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What Draft Slot Do You Covet This Year?
An analysis from the top, middle, and bottom of the draft board

One of the most important things an owner can have in fantasy football is confidence. It allows you to snatch up your targets without second-guessing, skip the players on generic cheatsheets you plan on avoiding, and roll the dice on breakout players and sleepers you’re certain will justify a one- or two-round reach. While some owners get a feeling of dismay when they see their draft position, others simply shrug off destiny’s jabs and counterpunch with a composed, confident combination of fantasy picks.

Decent arguments can be made for drafting from any of the slots in a 12-team draft,* but what’s most helpful is having a strategy in place for wherever you get stuck, be it early (1–4), middle (4–8), or late (9–12). This piece will provide some pros and cons for each of those positions, furnishing owners who are weighing their options with some much-needed confidence to carry out a secure but flexible plan of action.

Unless you’re in a league that gives you the opportunity to select or switch draft positions, fate will determine which slot you catch. Personally, I’m always rooting for a spot near the corners, because it makes planning my picks a much simpler proposition. You simply can’t predict what other owners (especially savvy ones) will do when they’re on the clock, so having two consecutive selections (or ones relatively close to each other) will give you the freedom to gather up more of your targets and steer clear of the riff-raff. This article should help you adapt to whatever position you acquire, giving you the flexibility you’ll need to make the most out of your draft. I’ve spent most of my time covering the middle, since it’s often the most anxiety-laden sector of the draft board, and because I had a couple live drafts this past weekend where I drafted from those cursed slots myself.

The Top (1–4)

While landing the first two picks can be much different than drafting from the 3rd or 4th spot, it looks like there are four RBs this season who’ve risen to the top (Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Ray Rice). They’ve certainly minimized that disparity. The backs in the subsequent tiers of talent (Frank Gore, Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, Shonn Greene, Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Mathews, DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Grant, and Jamaal Charles) are being taken in a much wider range (ADPs 1.06–3.03). If you’re drafting from 1–4 and you’re interested in nailing down a solid RB2, you might just get your wish. If those backs are all scooped up, you’re definitely going to be able to draft a top-tier QB/WR combo (Peyton Manning/DeSean Jackson, Tom Brady/Greg Jennings, or some combination of similar talent) before you tackle your fourth and fifth selections.

This past weekend, I didn’t hear many complaints from draft participants with picks 1–4. It’s a safe place to draft from—and one that includes its own built-in insurance policy. On the downside, it’s a draft position that carries a lot of inherent risk if you spend your second two picks on receivers. Unless you reach for Andre Johnson or Randy Moss (and I wouldn’t recommend passing up on any of the top four RBs this year), you’re almost guaranteed to miss out on owning one of those two guys, and they’re in a league of their own. And if you decide to fortify your receiving corps by going stud RB/best available WR/best available WR with the first three picks, you’re passing up on the top six QBs and assuming a lot of risk on your next RB, unless you once again disregard QB and go after an RB in the fourth round. With that pick, you might land a Matt Forte, Beanie Wells, Jahvid Best, or Jonathan Stewart; but you’re more likely to get stuck with Knowshon Moreno, Joseph Addai, Ronnie Brown, or Felix Jones—backs who are attached to more risk. Further permutations aside, I’ll say going that route is a nightmare of truly scary possibilities. The best way to minimize risk in the 1–4 slot is by drafting a top RB, going QB/WR then RB/WR, or vice versa, on the next turn at late two or early three, then sticking to targeted value from that point on.

The 1–4 slots are highly coveted because of the high-quality players they can land, but as I’ve mentioned, it’s an area that’s rife with drafting landmines once you get past your first three or four selections and hit the middle rounds.

The Bottom (9–12)

Here, I’d much rather be in the 11th or 12th slot than sweating out what the guys on the turn are doing, but there’s nothing that says the 10th slot can’t pound the boards and land a solid team. One local nemesis of mine took down both my 12-team home leagues last year—and he drafted from the 10th position in each of them. The advantage of this drafting zone is the ability to snap up a top-tier QB (if that’s your thing) and pair him with a tier two RB or WR before you solidify your core squad in the next three rounds with some combination of RB/WR/TE.

