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How Does Fantasy Football Work? A Guide For Beginners

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Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) runs the ball for a touchdown past New York Jets safety Ashtyn Davis (21) during the second at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Photo Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football is one of the most common ways that fans interact with the NFL. Not only does fantasy football allow fans to become the general manager of their own team, but it gives them a genuine rooting interest in every game, rather than just games involving their favorite teams.

In this beginners guide to fantasy football we will answer the most important question to those looking to start playing fantasy: how does fantasy football work? 

If you’re a new player to fantasy football, find out how a fantasy football league functions, what types of leagues there are, and even who to draft. All of this will help even the least experienced fantasy football player go into their first year of action with the tools to challenge more experienced friends, family members, and potential fantasy football rivals.

How to start a fantasy football league

Those who are new to fantasy football probably have a lot of questions before starting their first fantasy football league. 

  • How many players do you draft in fantasy football? 
  • When is the draft? 
  • How does the draft even work? 

 

Fortunately, the answers to most questions related to the starting of a fantasy football league and the draft can be answered by simply starting up your fantasy football league.

Starting a fantasy football league is a straightforward process, even for those who do not have experience doing so.

Step 1: Find your league!

The first step is to find a group of willing participants to take part in your league. For the optimal competitive balance, somewhere around 12 teams is ideal, but players can opt for a league consisting of more teams or fewer teams depending on the number of people they know who wish to play.

Step 2: Pick your commissioner

Next, your group of competitors will want to select who the commissioner of the league is going to be. There is no requirement to wear a suit or hand out disciplinary action like the real commissioner of the NFL. But a fantasy football commissioner is the one who locks in the settings for a league, makes sure that any trades are legitimate, and makes sure things run smoothly.

Step 3: Set up which rules you want to follow and your draft

The commissioner will then enter the settings for your league, which is where most of your questions are answered before the start of a fantasy football season. One of the things that makes fantasy football so beloved is how customizable it is. Different leagues can choose their own point values for different statistical categories, how many players are in play each week, the roster sizes, and when the draft takes place.

Step 4: Draft your team

Once the commissioner has set the rules and draft date for the league, players should familiarize themselves with those details. Making sure not to miss the draft, and understanding what on-field actions are worth how many points are the two most important things a fantasy football player must do before each season starts. While most fantasy leagues use a similar scoring system, looking for any variations from what is known as the standard scoring system can help players find any available advantages.

The real start of a fantasy football season comes with a league’s draft, which takes place on the predetermined date set by each commissioner. During the draft, players select the members of their team at each position. Those players are then put into your lineup each week, and receive points for the yards, touchdowns, and other stats they put up during each game. The players from your roster that you did not select to appear in your lineup go to the bench, where their point totals do not count toward your score for the week.

Step 5: Check your team each week

Each week, your team has an opponent, which is another team from your fantasy league. The scores of each player from the starting lineup of each team are added together, and the team with the most points at the end of the week picks up a win. Earning enough wins can get your team into the playoffs, where the team with the lowest score in each matchup is eliminated each week until only one team remains as the winner.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) reacts during the first half in a AFC Divisional playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What is a dynasty fantasy football league?

There are two main types of full season fantasy football leagues:

  • A traditional or redraft league, which lasts one season, with all players going back into the draft pool for the next season. 
  • A dynasty league, where competitors keep players on their roster for multiple years.

 

In a dynasty fantasy football league, things function more like the year-to-year activity that a real NFL team goes through. Each team is given the option to retain their players after each season, or put them back into the draft pool by releasing them. In some of these leagues, players who opt to keep their players sacrifice picks in the upcoming draft to do so.

As a result of this system, the draft component of a dynasty league is less of an event than it is in a redraft league. Many of the best players in the NFL get retained by their owners, leaving the draft pool with role players who did not make a roster or players who were not in the NFL the year before. There is always the opportunity to find buried treasure in a dynasty draft, but the availability of top-tier players is fewer and farther between.

A dynasty league is more of a commitment than a single-season fantasy league, as those competing are involved for more than just one season. But if you are someone who plans on playing fantasy football for years to come, there is not much difference between a redraft and dynasty league outside of the player retention dynamic.

Who should I draft in fantasy football?

Perhaps the hardest question to answer in all of fantasy football is who you should draft each season. 

On the surface, this sounds like an easy question to answer, as the goal is to draft the players that will score you the most points on a regular basis. But how to determine who those players are is not easy at all for a number of reasons.

The first challenge when it comes to drafting a fantasy team is the fact that you are not in control of the entire draft board. There are teams that pick before and after you throughout the draft, all of whom also have the same goal of trying to assemble the best team possible. That means they may take the players you have your eye on, and vice versa, throughout the draft.

What also makes deciding who to draft challenging is that you are drafting based on anticipated performance, not past performance. Players who were among the fantasy football leaders 2021 had to offer may not perform that well again in 2022. Understanding that and being willing to take the risks necessary to be ahead of the curve on some players is essential to fantasy football success.

Then there is the question of when to draft each player, which is just as important as figuring out who to draft. 

For example, Patrick Mahomes is an elite quarterback on one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen. But you would get laughed at for taking him first overall in a fantasy draft, even if drafting a quarterback first overall would make all of the sense in the world when drafting a real life football team.

Tools that help you draft the best fantasy football players

Fortunately, there are tools that can help fantasy football players determine who to draft each season. Most major fantasy football sites offer projected point totals for each player, giving inexperienced players an idea of which players should be among the best at each position in the upcoming season. These projections are nowhere near perfect, but give every competitor a baseline expectation for each player.

