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Draft Strategy 2004

By: Rob Hurtt is a fantasy football writer and editor for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. He also is a weekly contributor to the Ultimate Fantasy Football Show on Fox Sports.

You have your cheatsheets. You have your handy fantasy mag filled with player breakdowns and sleeper picks. Looks like you're ready to roll into your draft and rule the day, right?

Hold up there a second, Quickdraw McGraw. The key to dominating your draft isn't necessarily to have all the important information at your fingertips. That's no way to pull the trigger.

Rather, stuff that info into your noggin. A fantasy draft is similar to an open-book test. Everything you need is sitting in front of you somewhere, but it's much less stressful if you already know the answers instead of having to shuffle to find them.

Forget the game strategy for a second; maintaining your cool in the clutch is the single most important key to a successful draft. How often has one questionable pick snowballed into an avalanche of poor decisions? Making a confident selection and having faith in it goes a long way.

Not everyone can be Cool Hand Luke or Cool Papa Bell. For those who get thrown off easily, preparation is the best way to stay calm and collected. And cool. The more time you put in preparing before your draft, the less time you'll sit there white-knuckled and perspiring as the clock ticks down on your selection.


Player research is a given for your pre-draft work. And no, simply buying a fantasy guide and thumbing through it two minutes before the draft is not considered research. You should know the upsides and downsides of every player who could be taken in the top 10 rounds, if not the entire draft.

To get a better handle on where players will fall, participate in online mock drafts. A number of web sites offer free ones, so take advantage. Besides being incredibly fun and a great way to kill 30 minutes at work-I'm working on those TPS reports right now, sir-mock drafts will provide a good feel for how others value certain players.

This information is crucial when it comes to making sleeper picks. If you love Javon Walker's potential, but he keeps slipping in mock drafts, you'll know that you can wait for him in your real draft. There's no sense in using a seventh-round pick on a player whom your opponents won't consider until the ninth.

After seeing how others rank players, create your own mockup of where you see players landing in your league. Be realistic, too. Don't let Shaun Alexander slip to you with the eighth pick just because he's the guy you really, really want.

Keep this mock-draft sheet handy on the big day; it can be your overall rankings for the early and middle rounds. This plan gives you a worst-case scenario heading into the draft. If Jimmy, Joey, and the rest of the gang take the exact players you would want, you know what your team will look like even before the first owner can shout "Priest Holmes."

Having the draft mapped out beforehand helps prevent those agonizing, stomach-churning decisions that leave some owners second-guessing all season. It also boosts your confidence when top players are passed over and fall to your spot. If you planned on taking Darrell Jackson with your fourth-round pick, imagine your excitement when Hines Ward slips to you there.

Putting in enough time researching is important, but don't lug a briefcase full of paperwork with you on the big day. Think simplicity. Other than your mock-draft/overall rankings, bring your position rankings-broken into tiers and highlighted with sleeper choices-and a sheet to track your picks. It's nice to carry your faithful magazine with you, but it should be there simply for reassurance. Some veteran singers stash lyric sheets on stage for the calm of knowing they're available in a bind. Take the same approach.

You don't have to be Chipper the ridiculously happy draftee, but try to keep a positive attitude throughout the draft. It's all part of keeping your cool, daddy-o. Some folks could prepare for months, scouting players and tracking injury news, simply to become unglued when things don't go as planned. While the eventual twists and surprises of the draft fluster others, you'll be ready and waiting with a smile and a plan.


Running backs The Denver Broncos have displayed a knack for finding starting running backs in the later rounds of the draft. Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson both had star seasons in Denver's backfield, and Terrell Davis was once the king of all fantasy backs despite not getting selected until the sixth round of the 1995 NFL draft.

What happens in Denver stays in Denver, so don't take this team's route. Waiting for running backs will turn into a mile-high disaster for fantasy owners. Sure, it's possible to field a winning team without drafting a back in the first couple rounds, but the margin for error is slim. Why tightrope walk the sideline with questionable options when you can bowl over the competition with a stud back?

Plan on selecting at least one running back in the first two rounds, and grabbing two backs early is safe as long as you aren't reaching. Some owners will even use their first three picks on backs. (Do I hear four?)

Running backs are the lifeblood of fantasy teams, but don't get too RB-crazy. There's no reason to settle for a mediocre back while quality receivers or quarterbacks are available. Fantasy football teams win by scoring the most points as a unit, not by having the top scorers at running back.

After the starters are gone, it's time to pan through the remainders and see if you can stumble upon a gold nugget or two. The backs to attack in the middle rounds are players with the potential to earn a quality share of the load. All it will take is one injury or demotion, and presto change-o, your boring back morphs into a fantasy starter.

