In 1989, Stephen Covey, an educator, published a book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. It eventually sold more than 30 million copies, became the first non-fiction audiobook in US publishing history to sell more than 1 million copies, and is still widely quoted and cited to this day.
Five years earlier, a very young Matthew Berry had his very first fantasy football draft. And that day my very first commissioner, Don Smith, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to Draft Day. It’s just the best day of the year.”
Which, as I’ve found out over the past 37 years, is a 100% statement. The other thing I learned is that it’s not only the best day of the year, it’s the most important. A strong design is critical to a successful fantasy season.
For nearly four decades since that first draft, I have participated in literally thousands of designs for various sports. Some great, some not great, but I’ve learned from each and every one of them.
And as I look back to study, analyze, and read them all, I thought I should look back to 1989 as well. So, with my apologies to Mr. Covey, I can tell you … THESE are the Seven Highly Effective Habits Drawers.
Habit 1: You spend a lot of time preparing
Just because it seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s not true. Draft Day reflects many aspects of life, but maybe no more than that: what you put in is what you get from it. So you need to prepare, but before you prepare, you need to know exactly what you are preparing for.
And that starts with studying the rules and, most importantly, figuring out how to best use those rules. What’s the score? Because that naturally affects the type of player you’re targeting. Is it half PPR or full PPR? Since last season in full PPR, eight of the top 10 RBs in points per game came from getting at least 25% of their fantasy points. Is there premium scoring for tight ends? Points for first downs? For long punts? Do not laugh. I played in a punter league once. And crushed it like a grape, thank you very much.
How big is your roster? How do you attract free agent players in your league? If it’s a free agent budget, you can be a little riskier on draft day as you have a chance on every player if you need to replace someone. But when it’s a waiver system it becomes harder to get the hot free agents, especially when the rules allow someone to sit on the top pick for several weeks. So you need to focus a little more on depth as you design. Does your league have an IR spot? If yes, how many? The ability to use IR spots allows you to give talented but injury-prone players more opportunities.
All of these questions lead to the creation of rosters that will be an integral part of your Draft Day success. When you start evaluating players, you can balance player acquisition during the season with the size of your squad and any squad restrictions you may have (such as a limit on the number of RBs). Can you find solid production relatively easily in various places throughout the year? If so, you can list additional “flyers”. In lower leagues where the pool of free agents is scarce, you’ll need some solid middle-class guys to join.
When do your playoffs start? How many teams can it do? With an 18 week season that will change for many leagues this year, and many leagues will switch when their playoffs start and possibly how many teams make it.
Effective drafters also take into account which platform they are playing on. While we hope you and your league will play on ESPN and the ESPN Fantasy app, the truth is that wherever you play the draft is heavily influenced by the standard rankings in the Draft Room. People panic during a draft and often pick the highest player available. When you have a set of rankings that you trust and believe in and compare them to the standard ranks of any website you play at, you can tell which players are leaving early, which are too low, what market inefficiencies there are and how you can do this to take advantage of them.
And if it’s a league where you know the other players, you can add notes on other players’ tendencies. (This one always reaches for young, lively players, this other one stores tight ends, etc.)
Finally, you should readjust as much as you can, especially if you know where to choose. As many as you can. What if you go with me Travis Kelce in the first round? How about a modified one “Zero RB” approach or RB-heavy? What if you design Patrick Mahomes early? Or are the last in the league with a QB? The more options you have to see how your team develops, the better prepared you will be when the actual design takes place and you will be much more comfortable with adapting on the fly.
Habit 2: You identify the relative depth at each position
It is not enough to have just one opinion on every potential player. You need to understand the worth of each player relative to every other player and the depth of that position in relation to your requirements on the roster. QB is deep, you say? Not if you’re in a 14-team Superflex league. Then they go quickly.
Drafting isn’t just about collecting as many good players as possible. You create a roster with finite resources. You have a limited number of seats and you also need to understand how easy or difficult it will be to replace players during the season.
Here is a brief overview of how I see the positions this year:
Quarterback is very deep once again, but the key here is that you want to get a QB that is adding value with its legs. Last season, eight of the top 10 QBs rushed at least 200 yards. Seven of them had at least 15% of their fantasy points from rushing. Think of the QBs in the past few years that have “popped” as elite fantasy options: Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray and even Justin Herbert (234 yards rushing, 5 rushing TDs in 15 games last season) all have an extra dimension to their fantasy value.
