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The playing of Fantasy Sports has truly reached epic proportions. Over 41.5 million people spent over $3.5 Billion last year between league fees, transaction fees and information/materials regarding their Fantasy leagues.

Because of the level that the industry as a whole has reached in popularity, there are more outlets providing research, analysis, projections, rankings and strategy than ever before. So the prevalent question facing the Fantasy Player is how to decipher which information will set his or her team apart from the rest of the league? Particularly, how can you gain that edge with your first few picks with an early round draft strategy?

The first time I played Fantasy Football in 2003, I took (gulp) Michael Vick with my first round pick. Vick promptly broke his leg the next day in the pre-season and missed almost the entire Fantasy season. I quickly realized that more strategy and research was needed before drafting my team.

The next several years, I would read an article or two, find my favorite rankings and basically just go down the list on draft day. I performed decently, never dominantly, but got out of it basically what I put into the process; not enough. I still attributed success in the game to mostly luck.

Attack of the First-Round Bust

Once I was done playing football in college, and actually had a little more time on my hands in August, I really dove into any and all information possible. What I realized after a couple of seasons of information overload was that no matter how much I researched and followed intelligent people/strategies, I could not prevent my team from being undone by a first-round bust.

Just in the past few years alone, if you drafted Ryan Mathews or Maurice Jones-Drew in 2012; C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, Trent Richardson or Arian Foster in 2013; or Montee Ball, Adrian Peterson, or Ray Rice in 2014, in the first round then your team would have a serious struggle to even make the playoffs. I mean none of those players listed had season-ending injuries to hold them back and all were highly regarded as good picks in the first round. These busts made me really start to believe in the mission statement: “You cannot win your fantasy league in the first round, but you can lose it.”

… I got out of it basically what I put into the process; not enough.

Okay, so I have what I need to accomplish at the beginning of the draft, but I was still searching for a draft strategy as to how to achieve it. This is where I should probably differentiate that I will be looking at drafting in a PPR league (half-point or full). Every single league I have played in in the past 12 years has had some sort of PPR format and I really think that analysis in general is neglecting what is becoming the most common form of scoring.

The Running Back Misnomer

As I said, previously my research was sparse, and I never noticed that the rankings and draft strategy I was employing were for non-PPR leagues. So with that knowledge in mind, I started to stick strictly to the RB-RB philosophy of taking a running back in both the first two rounds. By utilizing this outdated and obsolete strategy I would end up with one of these first round busts, especially if I was at the end of the snake draft.

For those that disagree with my previous statement, let’s take a look at the consistency of running backs. Just nine running backs finished in the Top 24 at their position in each of the past two seasons. Furthermore, there were only six backs that finished as RB1’s or in the Top 12 both years. So you are already looking at a 50% turnover with just a 2-year sample. If you take it to a four-year span, only Matt Forte finished as a RB1 each season. In fact, over the past four seasons, 27 different running backs have finished in the Top 12 at their position.

The status of running backs in the NFL is just a different world than it was 10 years ago. Consider: from 2002-2005 there were 13 different running backs that had streaks of three or more straight years finishing as a RB1. This period included streaks of five-plus RB1 years from four guys, Shaun Alexander, Ladainian Tomlinson, Tiki Barber and Brian Westbrook. From 2011-2014 there were only six instances of 3-year streaks and only Matt Forte breaking the 5-year barrier. Still not convinced? Well let’s take a look at the Top 12 running backs by Average Draft Position (ADP) last season. Seven of the 12 finished as RB1’s, which seems like a solid percentage. However, four of the 12 were un-startable: they did not finish in the Top 48 of all backs. So you are looking at a 33 percent chance that your first round pick is not even worth starting. Additionally, six of the Top 16 running backs in ADP finished the season un-startable.

Questions in the Backfield

Now all of the information provided has dealt with previous seasons. Who is to say that this season will follow the trends? Well before looking at depth charts try to come up with how many teams you would bet significant money on one of their running backs to have the most fantasy points. Seriously, make a list and see how many you come up with. My number? Nine. Yes, I only have faith in about a quarter of the backfield situations.

