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Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Strategy, Advice & Rankings (2023)

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Strategy, Advice & Rankings (2023)

Do you have a fantasy football draft to prepare for? A great way to get ready is to use our FREE mock draft simulator! Beyond that, fantasy football expert Pat Fitzmaurice breaks down each position, including his fantasy football strategy and advice.

Fantasy Football Draft Kit

Fantasy Football Draft Primer

Let’s take a look at some advice as you navigate your fantasy football drafts.

Why It’s OK to Draft a QB Early

JJ Zachariason, one of the most respected analysts in fantasy football, launched his career in the industry with a 2012 ebook called “The Late-Round Quarterback.” The book was Zachariason’s response to an extreme market overreaction.

A handful of quarterbacks had produced obscene numbers in 2011. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford each threw for more than 5,000 yards. Brees, Stafford and Aaron Rodgers threw for more than 40 touchdowns. Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards and ran for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. After the QB fireworks of 2011, Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Stafford and Newton all had first-round ADPs in 2012, according to FantasyPros’ historical ADP data.

Zachariason made a compelling case that 2011 was an outlier season, that the 2012 QB market was askew and that drafting a QB late was the prudent move. The results of the 2012 season supported Zachariason’s points. The top five QBs of 2011 all averaged better than 22 fantasy points per game. None of them reached that threshold in 2012.

In 2020, Zachariason divorced himself from the late-round QB strategy he’d practically patented. Fantasy managers had come to recognize the importance of QB rushing production, and the proliferation of mobile quarterbacks had made the position more predictable. Late-round values at QB had become scarce. As Zachariason noted in a recent podcast about the rise of the early-round quarterback, QB passing numbers fluctuate more from year to year than QB rushing numbers. Now, everyone wants a mobile QB.

The quarterbacks being drafted earliest in 2023 are either prolific runners or high-level passers with some complementary rushing ability — as it should be.

Bottom line: Waiting to draft a quarterback isn’t as sensible a strategy as it used to be.

A Battle Plan for the QB Position

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts each averaged better than 24 fantasy points per game in 2022, and the scoring gap between those three and QB4 Joe Burrow was significant. Mahomes, Allen and Hurts all have second-round ADPs, according to FantasyPros ADP data.

I want to secure one of the top eight quarterbacks this year in my 1QB redraft leagues, but I prefer not to spend a second-round pick on one. I can’t bring myself to bypass a high-impact RB or WR in favor of taking Mahomes, Allen or Hurts.

The QB4 through QB8 in ADP — Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence — are typically coming off the board somewhere from the late third round to the late fifth round. The RBs and WRs who come off the board in that range aren’t nearly as appealing as the second-round RBs and WRs, so that group of quarterbacks in the QB4-QB8 is the pond in which I’m fishing.

My favorite target in that range is Fields, who could be the 2023 version of 2022 Jalen Hurts. Fields’ ADP this year is QB6. Hurts’ ADP last year was QB6. Fantasy managers were sold on Hurts’ rushing ability last year but perhaps not on his passing ability. That seems to be the case this year with Fields, who averaged 76.2 rushing yards per game last season but only 149.5 passing yards. Fields was dealing with a patchwork WR group last year, particularly after Darnell Mooney went down with an injury. The Bears have upgraded their receivers and offensive line, and I’m optimistic Fields can make good on the promise he showed as a passer at Ohio State.

If the quarterbacks in the QB4-QB8 range slip through my fingers, I’ll try to grab either Deshaun Watson or Dak Prescott soon after. If I miss out on them, I’ll try to land either Daniel Jones or Anthony Richardson, who both have high-level rushing potential, and then draft a high-floor backup.

A Word About Superflex Leagues

Quarterback draft strategy is different in superflex leagues, which allow you to start a second QB in one of your flex spots. Quarterbacks generally score more points than players at other positions, so in a league where you’re able to start two of them, and where everyone is rostering more quarterbacks than in a 1QB league, the position becomes hugely important, just as it is in the real game.

Quarterbacks will inevitably dominate the first round of a superflex startup draft. Once the draft is over, good QBs will always be expensive in the trade market.

