when the Patriots were on a bye. Matt, whose team otherwise averaged 105.3 points per week, didn't check his lineup and lost 69-9. Having relied only on his draft while failing to add complementary producers during the season, he inexplicably went on to lose in the semifinals.
On the other hand, my team (this was before my fantasy analyst days, by the way) started 0-7, leading me to shake up my roster with a few trades. I won six in a row, somehow made the playoffs and went on to win the league title. His team was way better, but a) it's a weekly game; and b) fantasy points come in all shapes and sizes.
Matthew "lucked" himself into a stacked roster, but post-draft negligence cost him what should've been a surefire league title. How do you avoid a similar fate? Let's take a look at strategies you can use on the trade and waiver market.
On the topic of trading
What better way to kick this section off than another real-life example from one of my long-running dynasty leagues?
Some quick background: It's a 12-team, PPR, superflex league in which we can roster 25 players, 10 of which are starters (1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, 3 flex, 1 superflex).
After years of wheeling and dealing, I entered June 2023 with five projected starting quarterbacks: Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones, Russell Wilson and Geno Smith. Herbert, Watson and Wilson were acquired in trades over the past two years, with the likes of Derrick Henry, Deebo Samuel (after his 2021 breakout), Saquon Barkley (after his 2022 rebound) and picks sent away. I had drafted Jones in the startup years ago, and Smith was a savvy waiver add (*pats self on back*) last offseason.
Quarterbacks are extremely valuable and hard to acquire in 12-plus team superflex formats (especially dynasty), so having an arsenal like this is massively advantageous. I was content to hang onto all five QBs into the season, but I constantly explored trade possibilities during and after our rookie draft with the hopes of adding one more star to my starting lineup. I flirted with deals for veterans like Amari Cooper and Josh Jacobs and breakout candidates like James Cook and Alexander Mattison before finally shipping Jones and Romeo Doubs for Travis Etienne Jr. Etienne joins RBs Breece Hall, Miles Sanders and Najee Harris, WRs Ja'Marr Chase, CeeDee Lamb and DJ Moore, TE Darren Waller and QBs Herbert and Watson to fill out my 10 starters. I still have Wilson and Smith as QB depth, as well as a bunch of young WRs, which helped make moving Jones and Doubs for a starting RB with elite upside an easy call.
Did I just write all this so I can gloat over my loaded squad? Absolutely. But I also posted it as a lesson: Team-building -- whether it's season-long, dynasty or keeper -- is an ongoing process. You'll rarely be quite this stacked at one position in season-long leagues, especially with smaller rosters, but you will almost always be better at one position than you are another. Many fantasy managers don't maximize their chances at a league title because they are content with their roster and are afraid to shake things up with a trade (more on overcoming this fear later). Especially as bye weeks begin to dry up and your playoffs draw near, it's important to focus on maximizing your starting lineup. If, for example, you're shaky at WR but have four quality RBs, you're just hurting yourself by not shopping around.
Trading in fantasy is one of the most polarizing aspects of the game, as most managers seem to either be extremely aggressive or extremely quiet in the department. If you've been playing against the same leaguemates for a long time, I imagine you could place each of them in one of the two categories within seconds of contemplation. Understanding the philosophies, tendencies, skill levels, etc. of your leaguemates is an edge you can use when evaluating the trade market. For example, let's say I was holding the first overall pick in a rookie draft back in 2021. I would've had Chase all but locked in as my selection. However, along the way, I observe that someone in my league is willing to pay almost any cost for Kyle Pitts. I'd be remiss not to reach out to that manager to see how much he'd offer (this is based on a true story, as in one of my competitive dynasty leagues, a savvy fantasy analyst traded three first-round rookie picks for Pitts).
There are countless ways in which knowing your leaguemates can help your cause, and sometimes it's as simple as identifying which ones respond and which ones don't. Or which ones are open to trading and which ones are afraid to make a move with a crippling fear of the possibility that it won't work out. This is very real, and these managers overvalue their players so much that it's not worth your time to even negotiate.
