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EXPLAINED: How does NFL Fantasy Football work?

By Stuart Dick

How Does NFL Fantasy Football Work?

Published: 14:45, 16 October 2021

We’ve seen the rise of fantasy sports across the globe in recent years – especially with the growth of the legal sports betting sector in the United States. Even in the UK the rise of the Fantasy Premier League over recent decades has been a cultural phenomenon.

Across the pond, Fantasy American Football has existed since the 1960s and is traditionally played in a league format consisting of eight, 10 or 12 teams – although leagues can be larger or smaller. In this style of league, once a player is drafted or acquired by a team owner that he is exclusive to that team.

In recent years, daily fantasy competitions have become a huge part of the scene too, attracting thousands of participants. In this format, players are available to everyone – with the aim to make the best team possible within a certain budget.

The premise for all formats is the same, you draft or select the best team you can to take home the prize – whether that’s a $10 entry standard league or one of the mega prize purposes offered by the giants of the space.

Where is the best place to play NFL fantasy football?

Choosing a fantasy provider can be dependent on a number of factors: What type of league are you playing in? How serious are you about the game? Are you playing with friends or people you don’t know? Are you only interested in weekly competitions?

The list of providers is almost endless, so here is a rundown of the most popular:

NFL.com, the league’s official website, runs fantasy competitions year-on-year. This gives you the opportunity to run your own league – and invite your friends – or join a free league against people from across the globe.

Yahoo is another major provider of fantasy football. Like NFL.com, it offers free leagues but also the opportunity to join $5 public prize leagues as well as creating a private prize league. ESPN and CBS – two major American outlets, also offer similar league setups.

These providers are the most used, their leagues are simple to understand and it takes perhaps 10 minutes out of your day to alter your line-up, check your opposition and trawl through the waiver wire. This can be done easily on your daily commute through your phone.

Platforms such as Fleaflicker and Sleeper have come onto the market in recent years. In addition to the game, they add elements such as message forums and incorporate social media news as part of their notification system – keeping players right up to date on injuries and league news.

These platforms fit more dedicated fans who put more into their fantasy adventure. Players can spend time every day following the latest news, altering their line-ups, comparing matchups and working the trade market.

Other platforms such as FanDuel and DraftKings are less traditional and run daily and weekly competitions rather than leagues. These platforms allow users to enter competitions with prize purses of up to €1million or more, with thousands of entrants taking part.

The rise of FanDuel and DraftKings has coincided with the relaxation of sporting betting legislature in the United States. In these weekly competitions, players are selected based on a budget – for example $100 – and team owners must complete their roster within that budget. In this format, individual players are not limited to a single team.

NFL fantasy football overview

As mentioned earlier, your fantasy league – whether a standard, keeper or dynasty league – will start with a draft. The draft takes place prior to the first week of the NFL season.

In a traditional league, team owners will draft based on the following roster positions – quarterback (QB), running back (RB), wide receiver (WR), tight end (TE), kicker (K) and defense and special teams (D/ST).

The commissioner of the league will determine how many players are ‘starters’ each week with the standard line-up consisting of 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE, 1 D/ST.

However, there are some leagues which allow an additional flexible position (FLEX) or individual defensive players (IDP) to be selected and started.

Your regular season of a fantasy football league traditionally runs from Week 1 of the NFL season to Week 15. Each week your team takes on another in a one-on-one match up with aim to record as many wins as possible across the season.

Each player on your roster earns points based on their performance during their game, while team owners must chop and change their line-ups each week based on a number of criteria – current form, matchups and bye weeks – to ensure the biggest points haul possible.

The winner is the team that scores the most points over the weekend’s action – with victory and defeat often decided by a single touchdown, a lost fumble or even a three-yard run.

Once the regular season is completed in fantasy football, the playoffs begin. The teams with the best records – whether it is the top four, six or eight in the league – do battle over NFL weeks 16, 17 and sometimes 18 to crown the league champion.

How the NFL fantasy draft works

The draft is an integral part of any fantasy football league. Each league begins with a fully-fledged draft with all players available.

