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How To Play Fantasy Football: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

So, you’re interested in starting or joining a fantasy football league. Well, get ready because you’re in for one heck of a ride. Don’t worry, though, fantasy football is both fun to play and easy to learn. It’s a perfect opportunity to catch up with old friends and trash talk with strangers.

Below I’ll introduce you to everything a new player needs to know before playing fantasy football. Don’t be intimidated at all by this new and exciting venture. The nature of the game is unpredictable and always entertaining. Anyone can win with a combination of a little strategy and a little luck.

What is Fantasy Football?

Fantasy football is a game that takes watching the NFL to a new level. A standard fantasy football league is 10-12 teams with each team needing to roster at least one of all the major positions on offense: QB, RB, WR, TE. After drafting your players, teams are paired off in weekly head to head matchups.

The action begins on Thursday night, reaches a fever pitch on Sunday, and concludes on Monday Night Football. Teams play for a set number of weeks attempting to qualify for the playoffs, and ultimately one team will hold the trophy at the end of the year.

How to Prepare

Fantasy football draft prep

If you really want to surprise your friends on draft day with your out-of-nowhere knowledge, make sure to do some pre-draft prep. This can be anything from listening to podcasts, reading some sleepers and busts articles, or even picking up a magazine at the airport. You should also try to do a couple of mock drafts to get yourself used to the process and what players are available.

You don’t have to overdo it with the prep, though. Do as much or as little as you’re comfortable with or have time to. Some players will go into a season, having done zero prep and go on to the championship game.

That’s just the nature of fantasy football. You roll with the ups and downs. Sometimes it’ll be your year, and other times it won’t. At the end of the day, having fun is what this game is all about.

Try to identify players you think are undervalued, and others that are overvalued. If you do a little prep and follow some of the strategies below, you’ll be ahead of the game compared to your opponents.

Avoid Rookie Mistakes

There are a few rookie mistakes that even veteran players continue to make. Try not to be “that guy.”

1. Being seduced by your favorite team.

Most people are optimistic about their favorite team in the preseason. They can see all the ways that things can go right and dismiss the possibility of downside. That optimism may be deserved for certain players, but it can be easy to reach one round too early to get your favorite player on your team.

Yes, it can be more fun to root on your favorite player on your fantasy team, but this is not the best way to win. If you’re in a league with multiple people from the same city, let someone else reach on the hometown player and allow a better player to fall to you in the draft.

2. Drafting a QB early.

Quarterbacks put up the most points in fantasy, and it’s easy to fall for the elite QB. But unless you’re playing in a deep league of 14 teams or more, there are plenty of good quarterbacks to go around. The position is especially deeper in the modern era of the NFL that is catered to passing.

The production from a QB that goes in the third round could easily match the production of a QB going in the 10th round. Use those early picks on the multiple running backs and wide receivers that will make or break your season.

3. Not taking the best player available.

Many beginning players will draft by methodically filling out every position on their roster before taking backups. You may have drafted a running back first, and a wide receiver second, so looking to fill your QB or TE position seems logical, right? Not in fantasy football. If there’s an elite tight end with third round or higher value, then yes, you can draft that player and feel comfortable about filling the position.

The key is not to reach for a 4th or 5th round value for the sake of completing your roster. Even after you’ve filled in your WR and RB positions, if the value isn’t right, take the better player and build your depth. You will need it.

The Rules

how to play fantasy football, fantasy football rules

The basic rules of fantasy football are that you draft a team of NFL players who score points for stats like rushing yards, touchdowns scored, and receptions made. Your team will be matched up each week against another team in the league. Wins and losses are accrued throughout the year, and a set number of teams will go to the playoffs. At the end of it all, one team is crowned champion.

Each league will have a specific format for the playoffs. All playoffs specifications and rules for your league will all be outlined in a “League Settings” page. On ESPN, for example, your League Settings page starts with “Basic Settings” which tells you your league name, the number of teams in the league, the scoring type, and whether or not it’s a PPR league (or half PPR, or quarter PPR, etc.).

