When To Draft Each Position in Fantasy Football

Knowing when to draft each position in fantasy football is a topic that creates much confusion for team owners. Almost all team owners know what players they want to draft by position prior to the draft. For instance, a team owner may have a list of quarterbacks, a list of running backs, a list wide receivers, etc., but may not have a good idea as to when to draft them. This article will try to make this decision easier.

Assumptions

For the purposes of our example, we will have to begin with a couple of assumptions. First, let’s assume that next year’s fantasy point production by players in the NFL will be the exact same as last year. In other words, we know what next year’s fantasy point production will be – our projections for next year will be 100% accurate. Ahh… perfect projections! That’s what we hope for every year, isn’t it?

Our second assumption is the league has a starting line-up requirement of one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one team defense/special team. If your league’s starting line-up is different, the principles discussed in this article can be adapted to it.

Projections

Whether you make up your own, or use someone else’s, you will need to have projections for each player that could be drafted in your league. The number of players for which you will need projections is determined by your league’s roster requirements. For our example, we will assume the Yahoo! Fantasy Football public league format – 10 teams, 15 roster positions and a starting line-up as listed in the paragraph above. For my own purposes, I make projections for the each NFL team’s starting quarterback, top three running backs, top four wide receivers and top two tight ends. I don’t make projections for kickers and team defenses/special teams. More about that later.

Our first assumption was that next year’s projections would be the same as last year’s actuals. This is only for the purposes of our example. Use whatever projections you wish for your own situation. Once you have your projections, you will need some method in order to compare one position with another. Without this
ability to compare, you will have no objective way of knowing when to draft one position over another.

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How to Compare Value of Different Positions

Now that you have projections for every player you think will be drafted in your league, let’s find a way to compare them to each other. Obviously, you can easily compare one positional player with a player of the same position by just look at the players’ total fantasy point projection. The top-5 quarterbacks from 2012 are listed below:

  1. Drew Brees, New Orleans – 365 fantasy points
  2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay – 352 fantasy points
  3. Tom Brady, New England – 348 fantasy points
  4. Cam Newton, Carolina – 335 fantasy points
  5. Robert Griffin III, Washington – 324 fantasy points

Let’s suppose, though, you now have the following list of players from different positions:

  • Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans – 365 fantasy points
  • Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay – 352 fantasy points
  • Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England – 348 fantasy points
  • Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina – 335 fantasy points
  • Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington – 324 fantasy points
  • Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota – 307 fantasy points
  • Doug Martin, Running Back, Tampa Bay – 263 fantasy points
  • Arian Foster, Running Back, Houston – 262 fantasy points
  • Marshawn Lynch, Running Back, Seattle – 247 fantasy points
  • Alfred Morris, Running Back, Washington – 241 fantasy points
  • Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Detroit – 220 fantasy points
  • Brandon Marshall, Wide Receiver, Chicago – 217 fantasy points
  • Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver, Dallas – 208 fantasy points
  • A.J. Green – Wide Receiver, Cincinnati – 203 fantasy points
  • Demaryius Thomas, Wide Receiver, Denver – 197 fantasy points
  • Jimmy Graham, Tight End, New Orleans – 152 fantasy points
  • Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England – 143 fantasy points
  • Tony Gonzalez, Tight End, Atlanta – 141 fantasy points
  • Heath Miller, Tight End, Pittsburgh – 132 fantasy points
  • Jason Witten, Tight End, Dallas – 122 fantasy points

These are all great players – the top-5 at their position. How would you rank them? One could argue that they should be ordered by the fantasy point total, which coincidentally is they way they are ordered above. If drafted in that order, then the top-5 quarterbacks would be drafted before the top-5 running backs and the top-5 running backs would be drafted before the top-5 wide receivers, etc. If you have participated in just one fantasy football draft, you know it doesn’t work that way. Usually the running back position is drafted first – there must be a reason for this – and there is! Keep reading.

Additionally, if we included all positions and drafted them by total number of fantasy points, then the top-6 kickers and top-8 team defenses would be drafted before any tight end:

Kickers

  • Blair Walsh, Minnesota – 168 fantasy points
  • Stephen Gostkowski, New England – 166 fantasy points
  • Matt Bryant, Atlanta – 161 fantasy points
  • Jason Hanson, Detroit – 154 fantasy points
  • Lawrence Tynes, New York Giants – 154 fantasy points
  • Shayne Graham, Houston – 153 fantasy points

Team Defenses/Special Teams

  • Chicago Bears – 226 fantasy points
  • Seattle Seahawks – 186 fantasy points
  • Denver Broncos – 184 fantasy points
  • New England Patriots – 178 fantasy points
  • Cincinnati Bengals – 166 fantasy points
  • San Diego Chargers – 165 fantasy points
  • Houston Texans – 155 fantasy points
  • San Francisco 49ers – 155 fantasy points

If you look closely, you will see that using that same method, the Chicago Bears Defense would be ranked higher than Megatron (Calvin Johnson). Hopefully, common sense tells you that would not be a good idea. If it doesn’t, don’t worry, it will become clearer shortly.