I mentioned that managers are generally either aggressive/active or conservative/quiet on the trade market and I'm, without question, the former. I love trading. I love throwing out offers. I love fielding offers. The only thing better than a trade proposal alert is a trade accepted alert. I make trade offers because I enjoy the negotiating process, but as the commissioner of several leagues across multiple sports, I also like to try to inject activity into my leagues. Perhaps my offer gets declined, but now that manager is on the league page and maybe they counter, makes a waiver move or makes an offer to someone else. An active league is a great league.
One drawback to throwing out trade offers is that you're sure to rub some people the wrong way. The fun of fantasy is that we don't all value players the same way. Unfortunately, it's very easy for managers to become offended -- sometimes infuriated -- if they believe you're trying to rip them off. Sometimes this person will simply ignore the offer, others will reply with an "LOL," and others will lose their cool and go on an expletive-laden tirade in the league forum or group chat. We've all seen it, and I'm asking you right now -- please don't be that person.
Look, if someone keeps sending you "Raheem Mostert and Dawson Knox for Amari Cooper" offers, fine, I get the irritation. But in most scenarios, even if you don't like the offer, it's not hard to understand where the other person is coming from. Even if I get an offer I'm not even considering, I'm excited by the idea of someone being open for business. If someone is higher than I am on a player on my roster, perhaps I can take advantage with a counteroffer and improve my squad (this was actually the case with the aforementioned superflex trade, as I made the initial offer because I know the other person was high on Doubs). Also, my first offer is rarely my best offer. I mean, why would it be? That's Negotiating 101. Your first offer should be fair and sensible, but it can also be a starting point. How many of you have thrown out an initial trade offer that gets accepted within minutes? Your initial reaction is almost always: "Oh no! What have I done?! Did I just rip myself off?!" We've all been there.
To wrap up on the trading topic, here are a couple of tricks I use when making/considering offers:
Five tricks of the trade
1. When making an offer, don't just consider what the other manager can do for you. Look closely at their roster and see if there is a void you can fill. Referring back again to my superflex trade, I identified a manager who had a clear void at QB, as well as a good, young RB/WR. It made that manager a natural trade partner and, sure enough, we worked it out painlessly. If he had two quality starting QBs on his roster, there's no way he's making that deal.
2. Put yourself in the other manager's shoes. This next one relates to my first point but focuses more on the "fairness" of your offer. Once you have a trade proposal in mind, flip the script, imagine you're on the other side of it and think about if you'd accept it, consider it or laugh off the offer. If it's the latter, adjust the deal. If you think you'd at least consider it, hit that "send" button, baby!
3. Cure crippling fear of accepting trade offers by flipping the script. It's a simple trick. If someone offers you "Player A" for your "Player B" and you can't decide what to do, imagine you already had "Player A" and were being offered "Player B." Would you accept the deal now? I realize how simple and pointless this might seem, but it's no secret that we're all guilty of overrating our own players. In fact, it's human nature. Specifically, it's a cognitive bias called the endowment effect, in which we value an asset more when it's in our possession than we would if it wasn't. I use the strategy of swapping the players in my head before deciding on pretty much any offer I receive, and I absolutely recommend it, especially if you're afraid of the "accept" button.
4. Don't get mad about trade offers. I already talked about this earlier, but I'm reiterating. Even if you don't like the offer, just be happy you have someone in your league unafraid to keep the league active by making offers.
5. Pick your spots. We've all been there. A top beat writer tweets that "Player X" is unstoppable in camp and looks like he's in line for a breakout. The initial inclination will almost always be to make a trade offer for that player, but now is not the time. Even if you're buying the hype, wait a week or so until the industry is buzzing about someone else before making the move. On the other hand, if there's a negative report on a player and you're not buying it, that is the perfect opportunity to make an offer.
Making the most of waivers
Waivers can be a tedious process when you manage 15 or so fantasy football teams like I have the past decade or so. Yet I still put the time into making claims in every single league.
Why? Because if I don't, I'm putting myself at a disadvantage. Every single week, there is at least a player or two on waivers who is well worth adding to your roster, if not your starting lineup (one big injury can really shake things up in a hurry). And that goes for the weeks leading up to the season, as well.
