For fantasy football owners, we are entering the most exciting time of the year. Sure, it's still a bit longer until any of our teams start earning us points, but the real fun begins when it's time to sit down with a group of friends, hang up a comically large whiteboard and select which NFL stars will be taking you to glory in 2013. Draft season!
You've compiled lists and studied notes from your favorite fantasy football experts and come up with your perfect draft board. But, no matter how good that board is, it is really only half the battle. The other half is in the strategy you choose to execute your draft and maximize your board. And there are many variables to consider. Are you drafting in the top of the order or the bottom? Do you take a quarterback right out of the gates or sit back and wait a while? Is it worth a pick to draft the backup to your favorite running back?
One thing is for certain: How you pick is just as important as who you pick. With that said, let's take a look into some of the big fantasy football strategy questions, paying particular attention to how they intersect with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
1. Where Will You Take Your Quarterback?
A lot of folks throw out ties to their favorite NFL team when it comes to fantasy football, but it really is an unnecessary practice. While drafting a team of all Buccaneers (or all any team for that matter) is unwise, going after a few key stars can definitely help you on the road to success. And it helps if your favorite team just happens to have some offensive firepower, which the Buccaneers certainly displayed in 2012.
Across the board, experts will tell you that you have to take running backs early. With the majority of NFL teams running with two primary backs, the real workhorse running backs are hard to come by, so if you want their consistent stream of points, you've got to jump on them early. Of course, the Bucs boast one such running back in Doug Martin, who is coming off draft boards within the top five selections.
Even in round two, getting your second running back is a good idea, but if you fill that position, there are some big name quarterbacks that you will likely miss out on. In the second round, you'll start seeing Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and Peyton Manning fly off the board. Some might get on the quarterback bandwagon and feel they need to grab one before it is too late. But we say let them fly off the board. Sit back, wait and reap the benefits.
By taking two running backs in the first two rounds, you've given yourself a point advantage, one that will help you recover from not having one of the "elite" fantasy quarterbacks. There is actually unbelievable depth at the QB position. Let's take a look at some charts!
Consider the top running backs of 2012 and their average points per game (PPG). Three running backs got their owners 15 or more points per game; eight got 12 or more; 13 got 10 or more. The drop from the best to the 10th best is seven points per game, which is a lot. And once you get down to the 20th-best, you are only getting about seven points per game. That's a pretty significant drop, showing you the importance of grabbing an elite running back. If you don't get one or two early, you probably won't get one at all, unless 10 Alfred Morrises come along this year.
Looking at the quarterbacks, however, the difference between the top level and the later-round players is far less significant. Ten different quarterbacks last season averaged 17 fantasy points per game last season, and 16 different quarterbacks would have gotten you at least 13.5 points per game.
The lesson is: you can wait a while on quarterback without damaging your team. In fact, it might be a better move considering how deep the quarterback field is.
Which brings us to the Buccaneer in this scenario, Josh Freeman. Last year's 13th-ranked fantasy football quarterback is primed again for another strong season and, once again, flying completely under the radar. He is going, on average, in the 13th-round in most 12-team leagues, making him the 23rd quarterback off the board.
Consider this. You can spend your first 12 or so picks solidifying your running backs, receivers and tight ends. You can focus all your energy drafting solidly at this positions and completely ignore the quarterback for the first 75% of the fantasy football draft. And then, in round 13, you can pull the trigger on Josh Freeman, getting a solid week-in and week-out starter.
Last year, Freeman managed to break 4,000 yards with 27 touchdowns. He enters 2013 with another year under his belt in the same offensive scheme, with the same cast of characters around him, and a new-look defense taking a good amount of pressure off his shoulders. A repeat of his 2012 stats is likely, meaning that very, very late in your draft, you landed a starting quarterback with top-10 fantasy potential.
We think that is solid ground to consider waiting on drafting your QB.
2. To Handcuff or Not To Handcuff?
Handcuffing means to draft a second player as a backup and replacement for someone already on your roster. You draft the starting running back on a particular NFL team, and later, you draft his backup.
Certainly, handcuffing can be a very positive thing. Think of it much like you would think of insurance. Should your starter go down, you lessen your stress by having his backup and replacement already on your roster. So (almost) all of the points that you would be missing from the starter will be picked up by the backup (hopefully) who you can simply substitute into your roster, rather than hoping to get him on waivers, or having to settle for a lower-tiered player who is struggling for carries.
Of course, the negative would be that if the starter never gets hurt, you are pretty much holding a bench spot for his replacement, who you will probably never need to use. In fact, the entire season, you are hoping that you never need to use him.
