Now that we have studied the trends at every position over the last nine years and profiled/previewed every single player, it is time to come up with a winning Draft Day strategy for 2012. Obviously where you pick in the first round is going to have a lot to do with your actual game plan (and check out Dave and Jamey's awesome articles about each individual spot), but this will be a guide to the overall draft strategy and principles you should employ in 2012. I am basing this on a standard 12 team league with the following lineup: One quarterback, two running backs, three receivers, a tight end, a kicker and a defense.
Top 8 picks: I will get into more positional detail in a second, but my basic strategy this year is as follows: After eight picks, I want your rosters to have the following composition: An elite quarterback (preferably Top 5, but anyone in the elite 11 is fine), a Top 8 tight end (through Fred Davis on my rankings), three running backs (two of which should come from your first four picks) and three receivers.
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Now if your draft dictated that you had four running backs and only two receivers at this point, I can live with that given the immense depth at the receiver position this year. To me that is the ideal start, but I am also fine with waiting at tight end and snagging say Jacob Tamme alongside Brandon Pettigrew or Owen Daniels later on if there end up being running back or wide receiver values in the middle rounds that you just can't ignore. The key is having a quality quarterback along with a couple of dependable running backs, at least two Top 20 receivers and a solid third or even fourth option at running back. Your draft spot will likely determine your first two picks and that will shape whether or not you are building around an elite quarterback or waiting at that very deep position.
I also think it would put a lot of pressure on your mid-round drafting to have a Top 3 quarterback and Jimmy Graham this year (I am not drafting Rob Gronkowski at his current ADP), so you will have to choose which of those positions you jump on early (which is likely only an issue if you are towards the end of the first round). Going with a top quarterback and a top tight end with your first two picks will crush your running backs this year and given the lack of quality options at that position you do not want to wait until late in the third round to get your first runner.
Wide receiver is incredibly deep this year and you can start loading up at that position in either the third or even fourth rounds and still end up with a very deep receiving corps. This blueprint will provide a very solid core to your franchise and set you up for the combination of upside and balance that is key to winning Fantasy titles.
So I have the core of my team set, now what should I do? Load up on running backs and wide receivers like it is going out of style. You should have an elite quarterback who will be your every week starter by this point and hopefully you also have an elite tight end that you plan on rolling with every week.
With all of the quality backup/'Bye Week Broski' options at each position on the waiver wire, I do not see any reason to draft a second quarterback or tight end if you have a stud at the position. Use that depth on Draft Day to use as many roster spots on running backs and wide receivers as possible. Seriously, hoard as many good No. 3 and No. 4 and even high-upside No. 5 options at running back and wide receiver as you can until you get to the very end of the draft and take your Team Defense (second to last pick unless your league is crazy about defensive scoring) and your kicker (last pick).
Not only will you give yourself a better team when it is all said and done, you will also have more chances to hit on the 10-12 runners and receivers who finish in the Top 24 and are not drafted in the Top 24 at their respective positions. This will also stock your roster with potential trade bait thanks to a deep bench full of quality upside plays at those positions, which enable you to fine tune your squad into a championship team.
If I am in a 16-roster spot league, I will end up with the following roster composition if all goes well: One quarterback, six or seven running backs, five or six wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one defense. Certain quarterbacks (Peyton Manning or Michael Vick for example) will require a backup given their inherent injury risks, so in that scenario we would have two quarterbacks, six rushers and five receivers. If you miss on the top tight ends, then obviously two tight ends, six rushers and five receivers. Finally, if your league requires only two receivers, I do not think you need more than four of them and you can even have seven or eight runners on your squad.
You will have a few weeks to figure out which players you need to hang onto and which ones can be cut when it comes to the bye weeks. Now let's look at the individual positions.
Quarterbacks: We are entering an era of unprecedented passing and quarterback scoring as my quarterback trends article illustrated. Fantasy points at the quarterback position are exploding and last year, Aaron Rodgers outscored the No. 12 quarterback, Vick, by an unprecedented 218 points. Five of the Top 7 Fantasy seasons in NFL history happened last year and we could see more records fall in 2012. There are two ways to go with the quarterback spot this year and it will in large part be determined by where you draft. I personally want you to end up with an elite (Top 5) quarterback, but I understand that there will be two paths to the title this year.
