The 7 habits of highly effective drafters

A successful fantasy season begins with an effective draft strategy

Updated: August 7, 2014, 4:16 PM ET
By Matthew Berry | ESPN The Magazine

STEPHEN COVEY'S The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was, by any measure, a monster of a book. With more than 20 million copies sold, the self-help guide spawned many other titles, including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and the rare misstep The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Hoarders.

The Talented Mr. Roto

From happy kids to effective couples, there is no group that doesn't have a 7 Habits written for it. No group except, of course, fantasy football drafters. So it is with that glaring omission and a magazine deadline in mind that I went through the millions of teams that played on ESPN.com 
over the past two years, focusing on those that made the playoffs. After sifting through that data, and reliving my own 30 years of playing, I now present to you: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Drafters.

1. Spend a ton of time preparing.

When you draft, you build a roster, right? So let's start there. Over the past two years, playoff teams and last-place teams had virtually identically balanced rosters (see Chart A). In general, everyone has five running backs and wide receivers, a kicker, a defense and either one or two quarterbacks and one or two tight ends.

Which just very simply means: If all rosters are constructed the same way, it's all about getting that slight edge at each position. And that's where putting in the time makes all the difference. Because of fantasy analysts who compile rankings and write sleeper columns, because of Twitter and TV shows like Fantasy Football Now, everyone knows everything. There are no secret sleepers anymore. There's no hiding injury updates from your league mates.

But all that information also creates a lot of noise to filter in order to determine what is actually important. And that takes time. Lots of it.

Effective drafters read tons; study all the stats and trends; watch as much preseason football as they can (at least when relevant players are in); listen to the news conferences of head coaches and coordinators; follow a lot of Twitter feeds; do mock drafts and the late sleeper search; look at past draft results of their own leagues; and study for their draft like it's a bar exam. It's very simple.

Like every other part of life, what you put in is what you get out.

2. Nail the first two rounds.

In the past two years, a player picked in the first round averaged 191.8 fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring). In the same time frame, a player picked in the second round averaged 184.3 fantasy points. Pretty close, right? But when you get to the third round? Big drop-off (see Chart B). There is no bigger production drop-off between pairs of rounds than the difference between the first two rounds and Rounds 3 and 4.

The first two rounds are crucial. Over the past two years, playoff teams scored, on average, 1,237 points in the first 13 weeks. So if 95 points a week is what you need to make the playoffs, those first two rounds represent a whopping 30 percent of your total.

It's not the place to get cute, to try for "upside" or to reach. You can't ignore injury history, and you can't just assume you're guaranteed a good player. Ask anyone who drafted Doug Martin or Ray Rice in the first round last year.

You need as sure of a thing as you can get, which means you need to spend a good percentage of your draft prep making sure you nail the first two picks.

3. Trust yourself above all else.

If you're drafting online, chances are you'll have 60 seconds to make a pick. If you're drafting with your buddies, you'll have more time but more distractions. Either way, having a strong opinion about every player is key. You like a guy, but your ranks say don't take him ... and as you waver, you're dead. You need to know in your gut that this is the right pick. The easiest way to do this is by doing your own ranking sheet. After you've done a lot of research and feel you have a good handle on players, reordering the top 150 is a worthwhile exercise; it will force you to have specific opinions on every player. Which ones are injury-prone? Which ones are streaky versus consistent? Which ones have a chance to blow up? Which ones are on the downside of their careers? Those questions are all important.

Once you have your ranks, grab five or six of the more popular cheat sheets (including the cheat sheet of the site you're drafting on!) and average them together, noting the average rank, highest rank and lowest rank for every player. Comparing that list with your ranks will give you a sense of which players you're more likely to get and which players you're not willing to draft that high. And if you don't like the team you wind up with, redo your ranks.

My friend Joe Bryant of FootballGuys.com invented something called value-based drafting, or VBD. In essence, it's a way to show how a player compares with a replacement-level player (someone you could have taken off the waiver wire at any time) at the same position. It then compares all the positions (QB, RB, WR, etc.) to one another. My colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft ran an interesting study, pulling the ESPN.com ADP, then comparing it with the end-of-season VBD. He found that 41 percent -- almost half -- of the top 100 drafted players finished five or more rounds below their average draft position. In other words, last year, four of every 10 consensus picks probably didn't come close to returning value. Remember that when ranking your own players. Don't be afraid to be bold, to go against the grain when compiling, reviewing and finalizing your ranks. Because the group-think ranks are way off almost half the time. It's your team; listen to your inner GM.

4. Have no absolutes.

Every player has a value. The biggest mistake a drafter can make is locking in to one player, one way or the other: "First round, I'm going Calvin Johnson, no matter what." Or, "I'm never owning Maurice Jones-Drew again! Dead to me."

I have no issue if you leave the draft owning Calvin Johnson and having MJD nowhere near your roster. That's fine. But understand that every player is slotted for multiple reasons. The concerns about MJD's health and the effectiveness of Oakland's offense are built into his ranking. The amazing numbers of Calvin Johnson are built into his as well.

I took a look at what every league champion did with every pick from every possible draft slot last season. From pick 18, for example, the league champions went QB 28 percent of the time (probably Peyton Manning, ADP of 16.5); they went RB 37 percent of the time (probably Matt Forte, ADP of 18.2); and WR 33 percent of the time (probably Dez Bryant, ADP of 18.1). Lots of different ways to go at pick 18 and still win the title. The point is, when you went to pick 18 last year, if Forte and Dez were gone but you were locked into "I'm not taking a QB until late!" you missed out on Peyton. And you probably lost. Or conversely, you were desperate for a running back and Forte was gone, so instead of Peyton or Dez, you grabbed the next-highest-ranked running back and you got Stevan Ridley (ADP of 22.7). Effective drafters don't chase a position or get locked into a singular focus.

