When it comes to fantasy football drafting, any strategy works if you end up choosing the right players. However, since we’re wrong more often than we’re right, which actions can we take to maximize our chances of winning? Here are tried and true strategies to keep in mind during your fantasy football draft when you’re pondering how to win your 2021 fantasy football league.
1. Think “Range Of Outcomes”, Not Just Pure Projections
This is the most common mistake fantasy owners make. Drafting purely by statistical projection leaves absolutely zero room for error, which is never a winning fantasy football strategy. Instead, consider some of the following questions:
- What is this player’s ceiling?
- Am I drafting this player at his ceiling?
- What has to happen for this player to hit his ceiling? Is it likely?
- If he doesn’t hit his ceiling, what other reasonable ranges of outcomes exist?
Derrick Henry is a perfect example of this phenomenon gone wrong. It’s safe to say that Derrick Henry hit his ceiling in 2020 (league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns, 5th-most rushing yards in NFL history, 378 carries), but was he actually a league-winner?
Between 2016-20, there were 10 instances of an RB averaging 24+ (arbitrary, I know) PPG. Christian McCaffrey averaged 29.9 PPG in 2019 and 30.1 across three games last year. Simply put, Henry doesn't have that in his range of outcomes as long as he doesn't catch passes.
— Jack Miller (@JackMiller02) July 21, 2021
At the top of the draft, you want a guy who has 21+ PPG as a possible outcome, and even Derrick Henry’s ceiling doesn’t hit that due to his lack of receiving ability. With that unlikely to change and him coming into his age-27 season fresh off of back-to-back 300+ carry seasons, he is a questionable selection at the top of your draft.
On the other hand, thinking about the range of outcomes makes players like Austin Ekeler (a 100+ catch candidate who could have 240+ rush attempts) more appealing than Henry despite being a full round cheaper.
As a general rule, target players who check multiple of the following bullet points:
- Receive the ball regardless of game script
- Are schemed the ball in a variety of ways and areas of the field
- High-efficiency metrics (more important for WRs and TEs)
- Young with a strong prospect profile
- On a high-scoring offense
Obviously, very few players have all of these attributes. But you’d be surprised by the amount of top-60 selections that check only one or even zero of those boxes, like Josh Jacobs:
Josh Jacobs is the most gamescript dependent RB in fantasy:
In wins — 21.1 fantasy points per game
In losses — 10.3 FPG
17 of his 19 career TDs have come in wins.
Raiders win total is 7.5 — same as the Panthers and Broncos.
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) July 22, 2021
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2. Adjust Your Draft Strategy To Your League Settings
Following one set of rankings for all different league types is a recipe for underoptimized performance. Obviously, 2QB leagues have drastically different rankings than the classic 1QB format, but what about a league that starts 2 WRs instead of 3, or leagues that are 0.5 PPR instead of full-point PPR?
For example, let’s assume your home league starts 1QB/2RB/2WR/1TE/1FLEX. Grabbing an early-round TE becomes even more important here as you have fewer opportunities to gain a point advantage on the other teams in your league. On the other hand, if you start 3+ WRs and/or 2+ FLEX positions, you have more chances to build around WRs in order to make up points against the teams who drafted Travis Kelce or Darren Waller.
Each fantasy league is its own market, and markets are determined by supply and demand. During fantasy drafts, nothing has more impact on this than the league settings.
3. Zig When Everyone Else Zags
Inevitably during fantasy drafts, there are “runs” on a certain position. For example, you may see 8+ RBs go off the board in a row in your draft, or there could be a rush on the mid-tier TEs in the 6th-7th round.
This may elicit some instinctual panic, but it can actually be a blessing in disguise. Instead of trying to chase points by keeping up with your opponent, take the major value at other positions. If you see a “run” on players at a certain position, don’t feel like you have to chase that position, there are likely some values at other positions that need to be taken advantage of.
4. Be The Last Player To Draft a K or DEF…Or Don’t Draft One At All
This is a universal mistake that occurs in nearly every fantasy league. Not only is ranking fantasy defenses nearly impossible due to the unpredictable year-to-year performance and volatility of defensive TDs, but you’re probably better off simply playing week-to-week matchups anyway.
If you’re hellbent on coming out of your draft with a full roster, be sure you’re the last one to take a K and DEF and ensure they’re players you’ll start in Week 1.