Under “Basic Settings” is “Draft Settings,” which tells you whether it’s a snake or auction draft, the day and time of the draft, the number of seconds to make your pick, and how the draft order will be determined.

Next is “Roster,” which tells you the number of roster spots available for each team, the number of starting positions, and the amount of bench/IR spots available. The final two areas in the settings page are the starting positions, and how players score points.

How to Join or Create a League

how to join a fantasy football league

Joining a league is as easy as heading to your favorite media outlet, navigating to fantasy football, and looking for a free league to join. If you’re going to join a free league, make sure that you are available to draft on the day and time the league has set up. But before joining a random league, let me suggest starting your own league.

Being the commissioner of a league does come with many more responsibilities than being a member of the league, but it can be a rewarding experience. There’s also the option of creating a league and then pawning off the commissioner duties on another owner. If you’re playing in a league with friends, you probably already have a person in mind who would enjoy the power of being commish.

Creating a league will be different for each website. But the general process will include choosing the number of teams, deciding on the scoring categories, and picking the roster construction your league will use.

Looking To Join A Free League? ESPN, NFL & Yahoo all offer them

Want to put some real ‘skin’ in the game? Sites like Draft Kings allow you to legally bet on Fantasy Football (Select States only)

Scoring

Fantasy football scoring rules

The most significant distinction to make in the different scoring systems is deciding whether to award players with 1-point per reception. These leagues are known as PPR leagues, and this is a crucial distinction to understand going into your draft because it increases the value of wide receivers. While certain running backs also gain a boost from point-per-reception leagues, it’s not as much as the universal boost to wideouts.

The other significant scoring difference you’ll see is that one league will have quarterback passing touchdowns at 4 points, while others award 6 points per passing TD. Quarterbacks are going to be the highest-scoring players on any team, so the argument of 4 points per passing TD is to reign in the influence a quarterback will have on the outcome of your matchup.

QB’s that score more rushing touchdowns will be more valuable in 4 points per passing TD leagues than in the leagues that award 6 points. Both rushing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns will typically get the standard 6 points per TD. While most leagues have adopted 6 points for QBTD’s, you want to double-check before you draft.

Roster Construction

Here’s what the roster of a standard league on most sites would look like:

  • QB
  • RB
  • RB
  • WR
  • WR
  • TE
  • Flex (WR/RB/TE)
  • Defense/Special Teams (DST)
  • Kicker
  • 5 bench spots

The fun part of creating your own league is deciding what the roster construction will look like. Some leagues like to use three wide receivers rather than two. One league might make you start two QB’s while other leagues will remove the tight end or kicker position. If you’re not sure how to construct rosters, the website you’re using should have a default or standard roster, and you can simply click “Next” and move on.

Different Types of Leagues

Keeper leagues vs dynasty leagues

Most leagues you will start or join are re-draft leagues, meaning you re-draft your team every year. There are two other types of leagues you can start, keeper leagues and dynasty leagues.

Keeper Leagues

In a keeper league, you will typically keep a maximum of three players, and many keeper leagues are set up to keep one QB, one RB, and one WR. Depending on the league, you may have to give up the draft pick where you selected the player, or you may have to pay a specific dollar amount for the player if you did an auction draft. Keeper rules are up to the commissioner and are often set with league input.

Dynasty Leagues

In a dynasty league, you will end up keeping the majority of the players on your roster from one year to another. Dynasty leagues are much deeper, more time consuming, and often much more fun for those committed to the process. Many dynasty leagues will begin with an auction draft, allowing every team the opportunity to own any player they want, as long as they’re the top bidder. Having dollar amounts set to everyone on your roster helps to keep the competitive balance in check year over year.

The Draft

how does a fantasy football draft work

Draft day is one of the best days of the season. If you’re in a league with your friends, you can use this time to catch up in the draft chat area. You can trash talk and have a license to troll, if you so choose, for this one day out of the year.