When to Draft a Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver or Tight End

Let’s take a different and more effective approach in determining when to draft a particular position in fantasy football. In order to compare players of different positions, we need to find a common measuring device other than total fantasy points. The measuring device we will use is called the cross-positional value or CPV. It measures the difference of every player’s fantasy performance to that of the last player who would be considered a starter at the same position. For clarity, let’s take a look at an example.

There are 10 starting quarterbacks in our Yahoo! Fantasy Football public league model (10 teams x one starting quarterback). Based on our projections, the 10th best quarterback is Detroit’s Matthew Stafford with 293 fantasy points. The best quarterback, as stated earlier, is Drew Brees with 365 fantasy points. Matthew Stafford’s 293 fantasy points would be considered the quarterback positional basis and the cross-positional value for Drew Brees would be 72 (365 – 293). The CPV for Matthew Stafford would be zero (293 – 293).

For running backs, we can do the same operation. There are 20 starting running backs in our model (10 teams x two starting running backs). Based on our projections, the 20th best running back is Detroit’s Mikel Leshoure with 149 fantasy points. The best running back, as stated earlier, is Adrian Peterson with 307 fantasy points. Mikel Leshoure’s 149 fantasy points would be considered the running back positional basis and the cross-positional value for Adrian Peterson would be 158 (307 – 149). The CPV for Mikel Leshoure would be zero (149 – 149).

As you can see, Adrian Peterson performs significantly better than the last starting running back, Mikel Leshoure as compared to Drew Brees outperforming Matthew Stafford. In other words, there is a greater drop-off of fantasy talent at the starting running back position than there is at the starting quarterback position. Only 72 points differentiate the best and worst starting quarterback; however, 158 points differentiate the best and worst starting running back. This positional points differential is what leads team owners to draft running backs in greater quantities before quarterbacks, and as you will next see, before wide receivers and tight ends.

Let’s see what happens with wide receivers next. There are 30 starting wide receivers in our model (10 teams x three starting wide receivers). Based on our projections, the 30th best wide receiver is Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson with 119 fantasy points. The best wide receiver, as stated earlier, is Calvin Johnson with 220 fantasy points. Jordy Nelson’s 119 fantasy points would be considered the wide receiver positional basis and the cross-positional value for Calvin Johnson would be 101 (220 – 119). Jordy Nelson’s CPV would be zero (119 – 119).

The same can be done for tight ends. There are 10 starting tight ends in our model (10 teams x one starting tight end). Based on our projections, the 10th best tight end is Oakland’s Brandon Myers with 105 fantasy points. The best tight end, as stated earlier, is Jimmy Graham with 152 fantasy points. Brandon Myers’ 105 fantasy points would be considered the tight end positional basis for tight ends and the cross-positional value for Jimmy Graham would be 47 (152 – 105). Brandon Myers’ CPV would be zero (105 – 105).

So what about kickers and team defenses? The numbers will show that there is much less difference between kickers and team defenses than the other fantasy skill positions and that is one reason why they should not be drafted so highly. Let’s take a look at the numbers.

There are 10 starting kickers in our model (10 teams x one starting kicker). Based on our projections, the 10th best kicker is San Francisco’s David Akers with 142 fantasy points. The best kicker, as stated earlier is Blair Walsh with 168 fantasy points. David Akers’ 142 fantasy points would be considered the kicker positional basis and Blair Walsh’s cross-positional value would be 26 (168 – 142). The CPV for David Akers would be zero (142 – 142). There is a significantly smaller difference between the best and worst starting kicker as compared to the quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end positions. There is very little drop off in talent for kickers which makes for less urgency in drafting a kicker.

