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What Does it Take to Win Your Fantasy Football League?

My step-by-step process for how I manage and win my fantasy football leagues, from pre-draft all the way to setting weekly lineups.

I have written tens of thousands of words over the past several years about fantasy football with the aim to help others win their leagues each season. Articles ranging from who to draft, who to avoid drafting, matchups to take advantage of each week, who to trade for or players to pick up from waivers each week. Dozens of articles every year but what I’ve never taken the time to do share how I play the game and the strategies I use to make my seasons as successful as possible.

As an experienced fantasy player who plays in dozens of leagues every year across the different formats and platforms, I have tried lots of different tactics; from different draft strategies, trade and waiver targets and lineup setting, and have settled on a method that I find works best for me. Last season out of the 50 leagues I played, my teams made the playoffs in 30, the championship game in 15 and I managed to win 10 of those leagues.

I consider myself an analytics guy and have built and maintain multiple databases of player statistics that I use to do my fantasy analysis from (don’t worry, I’ll be sharing this data here at NerdBall). In-season I’m looking for trends in players seeing increasing numbers of snaps, targets, pass attempts and rushing attempts, as well as focusing on looking at what opposing defenses are allowing when setting weekly lineups. What I’m always looking for is that edge in my weekly line ups, especially in those all-important flex spots.

I’ll break my strategies into different sections to cover the different stages of the fantasy season and how I build and maintain my rosters each season. My ultimate aim is to be as competitive as possible every single week, and for me that takes a commitment of time and a consistency of method to be able to achieve that.

Player Rankings and Pre-Draft Analysis

During the offseason, I spend time creating my own set of rankings for each of the main league types—Redraft, Dynasty, Dynasty Superflex and Rookie. What I then do is compare my rankings to other people in the fantasy community I trust and respect to see if there’s anyone I’m high or low on compared to them that I may have overlooked or overvalued. Arrogance that you know it all can lead to failure and I want to learn as much as I teach.

Related: Consensus 2021 Fantasy Football Player Rankings

I then regularly update my rankings as the offseason progresses and look to use them as I start to draft, trusting my analysis to guide me through draft season. I thoroughly recommend you create or find a set of rankings that you like and trust. Follow them closely, amend them based on what you hear and see, and don’t go into any draft without them to hand (be that physically or virtually). This means you will make better decisions on draft day and be able to spot and take advantage of value picks as they arise.

The Draft

Some simple initial tips, but it’s so important to understand the settings of the league you’re drafting in. Be well aware of the number of teams in the league, the number of rounds, the starting roster make up and any premium scoring settings, and even and the time for each pick (including when the clock goes off in slow drafts). The size of league for me is super important as larger leagues lead to position scarcity and I will adjust my strategy (especially at quarterback) to account for it.

Draft position makes little difference to me, though generally I prefer to draft early or late compared to the middle of each round so I can generally get two of a group as the draft progresses.

In terms of draft strategy, I’m almost always trying to find a balanced roster. Zero RB leagues don’t work for me. Yes you can get some stacked receiver rosters but I don’t feel comfortable not taking at least one running back in the first three rounds.

In one quarterback leagues, I am almost always taking a running back in the first round, and a second in round two unless its a tight end premium/two tight end league then I’m looking at Travis Kelce, George Kittle or Darren Waller early. The only other no brainer for me is in Superflex leagues—leagues where you can start another QB in a Flex spot—where I’m always looking at quarterback in the first round if I’m in the first six picks, and then in round two if I’m in the back half of the first round.

In redraft leagues where the is a roster spot for a defense and/or a kicker, I very rarely draft either unless its really close to the season. Otherwise I’ll keep stacking receiver/running back depth to give me to the most possible options before heading to waivers to fill those spots in the final few days before the season starts. I then like to stream both positions weekly to maximize my roster options during the season.

Bye weeks are generally not a factor to me in either redraft or dynasty drafts. If I get the team I want, I’ll take a loss in a heavy bye week for my team to maximize the opportunity in the other weeks.

When it comes to trading picks during a draft, like a lot of fellow fantasy players, I much prefer trading back to build up future assets. I may try to jump back up in the very late rounds if one of my sleeper picks is still out there, but most of the time I’m happy to pick where I am and let the chips fall where they may.

Dynasty Startup Drafts

I still like to follow a balanced approach in dynasty leagues, focusing on both a win-now team and one that will compete over the next two to three years. I’m not looking any further ahead than that as there’s always a chance to put things right with good trades, waivers and rookie drafts.

In the rookie drafts, I make my picks based on landing spots and therefore likely playing time rather than necessarily the player’s draft stock. Last year I ended up with more shares of Justin Jefferson than any other rookie, which looks crazy now given how good he was in his first year, but he was the fifth receiver taken in last year’s draft, and so did fall a little in my rookie drafts.