The consequences of punting the QB position in a superflex league are daunting. It’s hard to win games when you’re starting Jared Goff and Sam Howell, and your opponents are throwing Mahomes/Prescott and Allen/Lawrence combos at you.

Ideally, you’ll draft an anchor quarterback in Round 1 or Round 2. Beyond the first two rounds, things get tricky. The goal is to draft opportunistically at the QB position in order to maximize value, but also to not get left out in the cold. It’s a difficult balancing act because quarterbacks are almost always overdrafted from Round 2 on in superflex leagues. You may be forced to abandon value-seeking principles when addressing the QB position.

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Quarterback Strategy, Rankings & Tiers partner-arrow

Running Back Draf Strategy

In the 1990s and early 2000s, robust-RB drafters who chose the right running backs rampaged through their leagues like velociraptors, devouring the weak. But the climate has changed in fantasy football over the last 20 years, thinning the herd of robust-RB drafters. Those who survive are no longer the fearsome hunters who terrorized the fantasy landscape a quarter century ago. They are struggling to adapt to a radically altered environment.

An asteroid was responsible for killing the dinosaurs. RB-by-committee is the asteroid killing off robust-RB drafters.

In 1998, 11 running backs had 300 or more regular-season carries (led by Jamal Anderson’s 410), and 20 running backs had 245 or more carries.

In 2022, three running backs had 300 or more regular-season carries, and eight running backs had 245 or more carries.

The robust-RB approach doesn’t work as well these days because modern running backs aren’t as robust themselves.

In the ’90s and early aughts, taking running backs early in fantasy drafts made sense because it was a safe bet that Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, et al. would get mammoth workloads.

Which running backs can we turn to for reliably high touch volume in 2023? Derrick Henry is probably a lock for heavy volume if healthy. Beyond that? Good luck finding a workhorse. Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley, Bijan Robinson, Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris all have a chance to be high-volume RBs. Other candidates for beefy workloads include Breece Hall, Cam Akers, Joe Mixon and Alexander Mattison.

But the numbers say there won’t be nearly as many high-volume runners as there were in the robust-RB era. Over the last three years, there have been only 15 instances of a running back getting 250 or more carries in a season.

Other Considerations When Drafting RBs

There’s a philosophy that guides both my financial investments and my fantasy football investments: I prefer to make my heaviest investments in stable assets rather than unstable assets.

Running backs are unstable assets.

Aside from kickers and defenses, RB is perhaps the least predictable position in fantasy. As I noted in my WR primer, we routinely see running backs taken in the mid to late rounds of fantasy drafts emerge as impactful performers. However, it’s far less common to see wide receivers emerge from the middle and late rounds of fantasy drafts and make an impact.

In 2022, nine of the 12 wide receivers with average draft positions (ADPs) in the WR1 range finished top 12 in fantasy points per game (half-point PPR) at the position. Two of the other three — Mike Evans and Tee Higgins — finished 13th and 14th, respectively, in fantasy points per game (FPPG) among receivers who played at least nine games. The only receiver to be drafted in the WR1 range last year and finish outside the top 14 in fantasy points per game was Deebo Samuel, who finished 25th in FPPG.

For the sake of comparison, seven of the 12 running backs with ADPs in the RB1 range finished top 12 in fantasy points per game last season. Tony Pollard‘s average draft position last year was RB30, and he finished RB7 in half-point PPR fantasy scoring. Jamaal Williams‘ ADP was RB53, and he finished RB8.

It’s important to consider league settings when plotting an RB strategy for your draft.

There aren’t as many standard-scoring leagues — or, if you prefer, non-PPR leagues — as there used to be. But standard-scoring leagues tend to be more RB-friendly than PPR leagues since the point-per-reception setting tends to favor WRs over RBs.

Perhaps even more important than your league’s scoring system is its lineup configuration. Are you required to start two WRs each week or three?