This weekend, one of the most consistently successful and well-informed fantasy owners I know (“The Haters”) used his 12th position to grab Randy Moss and Tony Romo at the turn, then spent his next two picks on probably the best two RBs available: Jahvid Best (3.07) and Pierre Thomas (4.07)—they have huge upside. Cedric Benson and Matt Forte were already selected, and it’s difficult to dispute the Haters’ decision to pass up on the likes of LeSean McCoy, Jonathan Stewart, Knowshon Moreno, and Brandon Jacobs, who were the next four backs taken. There’s a precipitous drop in value between the guys he took and the rest of the available backs. But drafting from the bottom of the board should allow you to anticipate that descent and plan your next few picks accordingly. Last year, picking from the 12th slot in a higher-stakes, local 14-team draft, I took Andre Johnson and Randy Moss at 1.12 and 2.03, then got Ray Rice at 3.12. From there, it was just a matter of not drafting dead people and managing the remaining team effectively. I ended up repeating as league champ despite an early-season injury to Donovan McNabb (without having the luxury of waiver priority to add Kevin Kolb).

While many owners dread drafting from the bottom position, it’s a perfect opportunity to minimize risk and maximize targeted value. You may not get a team full of studs, nor will you get everybody you want. But if you play your cards right, you’re guaranteed to walk away without any gaping holes in your roster.

The Middle (5–8)

Here’s a perceived success story (one that I’ll revisit in a few months and that will help illustrate a few points here) about the middle picks. In the seconds leading up to my draft on Saturday, I heard I was drafting 7th. We pick names out of a hat directly before we draft, giving us no time to prepare for our fate—it’s a detail I love. I’ve never heard one complaint about this, which goes to show how confident my league mates are. Still, I usually don’t prefer drafting from the middle (for the aforementioned reasons) and never know what kind of team I’ll end up with heading into the madness. As soon as I announced that the 7th pick wasn’t my first choice, fellow drafter Paul spoke up, clamoring about how he would kill to draft 7th this year. “You’re going to end up with Frank Gore,” he said confidently, implying that Gore is undervalued and would be readily available at 1.07.

Turns out he was right. With the top tier of backs going 1–4 (albeit with Ray Rice surprisingly going first in a proxy selection that turned more than a few heads, and Adrian Peterson slipping to fourth—to the aforementioned owner who took down both our leagues last year…Yikes!), Andre Johnson was taken at 1.05 and heralded rookie Ryan Mathews was gone at 1.06. I went Gore at 1.07 (kind of a no-brainer unless you’re into the whole first-round QB thing), then returned with Ryan Grant at 2.06 and the undervalued Greg Jennings at 3.07. From there, I feared it would be a little dicey, but Paul’s upbeat prophecy held up. I was given a little scare when the best six QBs were long gone and Philip Rivers was taken at 4.01, leaving the questionable clump of Kevin Kolb, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, and Brett Favre as the next six available.

I adapted. We start QB-RB-RB-WR-WR-WR-TE-DEF-K, so I decided to wait out the QB slot but definitely grab two good ones. I’d fill up my starting roster with a couple receivers in the next two rounds, snag the best available QB, pinch a high-upside third RB and fourth WR (backups), and snatch up a second QB before the good ones all starting disappearing a few rounds later. My next six picks were Chad Ochocinco at 4.06 (ADP 4.10), Mike Sims-Walker at 5.07 (ADP 5.08), Brett Favre at 6.06 (ADP 7.07), Justin Forsett at 7.07 (ADP 6.01), Malcom Floyd at 8.06 (ADP 6.11), and Carson Palmer at 9.07 (ADP 9.05). My two picks after that were the Packers defense at 10.6 (we have a crazy scoring system that compels you to grab a top DEF/ST early) and LaDainian Tomlinson at 11.7 (ADP 9.03—he’s my fourth RB and we start just two, so I was happy to land him that late). The rest of my picks, in order: Mike Williams (Tampa Bay WR), Kevin Boss, Willis McGahee, Rob Bironas, Dustin Keller.