There are 10 starting team defense/special teams in our model (10 teams x one starting team defense/special team). Based on our projections, the 10th best team defense is the St. Louis Rams with 151 fantasy points. The best team defense, as stated earlier is the Chicago Bears with 226 fantasy points. The St. Louis Rams’ 151 fantasy points would be considered the defense/special team positional basis and Chicago’s cross-positional value would be 75 (226 – 151). The CPV for the St. Louis Rams would be zero (151 – 151). The Chicago Bears, much like Adrian Peterson, are a performance anomaly. They outperformed all others at their position by a significant margin, which will cause their fantasy value to skyrocket. Although that is appropriate for a running back like Peterson, many team owners will reach early for the Chicago Bears defense. For reasons to be highlighted later, that is not always a wise decision.

Let’s take a look now at the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends we discussed earlier and see how they now rank using this alternative valuation method. Remember, the positional basis is subtracted from each player’s projected fantasy points to obtain the player’s cross-positional value or CPV.

Player Ranking using the Cross-Positional Value Method

Player Team Position Projected Fantasy Points Cross-Positional Value (CPV)
Adrian Peterson MIN RB 307 158
Doug Martin TB RB 263 114
Arian Foster HOU RB 262 113
Calvin Johnson DET WR 220 101
Marshawn Lynch SEA RB 247 98
Brandon Marshall CHI WR 217 98
Alfred Morris WAS RB 241 92
Bryant, Dez DAL WR 208 89
A.J. Green CIN WR 203 84
Demaryius Thomas DEN WR 197 78
Drew Brees NO QB 365 72
Aaron Rodgers GB QB 352 59
Tom Brady NE QB 348 55
Jimmy Graham NO TE 152 47
Cam Newton CAR QB 335 42
Rob Gronkowski NE TE 143 38
Tony Gonzalez ATL TE 141 36
Robert Griffin III WAS QB 324 31
Heath Miller PIT TE 132 27
Jason Witten DAL TE 122 17

Only the top-5 at each position are displayed in the table above. If all players were displayed, there would be more running backs near the top of the list and tight ends would drop down significantly.

Draft Your Starting Line-up First (except for kickers and team defenses)

There are times in your draft in which you will want to deviate from this method and that is okay! This method is a guide to help a team owner know when to draft a player in general. Obviously, if the results of this method indicate to you to take a second tight end, but you need another starting wide receiver, then take the next best starting wide receiver. Draft your starting line-up before you draft your reserve players. There is no point in spending a high draft pick for a player that may never play in the starting line-up (like a back-up tight end) at the expense of a position that is needed every week to accumulate fantasy points for your team (like a third starting wide receiver). Always use your own best judgment in drafting your team. This method is a guide to help you make value decisions between players of different positions. It should not be used rigidly.

Although our CPV method will tell you when to draft a player based on YOUR fantasy projections, a draft does not always work that way. First, not everyone uses the same projections. In addition there are many other variables that owners consider in making their selections. Consistency is one of those variables and should be a part of your ranking process. For a more thorough discussion of how to evaluate consistency, read our article, “ Consistency – The Key to Winning Fantasy Football.”

Should I Draft Two Running Backs First?

There is one practice that is very common in fantasy football – the drafting of two running backs before any other position. Team owners do this because of the stark drop-off in talent at the running back position. This could be a good practice if one is drafting near the end of the first round because the second running back can be taken early in the second round. This keeps the earlier drafting teams from obtaining a quality #2 running back. However, those same teams would then likely double up on top-tier wide receivers as a counter strategy. The decision as to whom to draft should be based on what talent is available when it is your turn to draft and what talent is likely to be available for your next turn. Again, flexibility is important in a fantasy draft. Drafting two running backs first is a only good strategy when it makes sense to do so.

When to Draft Kickers and Team Defense/Special Teams

There is pretty much universal belief in the fantasy world on when to draft a kicker or defense – at the end of the draft. And there are plenty of good reasons to support this practice.

First, there is little difference in the performance of kickers and defenses as compared to other positions. As discussed above, there was only a 26-point difference in the top 10 kickers last year (2012). With the exception of the incredible performance of the Chicago Bears (226 fantasy points), there was only a 35-point difference between the #2 and #10 defenses.

Second, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends get injured – frequently and unexpectedly. Rounds 8 – 12 should be used to build a solid bench of reserve players that can be substituted when the eventuality of injury occurs. Plenty of good kickers and team defenses will be available in rounds 13 – 15. There is no need to reach.

Third, kicker and team defense scoring fluctuates greatly from year to year in terms of fantasy production. A top kicker one year is not likely to repeat in the subsequent year. This is due in part to ability – kickers have off years, too – and opportunity. If a team’s offense is in decline, the opportunity to kick field goals and PAT’s will also decline. As for defenses, a kick return specialist can light it up one year pushing a team defense to the top of the league in fantasy scoring and be less effective the next year, disappointing team owners who had banked on a repeat performance.