A snake-style draft is the most-used format for standard leagues or first-year keeper and dynasty drafts. The draft order is usually determined by random with the order reversed in the even numbered round.

For example, in an eight-team league the team owner who selects first in the first round (#1 overall) would then select eighth in round two (#16), first in round three (#17) and so on. The team selecting eighth in the first round (#8) would then select first in the second round (#9).

Another style of draft is the auction draft, which gives team owners the opportunity to bid on individual skill-position players, defenses and kickers with the player drafted to the team who makes the highest bid for the player.

Team are given a budget to spend on their roster. There is no draft order, but team owners take it in turns to select a player to go to auction.

Fantasy football draft tactics

There are several ways to approach the draft tactically, all of which require a little bit of research and some knowledge of the NFL.

The most old-school strategy is the two running-back method – a tactic some fantasy experts swear by. The method is simple, no matter where you are in the draft order you spend your first two picks on running back.

It makes sense in some ways, there are 32 NFL teams who have one starting running back each – there is a very limited pool of exceptional players at the position, perhaps six or seven who you can guarantee will perform each week and another nine or 10 reliable starters.

Add in the fact that several teams use a running back by committee setup in today’s NFL, you can see why securing one or two RB studs is a go-to tactic.

However, there is the opposite belief that because so many team owners go with the two RB approach it means stud players at QB, WR and TE are then available and you can fill your roster with three or four top-10 players at their position before even looking at RB.

The other method is the simple best player available (BPA) – you see a name which guarantees you 20 points per week, you take him.

You can of course let auto-draft select your team for you based on the fantasy provider’s automated rankings – but we guarantee your fellow team owners will hate you for it.

Getting ready for week 1

So you’ve drafted your team, filled your bench and are ready for Week 1 of your fantasy season. Your next step is to follow the NFL news, track your team’s injury status and look at your projected fantasy points heading into your first matchup.

Injury updates flow out of news desks across the US and teams are obligated to provide injury reports throughout the week during their practice sessions. Players who have an injury will be listed as either a full participant in practice, limited or not participating at all.

Later in the week, players will be designated with a probability of playing that week – either probable, questionable, doubtful or out. However, some players will not be officially ruled out until a hour prior to kick-off when the inactive list – a list of players who will not participate in a game – is announced.

Outside of injuries, team owners need to analyse matchups. Is your top running back taking on the best run defense in the league while your RB3 takes on a team which gave up 150 yards and two TDs on the ground last time out? These are the decisions which can make or break your week.

How does scoring work in fantasy football?

Scoring is based on a player’s individual stat lines. The traditional scoring formats award and deduct points for yards, touchdowns, turnovers and points allowed. Some leagues also award points for each reception made by an individual, known as points-per-reception (PPR) leagues.

The standard scoring format is as follows:

Offensive players:

  • 25 passing yards: 1pt
  • Passing Touchdown: 4pts
  • 10 rushing yards: 1pt
  • Rushing Touchdown: 6pts
  • 10 receiving yards: 1pt
  • Receiving Touchdown: 6pt
  • Kicked extra point: 1pt
  • Field goal: 3pts
  • 2PT conversion Pass/Rush/Receiving: 2pts
  • Fumble/Interception: -3pts

Defense/special team scoring:

  • 0 points allowed: 10pts
  • 1-7 points allowed: 7pts
  • 8-14 points allowed: 4pts
  • 15-28 points allowed: 1pts
  • 29+ points allowed: 0pts
  • Sack: 2pts
  • Interception: 3pts
  • Fumble recovered: 3pts
  • Touchdown: 6pts

An individual league’s points-scoring format will be determined prior to the season by the league’s commissioner, so you will be able to amend your draft strategy based on the scoring format of the league.

What is the Waiver Wire? How do I use it?

The waiver wire allows team owners to add free agents to their rosters during the season. Much like the draft, a waiver wire order will be determined each week – usually based on a team’s current position in the standings.

If multiple teams bid for the same free agent, the team which ranks highest in the waiver priority order will get that player. That team will then drop to the bottom of the waiver priority list.