I’m more amenable to drafting RBs early in 2WR leagues. In 3WR leagues, strength at wide receiver is critical, and I’m willing to make sacrifices at RB to ensure strength at WR. If your league requires you to start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 FLEX, at least 37.5% of your non-defense, non-kicker starters will be WRs. That percentage would jump to 50% if you put a WR in the flex spot. You can’t afford to be weak at wide receiver in such leagues.

Four Approaches to Drafting RBs

Let’s look at four strategies for drafting running backs.

Zero RB: Pioneered by Shawn Siegele of RotoViz, this strategy involves bypassing RBs in the early rounds of your draft and focusing heavily on pass catchers with early picks.

Hero RB: A variation on Zero RB, this strategy allows for the drafting of a top running back in one of the first two rounds of your draft, with other early-round picks dedicated to non-RBs.

Robust RB: A strategy referenced earlier in this article, Robust RB involves an RB-heavy approach in the early rounds — typically three RBs in the first four rounds.

Opportunistic RB: This is basically just a value-hunting approach to the position. Is there value at RB in the early rounds? Jump on it. If not, be patient and get your RBs later.

I lean toward Zero RB and Hero RB builds, though every once in a great while, I’ll shift into Opportunistic RB mode if the values on early-round RBs are irresistible. Robust RB is a strategy I reject for the reasons outlined earlier in this article.

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Running Back Strategy, Rankings & Tiers partner-arrow

Wide Receiver Draft Strategy

The WR position is only deep in the sense that a lot of wide receivers get significant playing time. There are 32 NFL teams, after all, and each team starts at least two wide receivers. NFL offenses frequently use three-receiver sets, and some NFL teams have three fantasy-viable receivers.

But we need our wide receivers to do more than just get exercise by running routes with nothing to show for it. We need points, and the number of receivers who reliably deliver significant point totals is smaller than some fantasy managers think.

Only 29 receivers played at least 10 games and averaged double-digit points in half-point point per reception (PPR) scoring last season.

Only 32 receivers drew at least 100 targets.

Only 26 receivers scored more than 5 touchdowns.

Only 21 receivers hit the 1,000-yard mark.

Your goal should be to amass a formidable collection of high-scoring receivers, particularly if your league requires you to start three WRs every week.

3WR Leagues vs. 2WR Leagues

In a league that requires you to start three wide receivers, you should hammer the WR position early. Your goal should be to overwhelm your competitors at wide receiver. Ideally, your WR4 will be better than everyone else’s WR3 and maybe even better than some people’s WR2.

How important is the WR position in 3WR leagues? Think of it this way: If your league requires you to start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 FLEX, at least 37.5% of your non-defense, non-kicker starters will be WRs. That percentage would jump to 50% if you put a WR in the flex spot.

In leagues where you’re required to start only two receivers, it’s OK to simply keep up with the competition at wide receiver as long as you’re building positional advantages elsewhere. In leagues where you have to start three receivers, it’s imperative to stay ahead of the curve at the position. If you’re able to overwhelm opponents at the WR position, you can ham-and-egg it at one or two of the other positions and still have a powerhouse team. If you’re the one being overwhelmed at the WR position on a weekly basis, your chances of making the fantasy playoffs will be slim.

In 3WR leagues, at least three of your first five draft picks should be wide receivers. Ideally, four of your first six picks will be receivers.

A More Predictable Position

We routinely see running backs taken in the mid to late rounds of fantasy drafts emerge as impactful performers. Tony Pollard‘s average draft position (ADP) last year was RB30, and he finished RB7 in half-point PPR fantasy scoring. Jamaal Williams‘ ADP was RB53, and he finished RB8. Rhamondre Stevenson‘s ADP was RB35, and he finished RB11.

It’s far less common to see wide receivers emerge from the middle and late rounds of fantasy drafts and make an impact. Garrett Wilson was a rare exception last season, finishing WR19 after having an ADP of WR59. But Wilson was still only a midrange WR2. Rarely do we ever see receivers come out of the fog to finish in WR1 range.

