How to Gain an Edge in Keeper League Drafts (Fantasy Football)
It’s draft season, the best time of the year!
Veteran fantasy addicts have made the full transition from dynasty mode to redraft mode over the past month or so. But what about keeper leagues? If you’re unfamiliar with keeper, it’s a blend between redraft and dynasty. While keeper league rules can vary significantly, the general idea is that your team resets every year with the exception of a couple of fantasy players that you get to carry over from last year. If you are unfamiliar with the different types of keeper leagues, stop reading right now. For real. I highly recommend checking out our article “How to Convert a Redraft League into Keeper” before reading the rest of this keeper league draft article.
Keeper leagues are very common, but they seem to be the least represented when it comes to fantasy football content and analysis. Let’s change that! Before getting into it, it’s important to acknowledge that keeper leagues can vary drastically…so I’ll set the tone by using my personal league as a foundation for the arguments in this article. My main fantasy league is a keeper format where fantasy managers are allowed to keep up to two players a round sooner than when you drafted them the previous year. We have a rule where players can only be kept for two years after they were originally drafted. Then, they are recycled back into the pool of draftable players – and the same applies to all 1st round picks from the prior year. In the eight or so years that I’ve been playing keeper, I’ve learned a few ways to gain an edge over opponents.
Before we go any further – let’s acknowledge that fantasy football involves a ton of luck. In a 12-team league, you have an 8.3% chance of winning the league. Even if you crush your draft and dominate waivers throughout the season, the odds are still against you. This is a fact, not an opinion – unless you play in a league with scrubs. That being said, you can make small moves that tip the odds slightly more in your favor. Most of that involves trading. Trading is an absolute necessity in keeper leagues…if your league isn’t active with trades, join one that is on www.footclanleagues.com.
With a sound strategy and careful execution, you can definitely put yourself in a position to be a strong playoff contender. This is magnified more so in keeper leagues than in redraft because in keeper leagues, you have future assets in play. This is an important concept to acknowledge. Your “spending power” includes next year’s draft picks and young players like rookies that carry more weight in keeper than in redraft. Use your assets wisely.
I want to apologize in advance because this is a lengthy article with a lot of text and no tables. I hope you enjoy it anyway. Unless you’re in my home league, and then you better stop reading now or else I’m going to sue you with our fellow writer Nate Henry as my attorney.
Lesson 1: Prepare
If you’re playing in a serious keeper league, your league-mates are probably in multiple leagues – mostly redraft. That means they’re likely thinking about player valuation in terms of redraft average draft position (ADP). Keeper leagues don’t work the same way. Players available at the end of the second round of your keeper league might have a redraft ADP in the early fourth round. You might also find that high volume running backs are the most commonly kept position, which drives a market shift of supply/demand. You might also find that four of the top-5 tight ends are being kept, which means that you’ll have to draft the remaining top-5 tight end early if you want him on your team. These are common trends in my experience, and that’s the beauty of keeper – added complexity and strategy.
The first way that I try to gain an edge happens even before keepers are selected. Comb through every other team’s roster. In every league, you’ll find at least one or two teams that have poor keeper options. If you have excess keeper options, try to trade away one of your keepers for an upgraded draft pick. If you’re successful, it helps your team at literally no cost to you. Oftentimes, the early bird gets the worm…try to be the first to make offers to league-mates.
This next tip might be the most important one in the article: Create your own spreadsheet/table before the draft so that you can enter in everyone’s keeper picks and see how the board looks. Then, do a mock draft as a thought experiment to see which players you expect to be available for your picks. Put yourself in the shoes of your league-mates when working through the mock draft. For example, your league mate that’s keeping AJ Brown and Justin Jefferson is probably going to avoid WR for the early rounds. You’ll find that you will have a pretty good idea of which players will be drafted where especially if you know your league well.
You’d be surprised at how much of an edge you gain by doing a thorough mock draft. I have personally found instances where the drop-off between an early second-round pick and a late second-round pick is the equivalent to about two rounds in redraft ADP. Once you have this information, you can make pick trades before the draft to gain small advantages. I guarantee that many of your leaguemates are NOT degenerates like you and I are – and therefore, you could trade up from a late second-round pick to an early second-round pick pretty easily by making a trade offer with greater “perceived value” than the actual value. That’s the key right there…taking advantage of perceived value. It also helps to use real player names from your mock draft to visualize what pick trading will look like.
Another great way to find an edge before the draft is to trade up/down within a round where you or your trade partner are keeping a player. This is applicable to leagues like mine where “player X can be kept in the Y round”. For example, I would be looking to trade to the back of the fifth round if I have the 5.01 pick but plan to use it to keep D’Andre Swift. You might be able to trade the 5.01, 6.12, and 8.12 for the 5.12, 6.01, and 8.01. If you’re successful, you upgrade two picks but you literally have to give up nothing. Be smart and don’t show your hand. Similarly, your opponent keeping Stefon Diggs in the fourth round has no need for the 4.02 pick, so offer them the 4.12 and something else!
