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Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Who You Should Draft and When

Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) pushes off against Baltimore Ravens cornerback Chris Westry (30) during the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Photo Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is fast approaching, which means that fantasy football season is right around the corner. As the preseason comes and goes, millions of fantasy football leagues will begin to draft and owners look to assemble the ideal team to beat their friends, families, or complete strangers on the internet. But how do fantasy drafts work and what draft strategy will give you an edge on the competition?

In this fantasy football strategy guide, you will learn how to draft like an expert. From how fantasy drafts are structured to what fantasy strategies you should use when picking your team, we’ve got you covered as you look to win your league this season.

When is a fantasy football draft?

The draft is the start of any fantasy football season, as you are selecting the team you are going to rely on throughout the upcoming season. And unless you want your team to get auto drafted, you are going to want to be present for your fantasy draft. So when is your fantasy football draft? That is entirely up to you and the rest of your league.

In fantasy football leagues where you are competing against people you know, there will likely be a conversation that takes place where everyone comes to a consensus on when the draft will take place. In leagues where you are competing against strangers, the site where you are competing will select this date and time, or the commissioner will do so.

As we covered in our beginners guide to fantasy football when we went over how to start a fantasy football league, the date of a fantasy football draft is customizable.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) catches a pass during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

How does a fantasy football draft work?

A fantasy football draft works similarly to a draft that you would see in a professional sports league such as the NFL or NBA, with a few differences. As a whole, the draft consists of all owners taking turns selecting players to fill their rosters. Your league rules will break down the number of players you are allowed to carry on your roster, as well as the max number of players you can carry at each position.

The biggest difference between a fantasy football draft and a draft in a professional sports league is the order in which selections are performed. 

In the NFL, for example, the team with the worst record in the league gets the first overall pick in the subsequent draft. In fantasy football, draft order is selected either randomly, or through some sort of competition between those participating to determine the draft order.

The snake draft format

Nearly all fantasy football leagues also follow the “snake draft” format, which is different from how the NFL Draft is structured as well. In the NFL Draft, the worst teams in the league usually draft at or near the front of all seven rounds of the draft. In fantasy football, the team that picks first in the first round will pick last in the second round, then go first in the third round, and so on.

The reason for this difference is that the draft pool in fantasy football consists of all of the offensive players in the NFL, plus kickers, defenses, and anything else included in your league settings. If one team picked first in every round of a fantasy draft, that team would have a significant competitive advantage. 

The NFL is able to even that out with things like free agency, salary caps, and the need to worry about more positions. Therefore, the snake format keeps things fair for everyone.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at State Farm Stadium.
Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

How many rounds are in a fantasy football draft?

The number of rounds in a fantasy football draft depends on the roster settings in each individual fantasy football league. The default setting for most fantasy football leagues is to have 16 roster spots. This typically breaks down into the following lineup distribution:

  • 1 quarterback
  • 2 running backs
  • 2 wide receivers
  • 1 tight end
  • 1 flex slot (wide receiver/running back/tight end)
  • 1 defense/special teams
  • 1 kicker
  • 7 bench slots

 

However, different leagues could have vastly different roster breakdowns that require a different number of rounds in a draft. 

For example, some leagues require owners to start two quarterbacks instead of one, while other leagues employ the use of punters, coaches, and individual defensive players. These types of leagues are not the norm, but you should always check your league settings to verify the number of rounds in your upcoming fantasy draft.

How long does a fantasy football draft take?

The length of a draft can vary depending on the league settings and how many roster spots need to be filled. In fantasy football drafts, the clock for each pick is set for around two minutes. In most cases, players will not use anywhere near the full two minutes per pick.

In a traditional league with 16 roster spots, most fantasy football drafts are completed within two to three hours. How competitive the league is and the balance between researching picks and being social with fellow league members can alter those numbers in either direction. But one of the main reasons fantasy football is so beloved is that only a couple of hours of team building can set a team up for an entire season.

Who should I draft to have the best fantasy football strategy?

When it comes to fantasy football draft strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all answer in any league. 

There are so many variables in play when drafting a fantasy team that it is virtually impossible to make suggestions that apply to every draft strategy.

Consider where you are in the draft

The first variable that can impact your draft strategy is draft position. If you are drafting first overall in your fantasy draft, the group of players you should consider is very different from someone with the sixth overall pick in your draft. It is a good idea to take a look at where players are going in other leagues once you know which pick you have in the first round to get an idea of who is attainable in your slot.

Stay flexible in your draft strategy

Another major variable is your competition. Every fantasy football owner is trying to put together a roster that can beat yours. While you may have yourself set on drafting a specific player in each round of the draft, other owners always have the potential to steal those players out from under you.

