It snuck up on you, didn’t it? We’re officially less than two weeks away from the NFL season.
I don’t blame anyone who wasn’t proactive about joining or setting up fantasy leagues in the middle of the summer. It’s the strangest year of our sporting and normal lives, and there have been plenty of scary moments. I try to come at my work from a human angle before anything else, and I understand if anyone has been focused on non-sports issues for a while.
That said, the NFL seems likely to start on time and have a season of meaty consequence. And I certainly welcome the entertainment and, I’ll admit it, the distraction. We all need something to root for and cheer for. We need communal events we can enjoy together.
In an effort of helping you assemble the best team possible, here’s a brief check-in with all six fantasy football positions. Yes, I even put some words on defenses and kickers. The purpose today is to give you an idea of how I will approach these positions; consider them as you make your own plans.
If you agree, great. If you disagree, great. That’s why we have a game.
And most of all, no matter what you read from any pundit, remember this — it’s YOUR team. Draft players you believe in. Consider any smart opinion you come across, but make your own decisions. Trust yourself. You can do this.
And remember to have fun, and laugh about it all. It’s a game about a game. It feels so sweet when it goes well. When things fall apart, well, that’s why you drafted a second team, or maybe dabbled in DFS. There’s always another game.
Let’s get to work. This is my 2020 blueprint. Next week, I’ll focus on more specific scouting notes and player targets and fades. This is more of an overview.
You know the drill by now. Quarterback is the most important position in all sports, but it’s almost an afterthought in fantasy. Mind you, Patrick Mahomes crushed our fake game two years ago, and Lamar Jackson was that player last year. But remember, they were especially valuable for two reasons: They scored a ton, but were downright affordable with respect to ADP.
If you want to jump in early for Mahomes or Jackson this year, that’s fine. You’ll need to be especially sharp with your running back and wideout picks later, but it can be done. I’d rather be a value shopper at this position, knowing that you can do well pretty much at any tier.
Do you want to shop in the second tier? Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott both look like plausible MVP candidates. Josh Allen’s rushing makes him interesting. Plenty of pundits think Kyler Murray could be this year’s Mahomes/Jackson, the sophomore star who takes a seismic leap.
We know the rushing quarterback can be a cheat code, but you won’t have to give up much if you wait and opt for a stationary veteran. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger’s body really is healthier than ever — the Steelers have fun pieces around him. When has Drew Brees ever let us down over a fantasy season? Tom Brady was sent to a new team just in time — the Buccaneers have exciting skill talent, the Patriots probably don’t. Matt Ryan might be playing catchup all year.
The leagues I set up will likely be superflex (you can start a second quarterback) because this position is so deep. I’m excited about youngsters like Joe Burrow, Sam Darnold, and Gardner Minshew, and yet none of those players are in my Top 17 at the position. That’s how ridiculous the depth is here.
QB TLDR: Although the top stars are tantalizing, I’ll focus on a second-tier star, or play the value game later. But no matter what area you want to focus on, it’s never hard to solve quarterback — preseason or in-season.
This is the big fantasy position, the one that usually determines how far your team can go. Alas, bell cows have become rarer in today’s game, and with that, I’ve settled into a calm as I consider roster builds. I certainly lean strongly towards taking a first-round running back, provided I feel it’s someone who squarely belongs in that area, but I’m more casual as I work towards what my RB2 becomes. Usually, I’ll start a draft with one exciting running back, and then a parade of wideouts. (Note that I’m saying usually — all draft plans should be considered flexible; the best fantasy managers know it’s worth pivoting in-progress if a room offers surprising, but unexpected, opportunities.)
We love those bell cows, the true three-down backs, because they remain relevant in any game situation — ahead, behind, or tied. With that in mind, we like backs who can run and catch the ball well. Occasionally there will be a player who’s fantasy value is significantly slanted in one direction — Derrick Henry is a strong first-round pick despite not much of a receiving history, while Austin Ekeler smashed last year largely because of his receiving chops. Sometimes you have to think outside the box.
The running backs around Round 4 generally make me the most nervous; I’m reluctant to touch the Todd Gurley/Leonard Fournette tier.
Your bench should be well-fortified with running back depth, especially any player who is one simple and plausible break from an explosive jump in value. Sometimes this means investing in a player who’s the clear understudy in a fun running game. Tony Pollard, Alexander Mattison, Chase Edmonds, and Latavius Murray are the best examples for 2020. It’s also possible the Cardinals might find a big enough role for Edmonds that he holds stand-alone fantasy value, no matter the status of Kenyan Drake.