Draft day is also revered because it’s the birthday of your new team. These are the players that will decide if you go to the playoffs and have a chance to compete for a championship. They’re also the players who, if you choose poorly, may lead to a season of disappointment.

There are two forms of drafting: an auction draft, and a snake draft.

Snake Drafts

Snake drafts are the most common and get their name from the way the draft order snakes back and forth. Teams pick in order starting from one in the first round. But as the second round starts, the draft snakes back as the last player picking in the first round becomes the first person to pick in the second round. This means that if you get to pick #1 overall, you’ll have the longest wait until you can choose again in Round 2.

Auction Drafts

An auction draft is much different than a snake draft. In an auction, every team has a set dollar amount, usually $100. An order is set for nominating players, and teams take turns putting different players up for auction.

Teams can bid as much as their budget will allow on any player, giving you much more freedom and creativity to put together your roster. Auctions are both harder and sometimes easier to prepare for when compared to snake drafts. Allow me to explain.

You will never be able to predict how an auction draft will go. In preparation for a snake draft, many seasoned players will participate in multiple mock drafts to get an idea of which players are available at specific points in the draft. You cannot do this effectively with an auction draft, which means you can save a lot of prep time that you would have usually spent doing mock drafts.

At the same time though, you will also want to use some of that time saved to prepare more on individual players to get an idea of how much of your budget you’re willing to spend on them.


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Bye Weeks

Each NFL team has one week out of the 17-week season in which they do not play, and that is called their bye week. This is designed to allow teams to get healthy and take a break. Often, teams will play better the week following their bye.

Bye weeks are critical to account for both during the draft and during the season. Most draft software will point out the bye weeks for each of the players you’re drafting, allowing you to strategize your bye weeks as you put your team together.

Some teams chose to ignore bye weeks during the draft, instead deciding to draft the best players no matter what. You can get away with ignoring bye weeks with effective waiver-wire management. But this is not advised for beginning players.

The Waiver Wire and FAAB

The waiver wire is what we call the pool of free agents. Unowned players that can be picked up in exchange for dropping a player currently on your team.

There are two primary forms of the waiver wire. One is an actual waiver order, which orders teams in priority of who gets to claim a player first. The other is a free agent acquisition budget or FAAB. With FAAB, you have a certain amount of money that you can use throughout the season to bid on free agents.

Free Agent Acquisition Budget

There are two distinctions to make with FAAB: leagues with $0 bids, and leagues without $0 bids. In a $0 bid league, you can strategically decide to bid $0 on a player you don’t expect anyone else to pick up. If you have a $100 budget, it’s not as tight as if you have a $100 budget but are not allowed to bid $0.

In a $0 bid league, once you run out of money, you can still add free agents. They may not be the ideal free agents, but you should always be able to fill out your lineup. In a league that does not allow $0 bids, once you run out of money, your roster is locked. If a player gets injured and you don’t have a backup, or you didn’t account for an upcoming bye week, you’re out of luck.

Basic Strategies

Some basic strategies for fantasy football beginners include:

  • Don’t draft quarterbacks too early.
  • Draft the kickers with your last pick.
  • Draft your defense with your second to last pick.
  • Plan for bye weeks during your draft.

The reason for not drafting quarterbacks early, despite the number of points they put up, is that the position is typically very deep. This means that in a 12-team league, there may be 20 quarterbacks worth starting, and the difference between #5 and #20 may not be worth the early selection you’ll have to use on the 5th best quarterback.

This strategy is entirely league dependent, however. If you are in a 2 QB league, or even a league where everyone drafts a backup, this may not be a good strategy.

fantasy football basics

As far as kicker and defense, these players are difficult to predict performance from one year to the next, so you’re better off building your team’s depth rather than chasing last year’s #1 kicker. However, there are exceptions to this rule.