In 2022, nine of the 12 wide receivers with ADPs in the WR1 range finished as WR1s in fantasy points per game (half-point PPR). Two of the other three — Mike Evans and Tee Higgins — finished 13th and 14th, respectively, in fantasy points per game (FPPG) among receivers who played at least nine games. The only receiver to be drafted in the WR1 range last year and finish outside the top 14 in fantasy points per game was Deebo Samuel, who finished 25th in FPPG.

For the sake of comparison, seven of the 12 running backs with ADPs in the RB1 range finished top 12 in fantasy points per game last season.

The high reliability of early-round wide receivers is a good reason to invest heavily in the position.

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Wide Receiver Strategy, Rankings & Tiers partner-arrow

Tight End Draft Strategy

There are three basic approaches to the TE position in redraft leagues. Here they are, along with the premise that underpins each philosophy.

  1. Spend up. With reliable scorers so scarce at the position, getting a top tight end can give you a big competitive advantage.
  2. Spend down. There are few prolific scorers at the position, and the upper-crust TEs are expensive. Better to target inexpensive TEs with intriguing profiles. If the tight ends you draft don’t work out, you can pan for gold on the waiver wire.
  3. Hunt for value. Rather than committing to a predetermined TE strategy, take what the room gives you. If a high-quality tight end is available at a bargain price, pounce. Otherwise, be patient and don’t overspend.

The Kelce Conundrum

If you decide to spend up at tight end, one option stands above the rest. Travis Kelce has finished TE1 in PPR fantasy scoring in six of the last seven seasons. (He finished second to Mark Andrews in 2021.) The gap between Kelce and all other tight ends was Grand Canyon-sized in 2022. Kelce averaged 19.2 PPR points per game last season. The next-closest tight end, T.J. Hockenson, averaged 13.3 fantasy points.

Kelce has strung together seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he’s averaged 8.4 touchdowns per year over that span. In 2022, he had a career-high 110 catches for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Investors who have been willing to spend an early pick on Kelce have been rewarded with a massive positional advantage. So, why wouldn’t you draft Kelce in the first round?

Well, there’s an opportunity cost. If you draft a tight end in the first round, you’re likely to come out of your draft with below-average firepower at either running back or wide receiver. There’s also some age-related risk. Kelce turns 34 in October. There have been no signs of age-related decline, and Kelce has been indestructible for most of his career. He missed a game in 2020 due to COVID-19, but Kelce hasn’t missed a game due to injury since he was a rookie 10 years ago.

I have Kelce ranked seventh overall, behind three WRs (Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase and Cooper Kupp) and three RBs (Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey and Bijan Robinson).

TE-Premium Leagues

Before we spend more time discussing specific tight ends, let’s discuss the TE-premium format and how it affects positional strategy.

In TE premium, tight ends are awarded more points per reception than wide receivers or running backs. In most TE-premium leagues, WRs and RBs get 1 point per reception, and TEs get 1.5.

The format seemingly makes it imperative to spend up at tight end. With the greater rewards for TE receptions, strength at the position is handsomely rewarded, so there is an incentive to aggressively draft a top tight end in the early rounds.

There’s no denying that the TE-premium format places greater emphasis on the position, but drafting a tight end early in a TE-premium league isn’t automatically the right strategy. Since tight ends come off the board earlier in TE-premium drafts, good players at other positions are available later in the draft than they would be otherwise. If you decide not to draft a tight end early, you can scoop up value at other positions. If you can figure out a way to get adequate TE production later in the draft, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

A Word About Rookies

This year’s crop of rookie tight ends is widely considered to be a good one. First-round draft pick Dalton Kincaid (Bills) and early second-rounders Sam LaPorta (Lions), Michael Mayer (Raiders) and Luke Musgrave (Packers) could be fantasy-viable performers right away.

But beware: Historically, rookie tight ends haven’t been great bets for fantasy, even when they’re first-round draft picks. Of the 25 tight ends taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2000, only four — Kyle Pitts, Evan Engram, Heath Miller and Jeremy Shockey — were fantasy TE1s as rookies. That’s just a 16% hit rate. Kincaid’s long-term outlook is bright. But the smart move for 2023? Fade Kincaid.

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Tight End Strategy, Rankings & Tiers partner-arrow

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