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   Fantasy Football 101

July 17, 2024
Al Lackner

When we put out a survey a couple of months back, one of the comments that we received from a variety of folks was that our site tended to cater more toward the seasoned Fantasy Football enthusiast -- and not enough toward individuals who were new to the Fantasy Football Arena. Since we strive to be a one-stop shop for veterans and rookies alike, we have decided to add new features that may be highly useful to newbies -- and even folks who are still trying to consider whether or not to embark on their first Fantasy Football journey. In the coming weeks, look for a Glossary, Pre-Draft Strategy, Draft Day Tips, and a variety of other features that we hope will rectify our past disconnect with newer readers. At the same time, we hope to be engaging enough where we will not alienate or insult the intelligence of our tried and true readers. For our first installment, I will provide a simple overview of what the "sport" is all about.

I personally started participating in Fantasy Football leagues over 20 years ago, when I thought it was a relatively new phenomenon. Those were the days before the Internet, and we tracked everything by hand, relying on the Monday morning newspaper to provide all of the stats we needed. I have come to find out that Fantasy Football has been around since the early 1960s! I won't bore you with the history of the pastime, but suffice to say that the first fantasy league was actually started by executives from the Oakland Raiders, signifying that the NFL has been a big proponent of Fantasy Football from the very beginning. In fact, many real NFL players participate in Fantasy Football every year, and Maurice Jones-Drew even hosts his own weekly radio show on the subject.

So, what is Fantasy Football?

In a nutshell, Fantasy Football is an interactive and virtual contest in which average, every-day people can live vicariously as NFL owners (in "owning" their own franchise), general managers (in assembling their own teams) and coaches (in determining which players to sit and start each week).  In most formats leagues are set up with a set number of owners. The typical league will have 12 franchises, but there are plenty of smaller leagues with 8-10 franchises and larger leagues with 14-16. Depending on the format, you could really have as many or as few as you like. The essential activities include a draft (or auction), picking up or dropping players via a waiver wire, trades, and submitting a weekly lineup.

League Formats

Formats vary wildly, but in the typical league, teams match up Head-to-Head against one another each week. In this Head-to-Head format, each owner must submit a starting lineup each week and face off against another owner.  The winner of the two is the owner whose starting lineup accumulated the most total points that week. The regular season usually lasts 12-13 weeks, with weeks 14-16 serving as the playoffs for the qualifying teams.

Other leagues choose not to focus on weekly match-ups and instead look at the Total Points scored by each franchise for the season. In these leagues there is no win-loss record to track. Instead the league standings are determined by point production. The team that accumulated the most points during the course of the season comes in first place, the team scoring the second-most points comes in second place and so on. Some of these leagues have a playoff system, others simply go by the total points scored from beginning to end to crown a champion.

In the old days, participation in fantasy leagues (football or otherwise) required a substantial time commitment. Research was not as readily attainable as it is today -- and news of injuries, player movement, and the like were not always easy to come by. These days with 24x7 sports networks, the Internet and Social Networking like Facebook and Twitter, time is no longer really that much of a factor. After all, you have Ask the Commish -- The Fantasy Advisors for your one-stop shop for anything and everything Fantasy Football related! (Sorry for the shameless plug.)

Early on the format and scoring was pretty simple. Each owner started one skill-position player (QB, RB, WR, and sometimes a TE) and was awarded points for each player based exclusively on TDs. This TD-Only format is still used today, but it is not nearly as popular as it once was. Over the years, the starting lineups expanded to include defenses, kickers, and multiple starters at key positions. Over the years the  typical/classic lineup morphed into something resembling the following:

1 Quarterback (QB)
2 Running Back (RB)
2 Wide Receiver (WR)
1 Tight End (TE)
1 Kicker (PK)
1 Team Defense/Special Teams (D/ST)

Scoring provides combined points for yards as well as TDs, plus a variety of other events (such as interceptions, fumbles, two-point conversions, etc.). Since QBs account for more TDs and yards than any other position player, most leagues downgrade their point production. That is, passing TDs typically count 4 points for the respective fantasy owner, whereas rushing and receiving TDs count 6 points. Passing yards may only be 1 for every 25 yards passing, whereas they may be 1 point for every 10 yards rushing/receiving. That is why QBs who can run (like Michael Vick or Tim Tebow) are such a premium. Think of it this way, in the format that I cited above (which is what we use for our basic Player Rankings): 40 yards rushing is equivalent to 100 yards passing. Rather than a team defense, some leagues allow you to start Individual Defensive Players (or IDP). In such leagues, owners start usually a defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive back rather than a team defense.

