In 1989, Stephen Covey, an educator, published a book titled “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It ended up selling more than 30 million copies, became the first nonfiction audiobook in U.S. publishing history to sell more than 1 million copies and is quoted and referenced often to this day.
Five years before that, a very young Matthew Berry had his very first fantasy football draft. And on that day, my very first commissioner, Don Smith, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to draft day. It’s only the best day of the year.”
Which, as I have found out over the past 37 years, is a 100% true statement. The other thing I learned is that, in addition to being the best day of the year, it’s also the most important. Having a strong draft is crucial to having a successful fantasy season.
Since that first draft, I have participated in literally thousands of drafts for multiple sports for almost four decades. Some great, some not so great, but I learned from every single one of them.
And as I reach back to study, analyze and glean from all of them, I thought I should also look back to 1989. So, with apologies to Mr. Covey, I can tell you … THESE are the seven habits of highly effective drafters.
Habit 1: They spend a ton of time of preparing
Just because it seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s not true. Draft day mirrors many aspects of life, but perhaps none more than this: What you put into it is what you get out of it. So you need to prep, but before you prep, you need to know exactly what you are prepping for.
And that starts with studying the rules and, more importantly, figuring out the best ways to exploit said rules. What’s the scoring? Because that obviously will impact the type of player you target. Is it half-point PPR or full PPR? Because last season in full PPR, eight of the top 10 RBs in points per game saw at least 25% of their fantasy points come from receiving. Is there premium scoring for tight ends? Points for first downs? For long punts? Don’t laugh. I played in a punter league once. And crushed it like a grape, thank you very much.
What’s your roster size? How do you acquire free-agent players in your league? If it’s a free-agent budget, you can be a bit riskier on draft day because you will have a shot at every player if you need to replace someone. But if it’s a waiver system, it will be tougher to get the hot free agents, especially if the rules allow someone to sit on the top pick for multiple weeks. So you’ll need to focus a little more on depth during the draft. Does your league have an IR spot? If so, how many? Being able to use IR spots allows you to take more chances on talented but injury-prone players.
All of these questions lead to roster construction, which will be a key part of your draft-day success. Reconciling how players are acquired during the season with size of roster and roster restrictions you may have (a limit on number of RBs, for example) will help you as you start to evaluate players. Can you fairly easily find solid production at various positions during the year? If so, you can roster more “fliers.” In deeper leagues, where the free-agent pool is scarce, you’ll need some solid middle-of-the-road types to plug in.
When do your playoffs start? How many teams make it? With an 18-week season, this will change for many leagues this year, and a lot of leagues will switch up when their playoffs start and potentially how many teams make it.
Effective drafters also account for what platform they are playing on. While we hope you and your league are playing on ESPN and the ESPN Fantasy App, the truth is that wherever you play, the draft is highly influenced by the default rankings in the draft room. People panic during a draft and often take the highest-ranked player available. Having a set of rankings you trust and believe in and comparing them to the default ranks of whatever site you play on will help you identify which players are going too early, which players are going too low, what market inefficiencies there are and how you can exploit them.
And if it’s a league where you know the other players, you can add in notations about the tendencies of other drafters. (This one always reaches for young, buzzy players, this other one stockpiles tight ends, etc.)
Finally, mock draft as much as possible, especially once you know what spot you are picking at. As many as you can. What happens if you go with Travis Kelce in the first round? What about a modified “Zero RB” approach or going RB heavy? What if you draft Patrick Mahomes early? Or are the last one in the league with a QB? The more options you play with to see how your team turns out, the more prepared you will be when the real draft happens, and you’ll be much more comfortable adjusting on the fly.
Habit 2: They identify the relative depth at every position
It isn’t enough to just have an opinion on every potential player. You need to understand every player’s value relative to every other player and the depth of that position as it relates to your roster needs. QB is deep, you say? Not if you play in a 14-team superflex league. Then they start going quickly.
When you draft, you’re not just collecting as many good players as possible. You’re constructing a roster with finite resources. You have only so many spots, and you need to also understand how easy or hard it will be to replace players during the season.
Here’s a quick overview of how I see the positions this year:
Quarterback is once again very deep, but the key here is that you are going to want to get a QB who adds value with his legs. Last season, eight of the top 10 QBs had at least 200 yards rushing. Seven of them had at least 15% of their fantasy points from rushing. Think about the QBs in recent years who 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.