So, let's say that you had the fortune of having the fourth selection. Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and Ray Rice have been taken and you are lucky enough to have the Buccaneers' own Doug Martin as your fantasy football superstar. Who do you – and even should you – handcuff to Martin?
Looking at the Buccaneers' backfield, it's a three-man battle at this point as to who will be Martin's primary backup. So the question of who will act as the handcuff really comes down to who wins that title by the end of training camp. The primary candidates: Michael Smith, Mike James and Brian Leonard.
In the 2012 NFL Draft, Doug Martin was taken in the first round by the Buccaneers. Six rounds later, the Buccaneers opted for a second RB, selecting Michael Smith. He has big-play ability and is a change-of-pace style back, but he only saw the field for one game last year. His more immediate contribution might be in the return game.
Mike James is a member of the 2013 Rookie Class, selected in the sixth round out of Miami. He has all-purpose skills but never got a huge opportunity to show them, often serving as a backup in college to current Dolphins' running back Lamar Miller. He has shown that he will definitely be in the competition for the role after strong OTAs this summer.
Finally, we have free-agent pickup Brian Leonard. Leonard is familiar with Head Coach Greg Schiano having played for him at Rutgers. Leonard has the most experience of the three as the only one of them to have a touch in the pros. He's a bit of a hybrid, capable of playing fullback and running the ball, which could help him earn more snaps.
Who wins this three-man battle is still up in the air. But whoever looks to go into the season as the primary backup could be worth a look if you have drafted Martin in the first round. Of course, as none of the three players will be on the minds of anyone without Martin, you should definitely wait until the last round of your draft to pick him up, should you want the Dougernaut's handcuff. And then cross your fingers that you never need him.
3. Go With Your Gut
Did you love Doug Martin last season before your fantasy football draft? Did you just have a feeling that he would do something special? And did you plan on picking him with your early fourth round pick only to see him go just a few selections before you? Then, to make matters worse, you saw him put up the second most points for running backs in the league last year?
That's never fun. And that is why we say draft with your gut. At the end of the day, fantasy football is fun. There are definitely bragging rights involved, but what could possibly be better to show off than the fact that you took a leap during the draft and it paid off big time?
There are very useful tools in all fantasy leagues. Looking at the average draft position is definitely helpful, knowing when, on average, a player will be taken. Looking at the pre-rankings in the system you are using is also a great strategy. ESPN might rank people differently than NFL.com or Yahoo! And this is very important, as it likely changes where some players go.
Knowing even the basics about ADP and the draft rankings going into your draft will help you feel a bit more comfortable taking the leap and really trusting your gut. See, the statistics sometimes are not reflected in a player's ADP. Case in point is what we pointed out earlier with Josh Freeman. Statistically last season he was a fantasy football starter, but this year, drafters seem to forget about it and he is going criminally late.
For two more examples, you don't need to look any further than the Tampa Bay wide receiver position.
Let's play a fun game. In 2012, Player A had 72 receptions for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns. Player B had 80 receptions for 954 yards and eight touchdowns. Player A scored 11.3 fantasy points per game. Player B scored 9.3 fantasy points per game.
Which would you rather draft in the third round to be your number 1 receiver? We'll hazard a guess that you chose Player A. But the fact of the matter is this: Player A is Vincent Jackson, whose ADP is 41, the fourth player taken in round four. Player B is Randall Cobb with an ADP of 31, the seventh player taken in round 3.
Seeing the statistics, and making a gut call would tell you that Vincent Jackson is in line for the better year, but the simple average of other people drafts have given Randall Cobb the higher placement on draft boards. By simply straying slightly from the pre-rankings of your league you have drafted a player who averaged two more points per game last year. Cobb, of course, is getting extra attention because the departure of Greg Jennings from Green Bay could significantly increase his targets. There's nothing wrong with that theory, but if it leads to Cobb going before Jackson in your draft, then that could work to your advantage.
In fact, in the average draft, Vincent Jackson is the 13th receiver taken, despite hauling in the sixth-most points last season. Know the right spot to pull the trigger on Jackson and you can maximize your draft value.
For an even bigger slight, check out Mike Williams, who is the 39th receiver taken in fantasy drafts this year. He was the 18th-highest scoring WR in fantasy football last year, largely because of his nose for the end zone. Williams is going on average in the ninth round of 12-team leagues in 2013. By going with your guts, and looking at the stats, you can avoid the mistake of relying too much on the pre-rankings by other parties. Taking the gamble and grabbing Williams in round seven or eight could very well be a big steal once the season begins, because the fourth-year receiver has been scoring touchdowns in bunches throughout his first three years in the league.