How to avoid the most common draft mistakes in 2023

We’re getting close to the teeth of fantasy football draft season, and it’s time to talk about mistakes. I’m going to run back some of the mistakes from last year’s column, and I’ll add two fresh mistakes at the bottom. You’re welcome to offer your own lessons learned, I’m all ears: @scott_pianowski.

All summer long, we try to show you how to play fantasy football the right way, whatever that means. Obviously, it’s a nuanced and shifting discussion, and obviously, it’s all contextual. What works best in my hometown league might not work best for your hometown league. There’s a lot of season-to-taste in this game.

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But sometimes we need to take a step back and focus on how suboptimal thinking sneaks into our decision-making. That’s our mission for today, to patch some of the leaks that might be holding you back.

Here are nine common mistakes that fantasy managers, even good ones, often make. The first six are a review from last year and previous years; we’ve added three fresh ideas at the bottom.

Draft like a champion today, gamers.

Not knowing the league rules and settings

I know this feels painfully obvious, but it’s a common error. I know, because I make it myself sometimes — and there’s no reason for it.

It’s no fun to read the rules or audit the settings, I get it. In some of the leagues I play in, the rulebook is long and unwieldy, a cumbersome read. And like so many fantasy managers, I’m in a ton of leagues (too many to count), so at times it becomes tempting to cut this corner. But if you’re not clear on the game you’re playing, errors are sure to follow.

So let’s just make sure we put in the work and plug this leak. And I’m not just talking about scoring rules, I’m talking about every setting tied to a league. A common mistake tied to this: often managers are unaware of when free agency starts or when the waiver process begins. Thirty seconds in your online calendar today can cover you for a missed opportunity later.

Buying insurance when it doesn’t make sense

Modern baseball theory holds that sacrifice bunts are rarely a good idea. The game is dominated by launch angles and home runs, to the point that giving up an out and advancing a runner from first to second is rarely the proper play. When you hand outs to the other team, you cap your scoring upside.

What does this have to do with fantasy football? Well, when you go out of your way to draft the NFL backups of your primary starters (especially at running back), you’re essentially bunting. You’re capping your upside. You’re playing for the small inning.

In the early part of the fantasy season, I want you to play for the big inning. I want you to try to build the most dynamic juggernaut possible. Sure, you can draft backup running backs, intriguing stash-and-hope runners, but do it when it’s not tied to one of your primary starters. Draft the backups that benefit if your opponents encounter bad luck. Build a roster that can improve — not merely survive — when chaos happens.

I don’t want you to draft like your early picks are going to flame out. I want you to draft like your early picks were the right picks. Stop playing it safe and capping your ceiling.

Let’s be clear, the understudy back can make sense later in the year — much like bunting can make sense in a baseball game, later in the day. The winning scenario narrows the later we get in any contest, and with that in mind, you act accordingly. If you’re crushing the league come early November and you want Tyler Allgeier for Bijan Robinson insurance — because your roster doesn’t have bigger problems that need solving — I can sign off. You’re already put a crooked number on the board.

In August, that’s the wrong way to think. Your goals should be much loftier the day you start assembling your roster.

Anchoring to previously-held opinions

Fantasy sports are essentially a game of opinions, your best guess against my best guess. The best fantasy managers are going to have plenty of takes. You compete for a few years, take down a trophy or two, you get some confidence and even some ego.

But remember, the NFL is a snow-globe league, the American sport with the most year-over-year variance. It’s also the fantasy sport where context matters the most. A journeyman running back might become fantasy royalty if he lands in the right offense. And a walk-in Hall of Famer like Randy Moss can fall off the planet when he’s on a team like the 2006 Raiders.

I have plenty of strong player and strategy takes today, just like I did a month ago, three months ago or six months ago. But everything’s written in pencil. When the facts shift, I’m willing to change my mind. And when nuances that I overlooked are brought to my attention, I’m willing to change my mind, too.

The goal is to figure out the new season before your opponents do. And with that in mind, you have to be willing to be selectively aggressive when opportunities arise.

Being paralyzed by fear

Paradox of Choice is a fascinating concept, the idea that otherwise-smart people can be overwhelmed by alternatives. It’s not uncommon for a fantasy manager to tell me they prefer a roster of minimal depth over a roster of fantastic depth because they aren’t forced to make difficult choices every week. (Obviously, a deep roster can often be traded into an even more-dynamic set of starters, but let’s ignore that for now.)