Running back gets dicey the deeper you get into the draft. We prefer running backs to wide receivers at the top of the rankings this year because of the depth at the WR position. What do we mean by depth, you ask?
Here’s how the running back and wide receiver scoring leaders in 2020 lined up:
Look at that dip from RB5 to RB10 compared to that of WR5 to WR10. Gets pretty significant, right? But I hear ya. A one-year sample doesn’t mean much, right? But this 2020 trend lines up with the previous decade.
For the 2010s, the drop-off in total points from RB5 to RB10 was 18.4%, while the drop-off from WR5 to WR10 was 12%. That difference is significant as you look to decide which position to target with your first pick.
As running backs have remained scarce, wide receiver has gotten deeper. What do we mean by that? The supply of players who score 180-plus points — better than 11 points per game — is increasing, but unless your league has added a roster slot, the demand has not.
In the same three seasons, WR2s (the players drafted on average as the 11th to 20th receivers off the board) tend to be safer picks and exceed their value more often than RB2s. For example, from 2018 to 2020 …
18 of 30 WRs drafted in the WR11-20 range returned WR2 value (60%), and nine of the 30 returned WR1 value (30%)
14 of 30 RBs drafted in the RB11-20 range returned RB2 value (47%), and six of 30 returned RB1 value (20%)
In each of the past three seasons, 60% of the receivers drafted in the WR2 range returned WR2 value. Conversely, for running backs, that rate has not been higher than 50% in any of those seasons. Meanwhile, you were 50% more likely to find a breakout WR1 in the WR2 pool than you were to find an RB1 in the RB2 pool. It’s a consistent edge. You’re better off picking an RB1 and then adding some WR2 types than you are picking the top receiver and trying to cobble your running game from RB2 types, which is all that will be left if you pass on running backs in the first round.
As for tight end, I either want to be early or really late. Look at this:
Since 2017, the average difference in PPG from TE1 to TE4 has been 4.9 points. From TE4 to TE15, it’s 4.3. That means there’s an advantage to getting one of the top four guys, but not nearly as much of one getting one of the remaining top 10 guys. So this year, I want Travis Kelce, Darren Waller or George Kittle. And if you want to dip into the Kyle Pitts/T.J. Hockenson/Mark Andrews/Logan Thomas pool because you believe strongly in one of them, I can live with it. Otherwise, I want to wait to be one of the last in my league to grab a tight end and try to find this year’s Logan Thomas or Robert Tonyan. Some candidates? Irv Smith Jr., Adam Trautman, Cole Kmet, Anthony Firkser, Gerald Everett and Hayden Hurst. I also think Austin Hooper will have a much better season than folks think.
Habit 3: They abide by the one big secret of fantasy football
At a fundamental level, fantasy football is entirely about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis. That’s it. That simple. From the time you read this article until the end of your season, every single thing you do needs to lead back to that very simple but rarely followed approach.
Every draft pick, waiver move, potential trade, start/sit decision and so on. Everything. I can’t predict the future. Neither can you. Neither can anyone else. So all you can do is minimize risk, give yourself the best odds to succeed every week, make the best call you can in the moment and let the chips fall where they may.
There’s only one QB who has thrown for 30 TDs in each of the past two seasons. It’s Russell Wilson, and he’s done it in four straight. What’s most likely to happen?
The only two teams in the NFL to be top 10 in pass percentage in each of the past four seasons are the Chiefs and Buccaneers. With most or all offensive starters back from a year ago, what’s most likely to happen for Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady?
Robert Tonyan had 11 touchdowns last season. In the past 15 years, there have been only three tight ends to score that many in consecutive seasons (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas). Tonyan did it on just 52 receptions. The last NFL player to catch double-digit touchdowns on fewer than 60 receptions was Falcons WR Michael Haynes in 1991-92. What’s most likely to happen?
Now, most likely to happen doesn’t mean it will happen. It just means it’s much more likely to happen than not. And that’s all we can ask for. If you consistently play the odds, you’ll win a lot more than you won’t. And when you are evaluating players before and during the draft, when you are building your team, that’s what you need to do. Just remember once again: At a fundamental level, fantasy football is entirely about minimizing risk and giving yourself the best odds to win on a weekly basis. So always ask yourself … what’s most likely to happen?