So the only reach of the bunch (Favre) was firmly justified by the selection of Palmer three rounds later. My plan worked, and Paul seemed like quite the delightful little soothsayer. I should probably just tow him along to all my drafts.

During Sunday’s IDP draft,** I got the fifth pick. Again, not my favorite place to be in the world. I selected:

  • 1.05 – Andre Johnson (ADP 1.06. I took Gore yesterday and figured I’d switch things up, plus…I love me some Andre Johnson.)

  • 2.08 – Steven Jackson (ADP 1.10. A no-brainer, considering what was left.)

  • 3.05 – DeSean Jackson (ADP 2.12. Happy to have him again this year, even if I had to pay this time.)

  • 4.08 – Joe Flacco (ADP 7.03. My biggest reach, but something tells me he’s bound for a big year.)

  • 5.05 – Felix Jones (ADP 5.10. Another reach, but I knew I’d land more quality RBs.)

  • 6.08 – Vernon Davis*** (ADP 5.04. Best available TE.)

  • 7.05 – Lance Briggs, LB

  • 8.08 – Rolando McClain, LB

  • 9.05 – Percy Harvin (ADP 6.06, but dropping fast. I could afford the risk with Johnson and Jackson as my top two WRs.)

  • 10.08 – Reggie Bush (ADP 6.05. He’s a must-have, high-upside backup in PPR leagues.)

  • 11.05 – Matt Ryan (ADP 8.09. I hedged my Flacco bet, but necessitated a third QB because of a shared Week 8 bye…oh well.)

  • 12.08 – Stewart Bradley, LB

  • 13.05 – Ricky Williams (ADP 7.08. Could be the biggest steal of the draft.)

  • 14.08 – Eric Berry, DB

  • 15.05 – Chaz Schilens (ADP 13.11. A risk, but a high-upside guy, my fourth WR, and taken about where he’s going in most drafts.)

  • 16.08 – Aaron Kampman, DL

  • 17.05 – Louis Delmas, DB

  • 18.08 – Stephen Tulloch, LB

  • 19.05 – Mike Thomas (ADP 14.03. Quite pleased with myself after this one.)

  • 20.08 – Rob Bironas (ADP 14.12)

  • 21.05 – Josh Freeman (ADP N/A. He’s got a solid Week 8 matchup against Arizona.)

  • 22.08 – Javon Ringer (ADP 14.06. Could pay dividends if Chris Johnson goes down.)

The moral of these fantasy tales? You can draft successfully, and confidently, from any position on the board, even if you’d rather launch from a different zone altogether. Just realize the risks/rewards of each of the slots, pay attention to the tier rankings and ADPs of the remaining players, and don’t freak out when it’s your turn. It’s not a matter of what slot you pick from, but how you manage your position, stay on top of team needs, assess player value, and target high-upside backups. After that, it’s up to solid team administration and the whims of the fantasy gods.

*I’m using a 12-team, PPR snake draft as the framework for most of this article since I participated in two this weekend, the second of which was an IDP league)

**ADPs are for 12-team non-IDP drafts, so expect about a one- to two-round discrepancy for the middle rounds (5–13), and a three- to six-round discrepancy for the later rounds (14–22).

***On Saturday I got screwed out of decent TE because a proxy drafter took John Carlson as a BACKUP per the owner’s orders mid-draft…creating a tiny burning spot on my brain and an ensuing tirade. Then everybody started drafting backup TEs just to be jerks and because, as a fantasy writer, I have a huge target on my head. You can’t plan for that stuff, but I refused to let it happen again. So I took Vernon Davis in my next draft. Bingo, bango, boingo.