And don’t be afraid to dip into a crowded, murky backfield if you see something with exciting upside. The crowding in those cities will keep the ADP affordable, and give you an interesting area for profit. Not every NFL club will have a clear “winner” for its primary fantasy back, but the fantasy manager who can come up with the right answer in a crowded backfield could be richly rewarded.
Running Back TLDR: I’d prefer one star I can hitch up to, and then I’m open-minded to wait for a while. I want to be proactive in building RB depth for my bench, especially for non-starting backs who are just one break away from explosive upside. Those understudy backs will be of interest to me no matter if I have the starter in front of them; in fact, in many cases, I’ll be most interested in that understudy if I do not have the starter. I want to play for the big inning in September; I can become more specialized later.
Although I generally don’t pick a receiver in the first round, it’s one of the most important parts of my roster build. If my league requires three, I’d like to have three no-doubt, set-and-forget guys. And if there’s a flex or two (not superflex) that have WR tags attached, I’d like strong options there, too. Commonly, my first four picks will include one running back and three high-floor, high-ceiling wideouts.
There are all sorts of common team frames that you’ll consider as you pick and choose receivers. If you go to the stacked offenses — think teams like Kansas City or Dallas — you’ll find plenty of talent, though there can be occasional crowding issues. Nonetheless, I think these offenses can support several dynamic fantasy players. There are some other plus offenses with less crowded usage trees — Atlanta is an excellent example — but they don’t have the scoring upside of a KC or Dallas. (That said, I do think Atlanta could be a carnival team — poor defense, fun passing game, playing a ton of catchup).
Last year’s rookie receiver class took the world by storm, and most of those sophomores are appealing picks this year, albeit somewhat trendy. It’s fun and it’s easy to point and click on guys like Terry McLaurin, DK Metcalf, and Hollywood Brown (remember, he was hurt most of last year).
You don’t have to have the best wideout in the league on your team, though it would be nice. But try to assemble a Top 3-4 that can compete with anyone else’s guys.
Wide Receiver TLDR: I probably won’t take a first-round wideout, though you never say never. But after that, I will be hammering the queue, trying to get the best 3-5 wideouts in my league.
You’re going to have a bunch of options here, from the vanity guys (Travis Kelce, George Kittle) to the secondary stars (Mark Andrews, Zach Ertz), to the likely Top 12 guys (yes, I include Tyler Higbee here) and then to a slew of modest-ADP breakout candidates. You should have no problem locating a handful of breakout candidates who excite you.
I’ll generally pass on Kelce or Kittle mainly because I don’t want to put my RB1 and WR1 on hold. Andrews often makes sense for my team builds, but if I don’t get him, there is tons of interesting bargain hunting to be done.
Tight End TLDR: I’ll try to get Andrews when he makes sense, or maybe a Higbee if I like the draft position. Otherwise, you should be able to locate several tight ends outside the Top 10 who have exciting upside. Focus on 20-something players who are in their second, third, or fourth seasons. Rookie tight ends are rarely a good idea, but you follow up with them in future seasons.
Chasing a vanity defense is generally a value loss. I like to play the schedule for the DST spot, even if it becomes a series of one-week rentals.
If your league is drafting a chunk of time removed from Week 1, it can make sense to ignore DST (and kicker) entirely; instead, devote that roster spot to a lottery ticket field player, a player with upside. Then as you approach the first slate, you can identify your wisest cut and fill your DST. If you are drafting close to the regular season, I actually would fill DST but late in my draft, focusing on a team that had good early season matchups, or at least something appealing in Week 1. Play with a microscope, not with a telescope.
Like the DST spot, kickers are low-priority and usually contextual plays. We want our kickers and defenses tied to teams expected to win, and likely to have favorable leverage in the second halves of games. We list this position last for a reason; there’s little reason to put heavy resources towards it. Go where the wins and points are, get to that leverage. Later in the year, you might put a slight bit of stock into a kicker who’s in warm weather or kicking inside; I won’t worry about that in September.
Defense and Kicker TLDR: Don’t spend priority chips here. In many cases, you can ignore it on draft day. Work the schedule, and think short-term, not long term. Ride with favorites whenever possible.