Habit 4: They use rankings flexibly and in context
Whether they are your own, someone else’s, an average of multiple people or even just the default ones in the draft room, when you draft you are going to have a set of rankings. They are certainly helpful, but they should be used only as a guideline, and more so in the early parts of the draft. Once you get your first five players, it really becomes about roster construction based on what positions you need to fill, how much risk you’ve already taken and how the draft is playing out, taking into account all the factors we’ve already discussed.
I say this speaking as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time on his rankings, but no list is going to nail end-of-season value, especially if you consider weekly variance.
Take Seattle WRs Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf last season. Metcalf finished as the WR7, Lockett as the WR8, separated by just 5.9 total fantasy points. So it doesn’t matter which one you got, right? Well, let’s take a closer look at how their seasons broke down:
Metcalf: 8 games with 18+ points (50%), 11 games with 12+ points (69%), 3 games below 9 points (19%)
Lockett: 5 games with 18+ points (31%), 7 games with 12+ points (44%), 7 games below 9 points (44%)
Metcalf had more games with at least 18 points than Lockett had games with at least 12 points. In addition, Lockett was just as likely to score 12-plus points as he was to score fewer than nine. Lockett was much more volatile on a week-to-week basis than Metcalf last season, as a whopping 46%(!) of Lockett’s total fantasy points came in just three games. Sure he won you those three weeks, but there were seven weeks where Lockett really underperformed. So even though the rankings on those guys were “accurate” and they finished right next to each other in terms of end-of-season rankings, over the course of last season Metcalf was a far more valuable fantasy player given his consistency, and it wasn’t particularly close.
This seems obvious, but the reason certain players go early in drafts is because of their likely guaranteed production. Almost any NFL player, in the right game situation, on the right team, with the right amount of usage, can have a monster fantasy game. But we want to KNOW they will have that production every week. Or, at least, are much more likely to have it than not.
Players like that are scarce, which is why they go early in drafts, but understand the difference between players who are ranked high because of consistency and players ranked high (at least by some) because of perceived upside. For me, early in drafts, I want as much rock-solid production as I can guarantee. Too many people chase upside early in drafts. I actually want a high floor.
Think about Nick Chubb entering last season. Not sexy, not heavily involved in the passing game, has to worry about Kareem Hunt. On the other hand, he had a great offensive line, run-oriented playcaller and had produced the year before when Hunt played the final eight games. So … Nick Chubb as a starter:
2018 Week 7 on (post Carlos Hyde trade): RB15 in PPG
2019: RB11 in PPG
2020: RB7 in PPG
The lowest Chubb has finished on a per-game basis since taking over as the starter in Cleveland is RB15. During those three seasons, Chubb is averaging 19.4 touches per game and has at least 16 touches in 32 of 38 games (84%). Chubb is never a sexy pick because it’s unlikely he ever delivers a top-five RB season given his role and team context, but his floor shouldn’t be ignored, either. Like last season when Kenyan Drake and Miles Sanders — who were much riskier picks with small samples of elite production — were routinely drafted ahead of Chubb in hopes they would produce a full season we had yet to see from either player.
Habit 5: They focus on winning weeks
It’s very simple, but so many people forget that fantasy football is a weekly game. Using the example above, they see Metcalf and Lockett were both top-eight WRs in 2020, so they are fine drafting either. Which is a mistake because, as we mentioned, almost half of Lockett’s production came from three games. Yeah, you may say, at least you won those three games.
That’s IF you started him. Big if. Consider his three weeks prior to that 53-point game at Arizona in Week 7. He had a bye week in Week 4, followed by 4 catches for 44 yards, and 2 catches for 39 yards. No scores since Week 3. He was averaging fewer than five targets per game in that short span heading into that Week 7 game. I’m guessing most started him, but I bet some did not.
And that’s the crucial part. It’s not enough to have players who score a lot. It’s important to know WHEN to start them.
Starting your Nick Chubbs of the world is easy. In theory, your first five picks should all be Nick Chubbs — the players you will start every week barring injury or a bye (and I’m assuming you’re not taking a QB with any of your first five picks).