This year so far my biggest rookie shares are in Devonta Smith and Michael Carter. I’m feeling pretty happy with this as I feel I’ve got good value with both as Smith should lead the Eagles receivers as a rookie, and Carter has a good opportunity to establish himself as the lead back in what looks like to be committee approach by the Jets, and will sit in my taxi squads for now as we wait to see how the offseason progresses.

Waivers and Trading

With the draft in the books, my aim from then on to be constantly monitoring the waiver wire, reacting to news as it happens and churning the bottom of my roster, looking for players who may have a chance to make my starting lineup if things break their way. If my league has a FAAB (Free Agent Acquisition Budget) system for waivers, then I’m trying to use as little of it as I can during this process, saving those valuable dollars for any major injuries/suspensions that push players into potential starting spots. If waivers are decided by priority, then I have to appreciate a churn approach will likely mean I miss out on certain players but that’s something I’ll live with as almost none of my leagues use waiver priority for free agents any more.

Assuming your league has IR spots, I’m always looking to use them to my advantage and maximize my roster. Check your league’s settings in terms of what type of injury designation can be put on IR (including for COVID), and if you can, get injured players in those spots so you can add to your roster from free agency. I’d rather have the headache of too many players to choose from than too few.

The biggest opportunities from waivers are almost always driven by injuries. This is when your carefully managed FAAB comes into play and you can go hard at the next man up who is suddenly set to see starting snaps. However, there is huge buyer beware at the running back position as you look to make that league defining waiver move, as the backup that becomes the starter has often failed to deliver RB1 numbers when the main man goes down.

For every Mike Davis, who finished as the RB11 when Christian McCaffrey went down last year, there are multiple Wayne Gallmans, who finished as the RB35 in Saquon Barkley’s absence. Backup running backs are most likely flex plays with RB2 upside.

When it comes to trading, I fully admit to being trade averse in general. Not the most exciting way to play I know, but I have high standards when it comes to trade value and when I do trade, I’m more likely to trade away assets to build future picks then sell my future on a chance to win this year.

Weekly Lineup Setting

Now we’re into the business end of the fantasy football, turning all that preparation, drafting and roster maintenance into a starting lineup that’s going to get you that weekly win.

For me it starts on a Thursday prior to TNF, where I go through every one of my teams and set the ideal lineup for my team for the entire game week. Having a heavy number of starters playing on Thursday always leaves me nervous and sometimes I may leave a high risk/reward Thursday player benched in favor of a steadier Sunday/Monday starter. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t win a weekly matchup on Thursday, but you can almost certainly lose it with a couple of TNF duds. (This should be common knowledge but I’d be amiss not to mention that you should never put TNF players in Flex spots of your rosters. Losing positional flexibility come Sunday is a killer for fantasy teams and using your flex(es) on Thursday only for a Sunday/Monday player to get injured who then can’t then be replaced is unforgivable and you deserve the L.)

Another simple lineup thought processes for me are to not overthink starting your best players. You drafted them high to be the backbone of your team, so regardless of opponent, injury or personal form, these guys need to be starting every week.

In terms of setting up for a busy Sunday of fantasy football, I normally review my rosters again Saturday evening, making some tweaks to ensure that if for any reason I can’t get to my rosters on Sunday then at least they’ve been reviewed twice. I’m typically looking for the best matchups for my players based on either my pre-season predictions for opposing defenses in the opening weeks, or then from my own analysis and which teams are allowing certain player types the most points per game. Staying close to injury reports is key for both my own players, their team mates and their opponents to be able to set the best possible lineups.

Streaming

When it comes to certain positions, streaming a player weekly has its values over drafting and sticking by that player no matter what. For me, it only really applies to defenses and kickers, but I’ve streamed the tight end position with some positive results in the past as well. Picking defenses that might do well against poor offenses is a good way to start your streaming adventure, as you tend to find most players won’t draft multiple defenses and so there are usually lots of D/STs available on the waiver wire. Kickers too tend to be sparsely drafted so you can swap in and out weekly based on form wit the boot.

In Summary

In reality, I like to think none of what I’ve written about is any great secret and is in fact common sense. What I’m really trying to get at is that to be successful at fantasy football is all about two things: solid analysis and the time to put the work in.

From now through the entire 2021 season, we at NerdBall will be doing our best to support you with the best information to put your fantasy teams in a winning position, from pre-draft analysis to weekly waiver pickups and trade targets, to highlighting the best matchups to take advantage of and showcase the key player trends to help you with that lineup setting.

If you have any questions, you can hit me up on Twitter @PaddiCooper and I’ll be happy to help any way I can.