Back race gets tricky the deeper you dive into the design. We prefer running backs to wide receivers at the top of the rankings this year because of the depth of the WR position. What do we mean by depth, you ask?
Here’s how the running back and wide receiver scoring leaders lined up in 2020:
Check out this dip from RB5 to RB10 versus WR5 to WR10. It’s going to be pretty significant, right? But i hear you A one year sample doesn’t mean a lot, does it? But this 2020 trend is in line with the previous decade.
For the 2010s, the decrease in total points from RB5 to RB10 was 18.4%, while the decrease from WR5 to WR10 was 12%. This difference is significant when deciding which position to target with your first selection.
Since running backs have remained rare, wide receiver has become deeper. What do we mean by that? The supply of players who score over 180 points – better than 11 points per game – is increasing, but unless your league has added a roster slot, demand does not.
Over the same three seasons, WR2s (the players who were on average drafted 11th through 20th recipients by the board) tend to be safer picks and exceed their worth more often than RB2s. For example from 2018 to 2020 …
18 out of 30 WRs created in the WR11-20 area returned a WR2 value (60%) and nine of the 30 returned a WR1 value (30%).
14 out of 30 RBs designed in the RB11-20 area gave an RB2 score (47%) and six out of 30 gave an RB1 score (20%)
For each of the past three seasons, 60% of receivers drafted in WR2 returned a WR2 score. Conversely, this rate for running backs was not higher than 50% in any of these times of the year. Meanwhile, the chance of finding a breakout WR1 in the WR2 pool was 50% more likely than you would find an RB1 in the RB2 pool. It’s a consistent edge. Better to pick an RB1 and then add some WR2 types than pick the top receiver and try to cobble your running game out of RB2 types, which is all that is left when you get into running on the first round Refrain from backs.
As for close end, I want to be either early or very late. Look at that:
Since 2017, the average difference in PPG from TE1 to TE4 has been 4.9 points. From TE4 to TE15 there are 4.3. That means there is an advantage to getting one of the top four guys, but not nearly as much of one getting one of the remaining top 10. This year I want Travis Kelce, Darren Waller or George Kittle. And if you want to dive into that Kyle Pitts/T. J. Hockenson/Mark Andrews/Logan Thomas Pool because you believe in one of them, I can live with it. Otherwise, I’d like to wait until I’m one of the last in my league to get a close finish and try to find this year’s Logan Thomas or Robert Tonyan. Some candidates? Irv Smith Jr., Adam Trautmann, Cole Kmet, Anthony Firkser, Gerald Everett and Hayden Hurst. I also think Austin Hooper is going to have a much better season than people think.
Habit 3: You hold onto the great secret of fantasy football
Basically, fantasy football is all about minimizing the risk and offering the best chance of winning every week. That’s it. So easy. From the time you read this article until the end of your season, everything you do must trace back to this very simple, but rarely followed, approach.
Every draft pick, waiver move, potential trade, start / sit decision, and so on. All. I can’t predict the future. You can’t either. No one else can either. All you can do is minimize the risk, give yourself the best chances each week to be successful, make the best call possible, and drop the chips where they can.
There is only one QB who has thrown 30 TDs in each of the last two seasons. It is Russell Wilson, and he’s done it four in a row. What is most likely?
The only two teams in the NFL to have been in the top 10 pass percentage for each of the past four seasons are the Chiefs and the Buccaneers. If most or all of the attacking starters returned a year ago, what will be most likely for Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady?
Robert Tonyan had 11 touchdowns last season. In the last 15 years there have only been three tight ends to score that many goals in consecutive seasons (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas). Tonyan did it for only 52 receptions. The last NFL player to score double-digit touchdowns in fewer than 60 receptions was 1991-92 Falcons WR Michael Haynes. What is most likely?
Well, most likely it doesn’t happen that it is will happen. It just means that it’s much more likely than not. And that’s all we can ask for. If you play the odds consistently, you will win a lot more than you don’t. And if you’re evaluating players before and during the draft as you build your team, that’s exactly what you need to do. Think again: Basically, fantasy football is all about minimizing the risk and giving yourself the best chance of winning every week. So always ask yourself … what is most likely?
