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2013 Fantasy Football: Early Round Draft Strategy

By Christopher Montague

Featured Contributor

(photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

With more depth at the quarterback postion this season, there are some noticeable early-round draft trends. (photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

I know. You’ve heard it many, many times: You can’t win your fantasy football league in the first few rounds, but you sure can lose it. The first five picks you make on draft day are beyond crucial – in most cases, they determine whether you’re a contender, or a pretender. You simply have to go into your draft, no matter what the skill level, number of teams involved, or format, with a plan. We’re going to take an analytical look at the first five rounds of a 2013 fantasy football draft here today. We’re going to assume that we’re playing in a 10-team league, and that all scoring is standard – no PPR, no bonuses for 100+ yards rushing, etc. Please note: The views and opinions presented in this column are mine alone, and do not necessarily comprise draft strategy from all FST experts.

Early-Round Draft Trends

Let’s begin with some positional information. It seems useful to know which positions are being taken in the top 50:

Top 50 Overall Picks by Position
All ADP values as of 7/14/2013 courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
Quarterbacks: 4Running Backs: 26Wide Receivers: 19Tight Ends: 1Defenses: 0

Based on these numbers alone, I feel like the following are pretty obvious conclusions:

1. Don’t draft a defense early.
2. Don’t draft a TE early.
3. Don’t draft a QB early.
4. Do draft lots of RBs and WRs early.

An easy enough statement to make, but now lets examine the “why.”

Defenses

In the case of the defense, it’s pretty obvious – they don’t score like an elite fantasy player (in most cases) and there are tons of them, and you can play the matchups, usually with fairly strong effectiveness.

Tight Ends

The Tight End position is a bit murkier, but from my perspective not terribly difficult to understand: If you’re not on board with drafting Jimmy Graham in the second round, don’t draft a tight end until much later. Personally, I won’t be drafting Graham at all, and here’s why. At that draft position, he MUST produce like a monster to come anywhere near justifying that ADP. You can’t win your league taking him in the second round if he puts up just average numbers.

In my mind, there just isn’t any profit potential from taking him that high. Much better to wait awhile, and look at the Greg Olsen, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten tier, or wait even longer (which I’ll be doing) and look at the Tyler Eifert, Coby Fleener, and Jordan Cameron tier. Your risk in waiting on the TE position is much lower, and there are so many to choose from, that it seems like a slam dunk not to take a TE in the first five spots.

Quarterbacks

This brings us to the Quarterback position, which is very interesting because much has changed here since last year. In 2012, on average there were 7 QBs taken inside the top 50, including Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, and Matt Stafford. Why are there only four this year? The answer lies in the tremendous first-time starter quarterback class of 2012: RG3, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Colin Kaepernick. Three of the four finished inside the top 12 in total points scored in 2012, and Kaepernick didn’t solely because he didn’t’ become a starter until late in the season.

If you combine the seven previously mentioned top 2012 QBs and add in Peyton Manning (with the exception of Vick, all had solid seasons) to the four now second-year QBs, we’re looking at 12 total quarterbacks who will be widely considered as top scoring options. If we move just a bit lower and consider the QB2’s (strictly by the total season numbers), we can further add Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Andy Dalton to the list for a total of 16 highly viable QB1-ish plays every week. In our supposed 10-team league, this obviously creates a surplus of viable quarterbacks. This is the reason that the quarterback position is being drafted so much later in 2013: You don’t need to draft a “top” quarterback to get top QB stats. I’m a huge proponent of drafting the best values present, and am therefore suggesting to skip past the Brees, Rodgers, Newton, and Peyton Manning tier, and head directly for the Brady, Stafford, Ryan, RG3, Wilson, and Luck tier, which begins just after pick number 50.

Running Backs and Wide Receivers

And so we finally come to the two positions that comprise 90% of the first five rounds: Running Back and Wide Receiver. You don’t have to have a mathematics degree to figure out that not drafting either of these positions in the early rounds is fantasy suicide. All experts would agree that you have to take a good mix of both early, but the questions really isn’t if you take them, but rather who and when?

Let’s drill down a step further, and examine the positional data, round by round, and see if we can learn anything.