If you have a Top 3 pick (or do not end up with a Top 3 quarterback), you will be starting with a running back and will have to hope that either Matthew Stafford or Cam Newton make it to you in Round 2 as they represent the last of the elite quarterbacks. If they don't get back to you, it would be wise to wait on a quarterback until the fourth to sixth round and then snag one of the third tier (but still very productive) guys from Vick to Peyton Manning. My favorite Draft Day bargain right now at quarterback is Matt Ryan, who could breakout a La Stafford this year and can be had as the 11th quarterback taken in the late fifth round.
If you pick fourth or later in your draft, it is time to consider Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who are the only three quarterbacks to finish in the top six in total points in three straight years. Let me quickly make the case for why you want an elite quarterback in 2012 and why they help you win Fantasy titles.
Last year, of the 10 players who had the highest winning percentage at CBSSports.com, four of them were quarterbacks, including Rodgers leading the way at 59 percent. Those elite quarterbacks did not just put up big time points, but they also delivered championships.
Elite quarterbacks produce the biggest point totals year in and year out, which has been magnified by the 30 percent growth we have seen in their Fantasy points over the last nine years. Elite quarterbacks provide the biggest differentials relative to a replacement starter than we see at any other position (again, it was 218 points from No. 1 to No. 12 last year). Elite quarterbacks are very safe first round investments in terms of both guaranteed production and injury risk, especially when compared to Ryan Mathews, Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden and really any running back or wide receiver. Finally, elite quarterbacks have the highest winning percentages (over the last three years Rodgers, Brady and Brees are first, second and third respectively) of players at any position.
Running backs: The days of 15 featured backs are long gone and in 2012 there are really only three running backs I feel great about: Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy. After that, Chris Johnson, DMC, Mathews, Lynch, Peterson, Murray, Forte, Steven Jackson, Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jamaal Charles, Fred Jackson and Michael Turner and others all have potential, but also have plenty of question marks. Given how quickly the quality starting options disappear, snagging two of the Top 18 to 20 primary runners with your first three or four picks is not just a good idea this year, it is an absolute must. If you are at the end of the first round, you can end up with a very solid team even starting with two runners if the top quarterbacks are all gone. There are potentially some great runners that can be had later on in drafts this year and hoarding them as we previously discussed will allow you to take advantage of that.
Why two running backs early? 2011 continued a trend we have seen in recent years at the running back spot. Last year, 11 of the first 12 running backs drafted did finish in the top 24, with Charles (injury) being the only back to not make the list. The top four running backs and six of the top seven backs were all among the first 13 overall picks in 2011. Why do these early investments seem to pan out? As the league becomes enamored with the committee approach, the few remaining workhorses have a huge advantage at the position and that's why, barring injury, they have been relatively safe early picks. Primary runners are the guys to focus on early in 2012 (unless you are in a PPR league), because even mediocre players like Shonn Greene will be perennial top 24 producers if they run the ball 15 to 20 times per week in this committee era.
Once you have your top two, grab as many runners as you can in the middle and late rounds to increase your chances of hitting on the many lottery tickets that are out there every year at running back. 2011 marked the third straight season that the running back position tied its own record with 10 of the top 24 scoring coming from the sixth round or later on Draft Day. Last year also saw another record set, as 12 of the top 24 point scorers at the running back position were not among the first 24 runners drafted.
It should also be noted that four of the top 10 backs and seven of the top 14 runners were drafted in the fifth round or later and Ryan Mathews was the only fifth rounder in that group. In fact, in five straight seasons at least four of the top 12 running backs have been drafted in the fourth round or later. That is why in the middle and late rounds you want to snag as many of the upside guys like options like Stevan Ridley, Peyton Hillis, Donald Brown, Evan Royster, Michael Bush, Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith, Ben Tate, David Wilson, Ryan Williams, Mark Ingram, Isaiah Pead, Ronnie Hillman and Rashad Jennings to name a few, depending on how many bench spots you have.
Following this plan will leave you with great depth at the running back spot to protect you in the event of injuries and it will also enable you to be in a position of dominance when it comes to trade talks should you hit on two or three of your upside picks.
Wide receivers: Never have I felt like there were more elite receivers (at least 16 by my count) or more depth at the receiver position (I love the entire Top 36) than we have headed into 2012. With quarterbacks going earlier than ever we are seeing teams be able to assemble a great receiving corps without picking their first receiver until the third or even fourth rounds in drafts this year, which was previously unheard of.
