The best draft strategy for any fantasy owner will depend heavily upon the settings of their league. For standard formats (1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE), choosing the top player available may be the best option, since there are only limited spots to fill. However, many owners plan to compete in a variety of different formats, and strategies will differ based on needs and availability.
The one strategy that has stood the test of time is taking a running back in the first round. The logic is simple: running backs are assured of a certain number of touches per game, offering the most guaranteed value. Urgency to use an early draft pick on a RB has increased in recent years as many teams have shifted to a committee approach to keep their ground game fresh and reduce wear and tear on their backs over the course of the season.
Proof of this movement is starkly evident in the past two years. The number of backs who registered more than 300 carries dipped from seven in 2010 to two in 2011 (Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner). While some backs are also receiving threats, non-committee backs are in scarce supply. A RB-heavy approach is usually a smart one to take.
Round 1: Darren McFadden, RB
Round 2: Matt Forté, RB
Round 3: Cam Newton, QB
Round 4: Frank Gore, RB
Round 5: Dez Bryant, WR
In leagues that require three RBs, you have a murderers row. In those with two slots, you've drafted a backup who can fill in during bye weeks without missing a beat.
Some pundits are bearish on Turner because of Atlanta's expected shift to a more aerial attack to accommodate Matt Ryan's emerging arm and its two star receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones. This is on par with a pass-heavy blueprint catching on with more and more teams. Case-in-point: There were 10 QBs who threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2011 (Rodgers, Brees, Newton, Roethlisberger, Stafford, Brady, E. Manning, Romo, Ryan and Rivers), more than double the number who accomplished the feat in 2010. Given all the "high-powered offenses" led by the passing game, there isn't an enormous dip in production from the first tier (Brees, Brady, Rodgers) to the next tier.
Round 1: Aaron Rodgers, QB
Round 2: DeMarco Murray, RB
Round 3: Jamaal Charles, RB
Round 4: Percy Harvin, WR
Round 5: Eli Manning, QB
By taking two QBs early, depending on your league settings (1 QB or 2 QBs), you're not only affording yourself a high-end backup plan for favorable matchups, bye weeks or injury, but you're also adding a valuable trade chip that could be exchanged to an owner who waited and drafted an underwhelming starter. It's an interesting route, because for a Round 5 Eli you might be able to trade for a player drafted in Round 4 (say, Hakeem Nicks), increasing your team's overall value.
Similarly, the talent pool of top wideouts has become increasingly muddled as a result of all the passing. However, really, there's Calvin Johnson, and then there's everyone else. His 96/1681/16 line last year placed him on nearly the same scoring plane as top RBs. So there's no shame in grabbing him in round one, regardless of format. Beyond Johnson, you can't really go wrong with any of the next, say, top 25 guys. What's the drop-off between last year's runner-up in receiving yards (Wes Welker) and Dez Bryant, who recorded just 928 yards in 2011? Given Bryant's expected improvement, probably not much.
Round 1: Calvin Johnson, WR
Round 2: Roddy White, WR
Round 3: Julio Jones, WR
Round 4: Doug Martin, RB
Round 5: Matt Ryan, QB
You've assembled probably one of the strongest receiving corps in your league. Congrats. But how comfortable do you feel with Martin as your RB1? Drafting elite WRs looks nice on paper, but the points simply won't be as ample. You'll also probably need to draft lower-tier timeshare RBs to fill out your roster in the later rounds, placing you at a disadvantage.
The bar was raised perhaps too high by last season's breakout stars at the position, Rob Gronkowski (90/1327/17) and Jimmy Graham (99/1310/11). They produced video game numbers and have thus made it acceptable to draft a TE in the second or third round. Their emergence also suggests you may be able to strike gold in the later rounds again this year, perhaps with budding stars like Ed Dickson, Jermaine Gresham and Brandon Pettigrew, or lesser-known options picking up some training camp buzz like Kyle Rudolph, Jared Cook or Scott Chandler, whom a Bills beat writer recently described as the team's "MVP runner-up" during training camp.
Round 1: Arian Foster, RB
Round 2: Michael Vick, QB
Round 3: Jimmy Graham, TE
Round 4: Rob Gronkowski, TE
Round 5: Mike Wallace, WR
You've essentially drafted three WR1's here, while also grabbing a top RB (be it Foster, Rice, Mathews, McFadden, etc), which trumps the WR model. Again, like QBs, the hoarding strategy could work to your favor if an opponent waits and is left with a fringe option. Either Graham or Gronkowski could (and should) net an RB1 or QB1 in return.
Who you draft and when will obviously depend on your draft position and personal style. But whichever path you take, be sure it's the most beneficial the most beneficial given your league settings.