If you have a strong opinion that a DST will be dominant in a particular year, you can take them earlier than your second to last pick if you don’t like the other players available. While kicker points are next to impossible to predict, kickers on good offenses will have a higher floor for points each week, so you can consider taking one before your last pick.

Contingency Plans are Crucial

One basic strategy worth pointing out is always having a contingency plan. Fantasy football, at its core, is unpredictable. Players get hurt, and players bust at a higher rate than in other sports due to the nature of the NFL. This is a violent sport and one that plays just 16 games. There is an inherent risk for every player, and every pick you make, due to small sample sizes, new teams, and constant injuries.

So, it is essential that you have contingency plans, both on and off your roster. You may not have enough room on your bench to hold onto all the contingency plans you’ll require throughout the season, so you must scout the waiver wire and have your eye on multiple players you could potentially pick up if you need to.

Handcuffs are another contingency plan worth looking into. A handcuff is a player that is ready to step into another player’s role if the starter gets injured. Handcuffs are most frequently rostered in fantasy football when they’re running backs. Running backs have the potential to be your highest scoring players if they’re on teams like to give them the ball. So, losing a running back to an injury can be crippling for your team.

A running back going down for an injury, though, can be a boon to a bench player that wasn’t highly regarded going into the draft, or maybe wasn’t drafted period. Owning the handcuff for a player on your team that might be injury-prone is a sound strategy on draft day.

Roster Management

The lack of deep benches also means you must prioritize every roster spot with scrutiny, deciding who is most important to keep protected on your team. If you are playing in a shallow league of 12 teams or less, you likely don’t need to roster two quarterbacks, as there will be many available on the waiver wire.

However, every league is different. You may be in a league where everyone drafts multiple quarterbacks. In that case, you’ll have to decide if there’s enough depth at the position to forgo the extra quarterback, freeing up a roster spot and potentially putting you at an advantage to your opponents.

Start your Stars

This is a necessary reminder to beginner players not to get overanxious with an underperforming star player. You may have drafted a wide receiver in the second round, and that player is not producing the numbers you expected early. On Sunday morning, you may be looking at your roster with another WR coming off a breakout performance on your bench.

Resist the urge to bench your star and play your backup. More times than not, your star will produce while your bench player will prove to you why he’s just a backup.

Advanced Strategies

Once you’ve been playing fantasy football for a while, you’ll start to develop your own individual strategies. You can also begin to consider more “out of the box” strategies as an experienced player.

Zero RB

The Zero RB strategy came into popularity after a season of dominant WR play. The idea is to not select a running back until the mid-rounds, and instead to load up on other positions that may be more predictable. This is a strategy that will only be effective in specific years when you think there may be a collection of mid-round breakout running backs available. This strategy can also quickly backfire on you if you select the wrong wide receivers early.

Another caution to take with Zero RB is that fantasy football tends to be cyclical in nature. Just because running backs underperformed one year, doesn’t mean that they’ll underperform the next year.

Zero RB can also result in a championship season if you select the right players. If you take two wide receivers and a top-tier tight end early and follow that up with a top-tier quarterback, your team will be at an advantage. However, those picks must not bust, and you also then must hit on your midround running backs. A lot must go right for Zero RB to work, and it is very much a risk vs. reward strategy.

Reading the Draft

On draft day, one advanced strategy is paying attention to the rosters of your opponents. If you and the person picking after you do not yet have a quarterback while the rest of the league does, it’s probably time for you to take a QB before your opponent takes the next best available.

Blocking through Free Agency

Blocking your opponent through free agency can be an effective and cutthroat way to win a critical week. For example, if your opponent has a tight end on bye, and there aren’t many good tight ends available in free agency, you can add the next best tight end to block your opponent from picking them up. This will leave your opponent with a worse option to add for your matchup, giving you the advantage.

Bottom Line on Fantasy Football for Beginners

Congrats, you’re now ready for your first fantasy football league! Fantasy football can be as simple or as detailed as you want it to be. Just remember on Sunday mornings to check your lineups, talk a little trash, and have some fun.


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