Matt Williams column: Advice and war stories from the fantasy football realm

DAVID LE photo Deshaun Watson looks like a pretty good fantasy pick at QB even without DeAndre Hopkins.

Sure, it's been 179 days since the last meaningful high school sports game, but who cares the NFL is back ... 

The best part getting past Labor Day? It's not the return of pumpkin spice, Octoberfest-style beers, the disappearance of white pants or the coming of leaf peeping season.

It's the return of fantasy football.

I'm betting the majority of you had your annual drafts this weekend or maybe even on Labor Day itself. I've always preferred as late a draft as humanly possible so that all the information about catastrophic injuries, surprise releases and depth chart shakeups can be at hand. To wit, our yearly Salem News draft will be Wednesday night, less than 24 hours before the season kicks off in Kansas City Thursday night,

I'm also betting this has been a fantasy draft season like no other (stop me if you've heard this before in the age of the coronavirus). Draft preparation has to be at an all-time low for two reasons. First, fantasy players just haven't bothered to do their research while assuming COVID-19 would delay or destroy the season; second, the National Football League held no preseason games to shed light on position battles, quarterback-receiver chemistry and whatever else we normally learn in August.

At risk of tipping my hand to my callous opponents (I'm picking fourth and have no idea what I'm going to do), here's some of my best draft advice heading into the big night. Full disclosure: my only fantasy football championship was won in a dynasty league in which I took over an abandoned team and didn't draft, so maybe you'll want to make like George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I suggest.

I have managed 11 top-4 finishes in 19 Yahoo! leagues, so I figure if I keeping knocking at the door long enough, eventually I'll break through. So did the San Jose Sharks and Buffalo Bills, but let's leave that off to the side.

1) Prioritize positions

I like to go after running backs early whenever possible because there are so few good ones. The highest scoring players may be quarterbacks and wide receivers, but the difference between the top QB and the No. 8 QB is much thinner than the total dropoff after the top few running backs. That makes the RB more valuable, and you have to approach the draft with that in mind.

This is why I always bypass the top QBs. If you're in an 8-team league, even if you're the last guy to pick a QB, he should still be the eighth best in football. Same goes for wide receivers; if you plan to start three, there's certainly going to be a lot more than 24 really good, really productive receivers in the entire league. Whereas there may not be 24 really good running backs.

In recent years, the tight end position has become the most paper-thin position in football. Wait too long and you're stuck with a revolving door of touchdown dependent stiffs. I've learned the lesson the hard way several times and will be looking to make sure TE doesn't fall through the cracks this year.

2) Change your strategy based on league size

You can't apply the same rules to an 8-team league that you would to a 10- or 12-team set. The more teams, the more value you have to place on those premium positions. I've fallen into the 'one strategy' trap a few times and it's worth a reminder here. The don't-worry-about-your-QB rule? It doesn't work so well in a 12-team league; you want to grab one of the top 10 QBs.

3) Be ready to adjust on the fly

Ninety seconds is a long time when you're running the 100 meter dash, but it's not a very long time when you're on the fantasy clock and the guy you wanted to pick gets sniped out from under your nose. You've got to be prepared to change on the fly, and that's one of the reasons I prefer a 'tiered' approach to my own draft rankings.

In a nutshell, I group players that I feel are relatively similar into tiers or bands of players. That way I can say to myself, 'I want a Tier 1 running back ... and if the one I'm targeting goes, I have a couple of options also in Tier 1 to shift to at a moment's notice.'

This works for changing position strategies as well. If the last Tier 2 wide receiver goes before my pick, I'm taking a running back ... but if there's only one guy left on a premium tier at a certain position when I pick, that's the way to go.

Having tiers in mind lets you maneuver around your own draft board with deftness and dexterity. 

4) Don't be the kicker and defense guy

Every draft has someone who reaches for a kicker and a defense. There's always snide remarks in the comment section and, from time to time, that guy gets lucky with other picks and winds up with the best team despite the folly. Kickers and defenses can swing fantasy matchups week-to-week ... it's one of the reasons football is by far the most luck-dependent fantasy sport. But they're not dependable at all; they're a dime a dozen and they really don't matter.

If your draft is 16 rounds, you should be picking them in Rounds 15 and 16.

5) Mind your byes and bench spots

I've too often ignored the byes and grabbed a roster full of players that are all off on the same week. It's not a huge mistake and I prefer talent over schedule, but it makes managing the roster over the long haul a lot more difficult than it needs to be. You're going to end up dropping some useful pieces just to be able to field a full team in a rough bye week if there's too much overlap, so you need to keep an eye on that.

Also, make sure you're aware of how many bench spots there are in your league. That will guide you when it comes to picking backups, often as important or more important than your starters. If there are enough spots that everyone will take two QBs, you know you want two of the top 16 or 20. Personally, I like to take one backup QB, maybe one backup tight end and fill the rest with flex-eligible players.

6) Odds and ends

Don't overreach for the guy who's been popular on Hard Knocks. We've all done it at one time or another, and it usually doesn't work. The same applies to the players that happen to be doing well for you in the early days of the new Madden video game or that had nice seasons last year. Especially don't reach for a guy who was picked late last year and who's projected as a top pick this year. It's never too early to cut bait.

All-time best and worst picks

My worst fantasy draft picks of all-time? Drafting Jamaal Charles at No. 6 overall in 2011 wasn't great, since he blew out his knee in the second game of the year. Taking non-factor Felix Jones in the third round might've been worse and made it impossible to recover.

Grabbing Doug Martin in the second round in 2014 derailed my entire season. Eddie Lacy did something similar in 2015 when I snagged him eighth overall. He'd been a gold mine for me at No.5 the previous year, so I ignored all the red flags at my own peril.

Adrian Peterson at ninth overall in 2016? Doom. Then I took Jameis Winson as my quarterback in 2017 expecting a breakout season and MVP-like numbers, only to be sorely disappointed and scrambling all over the waiver wire by the end of the year when my backup plan suffered a season ending injury.

My best all-time picks? All at the quarterback position, which explains why my entire fantasy philosophy revolves around hitting it big on a productive QB in the middle rounds.

Peyton Manning's comeback season in Denver in 2012 netted me beaucoup rewards out of the seventh round. I pulled it off again in 2015 when Carson Palmer put up near-MVP numbers in Arizona in 2015, and he came in round 12. I got ace receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the third round that year and still somehow managed to not win the championship. Selecting Deshaun Watson in the sixth round in his breakout season in 2018 also stands out.

The best non-QB pick I found? DeMarco Murray in the third round in 2013.

Happy drafting folks, and here's hoping for an injury-free season with no bad beats, not late touchdowns from your opponents on Monday Night Football, and no six-point field goals from your opponents kickers on a late Sunday night. Hey, we can dream right?

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You can contact Matt Williams at 978-338-2669 and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

 

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