You may have noticed in our Player Rankings that we have the top-rated running backs rated higher than anyone else, even though QBs (even with the down-graded point distribution) tend to score more than RBs. That is where value comes into play. The idea is to to beat your opponent head-to-head each week. That comes from a collection of points spread across your entire starting lineup. Perhaps your opponent has a QB that is likely to score more points than you do -- but if you gain more points than he does from your other players to overcome this, then you have the superior team and a better chance of winning every week. Since you only start 1 QB in most leagues, that means that there are only 12 starting QBs in a 12-team league. Meanwhile, you start 2 RBs in most formats, which means that the starting pool sits at 24. Statistically, there is a much bigger drop off from the #1 fantasy RB to the #24 fantasy RB than there is from the #1 fantasy QB to the #12 fantasy QB. What's more, with the recent movement of NFL teams to share the workload of running backs -- which is what we call a Running Back By Committee (or RBBC) -- the number of every-down running backs has dwindled. Thus, there truly is a premium on elite fantasy RBs. Although starting lineups also normally consist of multiple WRs too, their value is not as high as RBs, largely because so little separates a WR ranked, say 8-12 from one ranked 20-24. In order to inflate the value of WRs, many leagues award 1 point per reception (or PPR). Thus, WRs, pass-catching TEs and dual-threat RBs are more favorable in PPR formats.

I fear that I am starting to get carried away with Numerical Analysis. I will be rolling out an article that deals exclusively with this topic in the near future, but now it is time for me to get back on point...

As Fantasy Football has evolved, so have the rules governing various league formats. Today scoring systems cover the full spectrum of those stats found in real football. In fact, many leagues have even implemented a salary cap system similar in concept to the pros. In these leagues, owners have a set dollar amount that they can spend on their roster. Player values are either pre-assigned or determined by auction. These Auction leagues have become very popular over the years.

Another popular trend for leagues that have been in existence for awhile is to allow owners to retain 1 or more of their players from one year to the next. These are called Keeper or Dynasty leagues. In the extreme, owners can keep their entire roster, which means that the fantasy draft for such leagues consists entirely of rookies.

With the explosion of fantasy sports and the Internet on hand, many providers actually offer Daily and Weekly Leagues. In these leagues, you can pick a starting lineup from any collection of players rather than from a specific roster. Some of these leagues are high dollar, where you have to pony up a sizable entry fee -- but you could win big. Other leagues are free.

Another popular recent format is what is known as Survivor Leagues. This is similar in concept to team Survivor pools in which participants can pick the winner of one NFL game per week -- but can never pick the same team twice. When the participant misses on a pick, he/she is wiped out and no longer able to play. The last person standing is the winner. In the Fantasy Football realm such a system allows each participant to draft a new team of players every week -- but he/she can only use that assortment of players once per year.

In 2011 when the lockout occurred and the possibility existed that there may not be any football at all, a new system was devised by some of the more brainiac fantasy enthusiasts: Simulation Football. In this format a computer is relied upon to simulate all game statistics. Funny enough, we here at Ask the Commish.Com have been simulating games and the fantasy stats from such games for years!

Fantasy drafts

The success or failure of fantasy teams hinges largely on the quality of their draft. In fact, having a great draft could count as much as 50% toward how well a fantasy owner's team performs -- with the other 50% coming via free agent pickups, trades and starting the best possible lineup each week.

The rules and formats for drafts vary, but the traditional format allows each owner to make a single pick in a pre-determined order. Once each team has made one pick, that is the end of the first "round". The second round commences with the owner who picked last in the first round and goes in reverse order. Hence, in a 12-team league, the owner who picked 1st overall will pick 24th with his next pick, whereas the owner who picked 12th, will pick 13th with his second pick. The order flip-flops in each round. This kind of draft is known as a Serpentine (or snake) draft. It is the most popular because it is considered very fair, since the owners who have the opportunity to draft the elite players must wait longer to draft again.