Alternatively, some leagues may employ an auction-style waiver wire where teams are given a budget for the season and can bid on players each week to add to their roster. The highest bidder then acquires the player.

For all waiver wire moves – unless a team has an open roster spot – a team owner must drop a player onto the waiver wire in return for picking a player up. That player then becomes subject to waivers and the process to acquire that player begins the waiver process once again.

When can I make trades?

Trades are another way to improve your roster. Trades are more likely to be made in multi-year leagues (Keeper/Dynasty League) but aren’t restricted to that format.

Do you have three strong running backs but a struggling quarterback? You may wish to trade with another team to improve the latter by expending one of the former. In long-term leagues, draft picks may also come into the equation when discussing trades.

A trade window – usually during the first half of the season – restricts play-off bound teams from pilfering players from bottom dwellers giving them an unfair advantage.

Trades usually require approval by a certain quota of the team owners in the league, or they need to be approved by the league’s commissioner, to ensure that they are even and fair.

Bye weeks

Throughout the season, each NFL franchise has a bye week which allows the team to rest and essentially have a week off from training and games. This will obviously also affect your fantasy football strategy – both during the draft and in-season.

Most draft rooms give you the vital information regarding each player when your draft takes place – including a player’s schedule by week. This is important to note as you don’t want to draft two quarterbacks then realise post-draft that they both have the same week off – you don’t want to rely on the waiver wire to save you in a bye week.

It’s important to space bye-week players across your roster. Another faux pas would be drafting a star QB, star WR and a star TE all with the same bye week – meaning you lose three of your best players for a crucial mid-season fantasy matchup.

Our top NFL fantasy football tips and advice

  1. Know your league’s scoring system and adjust your draft plans accordingly.
  2. Note Bye Weeks, they are a crucial part of fantasy football strategy.
  3. Avoid knee-jerk reactions – one bad week is not enough to drop a player.
  4. Don’t draft the majority of your team from one franchise, they may suck.
  5. Kickers are a dime a dozen – don’t draft a kicker before the final round of the draft.
  6. Handcuff players – does your player have a history of injury? Draft their backup too.
  7. Be active on the waiver wire – titles can be won by a single move made mid-season.
  8. Offer trades, even if they are one-sided – you never know what other owners are thinking.
  9. Follow trends – most platforms show the most added/dropped players.
  10. Have fun – fantasy football can develop your knowledge and provide a rooting interest for games you would normally swerve.

Glossary

Commissioner

A commissioner is the manager of the league. They set the league’s rules, roster setup, scoring system and manages league fees if they are involved.

Draft

Drafts take place prior to the NFL season and are the method used for filling rosters in Standard, Keeper and Dynasty style leagues. Keeper and Dynasty leagues may have multiple drafts throughout their lifespan.

Draft Room

The draft room is the online software which allows players to draft their team. The draft room will provide vital information during the draft process to help you pick the best lineup.

Dynasty League

A Dynasty League is a multi-year league which begins with a full draft prior to the first season to set initial rosters. Each subsequent year, team owners add rookie players through the draft rather than a full redraft.

FLEX

The FLEX position is a flexible roster spot which can be used for running backs, wide receivers or tight ends – depending on individual league or competition rules.

Handcuffing

Handcuffing is the process of drafting or adding a backup player to ensure you have an adequate replacement for your starter should he get injured. Handcuffing is often used for players who are injury-prone or star players who score a large amount of fantasy points each week.

Keeper League

A Keeper League, similar to a Dynasty League, begins with a full draft prior to the first season to set the initial roster. In subsequent years team owners designate a predetermined number of ‘keepers’ who will stay on the roster the next season. After the ‘keepers’ are designated, a full draft – minus the keepers – will take place.

PPR

Points per reception. A scoring method which awards individual players points for every reception they make.

Standard League

Sometimes known as a re-draft league, this is a league format which holds a new full draft prior to every season.

Waiver Wire

A list of free agents available each week for teams to ‘pick up’. The waiver wire allows all teams the opportunity to acquire the same free agent – the team with the highest waiver priority will be given the first chance to select the player.

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