Tens of millions of Americans play fantasy football each year, dedicating hours upon hours to building the best team. And yet few of us put much thought into seriously altering the settings of our leagues. Sure, you have probably been part of a 37-email thread about whether to switch to a PPR format—with another 52 emails discussing the possibility of half-PPR. But that debate falls comfortably within the fantasy football mainstream at this point. For the most part, we rarely deviate from the version of the game that was introduced decades ago. Fantasy football has become a behemoth, and we’re still using the framework put in place when it was a baby.
I think we can do better. The rules of fantasy football are arbitrary, and we shouldn’t feel limited by them. So I’ve assembled a list of five suggestions to make your league different. Here’s to a smarter, easier, and hopefully more enjoyable experience in 2019. After all, having fun is the point of fantasy football, right?
Start Two Quarterbacks In Your League
Quarterback is undoubtedly the most important position in football. The top passers in the NFL are more recognizable than any other players on the field, and their performances dictate whether their teams succeed or fail. Casual fans might not be able to tell how every wide receiver or running back is faring in whatever game they’re watching, but they can almost always recognize whether the quarterback on each team is playing well.
And yet, quarterback remains something of a fantasy afterthought. While each of the NFL’s starting running backs and many backup running backs make their way onto fantasy rosters, only the top half of the league’s QBs are fantasy-relevant. ESPN’s 2019 draft auction value guide says that only one quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, is worth more than $10 in a 12-team league. Meanwhile, it says 25 running backs, 28 receivers, and three tight ends are worth double-digit auction values. Only five quarterbacks have a value above $2, which is the price tag attached to Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Jared Goff. Philip Rivers, Mitchell Trubisky, and Kirk Cousins are each listed at $1. Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Stafford, and Josh Allen are at $0. Per ESPN, the difference in fantasy value between Drew Freakin’ Brees, who had almost 4,000 passing yards with 32 touchdowns last season, and a replacement-level option is smaller than the difference in value between the 19th- and 20th-best running backs. (The Chiefs’ Damien Williams is listed at $21; the Packers’ Aaron Jones is at $17.)
This is dumb. We obsess over the importance of quarterbacks in every other facet of football. How have we accepted a fantasy landscape in which having the GOAT QB is less significant than picking the correct platoon running back? Quarterbacks should be important!
So, I heartily endorse two-quarterback fantasy leagues. There’s not a ton of punishment for screwing up at quarterback in a single-QB league, because you’re likely going to get similar production from the position regardless. If you sleep on QBs in your draft and come away with the 12th- or 14th-best quarterback in terms of fantasy points per game—Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers last season—you’ll be fine. But if you wait to draft quarterbacks in a two-QB league and end up with, say, the 19th- and 23rd-best options at the position—Josh Allen and Andy Dalton in 2018—now you’re giving up a lot of points every week to teams that secured two good quarterbacks.
There’s one hangup to the double-QB format. The NFL has only 32 starting quarterbacks at a given moment, and backup passers don’t play regularly. If every fantasy owner in a 12-team league drafts two starters and eight teams draft backups, four teams are left with no recourse on bye weeks. However, I like this scarcity. For one, it encourages smart roster choices. Make sure to draft a third QB! It also encourages trades, which are perhaps the best part of fantasy football. If you’re heading into a week without a quarterback, you better make something happen.
And my favorite part about the two-QB approach is that it makes every quarterback relevant. If you adopt this format, there will come a point in the fall when an owner in your league is forced to start Daniel Jones. And when Jones throws three interceptions in a span of about seven minutes, you’ll get to point and laugh at that owner. I play in a two-QB league, and last season I had to start Matt Barkley at one point. MATT BARKLEY. And guess what: I won that week. I rooted for Matt Barkley and survived. It was the happiest that fantasy football made me all season.
The exploits of subpar quarterbacks are some of the funniest things in the NFL. Why not make them an essential part of your league?
A fantasy football team is meant to be a virtual approximation of an actual football team. Owners are required to draft a QB, five eligible receivers, a defense, and a kicker. The only thing that’s missing is the offensive line. (Rebels add a sixth eligible receiver by using a flex spot.) There is no good reason for this. Nobody plays fantasy football to create an approximation of an actual roster—we play to beat our friends and then brag about it.
So why do we keep drafting kickers? Kickers are very obviously unattached from the rest of fantasy football: They have a separate scoring system, and there is little to no strategy in selecting them. In snake drafts, it’s a rite of passage to make fun of the first person to select a kicker. In both auction leagues that I participate in, it has become a strategy to nominate the top kickers for $1 in the opening minutes of the draft, attempting to goad other owners into spending $2 on a kicker. Nobody ever does, as this strategy merely pisses everyone off.