But what about the rest of your lineup? Once I get to the middle of my drafts, I no longer seek players who are consistent high-floor performers. Because they’re all gone. Now, I want players who could wind up as an elite option at a position in any given week, and that I feel I’ll have a chance to see it coming.
I call this the “Never James White” Rule.
James White is a solid enough fantasy football player. He underperformed last season, along with the rest of the Patriots’ offense. But over the past two seasons, White ranks as RB21 in total points and RB22 in PPG among RBs who appeared in at least 24 games over that stretch. Pretty safe, just on the outside edge of RB2 territory. However, in that span White has only one — one! — game with at least 16.5 fantasy points.
Meanwhile, 65 RBs have multiple games with at least 16.5 fantasy points during that 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 rankings are just a loose guideline and in many ways their accuracy in the context of a full season doesn’t matter on a week-to-week basis. To give a “player you draft in later rounds” example instead of the Metcalf/Lockett one, consider Nyheim Hines and Jamaal Williams. Last season, on a points-per-game basis, Hines finished as RB25. Meanwhile, Williams was RB34. But while Hines had a few big games, there was no rhyme or reason to them. The week after his huge 27.3-point game, he had 1.4 points. Whereas with Williams you knew EXACTLY when those big games were coming. When Aaron Jones was out in Weeks 7 and 8. Williams scored 21.4 and 18.2 points, respectively. In the two games Alvin Kamara missed in 2019, Latavius Murray averaged 34.4 PPG and 31 touches per game. And you knew to start Murray.
As you are filling out your bench, you need to view it in the context of the quality of players available on the waiver wire. Now, don’t go wild. Drafting a high number of these boom-or-bust players makes sense only if you know you can easily find viable production on the waiver wire during bye weeks or in case of injury. But the positive is that it won’t cost much draft-day capital for these upside types. They generally will be ranked much lower in pre-draft season-long rankings than they will be ranked in the weeks when you know you’ll need to use them. That’s why there’s no need for guys like White — who has no path to an elite role and whom you’ll never feel great about starting — when Tony Pollard comes cheaper despite being an Ezekiel Elliott hammy injury away from being top five.
Habit 6: They are adaptable and trust themselves above all others
Obviously, you should be watching, reading, listening to as much as possible before you draft, and that means all summer. Hey, there’s no offseason! This will help you have an opinion on every player. You don’t need to memorize every stat or break down every play, but just have a general sense of whether you are “pro” or “con” 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 draft. There can be extreme runs and there can be drafters who have wildly different values than you, so players you didn’t expect to be available are there for the taking. And there may be someone drafting in front of you using your exact rankings they printed from ESPN.com and laughing as they draft the player you want while commenting, “Hahaha do you LOVE this pick, Berry?!”
That last one may be specific to only me.
But highly effective drafters are the ones who don’t enter with a specific hard-and-fast strategy. By doing the work and being prepared, by mock drafting like it’s your job, by being flexible, you’ll be able to adapt on the fly and you won’t let your draft be dictated by anyone or anything but you.
Habit 7: They approach the draft as just the first step toward success
Just because draft day is the most important day, that doesn’t mean it’s the only important day. You don’t have to win the league during your draft. In fact, it’s unlikely that you will. If your fantasy football season is a building under construction, then the draft is the foundation. If there’s a run on quarterbacks, instead of forcing it and reaching early for a guy in the tier below, grab another running back. Give yourself some surplus so you have something to trade. Trust me, another lower-tier quarterback will still be there next round.
And this goes with what I was talking about in terms of not sweating rankings or ADP too much and going for upside, because you’re likely dropping some of these guys on the way to glory anyway. Last year, six of the 12 players rostered on the most ESPN playoff teams were waiver-wire pickups, led by James Robinson and Justin Herbert, with a lot of Myles Gaskin, Chase Claypool and Mike Davis sprinkled in there. In fact, only two of the top 10 most common players on ESPN champions were drafted in the first five rounds (Alvin Kamara and Davante Adams). Happens every year.
Your fantasy season will be a constant work in progress, so understand that as you construct your team on draft day it’s not just about acquiring players in the draft, and later via free agency and trade, but ultimately how you use them. In-season roster decision-making will be crucial for you to get that championship. But that’s a story for “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective In-Season Managers.”
A version of this column was published in the ESPN Fantasy Football magazine, on sale right now.