You think you know everything you need to know to dominate your 2011 fantasy football draft. You’ve spent countless hours poring over rankings and completing mock drafts. You’ve kept up-to-date on all the news around the NFL all off-season. When your draft is over, you look at your roster and decide it’s strong from top to bottom, from running backs all the way through to your defense.
You know what I see? A missed opportunity.
At the beginning of the draft, the name of the game is not striking out — that is, not picking a guy that turns into a fantasy bust. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, especially when a season-ending injury happens early in the season. However, those that get elite production from high draft picks are teams that have an easy road to the playoffs.
At the end of the draft, you should be trying to hit a home run too. Finding the next post-prison Michael Vick, Peyton Hillis or Brandon Lloyd with one of your final picks could take a team from playoff contender to championship favorite. It only makes sense that you spend all your end-of-draft resources trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Which is why I’m telling you not to draft a kicker or even a team defense. That’s right, the correct time to pick up your kicker and defense in your fantasy draft is never.
As long as transactions will be open before the season starts, you have a golden opportunity to roster a bench full of lottery tickets, monitoring preseason news and injuries that take place before the first game of the year. A few days before that first Thursday, you can then take stock of your roster and discard the two late-round picks that have the lowest upside to pick up a defense and kicker.
In most scoring systems, there isn’t much of a difference between the year’s best kicker and the 15th best fantasy kicker. What’s more, identifying exactly who the top kickers will be on a year-to-year basis is a fool’s errand. You have just as good a shot at getting a top-five fantasy kicker by picking up a kicker from the FA pool right before the season starts as you do by taking the top-rated kicker each year.
As for defenses, it’s the one area of fantasy football where it makes sense to consistently play matchups, yet most people never do. Would you rather have an elite unit for all 16 games, with half coming on the road and several being played against teams with good offenses, or would you take a decent defense that gets to play at home every week against a bad offense?
The top defenses in mock drafts thus far are the Steelers and Packers, and both cost picks in the 100-115 range. For those same picks, you can take lottery ticket potential starters like Roy Helu, Ryan Williams, James Starks and Michael Bush at RB, or you can opt for sleeper receiver options like Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, Jordy Nelson or Mike Thomas. All would make fine bench players at their positions.
If you continue to add lottery tickets through the end of the draft, you’ll be faced with the decision of picking a Week 1 free agent defense before the season starts. But you don’t have to stick with that defense any longer than Week 1. If they face a difficult task in Week 2, cut them and pick up someone else with an easy matchup.
Let’s try a little experiment. We’re going to plan out the first half of the season, picking up waiver wire fantasy defenses along the way. At the end, see if you think this is a viable strategy you want to use in your league. For our purposes, we’re making the Steelers, Packers, Jets, Ravens, Bears, 49ers, Vikings, Eagles, Saints, Falcons, Giants, Cowboys, Lions, Patriots and Chargers unavailable, though certainly you may get your shot at a few of them throughout the season.
Week 1: Cardinals (vs. Panthers) or Browns (vs. Bengals) or Jaguars (vs. Titans)
Week 2: Redskins (vs. Cardinals) or Colts (vs. Browns)
Week 3: Seahawks (vs. Cardinals) or Bengals (vs. 49ers) or Panthers (vs. Jaguars)
Week 4: Browns (vs. Titans) or Rams (vs. Redskins) or Chiefs (vs. Vikings)
Week 5: Jaguars (vs. Bengals)
Week 6: Raiders (vs. Browns)
Week 7: Browns (vs. Seahawks)
Week 8: Seahawks (vs. Bengals) or Bills (vs. Redskins) or Texans (vs. Jaguars)
By targeting offenses in flux at the QB position (Panthers, Bengals, Titans, Cardinals, 49ers, Redskins, Vikings, Jaguars, Seahawks) and throwing in the Browns less-than-dynamic offense, you get to cherry pick matchups throughout the first half of the season, assuring your defense plays at home against offenses that are likely to have issues on the road.
Check out how often the Browns defense appears on the list. This is their first-half schedule: CIN, at IND, MIA, TEN, Bye, at OAK, SEA, at SF. Beside the trip to Indy, those all look like matchups where the Browns defense can do a little damage. In fact, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see them ranked as an elite defense once the fantasy playoffs start, especially considering they get games against the Jaguars and Bengals in Weeks 11 and 12 (when rookie QBs are expected to be under center).
By the time my mock drafts are over, I generally have both Denver QBs (Tim Tebow especially) as backups, a couple late-round rookies like Delone Carter and Shane Vereen as lottery tickets, and/or potential starters depending on free agency like Bernard Scott and Willis McGahee as “Why the heck not?” guys. Do this as well, as you may be dominating the competition simply by avoiding kickers and defenses completely in your draft.