Habit 4: You use rankings flexibly and contextually
Whether it’s your own, someone else’s, an average of several people, or even just the default settings in the design room, when you create a design you will have a number of rankings. Certainly helpful, they should only be used as a guide, in the early parts of the design. Once you have your first five players, it really comes down to the line-up of the roster based on what positions you need to fill, how much risk you’ve already taken, and how the draft plays out, taking into account all of the factors we’ve already discussed .
I say this as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time on their rankings, but no list is going to capture the value at the end of the season, especially when you factor in the weekly variance.
Take Seattle WRs Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf last season. Metcalf finished as WR7, Lockett as WR8, separated by just 5.9 Fantasy points. So it doesn’t matter which one you have, does it? Well, let’s take a closer look at how their seasons went:
Metcalf: 8 games with 18+ points (50%), 11 games with 12+ points (69%), 3 games under 9 points (19%)
Lockett: 5 games with 18+ points (31%), 7 games with 12+ points (44%), 7 games under 9 points (44%)
Metcalf had more games with at least 18 points than Lockett’s games with at least 12 points. In addition, Lockett was just as likely to score more than 12 points as he was less than nine points. Lockett was much more volatile from week to week than Metcalf last season, as a whopping 46% (!) Of Lockett’s total Fantasy points were achieved in just three games. Sure, he won you in those three weeks, but there were seven weeks when Lockett really underperformed. Although these guys’ rankings were “accurate” and they were right next to each other in terms of the rankings at the end of the season, Metcalf was a far more valuable fantasy player over the course of last season due to his consistency, and it wasn’t particularly close.
This seems obvious, but the reason certain players get early on in drafts is because of their likely guaranteed production. Almost any NFL player, in the right game situation, on the right team, and with the right use, can have a monster fantasy game. But we want to KNOW that they will have this production every week. Or at least they are much more likely than not.
Players like these are rare, which is why they jump into drafts early, but understand the difference between players who are highly rated for their persistence and players who (at least by some) are highly rated for their perceived advantage. For me, I want as much rock solid production in early drafts as I can guarantee. Too many people race up early in drafts. I actually want a high floor.
Think about Nick Chubb join last season. Not sexy, not heavily involved in passing, has to worry Kareem hunt. On the flip side, he had a great offensive, a run-oriented playcaller, and had produced the previous eight games when Hunt was playing. So … Nick Chubb as a starter:
2018 week 7 on (post Carlos Hyde Trade): RB15 in PPG
2019: RB11 in PPG
2020: RB7 in the PPG
The lowest chubb finished per game since he was taken over as a starter in Cleveland is RB15. During those three seasons, Chubb averaged 19.4 touches per game and had at least 16 touches in 32 of 38 games (84%). Chubb is never a sexy choice because given his role and team context, he’s unlikely to ever have a top 5 RB season, but his bottom shouldn’t be ignored either. Like last season when Kenyan Drake and Miles Sanders – which were much riskier picks with small samples of elite production – were routinely drafted before Chubb in hopes they would produce a full season that we had yet to see from both players.
Habit 5: You Focus On Gaining Weeks
It’s simple, but so many people forget that fantasy football is a weekly game. Using the example above, you can see that Metcalf and Lockett were both in the top eight WRs in 2020, so they’re good at drafting too. Which is a mistake because, as mentioned earlier, almost half of Lockett’s production comes from three games. Yes, it can be said that at least you won those three games.
That’s WHEN you started it. Great if. Consider his three weeks leading up to that 53-point game in Arizona in week 7. He had a week of bye in week 4, followed by 4 catches for 44 yards and 2 catches for 39 yards. No points since week 3. He averaged less than five goals per game in the short amount of time that went into that week 7 game. I guess most started it, but I’ll bet some didn’t.
And that’s the crucial part. It’s not enough to have players who score a lot of goals. It is important to know WHEN to start it.
Getting your Nick Chubbs of the World started is easy. In theory, your first five picks should all be Nick Chubbs – the players you start every week except for an injury or a bye (and I’m assuming you won’t get a QB with any of your first five picks).
But what about the rest of your lineup? Once I’m in the middle of my drafts, I’m no longer looking for players who are consistently high-floor performers. Because they’re all gone. Now I want players who could end up as an elite option on a position in a given week and I believe I will have a chance to see them come.
