This article is part of our fantasy football advice & strategy series.
For the most common types of fantasy football leagues, there are certain fundamental principles that are important to keep in mind. We enumerate the 10 most important ones below.
1. Draft Running Backs Early
In the most common leagues that number 10 to 14 teams and require a 1-QB, 2-RB, 2- or 3-WR starting lineup, running back will, more often than not, wind up being the position that determines who wins and who loses the league.
Because NFL teams typically feature only one running back and two wide receivers, there are fewer productive running backs to go around. So securing good ones early, preferably in first and second rounds, is especially important, because if you wait, the pickings are likely to be slim.
Moreover, a good running back gets the ball 25 times per game or more, whereas a good wide receiver catches only five passes per game. As a result, wideout production is harder to count on from game-to-game.
Finally, because you are only required to start one quarterback, there are likely to be a lot more good options there in the middle rounds than at the running back position.
2. Wait on Quarterbacks
While you may be tempted to take a quarterback with a mid to late first-round pick, don't do it. In real football, the quarterback is the most important player on the field, but in fantasy, it's all relative.
In a 10-team league, the worst starting quarterback drafted will be the NFL's 10th best (assuming some owners don't draft more than one early – in which case they'll really be hurting elsewhere). That's because each team only needs to start one quarterback.
While starting running backs will go at least 20 deep – and often deeper as savvy fantasy owners often draft three or more running backs in the early rounds, knowing that the position is so scarce – just about every quarterback drafted will be one projected to be in the top half of the NFL in overall production.
That means that even if you're the last owner in your league to pick a signal-caller, good options should be available in the middle or even later rounds.
Moreover, there are almost certain to be young quarterbacks on your league's waiver wire who could emerge as solid starters. Unlike emerging running backs who will get snatched up right away by desperate owners, emerging QBs won't be in as much demand and will therefore be largely available if you need one.
3. Pick Safe Early, Upside Late
Unless you luck into a superstar running back who has a record-breaking touchdown year with your first pick, your early round-selections are more likely to ruin your chances to win than they are to put you over the top.
Why? Because most teams will get good production from their first two picks, and if you don't, you'll be at a big disadvantage. Stick with a safe and steady player over one who could be great, but who carries more risk.
It's better to have a running back who is a virtual lock for 1,000-plus yards and 10-plus TDs than an injury-prone one, who could put up huge numbers but is likely to miss a large chunk of the season.
In the later rounds, however, it's almost always better to roll the dice on players with upside than proven mediocrities. Proven mediocrities are sure to do something, but most likely it won't be much more than what you can get from the better unrostered players in your league's free-agent pool at any point during the season.
But a highly talented, unproven player in a potentially explosive offense can carry your team if he pans out. Chances are, he won't pan out, but if you draft three or four of these lottery tickets late, one or two of them may win your league for you.
4. Draft Kickers and Defenses Late
In most league formats, kickers score a relatively small percentage of a team's points, and therefore there's not a whole lot of difference between the best kicker and the 12th-best kicker.
Moreover, a kicker's output is so highly team- and luck-dependent that it varies a lot from year to year, and it's therefore difficult to predict which kickers will produce.
Defenses should also be picked late.
5. Draft Before the Dropoff
Most people come to their fantasy drafts with a cheat sheet that lists the players by position in order of their draft-worthiness, and when it's their turn to pick, they take the highest player on the list at the position they need most. While there's nothing wrong with using a list like that, it's important to identify the dropoff between consecutive picks.
For example, there may be very little difference between the fifth- and 10th-best wideout on your list, but a big difference between the 10th- and 11th-best. If the 10th wideout is available in the fourth or fifth round, you'd be wise to grab him because you know that if you let him go, the dropoff to the next one is steep. But if the 10th one gets picked right before your turn, and you know that there's not a lot of difference between the 11th and 19th, then you'd be wise to choose a player at another position where there's more risk of a dropoff before your next pick.
6. Get Your Star's Backup
If you draft a top running back early, it's important that you get their backups. Spending a late-middle round pick is necessary to reduce your risk.
But there's no point in drafting an elite quarterback's backup, because there's virtually no chance that he would come close to putting up the same kind of numbers.
7. Get Young RBs with Low Mileage
Look, it's hard enough to find good starting running backs, period, and so we're not telling you not to draft older, top-tier running backs. But all things being roughly equal, it's better to get a younger guy with low mileage.
NFL running backs have a very short shelf life, and you can see the seeds of decline in heavily worked ones. Obviously, a huge, fast, bruising back guaranteed to get 25 carries a game has to be a first- round pick, but in the middle rounds, go with young guys rather than older ones.
8. Stay Away from Rookie Receivers
In general, rookie wideouts simply don't produce. Over the years, very few rookie wide receivers have crossed the 1,000 yard mark in their rookie season.
9. Buy Low, Sell High, Be Patient
If your first-round, star running back has a rough first couple weeks, don't panic and deal him for a guy who has had a big first two weeks out of the blue.
The key when evaluating your struggling star is to ask whether anything (other than his slow start) has fundamentally changed since you drafted him. If he's still healthy, his offensive line is still intact and the team is still committed to giving him the ball 25 times per game, then you should value him as much as you did when you picked him. And if there are struggling players on other teams who fit that description, you'll want to make an offer on them and buy them while their perceived value may be a little bit low.
Conversely, if you have a running back who has racked up great numbers over the first couple weeks, but who has done so at the expense of weak defenses or who may lose carries to a veteran back set to return from an injury, you should try to shop him around when his value is at its peak.
10. Don't Overplay Matchups
Weekly production from your fantasy players is to some extent dependent on the quality of the opponent they're facing. In other words, it's a lot easier for them to rack up yards and touchdowns against a poor defense than it is against a top unit.
For that reason, it's important to take the schedule into account when filling out your lineup each week. While this is a wise thing to do when two players are roughly equal, all too often fantasy owners will bench a star when he's facing a tough secondary and start a medium-level or up-and-coming player who faces an easier matchup.
While the up-and-comer may be a nice player who can easily exploit a weak matchup, you can never sit a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player in his prime nless he's injured, even if he's going against the best defense in the league.