Keeper leagues are an interesting variation because normally owners must forfeit a specific round in exchange for keeping a specific player. In many cases the round that is forfeited is based on where the player was drafted the previous year. In these draft formats, Sleepers (players who considerably out-perform their draft value) are especially crucial, since an owner can keep a quality player taken late in the draft without having to forfeit a high draft pick the following year. In true dynasty leagues, where the entire roster can be kept from the previous year, only rookies are available to be drafted.

Auction leagues do not have a draft in a true meaning of the word. Rather, each owner has imaginary (or sometimes real) money to spend on building a roster. Each owner must budget appropriately to purchase all his players in an auction format. It is a draft in the sense that owners do take turns. However, instead of picking a player when their turn comes, owners nominate a player for open bids. The owner who bids the highest on each player receives that player. Naturally, as they win the various auctions, their remaining budget decreases accordingly.

The Waiver Wire and Trades

Players who were undrafted (or drafted and subsequently released) go on the waiver wire. These players essentially become free agents and can be acquired pending the rules and restrictions for the league. One restriction obviously is roster size. If, for example, the maximum number of players that an owner can maintain on his/her roster is 18 -- and the owner wishing to acquire a player from the waiver wire currently has a full 18-man roster -- then he/she must drop a player before acquiring the desired free agent. When the player is released to allow for the vacant roster space, the released player then goes into the waiver wire pool and becomes a free agent. Some leagues have added restrictions such as placing a cap on the number of free agents who may be acquired during any given week.

The way in which the waiver wire operates varies from league to league. Ordinarily claims can be made any time after the last game (usually a Monday nighter) of the previous week is played. The waivers are then processed later in the week. Some leagues offer first-come-first serve. In these formats, the first person to place a claim on a player is entitled to pick him up. Other leagues offer a selection order (usually worst-to-first-place). Still others (similar to auction league formats) provide straight up and blind bidding for players. In these formats each owner has a budget dedicated to waiver wire management.

A trade is simply when one owner trades one or more of his players to another owner in exchange for another player or players. Trades are often highly scrutinized because there is a great deal of opportunity for foul play. That is, an owner with a strong lineup and in playoff contention could make a one-sided trade with another owner who may have already been eliminated from the playoffs. Such deals do happen all too frequently. The motivation from the owner who is getting robbed in the deal could be benign: maybe he is less experienced and being taken advantage of by a headier or conniving abuser. Or, it could be that the "loser" of the trade is intentionally helping his buddy out. Even worse, the motive could be significantly more malevolent -- as it is not unheard of for two owners to connive together to try to build a singe powerhouse team with a promise of sharing the proposed league winnings. This is called collusion and it is a highly unethical practice. Hence, many leagues require commissioner approval before a trade can be consummated. It is not the role of the commish to determine if one side or the other is getting a better end of the deal; rather, the commish's responsibility is to ensure that there is no collusion. To protect commissioners from being placed in the precarious situation of having to make a call, many leagues have a trade deadline sometime shortly after the middle of the season -- before playoff seeding and before teams are eliminated from playoff contention. Some leagues even have an elimination rule: once officially eliminated from the playoffs, that team may not participate in any trades.

If you are in a league and feel that you have been unfairly taken advantage of by your league commissioner or another owner, feel free to contact us. One of the services we offer is League Arbitration. If nothing else, having something in writing from a credible organization like  Ask the Commish.Com can help legitimize what is going on in your league -- and possibly open the other owners' eyes to what is going on.

League Management System

As I said, in the old days, we used to track everything by hand. Then we moved toward Excel spreadsheets for accounting and transaction history. These days many providers offer league management tools which will do all of this for you. This includes everything from maintaining league rules and by-laws to providing a live, on-line draft to tracking franchise rosters and transactions to enforcing the submission of an accurate starting lineup each week. Most importantly, most provide real time scoring so that you can see how your team is doing each and every second of the competition. There are a variety of companies that offer such services: ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sportsline, Yahoo, and MyFantasyLeague to name just a few.


Whether you have already committed to join a league or are even thinking about starting a new league of your won, I hope that this article has been helpful. We are always here to help, so feel free to ask questions via the Contact us control at the top of the page or via our message board. We also offer a great collection of powerful VIP tools and services, including customized cheatsheets. If you are thinking about setting up a brand new league of your own, one of our partners, MyFantasyLeague.Com offers an excellent league management system.

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