Among the surprisingly questionable backfields: Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Baltimore. I do not think DeMarco Murray has a full season, especially with both Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews taking touches in the Eagles’ platoon. Will Adrian Peterson be a Viking Week 1? I think C.J. Spiller significantly hurts Mark Ingram’s value in New Orleans. Will Carlos Hyde take the reins in San Francisco or will Reggie Bush become the lead back? Lastly, I will need to see Justin Forsett perform with all of the expectations in Baltimore before I am a believer.

Of those nine lead backs, there are still heavy question marks. Can Forte and Marshawn Lynch come back from HEAVY workloads (368 and 385 touches respectively) and continue their streaks in Chicago and Seattle? Can Jamaal Charles, Kansas City and Arian Foster, Houston avoid injury for a whole season? Can Eddie Lacy continue to grow in Green Bay or will he take a dip like Alfred Morris has in Washington? Will Frank Gore be able to succeed in Indy? I am a believer in LeSean McCoy this year, but he is still in a new situation with Fred Jackson to take some third down catches with the Bills. Can Le’Veon Bell come back strong from his suspension or will Deangelo Williams steal touches in Pittsburgh?

With those questions in mind, I see five backs that are bust-proof enough to take in the first round: Forte, Lynch, Charles, Lacy and McCoy. The other four, plus Peterson and Murray, I want no part of drafting. Now the question is what you do if you are drafting 6th or later and those five are gone? Or what if you still don’t like the questions facing any or all of those five?

Safety in the Top Tier of Wide Receivers

The logical follow-up to pointing out the running back inconsistency is what exactly is the better early option? In standard roster leagues (1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, 1 Flex or a 3rd WR) the other valuable commodity is wide receiver, since just like running backs, you have to start multiple. With that in mind, receivers would be the reasonable choice. On the surface, wideouts seem just as inconsistent as backs: only 10 players were in the Top 24 of their position the last two seasons each and just six guys have had streaks of three or more years finishing as a WR1 during the 2011-2014 time frame. The main difference between the two positions is the clear top tier of players. I have seen arguments made for about 15 different running backs to be included in the top tier. With receivers, that number is cut in half. To me, there is a clear-cut top four guys in terms of consistency and reliability: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh; Dez Bryant, Dallas; Demaryius Thomas, Denver and Calvin Johnson, Detroit. Brown, Bryant and Thomas have all been in the Top 6 at their position the past two seasons, and Johnson had a streak of four straight seasons in the Top 6 until injuries cut into his year last season (which he still finished as a high-end WR2).

Value Based Drafting

More importantly, this group of four players provides more value year-in and year-out than any other running back or receiver. When I refer to their “value” I am really talking about Value Based Drafting (VBD), which will be another draft strategy article in itself. In the simplest terms, VBD is about judging a player’s value over the replacement level player at that spot in the lineup. For comparison’s sake, and since the majority of leagues are using a Flex player now, let’s look at the previous WR group of four against the replacement level Flex player’s output. In a 12-team league, that would be the 60th best RB/WR. Over the past three seasons (so that is including Megatron’s injury year last year and Antonio Brown’s 2012 before he broke out) the average value between the four players over the replacement level flex option was 141 points. That is almost nine points a week more that these guys are basically guaranteeing you over the replacement level. Now how do the most consistent running backs stack up in the same situation? The most consistent running backs over the past three years have been Forte, Charles and Lynch. If you average their season point totals and subtract the replacement flex player’s amount it comes out to about 7.5 points a week. Just 1.5 points a week does not sound like that much, but how many Fantasy Weeks have been decided by less? Consequently, how many Fantasy Seasons are decided by just a single game, which was decided by a single point?

The Value is in the Top Tier of Wide Receivers

The real insight of this research is that not only do you get more guaranteed value with the top tier of receivers and you spend less to get them (end of the first round rather than the start), but they also have less chance to fall of the face of the Fantasy Earth. Of the first twelve receivers by ADP last season, all of them ended the season as at least WR3’s, including seven finishing as WR1’s. More importantly, only three of the first 36 receivers selected were un-startable: Victor Cruz (who got hurt), Percy Harvin and Cordarrelle Patterson (both of which were valued way too highly by some “experts” skewing their value). In fact, 24 of the Top 32 receivers drafted ended the year in the Top 32. In comparison, there were only 13 of the Top 32 running backs that ended there and 15 (almost HALF!) were un-startable. These findings all point to the fact that wide receivers are more consistent (especially at the tier) and provide more value than their running back counterparts.