Players can also do their own research to determine which players to draft in fantasy football each season. They can look at the schedule of each team and determine which offensive players will have success based on the matchups contained therein. They can also evaluate the teams around each player to determine if they will have a good year on their current squad. For example, before taking a quarterback, it may be a good idea to determine if that quarterback has a respectable offensive line in front of him.

Most fantasy sites even give league members an idea of where NFL players are being drafted in fantasy drafts. With a number called Average Draft Position (ADP), players can see where each athlete is going in fantasy drafts on average. This can help fantasy footballers avoid taking players too early or waiting too long to grab the players they want.

Who specifically to draft in fantasy football depends on what pick number you have in each round, and can vary greatly from one draft position to the next. But the general strategy that most players follow is to draft running backs and wide receivers early, wait to get a quarterback without letting all of the top options slip away, and wait until the end to take a defense and kicker.

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates a catch that was ruled incomplete with teammate quarterback Josh Allen (17) against the New York Jets during the first half at Highmark Stadium.
Photo Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Top fantasy football players, last 5 years

Instead of looking back at previous results in fantasy football, it is much more valuable to look ahead. 

When it comes to the top fantasy football players of the last five years, it is important to note that things change so much in the NFL in just five seasons. If you look at the fantasy football points leaders from 2017, and then look at the same group from the 2021 season, you will see that very clearly.

In 2017, Todd Gurley, Cam Newton, and Alex Smith were in the top-five in fantasy points scored during the regular season. They are no longer in the league, whether it be due to injury or simply no longer being able to perform at an elite level. Tom Brady was also in the top-five in fantasy points scored this year, but he does not seem bound to the same laws of time as the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Josh Allen has led the NFL in fantasy points for each of the last two seasons. But he is only entering his fourth year in the league, and would not be in the discussion of the top-five players over the last five years.

Looking at which players are poised to take leaps forward in the upcoming season is where real value is found in the world of fantasy football.

Additionally, looking at raw point totals is not the best way to determine the top players in fantasy football. Quarterbacks tend to score more points than all other position groups, because the ball is in their hands more than any other player. Instead, fantasy football players should compare players to others at their position only to see which players really stand out.

What fantasy attributes or player types to look for

When trying to figure out which players are going to be among the fantasy scoring leaders at each position in the upcoming season, there are certain traits to look for. 

These traits do not guarantee that a player will be among the best in fantasy football in a given year. But they do tend to go hand in hand with being a part of a competitive team throughout each season in a fantasy football league.

Durability is the most important trait a player can have

The most important trait a player can have is durability, or the ability to stay on the field and remain healthy. Injuries and football sadly go hand in hand, due to the collision-based nature of the sport. As a result, while this is far from the most pressing concern pertaining to injuries, many fantasy football teams will lose key players every season. Your goal is to find players you can count on to remain as healthy as possible to carry your team to victory each week.

Of course, you cannot predict many injuries in the NFL. One hard hit, or one player landing awkwardly while traveling at great speed, can completely change a player’s health status. But some players have a more extensive injury history than others, and being mindful of which players are more susceptible to missing time is important when assembling a fantasy football roster.

Another key attribute to look for is usage

Another key trait to look out for is usage, or how often a player is going to figure into their team’s offensive game plan. In fantasy football, points are awarded for the performance of each player, as they gain yards and score touchdowns. In order to gain yards and score touchdowns, a player needs to get the ball often enough to do so.

How can you predict which players are going to get the ball more than others? There are both stat-based methods and the eye test available here. Fantasy football players can look at a player’s stats to see how often they were targeted in the passing game and how often they ran the ball relative to the rest of their team. They can also look at the depth chart around each player to assess how those numbers could increase or decrease in the upcoming NFL season.

Naturally, players who are at the top of the depth chart at their position are likely to get the ball more often than those lower on the depth chart. But there are always exceptions. The New England Patriots, for example, rarely follow a predictable structure when getting the ball to their running backs. As you gain more experience in fantasy football, you will get a better feel for these nuances.

How does IR work in fantasy football?

IR in fantasy football stands for injured reserve, just as it does on a real NFL roster. Injured reserve is designed to give real NFL teams the roster space necessary to keep injured players on their team, while still giving them the ability to have a 53-man roster of as many healthy players as possible. In fantasy football, injured reserve works largely the same way.

If a player is on injured reserve in real life, they will receive the IR designation in fantasy football as well. Once a player receives that tag in fantasy football, a team owner can move that player into one of their designated IR slots on their roster. That will free up a space at the position of that player, allowing the fantasy owner to add a healthy free agent at that position without having to release anyone to make room.

Should that player later come off of injured reserve during the season, the fantasy owner then must release a player if they want to bring that player back from injured reserve. Alternatively, the fantasy owner could decide to release the player they originally put on injured reserve if they would rather keep the player they replaced him with.

Los Angeles Rams linebacker Von Miller (40) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

How do fantasy football playoffs work?

The goal of every player in fantasy football is to win the league championship at the end of the NFL season. In order to do that, they must first qualify for the playoffs. 

To qualify for the playoffs, your team must have one of the best records in your league, with those records being broken down either by division or across the league as a whole.

In the playoffs, teams are seeded from the best record to the worst record. In some leagues, the teams with the best records are afforded first round byes in the playoffs, just like the top seeds in the actual NFL playoffs. Either way, the highest seeds in the first round are matched up with the lowest seeds, and a bracket-style tournament is then completed with each week that goes by. The teams with the highest scores in each round advance in the brackets, until there is one team left standing.

One thing that fantasy owners should keep an eye on is which weeks their league holds the playoffs. Many leagues avoid holding the championship on the final week of the season, as many key players sit out that week with playoff spots mostly clinched. 

If your league does hold its championship on the final week, you will need to keep an eye out for backup players who could factor into the final week of on-field play more heavily than usual.