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5
All ADP values as of 7/14/2013 courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
Running Backs: 9
Quarterbacks: 0
Wide Receivers: 1
Tight Ends: 0
Running Backs: 6
Quarterbacks: 0
Wide Receivers: 3
Tight Ends: 1
Running Backs: 4
Quarterbacks: 2
Wide Receivers: 4
Tight Ends: 0
Running Backs: 4
Quarterbacks: 1
Wide Receivers: 5
Tight Ends: 0
Running Backs: 2
Quarterbacks: 1
Wide Receivers: 6
Tight Ends: 1

This data set seems to present the following conclusions:

1. All the truly elite running back talent (15 of the aforementioned 26) is drafted within the first two rounds.
2. The majority of the elite wide receiver talent pool (15 of the aforementioned 19) is drafted in rounds 3, 4, and 5.

My Early-Round Draft Strategy

Now, who you take in which slots comes down to how you value certain players, which systems you believe in, and personal preferences. Everyone feels differently about these top 50, and I don’t believe there is a perfect way to predict how players will play – there’s really no predicting injuries, personnel, coaching changes and scheme changes, and how defenses choose to react to certain players. As I mentioned earlier, all you can do is go into your draft with a plan. Based on our short examination here, my plan for the first five rounds for my draft is as follows. This may change based on changes in draft slots, injuries, etc, but here is the rationale:

Round 1 – Target a Running Back

All round 1 RBs can be considered elite. I say you need one of these. Most people should be able to make this happen.

Round 2 – Target a Wide Receiver

Round two RBs look considerably more questionable and therefore risky to me at this point – I end the strong RB1 draft candidates at Steven Jackson. I’m advocating taking a top wideout here, tasters choice of Dez Bryant, AJ Green, Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones, or Demaryius Thomas. Of course it depends what draft slot you have, and who is taken out of order. I just can’t get as excited about Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Stevan Ridley, or Chris Johnson.

Round 3 – Target a Running Back

Round three, there are some huge upside RBs like Reggie Bush, Lamar Miller, and David Wilson and some question marks with huge talent, like Frank Gore, Darren McFadden, and DeMarco Murray. I’m advocating grabbing one of these RB2’s – clearly the guys I noted as ‘huge upside’ are the guys I’m higher on. You could also go Larry Fitz, Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb, or Roddy White here, and I can’t really take issue with that, but would offer that there are FAR more strong WR plays than RB plays.

Round 4 – Target a Wide Receiver

Round 4, where at current ADP’s, 7 picks will be wideouts with strong upside. Snag one of these WRs – they all have WR1 upside. I’m defining this grouping as Vincent Jackson, Jordy Nelson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, and Hakeem Nicks. You may to have to skip the Le’Veon Bell, Montee Ball party to do this, but I’m okay with letting someone else take risky rookie RBs that high.

Round 5 and Beyond – Best Player Available

By the 5th round, the ADP is going to be more or less out the window. I’m going best player available here. Players will still be going roughly in ADP order, but some reaches will have been made that affect the overall flow. If you’re QB hunting at this point, you should be able to find Newton, Brady, or Ryan around here, but I’m waiting even later for the group I noted earlier. We’re not taking a DEF or a TE here, as it would be a huge reach, so we’re looking at value plays like Ahmad Bradshaw, Reggie Wayne, and Ryan Mathews.

This round is where I’m going to begin to zone in on guys I like – I’m paying special attention to where Stafford and Garcon are sitting on my board. Chris Ivory is also an intriguing pick here, although he’s in a terrible offense. He’s a three down back, however, and should produce enough to justify this draft slot by the time final stats are counted. As always, high risk = high reward.

In Conclusion

If I had my way, and could follow this to the letter, my draft would look something like: LeSean McCoy, Dez Bryant, Reggie Bush, Jordy Nelson, best available. Maybe that’s a good combo. It might even be a great combo. Or it might stink. The idea is, we’re going to spread out our risk so that we’re not depending on a single guy to carry us each week, and lose if he doesn’t. We’re going to go in with a plan.

Please feel free to post any comments below, and please continue to post questions and mock drafts in our forums. There’s no single way to do this, and we can all learn from each other.

Good Luck!

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