Elite Quarterbacks: The Models of Consistency

I have given five suitable first round running backs as well as the top tier of four receivers worthy of first round picks. However, what if all nine are gone by the time you pick? Well that leaves the most consistent position of all: quarterbacks. There is a clear group of four quarterbacks that are both elite and consistent: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, Andrew Luck, Indianapolis, Drew Brees, New Orleans and Peyton Manning, Denver. Luck really just entered the category a year ago, but if you take the last ten years of the other three signal callers in which they finished the season, there was no lower ending finish than 6th among their position (and only two instances of injury out of the 27 possible individual seasons, Peyton’s neck in 2011 and Rodgers collarbone in 2013). The most startling discovery is the amount of value that these quarterbacks provide over the replacement level player. The average value of these four guys over the replacement quarterback the past two seasons has been 75 points and the average for the past seven years has been nearly 90 points. Even more impressive is a 44 point average above the sixth place finisher at the position. Therefore, but drafting one of these four quarterbacks you gain almost three points a week above the average player in your league, let alone the replacement level. Now while the previous values are not quite as high as that of the top receivers or running backs, there is something else that helps push for getting an elite quarterback. The mainstream thought process now is to wait and be one of the last people to draft a quarterback; I have stuck to that in almost all of my leagues. If you did that last year and took one of the 9th-12th drafted quarterbacks, then you had a 75% chance of drafting a non-starter and falling even further behind the elite guys. The quarterback position is easily the deepest position in Fantasy Football, but only in terms that there are plenty of guys that will not lay an egg every week. However, the depth has actually made the top tier more valuable. There is a solid argument for 17 different quarterbacks to fill in one of the 5th-12th spots by the end of the season. So you can draft one of these decent quarterbacks and end up with a non-starter’s output every week, or try to get two and play a Quarterback By Committee (QBC). I promise you that having to make that decision on a weekly basis will not only drive you crazy but will be more difficult than finding a replacement level RB/WR on the waiver wire to pair with an elite quarterback’s guarantee of points.

Whither the Tight Ends

Before concluding on my early-round draft affidavit, I would like to point out that the tight end position is in a state of flux. Rob Gronkowski is by far the best option, but his injury history in New England makes his price tag (late-first to mid-second round) quite risky. Jimmy Graham has switched teams and it will likely lead to fewer targets but possibly more touchdowns in Seattle… how much of each is anybody’s guess. Julius Thomas went from Peyton Manning to Blake Bortles and the Jaguars. There is too much bust potential with every single tight end now that it will definitely be the last position I draft.

Early Round Draft Strategy

Alright, so whether you made it this far or just skipped ahead, let’s reset the basic principle with which we are working with: “You cannot win your fantasy league in the first round, but you can lose it.” This theory means that avoiding an early round bust needs to be a fantasy player’s biggest priority when drafting, rather than trying to hit a home run with his or her first pick.

In the next few months you will see different draft philosophies: RB/RB, Zero RB, WR/WR, WR/RB, etc. These are the old school and outdated forms of thinking. The theories work in a world where certain people have more information and research at their fingertips than everyone else in their league. On the contrary, Fantasy Football is so common that ignorant players are few and far between.

You simply cannot pigeonhole your picks into a position or theory. You must act dynamically as a draft is a fluid situation. That is why I prefer to call my draft strategy, Dynamic Value Based Drafting (DVBD). I use the value of the player mixed with the opportunity of the situation. I will get more into DVBD for the middle and later rounds in a different article.

While I would take one of the running backs (Charles, Forte, Lacy, Lynch and McCoy) if I had a Top 5 pick, my perfect draft would entail a later pick and two of the four elite receivers (Brown, Bryant, Johnson, and Thomas) while still pulling one of the top quarterbacks (Brees, Luck, Manning and Rodgers). However it will really come down to your personal preference and projection on each of these players. It is still too early to construct a solid projection on these players, but this will at least help you focus on the year-to-year consistency needed to avoid the dreaded bust and losing your league in the first round.

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Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin is an ESPY-nominated, former college football player who stays associated with the game through Fantasy Sports. He has been writing his personal blog, Dirkland.blogspot.com, for three years and it focuses on Fantasy Sports, as well as handicapping. He was born and raised in the DFW Metroplex, and he follows all of the Dallas teams, along with Texas Tech athletics and Manchester City F.C.
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