The 2022 season was actually a down year for league-winning waiver adds, but we still had a few gems, including Christian Watson (44.2% of teams with him on their roster made the playoffs in ESPN leagues), Jamaal Williams (46.3%) and Geno Smith (41.6%). In the prior two years, the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson (62%), Hunter Renfrow (60%), Elijah Mitchell (55%), Alexander Mattison (54%), James Robinson (67%) and Justin Herbert (59%) were game-changing waivers adds. It's those types of players who get you a gigantic edge in your league, and you're simply playing at a disadvantage if you fail to remain active on waivers.
Besides the common sense "drop my worst player and add the best available player" waiver strategy, one trick you can use during the season is to drop your kicker and/or D/ST and instead hold a skill position player for a few extra days. In fact, as someone who often streams both positions, I'll just straight up drop my kicker and D/ST in order to add to the available player pool, which slightly increases my chances of getting who I want off the wire.
For example, let's say I use the Washington Commanders' D/ST in Weeks 1 and 2 against the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos this season but have no interest in using it against the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles the following two weeks. I'll cut bait right away Tuesday. This way, one of my leaguemates might place a claim on the Commanders D/ST instead of a free agent I have on my radar.
And in this scenario, unless there is an available D/ST with a terrific short-term matchup, I'd likely use the roster spot on a skill position player in an uncertain situation heading into the week. Let's say Najee Harris hurt his toe two days earlier and is questionable for the upcoming week. Instead of grabbing a dime-a-dozen D/ST, I'll go after Jaylen Warren. If Harris plays, I just cut Warren for a defense Sunday. If Harris is out, I just found myself a potential starter and can cut someone else for a D/ST. I most certainly use this hack more often with my kicker slot, since we know there is a ton of randomness with that position. As long as you remember to check your lineup Sunday morning, the strategy is a no-brainer.
Oh, and I recommend this during the period between your draft and the start of the season, too. Even if forced to draft a kicker and D/ST, I'll just drop them (assuming league rules allow it) and instead grab a high-upside insurance RB or other skill position player to keep rostered until closer to Week 1. There's very little to lose and quite a lot to gain (speaking as someone who fondly recalls dropping Chris Boswell and adding James Robinson in the week leading up to Week 1 back in 2020). By the way, guys like Robinson in 2020 and Patterson in 2021 are not alone: There are players like them available late in drafts or on preseason or early-season waivers every single year. Last year, for example, it cost you little (or in most cases, nothing) to get your hands on Geno Smith, Daniel Jones, Jamaal Williams, Jerick McKinnon, Tyler Allgeier, Jeff Wilson Jr., Zay Jones, Joshua Palmer, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Juwan Johnson. If you're active, you can butcher your draft and still claw your way to a title.
Tailoring your strategy to your league
A lot of what I just laid out will apply to most of you, but I realize leagues come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, I know this better than most, as none of the 13 teams I managed in 2022 (not to mention dozens of best ball and mock drafts) are exactly the same, with a steady mix of season-long, dynasty, keeper, IDP, super-deep lineups and/or very creative scoring. One of my past leagues even had punters and head coaches (yes, you can use both in the ESPN game!)
I am often asked about how to adjust strategy based on these leagues, so while this isn't the place to get too much into the weeds, here are ways I do just that:
As much as I enjoy a good season-long draft, there is nothing I love more than dynasty leagues. It's the closest you can get to playing GM, as you retain your assets year to year and can make moves at nearly any point on the calendar. There are few better feelings in fantasy than hitting a home run on a rookie pick (just ask those who spent a late first-rounder on Justin Jefferson in 2020 or snagged Garrett Wilson last season) or watching one of your sleeper/bench stashes emerge (take a bow, Jalen Hurts, Rhamondre Stevenson and Tony Pollard stashers).
Oh, and the season never ends. Sure, it stinks to have a bad team, but if you fall out of contention in dynasty, the offseason begins -- at least for you -- and you can immediately begin making trades and waiver moves to set yourself up for future success. As odd as it sounds, sometimes that can be more of an enjoyable ride than a stressful playoff run. And when it eventually leads to a title? There are few better feelings in this game.
