When it comes to drafting a strong fantasy football team, you want to be well prepared to kill the snake — snake draft, that is. Between the pick you get in the lottery, who’s all playing in your league, and the depth of offensive skill talent in the NFL, it’s not just preseason rankings and sleeper lists that are different from one year to the next. All the tips and strategy advice you’ve noted on your cheat sheets in the past need to be reevaluated for 2021.
Of course, nothing changes the fact you should be in a position to dominate the draft from the first round to the last. If you do the right amount of studying and practicing, you shoud give yourself a chance to finish in the money.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2021 Cheat Sheet
You should also lean on all the help and resources available to you, from player rankings to more in-depth analysis pieces to Fantasy Pros’ fully customizable mock draft simulator. Here’s one more: A comprehensive, step-by-step draft strategy guide breaking down how you can get to that desired domination.
2021 Fantasy Football Draft Strategy Advice, Tips
Start with a five-round plan of attack
The one thing you do know going into a 12-team fantasy football draft is that you will end up with five of the top-60 picks. Once you draw a selection between No. 1 and No. 12, it’s easy to think too much about that first pick and not about the other core-four picks that follow. In most leagues, these are the players who should consistently make up at least half of your weekly starters.
A no-brainer first-round pick of an RB1 or WR1 means little if you don’t back him up with a bevy of support. Participate in mock drafts with your pick and league specifics to know what combinations of talent you can get so when you’re on the clock for real, you know your best options and how you can audible if a pick doesn’t fall as you expected.
This is the fantasy football version of your opening drive, and whoever scripts their first series the best usually ends up having the most success all season long.
Go early and often with running backs
Running backs are back in a major way in fantasy football. The truth is, they never went anywhere.
Like with every position, talent reigns, but volume is just as important. Considering your league’s format — standard vs. PPR-leaning — is valuable, in the end, you’re looking for the best bottom-line production with scrimmage yards and TDs.
Looking at the top running back tier this season, the workhorses are varied. Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara do a lot with receiving, while Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry deliver more with rushing and scoring. In the era of committees, you should consider backs who get at least 17-20 touches per game.
In your RB1-RB2 combination, you should have one dependable, often explosive back and one consistent, complementary one. If you are required to start just two, you should draft five or six among your 17 total players. If you have a flex position, having up to seven backs would be acceptable.
The key to your backups is diversifying your portfolio. Draft some who have well-defined roles for early in the season and some who have massive upside for the second half. Later, make sure you try to land whatever insurance you can, handcuffing your top backs or even someone else’s, depending on the injury history of said backs atop a team’s depth chart.
There are a few durable rushers at the top, but there tends to be a lot of attrition tied to both fading veterans and injuries. Make sure you have enough hedged bets and lottery tickets when it’s time to scratch them.
Get at least one elite wide receiver
The best running backs might seem to have the ultimate relevancy in fantasy football, but the league’s passing boom has brought standout wideouts to a whole new level. Studs such as Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, and DeAndre Hopkins are so good catching passes from top-level quarterbacks that they serve as surer things than most running backs. They obviously carry more top-24 weight in PPR-leaning leagues, but they are also standard stars.
The key here is knowing your tiers across positions. With running back becoming even deeper this year, you should take a receiver somewhere before the mid-third round. Should you start by picking No. 8 or No. 9 overall, followed by No. 16 or No. 17 in the second round, it’s also OK to open WR-WR or even WR-TE with a combination starting with say, Adams or Hill because that’s the better value play in relation to forcing a pick on a back.
If you begin with a good baseline of a tried-and-true gamebreaker or two at receiver, that can take the pressure off hitting on all the right high-upside sleepers later. There also is less attrition at the position with most of the top players being durable, so in more drafts than not, you should want to tap into wideout twice before the fourth-round dropoff.
Know that it’s no longer only “early or late” for a tight end
The tight end cupboard has been quickly restocked in the NFL. In recent seasons, the adage has been you either take a top eight end, such as Travis Kelce, within the first three rounds or wait a while to address the position after filling out running back, wide receiver, quarterback and flex. While Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle are the latest formidable big three, tight end is now stacked with promising youngsters right behind them.
T.J. Hockenson, Kyle Pitts, and Mark Andrews are all worthy targets in the fourth and fifth rounds. After that, there’s more upside on their heels with Dallas Goedert, Noah Fant, and Robert Tonyan.
It’s also smart to nab a top-12 starter at the right time — when his value is better than that of a player from another position — then dive into a deep sleeper pool late. That group includes Irv Smith Jr., Cole Kmet, and Adam Trautman.
Tight end hasn’t had this many intriguing tiers for a while, but you need to stay sharp and have the position in mind throughout, as there’s a strong possibility it makes sense to grab one during the heart of your draft.
Find the best values at quarterback
Tight end is back to being a deep position. Quarterback was already there, and in 2021, more teams throughout the league have exciting options at the position.
Josh Allen and Kyler Murray enjoyed big breakout 2020 seasons that put them right up there with Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson as elite fantasy QBs. Allen and Murray are ranked right behind Mahomes in the top three going into this season.