I call this the “Never James White” rule.
James White is a solid fantasy football player. He underperformed last season along with the rest of the Patriots offensive. But for the past two seasons, White ranks as RB21 in total points and as RB22 in PPG among the RBs who have appeared in at least 24 games during that period. Pretty sure, right on the outer edge of RB2 territory. During this period, however, White only has one – one! – Play with at least 16.5 Fantasy Points.
Meanwhile, 65 RBs have played several games with at least 16.5 fantasy points during this stretch, including Jamaal Williams (six), Jeff Wilson Jr. (four), Giovani Bernard (four), Tony Pollard (four), Latavius Murray (four), Boston Scott (three) and DeAndre Washington (three).
This is why I say that rankings are just a loose guideline and in many ways their accuracy doesn’t matter in the context of an entire season from week to week. To give an example of “player you will draft in later rounds” instead of the Metcalf / Lockett example, consider Nyheim Hines and Jamaal Williams. Last season, Hines finished on points per game as the RB25. Meanwhile, Williams was RB34. But while Hines had a few great games, there was no rhyme or reason for it. In the week after his huge 27.3-point game, he had 1.4 points. While at Williams they knew EXACTLY when these big games were coming. When Aaron Jones failed in weeks 7 and 8. Williams scored 21.4 and 18.2 points, respectively. In the two games Alvin Kamara In 2019, Latavius Murray missed an average of 34.4 PPG and 31 touches per game. And you knew Murray to start.
As you fill out your bank, you need to see it in the context of the quality of the players available on the waiver line. Don’t get wild now. Drafting large numbers of these boom-or-bust players only makes sense if you know that in the next few weeks, or in the event of an injury, you can easily find viable production on the waiver wire. But on the positive side, it won’t cost a lot of capital on draft day for these up types. Generally, they rank much lower on the pre-draft season leaderboards than the weeks you know you need to use them. So there is no need for guys like White – who have no way of getting into an elite role and whom you will never feel good about when Tony Pollard is cheaper when he’s one Ezekiel Elliott hammy injury away from being in the top 5.
Habit 6: You are adaptable and trust yourself before anyone else
Of course, you should watch, read, and listen to as much as you can before you draft, and that means all summer. Hey, there is no off-season! This will help you have an opinion on each player. You don’t have to memorize every statistic or break down every move, just have a general sense of whether you are “Pro” or “Contra” of the player and what general value you give him. Because, as Mike Tyson likes to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The point is, you never know what to expect during a design. There can be extreme runs and there can be drafters who have completely different stats than you, so there are players that you didn’t expect to be available. And maybe there’s someone drafting in front of you, using your exact leaderboards printed from ESPN.com, and laughing, drawing the player you want as they comment, “Hahaha, LOVE this selection , Berry ?! “
The latter may only be specific to me.
But highly effective draftsmen are the ones who don’t get into it with a certain hard and fast strategy. By getting the job done and being prepared, by mimicking how your job is by being flexible, you can adapt in a snap and let nobody or anything dictate you.
Habit 7: You only approach design as the first step to success
Just because it’s design day most important day, that doesn’t mean it’s the one only Important day. You don’t have to win the league during your draft. In fact, it is unlikely that you will. If your fantasy football season has a building under construction, then the blueprint is the foundation. If there’s a run on quarterbacks, grab another running back instead of forcing it and reaching for a man on the lower tier early. Give yourself a surplus so that you have something to act on. Trust me, another lower tier quarterback will still be around for the next round.
And that fits in with what I was talking about, not to sweat too much in terms of rankings or ADP and aspire to the top because you’re probably dumping some of these guys on the road to stardom anyway. Last year six of the 12 players featured on most of the ESPN playoff teams were pickers, led by James Robinson and Justin Herbert, with a lot Myles Gaskin, Chase Claypool and Mike Davis interspersed there. In fact, only two of the top ten players at ESPN Champions were drafted in the first five rounds (Alvin Kamara and Davante Adams). Happened every year.
Your fantasy season will be a constant chore, so understand that building your team on draft day isn’t just about getting players in the draft and later through free agency and trading, but ultimately how you use them . The decisions about the squad during the season will be crucial for you to win this championship. But that’s a story for “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective” In the season Manager.”
A version of this column was published in ESPN Fantasy Football magazine, just on sale.