In the later rounds, look to the true backups. The smart approach is to do what fantasy vets call "handcuffing." No, this method has nothing to do with Jamal Lewis' drug charges, although it could if Lewis is your starter. In that case, handcuffing him would mean also grabbing his top backup, whether it's Musa Smith or Chester Taylor. Making these picks keeps your team protected in case something happens to your elite runner, whether it be an injury or jail time.

One final note on running backs: There's no need to be kind to the elderly. If a back has hit the big 3-0, he is not a candidate for American Idol, nor is he a great selection as your fantasy cornerstone. The wear and tear of the position makes it difficult for older backs to stay at the top, and blowing out all those candles can't be good for their lungs.

Quarterbacks Peyton Manning is guaranteed to be in someone's fantasy lineup for 16 games, but can owners really take that chance with anyone else? For all the points Daunte Culpepper put up last season, his owners still needed to scramble for a replacement when he hurt his back. It's always reassuring to possess a top quarterback, but it's not necessary to win.

In fact, targeting a pair of solid starters in the middle rounds and platooning them often works better than the select-a-stud method. Fantasy owners don't have to deal with the media hounding them about quarterback controversies, so they can feel free to rotate starters based on weekly matchups. Even the best quarterbacks can have off days against the league's top defenses, and Joe Average can look like Joe Montana against the creampuffs.

Because owners tend to stock up on running backs and receivers, planning for bye weeks isn't as essential at those positions as it is at QB. It's just silly to nod off and not realize both the quarterbacks you drafted are off in Week 5. If you have mastered the art of writing down the name of the player you just selected, adding a digit after it to keep track of by weeks should be cake.

Receivers Imagine buying a TV at your local shady electronics store-no returns-and not knowing whether the set in the box is the one you paid for or a broken-down piece of junk. Fantasy owners get a similar feeling when drafting most receivers. Compared to running backs and QBs, wide receivers are fickle fantasy creatures. The top options are worth early draft picks; they're similar to a money-back guarantee for that mysterious package. From the second tier down, though, buyer beware.

The consistent production from a Randy Moss or Torry Holt is better than spotty play from an average running back. Those elite options will go in the early rounds, and they're worth it. After that top group is gone, there is a sizeable chunk of folks who could fill in as borderline No. 1 receivers, but because there are plenty for everyone, there's no need to rush.

Every year, a few breakout performers are uncovered in the seventh or eighth rounds. If you're willing to take your chances in those spots, it frees up your earlier picks for players at other positions. When in doubt, take guys from high-scoring offenses or young receivers who should play a larger role in the upcoming season.

Tight ends Owners have two options at this position. To nab an elite threat-Tony Gonzalez or Jeremy Shockey-it likely will cost a fourth-round selection. Todd Heap could fall into the fifth round. After that crew is gone, owners are better served by filling in with bench players at the top positions before targeting a starting tight end.

If you bypass the top options, focus your attention on red-zone threats. Only the elite tight ends make a difference with their receiving yardage. As long as your choice ends up with four or five scores, you'll be pleased.

Kickers As with tight ends, there are a couple routes to take with kickers. Owners can either wait to draft a starting kicker, or they can wait even longer. There is no reason to rush to the front of the pack for Jeff Wilkins or Mike Vanderjagt. The difference between the top kicker and the 12th kicker is minimal. Plus, a kicker's production fluctuates so much from one season to the next that the guy who was No. 1 in 2003 could easily drop to 12th this year, and vice versa. Besides, this isn't soccer; draft the guys who relish contact before the ones who take a dive whenever anyone comes near.

When the time comes to select a kicker-that's what I usually call the last round-consider the variables that go into his value. The ideal choice would be someone who plays for a juggernaut offense that has little trouble moving the ball but also stalls enough to give its kicker loads of field-goal attempts. That player also should have the leg to nail 50-yarders and the accuracy to convert most of his tries. Kicking in a favorable setting at home, such as indoors, also would help. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Defenses It's tough enough to project what one player will do in a given year. Picking team defenses forces owners to have an idea of what 11 players from a team will do. Some owners will save themselves the aggravation and go with one of the top choices-New England or Baltimore. That's a reasonable move as long as you're not passing over a talented position player.

If you can't get an elite defense at a reasonable spot -you guessed it-wait. Some owners like to select two defenses; they figure one is bound to pan out. Because a few downtrodden, undrafted units will surprise, it probably makes more sense to use that second selection on a sleeper player. Instead, keep your eye on the waiver wire for that unknown defense to emerge in the opening weeks, and swap it with one of your disappointing late-round choices.