But otherwise, eschew the position altogether on draft day and load up on “lottery tickets”: players who stand to benefit from a training camp/preseason injury or a team’s transaction.
Think about how much better your teams would’ve been if you took a stab at James Robinson or Justin Jefferson in the final few rounds instead of reaching for the Steelers DEF, or even Nyheim Hines or one of the other plethora of breakout 2020 rookie WRs.
The odds are certainly low you’ll hit on these picks, but it increases your chances of finding a league-winning player at basically zero opportunity cost.
5. Draft Multiple Late-Round QBs (With Rushing Upside)
While it may feel sexy to grab Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen early in your 1QB drafts this year, it probably won’t result in the hoisting of a championship trophy. The cost of drafting an early QB makes it nearly impossible to make up the points that you’re giving to your opponents at every other position.
Unlike TE production (another “onesie” position in most leagues), getting cheap quarterback production is not difficult. Take a look at the ADP of last year’s top-12 scoring QBs:
|Player||2020 ADP||2020 Pos. ADP|
There is very little rhyme or reason to how QBs finished in terms of where they were drafted, as nearly half of last year’s top-12 QBs were drafted as the 10th QB off the board or later.
In terms of win rates, drafting Mahomes barely got you to an average (8.3%) win rate (8.5%, 10th among 37 qualifying QBs) while drafting Jackson legitimately killed fantasy teams with an appalling 4.1% win rate (37th out of 37 qualifying QBs). This, despite Mahomes finishing as the QB4 and Jackson rushing for 1,005 yards and 7 TDs.
How do we find cheap value at QB? Simple: look for QBs outside of the top-tier who are likely to have rushing production. This strategy led to savvy owners either matching or exceeding league-average QB scoring for owners who drafted Dak Prescott and Cam Newton over the past few years while legitimately winning leagues for owners who took Lamar Jackson late in 2019 drafts and owners who trotted out Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, or Justin Herbert last year.
Two candidates for 2021 include potential rookie phenoms Trey Lance and Justin Fields. Lance has serious 2019 Lamar Jackson vibes in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, while Fields looks like the final piece to a strong Chicago Bears offense. Load up on QBs with rushing upside anywhere after the 8th round, and you’ll likely be keeping up with the owners who drafted earlier QBs while you crush your weekly RB/WR/TE matchups. If your picks aren’t working out, there is also value in streaming quarterbacks.
6. Win Positional Matchups by Drafting An Elite TE
A helpful way to think of a fantasy matchup is by considering it a series of head-to-head positional matchups. Once you think in this way, you’ll notice a problem: you have absolutely no way to compete with the Christian McCaffreys and Dalvin Cooks of the world if you don’t have a top-3 selection. By taking RBs after the elite tier, all you’re doing is trying to play “catch up” with the teams lucky enough to land the few (or lone) truly transcendent RBs. This is a losing strategy.
Instead, you must take the “L” your RB1 spot and look to exploit an advantage at another position. The easiest way to do this is by taking an elite tight end. Simply drafting Travis Kelce last year tripled the average win rate of fantasy teams as the MVP of the 2020 fantasy season, while Darren Waller nearly doubled teams’ win rates as the 15th most valuable player in fantasy football.
To illustrate the value of an early-round TE, Travis Kelce gave you an unbelievable 8.6 PPG advantage over the TE6 (Mark Andrews) – the same as the difference between Aaron Jones and Wayne Gallman, or the difference between DeAndre Hopkins and Tim Patrick.
By pursuing a positional advantage at TE, you’ll have the ability to compete with the players who luck into the league-winning RBs and WRs regardless of your draft position.
7. Take Risks
Remember: only one team wins! Taking only safe, reliable high-floor players may help foster an above-average finish in your league but beating out 11 other teams takes more than a team of steady players who score 12 PPR points per game.
Fantasy leagues are won by having multiple players that significantly outperform ADP. Think about the difference between taking T.Y. Hilton in 2020 instead of Stefon Diggs or taking Julian Edelman over Will Fuller. The “sure things” (if such a thing exists in fantasy football) are always going to cost a lot of draft capital, so focus on players with upside whose risk is at least partially baked into their cost.
In most fantasy football leagues, coming in 3rd place (a top 25% finish) is as good as coming in last. Don’t be afraid to be contrarian and take a gamble when thinking about how to win your 2021 fantasy football league.