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Playing For Keeps
A Draft Day Primer For Dynasty Diehards

Everything, it seems, is relative when it comes to professional football these days. The NFL season lasts a mere five months, criminally short for those of us who find the six-day hiatus from Sunday to Sunday painful enough. Making matters worse, baseball season lasts seven months (it only seems longer), basketball season eight (it really is longer), and hockey season nine (HOCKEY?…in June?!) Nevertheless, no league enjoys a more active and high-profile offseason than the NFL. There are mini-camps, pre-draft combines, the draft itself (televised in its entirety, no less), spring meetings, MORE minicamps, the free agency free-for-all, and finally, training camp, the preseason, and…what exactly is so "off" about the "offseason" again?

Unfortunately for most fantasy footballers, the seven-month period from February to September usually isn't much more than a long hibernation between league championship games and the annual draft. Or rather, it wasn't. Enter the brave new world of dynasty leagues, an immediate fix for jonesing football junkies everywhere. No longer must you spend the offseason watching the grass grow, casually monitoring league transactions, and preparing for the upcoming draft. Join a dynasty league and soon you'll be actively and constantly monitoring the progress of your players, analyzing the rookie pool for new additions, attempting to downsize fading vets, and angling to land that prized sleeper-on-the-verge to your existing stable of studs…all year long!

Keeper leagues are by no means uncommon but a vast majority of them limit the number of carryover players while preserving an annual draft of free agents. Not so the dynasty leagues. Aside from a small, annual rookie draft, there is only one, large, extremely important initial draft. Fancy yourself a sharp fantasy GM? Try selecting 26-32 players and keeping them…all of them…forever! Clearly, this is not for the faint-of-heart. Though nothing is truly forever in the Not-For-Long League, as Jerry Glanville once labeled it, an owner must definitely live with his or her mistakes for an extended period of time. After all, the only thing worse than being forced to drop fantasy studs each season is being forced to keep fantasy duds every season, or until you can dish them to a desperate league-mate in a moment of weakness. Forever, like most everything in professional football, may be relative, but a crummy dynasty draft is sure to haunt even the most fearless of fantasy GMs for quite some time.

The following is a list of DOs and DON'Ts for first-time dynasty drafters hoping to avoid this bleak future and constant ridicule:

Do Draft Your Running Backs Early
The golden rule of fantasy football definitely applies in dynasty leagues, perhaps even more so. Like it or not, rock-toters are the bread and butter of any good fantasy squad. Moreover, if you don't get one early (while the gettin's good), you may be up you-know-what creek for a couple of seasons. Why? There isn't much turnover at the position and there aren't many great ones to begin with. By my somewhat-scientific count, there will be only six new starting backs this season, not including existing starters that switched teams. In other words, get 'em while they're hot!

Don't Overvalue First-Year Players
The annual influx of college talent is refreshing and exciting. However, it's too easy to get carried away with potential and hype on draft day. This guy's the next so-and-so. That guy's the next such-and-such. In reality, very few rookies make an immediate impact. Indeed, out of 22 skill-position players drafted in the first two rounds last year (2001), roughly half received a good chunk of playing time. Of those 11 or so, only three (Tomlinson, A-Train, and Chambers) made a significant enough fantasy contribution to merit starter status. Don't get me wrong: rookies can be a valuable addition to your squad and will be every single year once the initial dynasty draft has been completed. It just doesn't pay to overrate them in the initial draft when there are lower risk/higher reward veterans available. Speaking of which….

Do Focus on 3-5 Year Veterans
Simply put, these guys represent the best balance of risk and reward over the long haul for your dynasty squad. They're established and they're relatively (there's that word again) young. A good year might be a fluke and two good years a pleasant surprise. Three or four good years, though? You've got yourself a consistent fantasy performer and, in some cases, a superstar. Better yet, he'll likely remain consistent for many years to come which is exactly what you're looking for in a perpetual dynasty league. Precious few of these young, established vets are superstars (Faulk, Ah. Green, Moss, Owens, Harrison, and Manning are some that qualify) so grabbing one of them in the first two rounds is mandatory.

Don't Discard Free Agents and Players Returning from Injury
In today's "what have you done for me lately" NFL, free agents and "injury-prone" players tend to fall out of favor in a hurry. This is a good thing for dynasty drafters hoping to add value in the mid to late rounds. Does anyone seriously think Willie Jackson, Antonio Freeman, Marcus Robinson, and Germane Crowell can't catch footballs anymore?…that Terrell Davis and Edgerrin James can't carry them?…that Drew Bledsoe can't throw them? Please. Most, if not all, of these players can be acquired for a reasonable price. Many others (Sylvester Morris, Santana Moss, and Michael Westbrook, to name a few) can be had for a song.

Do Draft with One Eye on Durability in the Early Rounds
No, this doesn't contradict the above paragraph. Most players coming off injury or wallowing about in free agency are worth picking up…provided they aren't overvalued. Picking Terrell Davis in the 8th or 9th round is a far cry from picking him in the 2nd round and anointing him your feature back. The former move is wise, the latter foolish. A simple rule of thumb might be to avoid injury-prone players (w/ the possible exception of Edge) when drafting your starters unless more than one player is required at the position. This way, you're not putting yourself completely behind the eight ball. While we're on the subject of positions...

Don't Overrate the Importance of D/ST, TE's, and K's
Again, these are standard guidelines that, for whatever reason, go entirely overlooked by many come draft day. Defense, in particular, seems especially susceptible to being overrated in a dynasty league. "The Bears are so YOUNG and they're gonna be AWESOME forEVER!" Sure, buddy. In reality, free agency and a constantly changing strength of schedule make preserving a stellar defensive unit challenging. If the team does well, other teams poach and the schedule gets tougher, the ol' double-whammy. Go ahead and draft the Ravens' D if you don't believe me. If you do, grab Dallas.

As for tight ends, nobody not named Gonzalez is worth drafting in the first four rounds. The position is simply too vanilla and offensive coordinators are to blame. Apply some of the same rules listed above and you'll pick up a serviceable, relatively young tight end. Don't forget that certain teams (West Coast offense, anyone?) tend to utilize the TE much more than others.

Kickers are a necessary evil in all fantasy leagues and you must draft one. Beyond that, you're on your own…with one major caveat. Age doesn't matter, even in dynasty leagues. The difference between Paul Edinger and Jason Hanson is the number of points they score every year, not their respective years of experience.

Do Get a Good, Established Signal-Caller
You could probably count on two hands the number of difference-makers at the quarterback position. In a 12 or 16-team league, that leaves many on the outside looking in. Although the number of points a QB receives for passing TDs should be a factor when weighing options, don't miss the opportunity to snag an established field general and a quality backup when the time comes. Good quarterbacks are even more scarce than good running backs.

Finally, Don't Forget About Houston
Expansion teams have historically struggled in their formative years. Nevertheless, most of them haven't had the advantages of the Texans. A stellar expansion draft and a solid rookie draft (not to mention a cupcake schedule) have left Houston in good position to win some games this year. Moreover, last we checked, games are won by scoring points. Bottom line: Somebody has to put up numbers for this squad and most of the candidates can be landed for a bargain-basement price. There's value in them thar' hills!

That's all we've got, folks. With the right mixture of established studs, cagey veterans, and budding stars, you'll be well on your way to building a dynasty and side-stepping the ignominy of your league's basement.