5. Ignore the unproven, cliche and hearsay.

At its fundamental level, fantasy football is about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win. There will be injuries, lying coaches and unpredictable plays. Bad luck, dumb penalties and guys stepping out of bounds on the 1-yard line, none of which you can control. So the best you can do is figure out what is most likely to happen, play the odds and hope for the best.

Playoff teams on ESPN.com consistently went with the highest percentage play in all their draft decisions -- which means ignoring unproven facts or clichés. Among the things we here at ESPN Fantasy have debunked over the years:

1. The third-year WR breakout. Here are some of the wideouts who had their third season in the NFL last year: Doug Baldwin, Andrew Hawkins, Denarius Moore, Greg Little, Leonard Hankerson, Jerrel Jernigan, Torrey Smith, Cecil Shorts III and Austin Pettis. Meanwhile, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd were second-year players, Keenan Allen was a rookie and Antonio Brown was in his fourth season.

2. Strength of schedule matters when selecting a player. Among the defenses some fantasy websites wanted your running back to avoid a year ago at this time were New England's and Chicago's. Both ended up being among the easiest defenses to run against.

3. You want a quarterback on a team that will always be trailing or has a bad defense so he'll have to throw a lot. Last year Matt Ryan had more pass attempts when trailing than any QB in the NFL. He was drafted, on average, as the sixth QB and finished 14th at the position. And nobody thought the Falcons would lose that many games. Second in pass attempts when losing? Chad Henne, who went undrafted and finished tied for 25th in points.

4. Now that this team got a second stud wide receiver, the star wideout will lose targets. I don't know. People were pretty happy owning either or both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery last year, or Roddy White and Julio Jones the previous season.

5. You want a running back on a good team because the team will be leading a lot and grind out the clock with its RB. Well ... sometimes. Of the top 10 running backs in fantasy scoring last season, five (LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, Knowshon Moreno, Ryan Mathews) were among the league leaders in rushes while winning. Likewise there were five (Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Forte, Eddie Lacy, McCoy) among the leaders in rushes while trailing. Yes, McCoy is on both lists. Also on the list of rushing leaders while ahead in the score: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Trent Richardson and DeAngelo Williams, none of whom was a top-20 running back last season. And all this, of course, assumes you know which teams will be good and which will be bad. Remember what you thought of the Texans and Chiefs last August?

6. It's a contract year! How'd that work out last season for owners of Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden? Emmanuel Sanders set the world on fire for you? I'm cherry-picking examples, but that's the point. You can cherry-pick examples to prove any side you want.

Search for "NFL best shape of his career 2013" to see who had that preseason buzz of being healthy a year ago. First two fantasy-relevant player names to appear when I did that search? Ben Tate and Kenny Britt. Among the preseason hype from beat reporters and coaches: Mark Ingram was ready to bust out, Jones-Drew was healthy and motivated, Alfred Morris would be a big part of the passing game, Daryl Richardson was emerging as the go-to guy for the Rams, Ronnie Hillman was the Broncos running back you wanted. ... Effective drafters don't fall for hype or anything they can't verify themselves.

6. Know that every pick matters.

Sometimes I see drafters get more loose as the draft goes on, throwing strategy out the window. "What the hell, it's the 12th round, what do I care."

Last year the 12th round was where Alshon Jeffery and Josh Gordon were taken on ESPN.com. No pick should be wasted. You can never ease up. You need laserlike focus and deep research and mock-draft prep for every single round. Last year Antonio Brown and DeSean Jackson went in the seventh/eighth range. So did Ahmad Bradshaw. Which one would you want? Giovani Benard went in the eighth, the same round as DeAngelo Williams. Greg Olsen and Sidney Rice both went in the ninth. Which would you rather have had? Le'Veon Bell, Vick Ballard and Lance Moore all went in the 10th/11th range, while Fred Jackson and Vincent Brown were among your choices in the 13th. Philip Rivers and Knowshon Moreno were 14th-rounders. And mixed among all those defenses and kickers, Julius Thomas was picked in the 14th and Danny Woodhead in the 15th.

Over the past two years, the 99th pick in the draft was worth an average of 99.5 points; the 135th pick (almost four full rounds later) was worth an average of 98.5 points.

Every. Pick. Matters.

7. Remember: The draft is just the first step to success.

In 2012, the four teams with the fewest number of roster changes from draft day to the end of the season finished 10th, 8th, 9th and 6th, respectively. In 2013, the four teams with the fewest roster changes finished 10th, 9th, 8th and 7th.

To put it another way, in the past two years, playoff teams had, on average, only 57 percent of their original roster left at the end of the season. Meanwhile, the last-place team had 62 percent of its team left and the bottom four teams had 60 percent left.

Playoff teams were in the habit of being much more active on the waiver wire. Fortune favors those who grabbed players like Nick Foles and Zac Stacy when they could. Whatever you leave with from the draft, it'll change at some point if you want to win.

Championships stem from not just who is on your team but how you use those players. Once the season starts, roster decision-making is the most critical thing you do. The past two years, playoff teams left, on average, just 43 percent of the total team fantasy points on the bench. Last-place teams left 50 percent of their total. Those crucial lineup decisions were about the running back. Playoff teams averaged more than 22 points a game from their running backs, while last-place teams got just 17 points, the largest top-to-bottom spread among all the positions.

The draft is important. Very important. But it's not the be-all and end-all. So when you push away from the table, don't be too excited or too down on yourself. There's still a lot of work to be done. But that's for the 7 Habits of Highly Effective In-Season Ownership.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- came up with the title of this column all on his own. Honest! Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. You may also have heard: He has written a book.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

• Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
• Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
• Best-selling author of "Fantasy Life"

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