Keep as many players as your league allows. Look at every single player on your team and compare the “keeper cost” to where you think the player would be drafted in your mock draft. Remember that keeper league draft cost is very different than redraft ADP – use your mock draft! If you don’t have keeper options, float some trade offers out there to league mates with an excess of keeper options. You can normally still have a net positive trade in this scenario because your opponent’s cost is nothing. MAXIMIZE THE NUMBER OF KEEPERS YOU CAN KEEP! I’m shouting it for the people in the back because last season, one of my league mates opted for zero keepers because he wanted to “start fresh”….that’s leaving value on the table. Don’t be like him. We don’t name names, but his name is Tony and he’s a better realtor than he is a fantasy football player.
Lesson 2: Strive to be EITHER First or Last
The goal in fantasy football is always to win. Maybe the goal is to win this year or maybe it’s to win next year…but these are the two options in keeper leagues. Always start the season by trying to win now and adjust halfway through the season if needed.
As I mentioned earlier, future assets are in play in keeper leagues. If you feel that you can contend for a championship this year, don’t be afraid to trade future picks to craft your ideal team as the season progresses. After all, I’d rather win NOW and be in last place next year than come in fourth place two years in a row. If you don’t trade away future assets to win now, you’re hurting your chances of winning a championship. To use an analogy…imagine that your fantasy team is the equivalent of $100 in value and you have the option to pull $20 from your budget next season. If you don’t pull the $20 out but other contenders do, your $100 roster is going to go up against an upgraded $120 roster. Conversely, the best-case scenario is that you trade future draft picks but the other contenders don’t because they’re risk-averse. Then your $120 team is going against $100 teams. In statistical terms, you have the greatest chance of winning a championship over a 10 year period if you fluctuate between “winning now” and “tanking” based on your team’s performance through the first half of the season. The peaks are higher and the valleys are lower, but remember that we’re talking about a game where you only have an 8.3% chance of winning in the first place. If you don’t win, it doesn’t matter if you’re 4th or 12th. Bulk up your team on good/lucky years, simple as that.
I’ve also had seasons where I realized around Week 7 or so that I wasn’t going to be a contender with a 1-6 roster and major injuries. While you certainly don’t want to call it quits too early, you should be willing to tank to upgrade future year picks. Be aware that the first player to “tank” for next season tends to get the best deals on future year picks.
Lesson 3: Draft Like it’s Redraft…for the Most Part
The title says it all. Don’t get cute with the draft, it’s not dynasty. It’s OK to reach one round for a rookie in the middle rounds (like Javonte Williams this year). But remember that generally speaking, we’re really bad at predicting fantasy value for rookies outside of running backs that were drafted in the first round or two of the real NFL draft. Don’t believe me? Look up rookie rankings from years past and compare to their current fantasy ranking (i.e. N’Keal Harry).
It really comes down to opportunity cost. A 10th round pick and a 15th round pick are roughly equivalent, but a 2nd round pick is significantly more valuable than a 4th round pick.
Once you get past the middle rounds, feel free to take riskier shots on rookies because the opportunity cost is minimal. In fact, I will specifically try to draft a couple of rookies after round 10 for the upside they would give me next season if they hit. I think one of the best positions to try this with is quarterbacks with a starting job. In 1 QB leagues, you can find a good option in the double-digit rounds. Why not take a shot on a rookie QB like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or even Zach Wilson in the 13th round? Their range of outcomes is much wider than someone like Ben Roethlisberger, but if they hit…you now have a player with good keeper value for next year. And if they miss? Hit the waivers, no harm no foul.
DO NOT focus too heavily on rookies in your draft. It’s very common for teams to “ease” rookies into touches as the season progresses. The last thing you want is a team that starts off 2-7 and starts to finally heat up when it’s too late for you to make the playoffs. Similarly, don’t undervalue older players.
DO NOT roster more than three total tight ends and quarterbacks unless you’re in a deep league or Superflex league. Hoarding young players at the onesie positions is a losing strategy. Conversely, don’t be afraid to move on quickly from rookies that can’t help you in the next 2-3 weeks. You might miss out on rookies that hit, but that’s OK. At the beginning of the season, treat it 90% like a redraft league. Note that this approach changes if you’re halfway through the season and decide to “tank” – then hoard all the rookies and injured players that you can for next year.
Target sophomore wide receivers with an ADP in the middle round. Our own Jason Moore analyzed recent wide receiver data and found that second-year players breakout at a very high rate. Over the past decade, 86% of sophomore wide receivers drafted in Rounds 4-8 outperformed their ADP (excluding injuries). In 2021, the players who qualify include CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Brandon Aiyuk, Chase Claypool, Tee Higgins, and Laviska Shenault.
At the end of the day, Fantasy Football is about having fun, talking smack, and competing. But the goal is still to win. Are you playing to win or are you playing to “not lose”? When you’re a contending team, go for it. Be risky. After all, shooters shoot.