The best advice I can give as it pertains to dynasty is to consider perceived value. Dynasty managers love unproven youngsters and first-round draft picks way more than they like established veterans, excluding obvious superstars in their early prime. We get bored with guys who just get the job done year after year, and we are easily distracted by the shiny new toy.
You can and should take advantage of this, and one way to do that in a startup draft is to go extremely young at the expense of winning in the short-term. That might seem counterintuitive to what I just said, but bear with me. Aim for 20- to 24-year-old players (adjusting slightly by position) and do your best to fade everyone else. Not everyone you pick will pan out, but enough will and within a year or two, your roster should be peaking while the managers who drafted depreciating assets will be fading. Odds are, your slow start will also allow you another potential superstar via an early pick in the Year 2 rookie draft.
It's at this point that you should have a good, deep roster of young players entering their prime and also an extremely attractive roster on the trade market. That reminds me of one of my championship-winning teams from back in 2020. Prior to that season, my roster was talented, young and deep, which allowed me to make a push for one more superstar. I traded Terry McLaurin (albeit reluctantly), Raheem Mostert and a pair of future second-round picks for some guy named Davante Adams. That was fair market value at the time and proved to be a title-winning move.
Speaking of dynasty trades, don't be afraid to trade rookie picks. I swap them often, especially if it lands me an established good player. We tend to overestimate the hit rate of rookies (like it or not, a lot of the rookies you're excited about right now heading into 2023 will bust) and as long as the player isn't "too old," turning what is essentially a lottery ticket into a weekly starter should be a no-brainer. I'm especially aggressive trading away picks if I expect my team to be good (my picks would, in turn, be late in the round the next year).
Prefer season-long leagues but hate the feeling of not getting to hang on to that amazing, late-round, home run pick you made for multiple years? A keeper league is your new best friend.
It's hard to give detailed advice here, as keeper leagues are known for having all kinds of rules and regulations pertaining to whom you're allowed to keep, how many players you can keep and, in many cases, which picks you must surrender in order to keep players. That said, I get a lot of keeper questions and usually they are incredibly easy to answer. Look, if you're able to keep only a player or there, you're basically playing in a season-long league and should thus keep the players who help you in the short-term, adjusting only slightly for age. The best advice in these scenarios is to consider ADP. A realistic question I get is something like, "Should I keep Josh Jacobs for a second-round pick or Rhamondre Stevenson for a ninth-round pick?" Most agree Jacobs is the better asset, but his ADP is in the second round, whereas Stevenson's is in the third round. In this scenario, you keep Stevenson and you'll still get a player similar to Jacobs (if not Jacobs himself) when you're on the clock in the second round. I can't stress enough how easy it is to make keeper decisions simply by considering ADP.
By the way, we've always had keeper support within the ESPN fantasy game, but new in 2022 was support for keepers by round. If you're in a league like the one above, your commissioner can now, for example, make Stevenson your ninth-round pick, as opposed to all keepers comprising the first few rounds of your draft.
IDP: Individual Defensive Players
There are some hardcore IDP leagues out there, but I'd guess that most of you who are in a league with defensive players have a fairly normal set of starting slots at the offensive positions and then something in the range of one to six IDP starters. In this scenario (and assuming default scoring), you simply don't need to value defensive players very highly in your draft or on the trade market. Sure, a standout linebacker like Foyesade Oluokun can give you an edge and has midround value, but because IDP scoring is generally a step or two below offense, and because you're likely starting only one or two players at very deep positions, you're going to have plenty of good options, both during the draft and on waivers during the season. Also, casual players know offense significantly better than defense, so identifying and finding good starters will generally be easier. In a nutshell, in leagues with fairly basic IDP settings, you should focus on offense first and worry about IDP later.
Superflex means that your starting lineup includes a flex spot that can be filled with a quarterback (in ESPN leagues, this is the "OP" spot). Because the worst starting QB option in a given week is generally going to be projected to outscore the best flex options, this means that each team in your league will ideally be starting two quarterbacks.
Needless to say, QB is significantly more valuable in this format. You should move all quarterbacks up your draft board and plan to roster an extra player or two at the position, as starting two good QBs each week needs to be your primary goal. Whereas top QBs Mahomes, Allen, Hurts, Burrow and Jackson are picked in the second- to fifth-round range in one-QB leagues, you can expect all five to be off the board in the first round of superflex leagues.