Instead of looking for specific players to draft ahead of the fantasy football season, it is a better idea to come up with multiple options at each stage of the draft. Looking at projected point values, average draft positions, and handicapping the usage and durability of each player near your first round draft slot will go a longer way than being told you should take the best players at each position going into the draft. These habits will also help you better utilize the free agent and waiver markets later in the season.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs the ball against New York Giants safety Logan Ryan (23) during the first half at SoFi Stadium.
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The best positions to draft first in your fantasy football strategy

In real football, the most important position when building a franchise is quarterback, which is why they are so often drafted first overall. When it comes to positions to draft first in fantasy football, there are really two options to choose from: running back or wide receiver. While this is a departure from the way things are done in the NFL, it makes a lot of sense as a fantasy draft strategy.

To break this down, let’s look at the 10 fantasy scoring leaders from the 2021 NFL season. Keep in mind that different scoring systems can alter these results slightly, but that these are top players in most scoring systems.

  1. Josh Allen
  2. Justin Herbert
  3. Tom Brady
  4. Patrick Mahomes
  5. Matthew Stafford
  6. Aaron Rodgers
  7. Jonathan Taylor
  8. Dak Prescott
  9. Joe Burrow
  10. Jalen Hurts

When to draft a quarterback

What you will notice here is that nine of the 10 top scorers in fantasy football in 2021 were quarterbacks. So why would you not draft a quarterback as early as possible if they are scoring the most points? The answer is the variance in scoring at the quarterback position relative to that of other positions.

Using our list above, you can see that Josh Allen was the number-one ranked fantasy quarterback in 2021, while Jalen Hurts ranked ninth in scoring among quarterbacks. There was a little fewer than 100 points of difference between Allen and Hurts for the 2021 season. That means there were eight quarterbacks within 100 points of Josh Allen from a fantasy scoring perspective last year.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs with the ball as Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) defends during the first half in a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Raymond James Stadium.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When to draft a running back or wide receiver

At the running back position, meanwhile, Jonathan Taylor was far and away the top running back in fantasy scoring in 2021. There were only two other running backs that finished the season within 100 fantasy points of Taylor: Austin Ekeler and Joe Mixon. At the wide receiver position, there were just four receivers within 100 fantasy points of number-one ranked Cooper Kupp.

The reason it is a smart strategy to draft a wide receiver or running back in the first round is the scarcity of top-end fantasy production at those positions relative to the quarterback position. Getting shut out of those top-three running backs or top-five wide receivers could be damaging from a competitive standpoint. 

When to draft a kicker and team defense

For those who are new at fantasy football, you should always draft a defense and kicker in the final couple of rounds. While these positions can make a difference on a week-to-week basis, the difference in scoring between the best and worst kickers and defenses is smaller than the differences at other positions.

What order should I draft positions in fantasy football?

Now that you know which positions to prioritize in a fantasy football draft, you are probably wondering in what order to draft those positions. Truthfully, there is no wrong answer as to which order you take your first running back and wide receiver in. As long as your first couple of picks are receivers or running backs, the goal is really to grab the best player available at those spots when your turn comes up.

Determining which players at these two positions are the best available when it is your turn to draft can be done using a combination of techniques. First, all fantasy football websites and apps have their own projected scoring numbers for players. These can give you an idea as to what you can expect from a player in the season to come.

But there are plenty of factors you can consider that go beyond those projections to determine which players are worth taking. Considering how often backs and receivers get the ball on their team and what kinds of matchups they will face during their team’s schedule will help you decide on players at these key positions early in the draft.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen slips away from Washington's Daron Payne.
Photo Credit: Jamie Germano-Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

How long to wait before drafting a quarterback

As we mentioned earlier, quarterbacks tend to be the fantasy football points leaders once each season is in the books. But they are not worth taking right away in fantasy football drafts. So when should you draft a quarterback in fantasy football? The answer depends on the flow of your league’s draft.

Typically, quarterbacks start coming off the board in the third or fourth round, after owners have solidified themselves with two players from the wide receiver or running back categories. Once a quarterback comes off the board, other teams tend to start snapping up the top quarterbacks, out of fear of missing out on one of the big name options. Whether you choose to follow suit is up to you, as you can choose to wait for later in the draft and keep loading up on skill position players instead.

What is the best fantasy football draft strategy?

In terms of draft strategy, stocking up on skill position players is usually the way to go during a fantasy football draft. As we mentioned before, finding elite talent at the running back and wide receiver positions is harder than finding elite quarterback talent, making that the top priority for putting together a winning fantasy team. Other than that piece of advice, though, the best fantasy strategy is to simply keep an open mind throughout the draft as your plans are likely to change time and time again.

The mantra to keep in mind during a fantasy football draft is to look for value at every slot. Instead of confining yourself by creating rigid rules about which positions to take at which spot, simply looking for opportunities to pick players that should exceed their expectations will usually work out better. That is, as long as you do not take a kicker or defense too early in the draft.