Last year we saw a record 14 of the top 24 receivers come from within the first 60 picks of the draft and 15 of the first 24 receivers taken finished in the top 24. It should also be noted that over the last three years, 10 of the top 15 receivers on average have been drafted in the first five rounds. There have also been 19 receivers with at least two Top 24 finishes in the last three years, so the top of the position has been pretty reliable.
I recommend you to snag two receivers with your first five picks to grab those anchors at the position. Then grab a solid third receiver in the middle rounds (as early as Round 6 if someone too good to pass slips to you), along with an upside fourth receiver and then a great late round flier like Randall Cobb to round out your receiving corps.
Using current ADP for example, you could snag two running backs and a quarterback with your first three picks and still end up with a receiver group of Brandon Marshall or Hakeem Nicks, Percy Harvin or Demaryius Thomas and Antonio Brown or Eric Decker in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds respectively, which is pretty darn solid.
Don't forget to load up late at this position as well, because history has taught us that the position always produces diamonds from late-round lumps of coal. In each of the last three years, at least one Top 5 Fantasy receiver and two Top 10 receivers have been drafted after the 140th pick or not at all. Also, at least seven of the Top 24 in each of the last three years has been drafted after the 100th pick or not drafted at all, so it is a good idea to secure your top receivers early and then load on up!
Tight ends: While I am fine with Jimmy Graham in the early second round this year if you don't like the other options available to you, I think the group from Antonio Gates through Fred Davis (my third through eighth tight ends) represent the best value at the tight end position among the "elites." They can be had three to six rounds after Graham and Gronk and all represent solid weekly plays with good upside, especially Gates, who is going in the fifth round and could finish back at the top of the position.
There is no chance to me that Gronk and Graham (ok, maybe Graham) repeat their blowout of the field from 2011 when they had the two single greatest tight end seasons in history. If running back and wide receiver values dictate that you wait on tight end that's fine, and you can snag two high-upside guys later in your draft.
Remember, last year the spread between the third tight end and the 10th tight end was less than two Fantasy points per week. I expect another tightly bunched year, but expect that you will have to mix and match the later tight ends to get the weekly comfort and consistency from the Gates-to-Davis group. After all, eight of the Top 12 tight ends have repeated in the Top 12 in each of the last four seasons.
Additionally, in each of the last two seasons, eight of the first 12 tight ends drafted finished in the Top 12. Anyway you shake it, you should be able to get excellent production at a great value at this position and I would let the running back and wide receiver runs really determine when you jump in here. Of all of the main positions, this is the one spot where I am the most flexible from the ideal plan because by my count there are at least 18 tight ends with Top 10 potential this year and you can use that to your advantage.
Kickers: Only take a kicker in the last round of your draft.
Team Defense: Generally wait until the last few rounds and ideally the second to last round on Draft Day to snag a defense. Fifty percent of the Top 12 turns over year after year and the spread among the starting defenses is bunched up just like the kickers. If you draft a defense that is struggling you can often employ the rotating waiver defense in order to take advantage of good matchups.
Some final Draft Day thoughts
1. Make sure you get the handcuff to your top running back if they have a quality option so you can protect that early investment from injury.
2. Know your draft: Pay attention and make a note of what positions everyone in your league is drafting and what they still need. This will let you know if you need to snag that receiver you really like a round earlier or if you have make sure you snatch up that last elite tight end because it looks like the top tier at the position is about to be gone.
Also, if you are at the beginning or end of a snake draft pay attention and know exactly what the people ahead/behind you are doing. For example, if you are in the 10th spot and teams 11 and 12 already have quarterbacks on their roster, that's obviously useful information. That way, when you are on the clock in the fifth round and there is only one quality quarterback left that you want, you go focus on another position in the fifth round and know that you can still get that same quarterback in the sixth. I know it seems very logical and easy, but it is not always implemented and can really help on Draft Day.
3. I've said it before and I will say it again: Only draft one kicker and one defense and stay away from a backup at quarterback and tight end if you can avoid it. The more running backs and wide receivers the merrier I think and if you are happy with your starters at the "single player" positions just let them ride because the wire will be stocked with quality options. Obviously a good backup can become trade bait, so judge it accordingly in your own draft. Just don't grab a backup quarterback to grab one if there are going to be a couple of comparable players that go undrafted.
4. Good luck and have fun! The draft is the most exciting time of the year. You have a plan, now follow it and bring home the title with a combination of a great draft and tremendous in-season management.