Knowing that the early QB run will lead to stars at other positions falling in the draft, my goal is almost never to open a superflex draft by picking two consecutive QBs. Instead, I'll aim for one star QB and then grab an elite back or perhaps a wide receiver. Once the initial rush of QBs ends, it tends to quiet down significantly for several rounds, so I simply monitor the situation and eventually pounce on a good second QB when the opportunity presents itself (generally one in the 10-to-18 range). I also make sure to grab either a reliable or upside third QB once the starters begin to dry up. You have to be careful to walk the line of not reaching too early and jeopardizing the rest of your roster while also not getting stuck with a really poor QB situation that handcuffs you all season long. In a perfect world, I have a very good QB1, a reliable QB2 (guys like Cousins, Rodgers and Tagovailoa are perfectly reasonable QB2 targets) and someone with upside (think Herbert in 2020 and Burrow or Hurts in 2021. This season, you'll want to keep your eyes on second-year Kenny Pickett and rookie Anthony Richardson).
If you're not familiar, best ball means you simply draft your team and then it requires no additional action. There are generally no trades or waiver adds and your weekly starters are determined by the highest scorers each position that week. For the most part, your strategy isn't changing massively from a normal league, but you do need to ensure you have more depth at each position since you can't trade or add players, even for injury. In a standard format, for example, you might draft 20 players, so you'd want 2-3 QBs, 5-6 RBs, 7-8 WRs, 2-3 TEs and 2-3 D/STs (these formats rarely use kickers and sometimes don't include D/STs). I won't get too detailed here since league settings and contest structure matter, but if you're in a fairly straight-up league of at least eight teams, you don't need to adjust your strategy much from the usual. However, in a tournament setting, you'll want to employ additional strategies like stacking (drafting Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith in 2022 would've been a massive edge) and considering matchups during championship week (often Week 17).
6-point passing TD
I quickly want to touch on leagues that award six points for a passing TD, as opposed to the standard four points. Honestly, I don't adjust too much for this. As a whole, quarterbacks are more valuable, but there is still sufficient depth at the position, so we don't need to move them significantly up our ranks. The key is bumping up QBs projected to throw a lot of touchdowns at the expense of quarterbacks who do a lot of damage with their legs. The likes of Kyler Murray, Jackson, Hurts and Richardson take a hit, whereas Cousins, Rodgers, Stafford and Tagovailoa get a boost. A quick scan over projections and/or historical stats is your friend here.
TE premium scoring
Leagues that award 1.5 or even 2.0 points per reception to tight ends are becoming more popular and have been common in high-stakes leagues for many years. It makes sense when you consider that the No. 4 TE in 1.0-PPR leagues last season (Mark Andrews) scored 191 points, which would've ranked 27th at wide receiver, 22nd at running back and 21st at quarterback. In a 1.5-PPR TE premium league, Andrews would've scored 227 points, which would've ranked 16th, 12th and 16th, respectively. Perfect? Perhaps not. Better? Of course.
In this setup, you could easily make a case for Kelce as the first pick overall (he outscored all but Ekeler and three QBs in this format in 2022) and you'd be bumping up all other TEs as well. Considering the big drop-off in projected output after the top four or five tight ends, it makes sense to target the likes of Kelce, Andrews, Hockenson and Waller, but it won't be cheap. If you miss out, attacking the next tier or two (Kittle, Goedert, Pitts, Freiermuth, Engram, Njoku) becomes a must. You should also make it a priority to stash a tight end with breakout potential and/or upside on your bench (Okonkwo and Kincaid come to mind).
If you're interested in trying out this format, you can customize your league scoring by position in the ESPN fantasy game.
There's not much else I can add here that I haven't said already. When it comes to the draft, know your league settings, have a good set of rankings/tiers, be aware of ADP and don't pass on obvious values. Once the draft concludes, be active. Monitor NFL news and be ready to make savvy waiver moves and trade offers while loading your bench with upside. That might sound overly simplified, but like almost anything else in life, hard work will pay off in the long run.