Defensive players Ask NFL general managers whom they would rather have, Brian Urlacher or Brian Westbrook, and the Bears linebacker wins hands down. Ask fantasy owners in individual defensive player (IDP) leagues the same question and, more often than not, they'll choose the offensive player. It's fun to own that top-of-the-line defender, but your team will be in better shape if you hold off. Plenty of suitable options will be available in the middle and late rounds, so don't blow an early pick on a defender.

Understanding the intricacies of your scoring system is crucial in IDP leagues. Terrell Suggs is tremendous if your league gives plenty of props for sacks, while lesser-known linebackers can become fantasy favorites when tackles are heavily rewarded.

Have an idea also of how players at one position stack up against those elsewhere. In most cases, defensive backs will be a step behind linebackers and defensive ends. And never select a player just because he's a Pro Bowler. Many of the game's top cornerbacks have little fantasy value because they are so good. Would you want to throw at Champ Bailey if you didn't have to?


The above tips will give you a good footing for your draft, but there are a few more things to keep in mind in order to get the most bang for your drafting buck. No matter what means you use, selecting the best team comes down to maximizing each of your selections. The most basic step to getting this accomplished is to understand the tiers of talent and realize where the drop-offs are from one group of players to the next. If there are six similar running backs left but only one elite receiver, leave the backs for your next pick.

Along those same lines, keep tabs on others, especially those drafting directly before and after you. There's no need to set up wiretaps or put a tail on your opponents. Simply know what positions they have filled and what their remaining needs are. If you still have a hole at quarterback but those drafting before your next pick have the spot filled, use your upcoming selection on another player. Your targeted QB should still be there when your next turn comes.

It also helps to know others' tendencies, and use these biases against them. Maybe it's Paulie's utter disgust for health risks after the injury bug stung him too many times in the past. For that very reason, he's in love with Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and anyone else who refuses to leave the field. He's likely to pass on Donte' Stallworth, Ike Hilliard and others who have had previous problems staying healthy, so expect these players to slip past him.

Brian, the college football freak, has an unhealthy fascination with rookies. He figures why bother drafting Edgerrin James when he can select the "next Edgerrin James" 10 rounds later. Expect him to go after Stephen Jackson, Kevin Jones and a bevy of rookie receivers. While it's good to get some young blood on your team, don't overload on newcomers. More than two or three rookies is probably too many. Stick with the guys who have proven track records of production.

Doh! Don't forget about the homers. The Jets fan who shows up to the draft in his Chad Pennington jersey is bound to take him too early. And if he wants to load up on Curtis Martin, Justin McCareins and others, let him. Nothing against New York's finest-sorry Giants fans-but owners need to be smart enough to diversify. Having all Jets will be great when they score 35 points one week, but what happens when they get shut out? Here's a hint-it's not good news for that owner.

Always draft to win this year, but in keeper leagues, maintain an eye on the future. When stuck waffling between a couple of players, give the edge to the younger flapjack. Use late-round selections on players who won't contribute much this season but are destined to become starters in the future. There's no need for a rebuilding year if you build your dynasty well.


Your work is not done as soon as you make that final selection and pack up for home. Play it like the pros and start looking for potential undrafted free agents. Create a list with the top players not drafted at each position. If you need to make an early-season switch, save yourself time and check out the list instead of surfing through the mass of available players on the waiver wire.

Keep your eyes peeled for free agents, whether they made the cut on your list or wandered in from the wilderness. Focus mainly on the running back and wide receiver positions, because these areas are where you will find the fantasy game-changers. Don't expect to find much QB help on the waiver wire if your league has a decent-sized bench.

Never give up or stop plugging away. I have seen an owner drop from 7-3 and first place to 7-6 and out of the six-team playoffs. The following year, that same owner started out 1-7, but somehow eked into the playoffs after five straight wins. Remember that it's not how you start, but how you finish. Then again, we'll take that good start, keyed by a strong draft, every time.


Our latest Cheat Sheets updated constantly through September.

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr1')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Brandon LaFell Will Miss The Remainder Of the Season (11/18 10:00 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr2')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Brandon LaFell Suffer Achilles Injury (11/18 3:36 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr3')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Alex Smith Done For The Season (11/18 2:14 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr4')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Kerryon Johnson Exits With Leg Injury (11/18 2:11 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr5')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Alex Smith Carted Off Vs. Texans (11/18 1:58 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr6')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Jameis Winston Enters The Game For The Bucs (11/18 1:57 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr7')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Marcus Mariota Questionable To Return (11/18 1:49 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr8')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Marcus Mariota Suffers Injury Vs. Colts (11/18 12:02 PM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr9')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Sam Darnold Expected To Return Week 12 (11/18 9:19 AM PT)

class="headline" onClick="expanddiv('tr10')" style="cursor:hand; cursor:pointer" onmouseover="window.status=' ';return true">Rob Gronkowski Expected Back Week 12 (11/18 8:25 AM PT)

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