Some managers are afraid to bench a player because said player cost a lot at the draft, or in free agency.

Some managers are afraid to make a trade or a FA move because they’re obsessed with how bad they’ll feel if the decision turns out to be wrong. Friendliest Loss remains a pox in our decision-making world. Too many fantasy players will settle on the choice that will give them the least amount of pain if it turns out to be wrong — no matter if that choice reflects what they view as the most likely winning scenario.

Don’t be afraid of making a mistake, amigas and amigos. Tricky decisions are like bluffs in poker — if you don’t have one blow up on you every so often, you are playing far too conservatively. Fortune favors the brave. If you insist on keeping both of your feet on first base, you’ll never be able to steal second.

I’m not suggesting you do wacky or crazy things just for the sake of it. I still want you to make good decisions, sound decisions. But focus on the likelihood of your decision working, and what the payoff may be. Don’t get tripped up on what the regret will feel like if you’re wrong. That’s not how successful people think.

Not doing queue maintenance during the draft

I generally don’t touch the preset rankings in any draft applet, because I want to know what most of my opponents are looking at. But that doesn’t mean I rest back in my chair and scroll through tweets and emails between picks. I’m constantly working on some kind of list, be it an off-applet list I’m maintaining, or adding and arranging player names in my online queue.

A tidily-arranged queue will be your best friend if you get bumped offline mid-draft — and will spare you a potentially-disastrous auto-pick. It’s also a good way to keep late-round sleepers fresh in your mind, especially with the sleepers who might be buried on the site’s preset rankings. If you’re doing an offline draft, you can still maintain a queue — a pen and a scratch sheet of paper will do. Just keep it away from curious neighbors.

Ignoring ADP

It’s common to hear established fantasy players zealously proclaiming their disdain for Average Draft Position, noting how they draft to the beat of their own drummer. And hey, I get it; at some point, you have to go get the players you believe in. But you at least want to have a general idea of what slot those players might command in a free market.

When I examine ADP, I like to focus on the trending market, how rooms have drafted in the past week or so. Deeper-rooted ADP is going to be more buggy and less useful. At the end of the day, you want to undercut the market slightly on the later-round picks you covet, not blow the market out of the water. Don’t take your hidden gem in the sixth round when context clues made it clear you could have waited until the 10th round or later.

Eschewing a news lap on Draft Day

Most fantasy football drafts will take place in August, and that’s a hotbed of NFL news. Injuries, depth chart adjustments, trades, perhaps even suspensions; stuff is going to happen. And with that, it’s imperative you take a news lap the day of your draft, just to make sure you’re up on the latest and greatest NFL news. You want to make the most informed choices you can, and that requires you’re not the last person to know about a hamstring gone awry.

Getting tripped up by the schedule

The NFL schedule is such a big deal, the league somehow creates a buzzy event of its release and reveal. It’s a little funny when you think about it — we already knew the games, just not the sequencing — but it’s another case of the NFL flexing its muscles as the dominant sports league in North America.

I want you to be aware of the schedule, but I don’t want it dominating your picks. Bye weeks are a low-end tiebreaker when I’m drafting, not something that proactively influences my picks. By the time most of my players take their bye, my roster is likely to be significantly different, with new strengths and weaknesses. I want you to play fantasy football with a microscope, not a telescope. Let’s focus on what’s in view now.

If I’m going to use schedule shape to influence my picks, it’s on the margins. Consider the defense and special teams position. The Jets D/ST is a hotly-contested draft commodity, but the early-season schedule looks treacherous — New York opens with the Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Chiefs, Broncos and Eagles for the first six games, then it’s a Week 7 bye. The Jets D/ST doesn’t really see home-run spots until December. Given the stream-heavy nature of the D/ST position, I won’t have New York on my target list. I want easier sledding in the first quarter of the year.

Not adjusting for the time of year

The earlier you’re drafting, the less important it is to draft a kicker or defense. You can add that stuff later; why not get an additional high-upside running back pick on your roster? This well-known strategy has a converse, of course; if you’re drafting right before the season, that’s when you might as well fill that K and D/ST spot.

Injury rates fall down significantly late in the summer — most teams don’t use important personnel in the final preseason game — so your odds of hitting a home run with your final-round lottery ticket are significantly less. When I draft in early September, I have the early schedule in mind and want a D/ST that’s ready to cause mayhem in Week 1.

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