Let’s take a look at kicker and team defense performance over the past three years and you will see the lack of consistency.

Team Kicking Attempt Rankings (2011 - 2015)

Team FGA (11) FGA (12) FGA (13) FGA (14) FGA (15) XPA (11) XPA (12) XPA (13) XPA (14) XPA (15)
ARZ 31 25 6 12 15 23 29 19 29 2
ATL 18 3 24 15 15 6 9 17 13 22
BAL 3 11 1 11 2 12 13 30 10 27
BUF 14 30 6 2 23 11 15 26 22 12
CAR 21 32 24 8 7 6 9 13 20 1
CHI 12 11 18 32 4 16 14 6 18 27
CIN 5 7 32 12 21 19 12 2 16 4
CLE 18 17 26 15 11 30 25 23 26 31
DAL 7 17 15 22 11 14 19 5 1 30
DEN 28 16 26 22 9 25 3 1 1 17
DET 18 6 31 2 30 4 18 12 22 13
GB 21 11 4 12 21 1 5 13 3 17
HOU 5 3 10 8 23 12 8 30 13 17
IND 26 11 3 18 23 27 19 21 6 21
JAX 28 25 30 25 19 27 31 32 31 13
KC 16 9 21 20 6 30 32 3 17 10
MIA 3 23 12 4 32 24 25 23 11 17
MIN 21 3 15 8 4 14 21 8 27 16
NE 11 7 1 4 7 3 1 8 5 3
NO 10 31 13 29 27 2 2 4 7 5
NYG 31 2 26 25 11 10 7 27 9 6
NYJ 28 27 6 1 10 9 24 29 31 9
OAK 8 9 15 29 27 17 29 19 28 13
PHI 26 17 21 7 27 5 27 7 4 7
PIT 14 17 13 15 1 17 23 17 8 22
SD 8 27 4 25 11 6 15 13 13 25
SEA 16 27 10 4 15 19 6 8 11 7
SF 1 1 6 18 23 19 9 8 21 32
STL 21 17 21 20 15 32 27 21 18 27
TB 21 11 18 28 2 29 15 27 25 22
TEN 12 17 18 29 31 19 22 16 29 26
WAS 2 23 26 24 19 26 4 23 22 10

Team Defense/Special Teams Fantasy Points Scored Ranking (2011 - 2015)

Team 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
ARZ 13 9 5 9 3
ATL 18 14 31 26 25
BAL 3 14 13 6 20
BUF 11 26 9 2 22
CAR 30 21 3 20 4
CHI 2 1 19 23 31
CIN 12 5 4 23 9
CLE 25 17 21 12 27
DAL 19 27 14 18 28
DEN 19 3 11 16 1
DET 3 29 22 10 23
GB 7 16 24 6 14
HOU 9 7 32 3 6
IND 31 25 10 11 14
JAX 15 28 30 21 21
KC 22 32 1 17 2
MIA 21 20 16 12 24
MIN 26 12 19 14 8
NE 10 4 8 5 11
NO 23 22 23 30 30
NYG 16 13 17 21 16
NYJ 6 17 27 29 17
OAK 24 30 25 32 18
OHI 8 31 14 1 12
PIT 14 23 19 16 7
SD 28 6 28 27 28
SEA 5 2 2 6 5
SF 1 7 6 15 32
STL 29 10 7 4 10
TB 32 24 12 23 19
TEN 17 11 18 28 26
WAS 26 19 26 31 13

This lack of consistency is why I don’t make projections for kickers and team defenses. I rank kickers based on overall team expectations, player ability and the environment in which the kicker plays (indoor/outdoor). For defenses, I look at the opponents they will face and evaluate any significant changes in a team’s personnel.

Special Note for Those Participating in an Online Draft: If a computer service like Yahoo! is autopicking a player’s team, then a kicker and defense will be selected before any bench or reserve players are drafted. This means that a team defense and kicker will be selected in the 8th and 9th rounds. Don’t let that entice you into drafting a team defense or kicker at the expense of your bench/reserve players. Use the opportunity to add depth to your skill positions. For a more detailed discussion of this point, read our article, Online Draft Strategy and the Curious Case of Quarterback Matt Ryan.”

In order to win at fantasy football, your goal must be to outperform your competitors in each of the starting line-up positions. If your team can do that consistently, it will always come out on top and your league’s championship trophy will be yours!