09/04/2011 03:24 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2011

There's No Avoiding the (Fantasy Football) Draft

It's Labor Day weekend, and that means three things: (1) summer is unofficially over, (2) many people who have no connection whatsoever to organized labor have an extra day off, and (3) seemingly every football fan you know is talking about their fantasy football draft.

No matter whether this is your first season playing fantasy football or your twenty-first, there are several things you should keep in mind both prior to and during your draft. Follow these tips, and you'll head into the season with a strong team that's ready to contend for your league's championship.

Preparing for your draft

Know your league's criteria -- sounds obvious, no? Still, there always seems to be at least one person in every draft who doesn't -- don't let that person be you. If you do nothing else to prepare, know how many teams are in your league, the roster requirements by positions (including number of bench spots), the scoring categories, and the number of points each category is worth.

Select a set of player rankings to use -- you essentially have two choices: (1) create your own rankings from scratch, or (2) use rankings from another source and tweak them as you see fit. Many hard-core participants revel in creating their own rankings, starting with the projections that underlie them, but most of us don't have the time or inclination to do that. If you're relying on a magazine or website, make sure that the league's criteria match your own as closely as possible, and make sure that the projections and rankings are updated continuously during the exhibition season (most magazines will have companion websites).

Tier players by position -- this is a step that many drafters neglect, which makes most drafts last twice as long as they need to. Once you've ranked the players by position, decide where the natural cut-offs are from one level to the next within each position. Ideally, when you're done with this step, organize all the players by position by tiers on one sheet of paper to give yourself some visual guidance during the draft.

Check player news at least once a day in the 2-3 days before your draft -- even the websites that are the best at keeping their player projections and rankings updated often have a lag of a day or more towards the end of the exhibition season, when the number of roster adjustments can become overwhelming. Just scan the news to make sure that one of your highly-ranked players didn't suffer a season-ending injury in practice the day of your draft.

Draft day

Pack light -- whether or not you decide to use a laptop during your draft, there are really only two items you should need to refer to during your draft: (1) your tiered player rankings by position, and (2) a sheet displaying the required roster spots for each team in your league. Use the latter to keep track of what positions each team still needs to fill -- this can be an invaluable guide, especially in the middle and latter stages of your draft.

Select a drafting strategy, but remain flexible -- drafting strategies generally fall into one of three groups:
  • Instincts/gut
  • Best player available according to fantasy points
  • Best player available according to position scarcity
Position scarcity is the relative drop-off in fantasy value between the best remaining player at each position and the best player who's likely to be available at that position when you make your next selection.

Even if quarterbacks are the highest-scoring players using your league's scoring system, it often makes sense to take a running back before a quarterback because there's much more of a drop-off between a top-tier and middle-tier running back than there is between a top tier and middle-tier quarterback. Go with the player at the harder-to-fill position first.

Still, the adage "expect the unexpected" always applies. No matter how many years you've played in your league, no matter how well you think you know your fellow team owners, and no matter how much preparation you've done for the draft, something is bound to happen that will catch you by surprise. Perhaps the player you've had your eye on for several rounds is selected with the pick immediately preceding yours. Perhaps a player you really covet drops much further than you'd thought he would. Just know that at some point you're likely to be caught off-guard or presented with an unanticipated opportunity -- be ready to react to either of these situations.

Have fun -- Sure, many leagues are highly competitive, and some involve substantial cash prizes. Bragging rights may be at stake, and if your team doesn't do well, you may hear about it until next season from family members, friends, or co-workers. However, the main reasons people play fantasy football are that it gives them a greater rooting interest in the games they'd likely watch anyway, and it gives people the chance to connect or reconnect over a shared passion. Do your best, but try to keep things in perspective. If you win your league but ruin friendships and work relationships in the process, you've missed the point completely.

Best wishes for a great season!