That means you will need to pay a premium draft pick to get them, starting with Mahomes in the second round and continuing with Allen and Murray around the third or fourth round. Although there’s nothing wrong with believing they will live up to their recent past production and follow-up expectations, savvier drafters will look for a bigger return in relation to investment from this year’s similar sleepers.
Aaron Rodgers is due for some TD regression after his monster MVP season, but his dropping six or seven spots in the QB1 rankings make him a little undervalued. Jalen Hurts is getting some buzz for Year 2 in Philadelphia. In his four rookie starts, he put up numbers that would have put him in the top five, but his current ranking is around QB10.
Digging deeper in the borderline of the top 12, Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow each have great weapons and are destined for high passing volume, making many believe they will outperform their current eighth-round average draft positions (ADPs). Going into the QB2s, both Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield have the potential to produce like QB1s.
Quarterback production tends to look very different from preseason projections. There are plenty of QBs ranked well into the QB2s who carry upside as solid QB1s, such as Daniel Jones and Trevor Lawrence. Also, don’t forget other rookies who can have a big scoring impact soon, such as Trey Lance and Justin Fields. This year, once again, there are several excellent values outside the top eight.
Know why you’re taking a player
Sounds simple, right? Make sure you’ve heard of the guy you’re taking in each round. Have a general idea of his talent level and what his potential role can be — both on his real team and your fantasy team. Don’t go for some shaky veteran WR5 when you can take a more valuable young RB4 who is an injury away from big touches. You’re not taking a player because you like his name or where he went to college. You’re making every pick count with the intent that each pick can help you win a championship.
Don’t be a slave to the rankings
While you do want to follow somewhat of a script early, be prepared to pivot and freelance a little once you see your early draft results develop. Are you happier about some positions more than others? If a player doesn’t excite you or can give you only limited help, you shouldn’t take him. Use your cheat sheet as more a rough outline than a stone tablet. Make sure you use your gut and make your draft your own. The one predictable thing about a fantasy draft is its unpredictability.
Don’t be influenced by other picks
This is an addendum to the previous tip. During your draft, there are bound to be position runs or drafters going straight down the list, filling out their starting lineups before getting backups. Every pick should be your own. Don’t base it on what everyone is doing because you think that’s what you should be doing.
Avoid getting too caught up in bye weeks
Other than the exception of making sure not to take two top quarterbacks who are off during the same week — Rodgers and Mayfield both have byes in Week 13, for example — you don’t need to pay much attention here.
Does it matter that DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, and Chris Godwin are all off in Week 9? If you can get all three early to have a loaded wide receiver corps, you would do it. For the backfield, the same goes for drafting say, Aaron Jones and Kareem Hunt, both also off in Week 13. Sure, you will have a tough go of it that particular week, but you will be in great shape the rest of the season.
First and foremost, the goal is to have as much productive talent as possible, then worry about minimizing availability conflicts. Things also can change so much at the non-QB positions that a seemingly solid bye-week fill-in on draft day is a waiver-wire afterthought come Week 6. Know your byes so you are prepared during and after the draft, but obsessing over them is a waste of energy.
Embrace the stream with defenses
There’s always one defense that has a ridiculous season. Last season, it was the Rams. The year before, it was the Patriots. In 2018, it was the Bears; in ’17, it was the Jaguars. But it’s hard for a defense to sustain a high level of playmaking (sacks, interceptions, TDs) in an offensive-minded league, especially if it faces a tougher set of matchups.
In New England’s case in 2020, it lost a lot of pass-rushing pop in the offseason, wasn’t playing with as many leads without Tom Brady, and had a more difficult schedule. The Patriots slid all the way down outside of the top 10 in most formats.
The Rams didn’t just lose their ace defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley, who took over as the Chargers’ head coach, but they also took some key personnel losses in the secondary and look weaker in a few spots around Aaron Donald up front. The Rams also face a top-11 scoring offense from 2020 in eight of their 17 games.
Don’t spend a pre-10th-round pick trying to outsmart everyone at D/ST. You can get fortunate with the next Rams, Patriots, Bears, or Jaguars, but wait everyone out to try to get that unit. The Browns and Chargers are some of the hot sleepers for 2021.
Look at the early part of the schedule to see who has the best matchups, and think about taking a second defense that can be of great service in subsequent weeks. That gets you ahead of the mad dash to get the D/ST everyone is recommending on the waiver wire. Most important, unless it’s evident you’re right on a team like the Rams that can be a weekly play, treat the position as disposable and interchangeable.
Take kickers in the last round (if your league still uses them)
This position really should get the boot from fantasy football leagues for good. Besides, 2021 seems like an ideal year for that kind of cancellation. It’s lucky to win with your kicker and frustrating to lose because of your opponent’s kicker. We all know the best kickers are from the better offensive teams, making the weekly results random from that point. If you’re in a league with kickers, you shouldn’t make that pick until the final round, and when you do just go for someone accurate who can make a few long ones.