There is some science to drafting kickers—you should draft those on teams likely to score a lot of points, and those who are unlikely to miss the kicks they attempt. But the science is extremely inexact. Four of last season’s top seven fantasy kickers (the Texans’ Ka’imi Fairbairn, the Jets’ Jason Myers, the Giants’ Aldrick Rosas, and the Packers’ Mason Crosby) were not ranked among ESPN’s top 15 at the position at the start of the season. (ESPN did not feel the need to rank more than 15 kickers on its cheat sheet.) Looking back on the seasons their respective teams had, it’s easy to understand why; their teams weren’t great. Only the Texans made the playoffs. These four offenses just happened to be particularly good at getting into scoring range without scoring touchdowns. How could anybody have predicted that?
Even if you make the right choice at fantasy kicker, the payoff is minimal. All 21 kickers who played 16 games last season averaged between 5.69 and 9.88 fantasy points per game, meaning that the difference between the best and worst kicker in the league was about the same as that between the best and second-best running back. (Todd Gurley averaged 22.36 fantasy points per game; Melvin Gordon averaged 18.79.) And there is massive variance within a kicker’s season. Take Fairbairn, who put up 21 fantasy points in Week 12, three points in Week 13, and 22 points again in Week 14. There’s no telling whether a kicker is going to have a massive day or a minor one. No skill is involved; just numbers.
Of course, the randomness of kickers can provide some of the fun of fantasy football. It’s hilarious to win a matchup solely because your kicker made six field goals. Sometimes in fantasy sports, the dumber the result, the better. Just know that’s the argument for keeping kickers in your league—it’s fun to have some part of fantasy football be a total crapshoot.
Use Free-Agent Auction Bidding (FAAB)
It now seems like common fantasy knowledge that auction-style drafts are superior to snake drafts. Why should some teams gain massive advantages simply based on a computer-generated draft order? Auction drafts are more engaging throughout, and require more strategy—are you going to gamble big on studs, or try to build a balanced roster after everyone else has blown their budget? (You should use the first approach, FYI.) Drafting is the most fun part of fantasy football, and having an auction makes drafting more fun.
The same logic should apply to fantasy football free agency. And yet while the auction draft has massively increased in popularity, most leagues still rely on a free-agent system similar to the snake draft—the waiver priority method, in which teams are ranked based on their record and transaction history, with higher-ranking teams given first dibs on claiming any available players. This, despite the equivalent of the auction draft method being available: I recommend using free-agency auction bidding, or FAAB.
The format of FAAB is simple: Each fantasy owner is given a budget (normally $100) to spend on free agents over the course of the season. Each week, you can place blind bids on free agents, and the highest bidder gets a given player. The waiver priority system doesn’t reward skill; in fact, since most leagues create waiver rankings via the reverse order of the standings, it arguably rewards the least skilled players. FAAB introduces an element of strategy to free agency.
Take the case of Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay, last year’s breakout rookie. He wasn’t picked in the 2018 NFL draft and was similarly passed over in fantasy leagues—he was selected in only 1.9 percent of ESPN drafts. But after hanging 16 fantasy points in Week 1 and rushing for 107 yards in Week 2, he emerged as a must-own running back in fantasy leagues. In any competitive league, every owner should have tried to add him. In leagues that used a waiver priority system, teams that started 0-2 had priority to add Lindsay over those that went 2-0 or 1-1. That’s ridiculous! Being bad shouldn’t give owners an opportunity to automatically add top players—and going 0-2 doesn’t even prove that a team is bad! A team in a waiver priority league was awarded a new RB1 for free simply because they happened to face tough opponents during the first two weeks of the season. In FAAB leagues, though, Lindsay went to the highest bidder—someone who saw that Lindsay was going to be a consistent starter and risked a chunk of their free-agent budget even though there were 14 weeks remaining in the season.
The reason we’re slower on the uptake here is because fewer people know FAAB is an option. When creating a league, Yahoo asks users straight away whether they want a standard or auction draft format—it’s the fourth listed prompt, in between the ones asking commissioners who they want to invite to the league and when they want to hold their draft. Meanwhile, to switch from the waiver system to FAAB, you need to bypass the option to quickly create your league and visit another page to customize your league settings. On that page, “waiver type” is the 21st option, and “FAAB” is the fourth option on that dropdown menu.
You have to know about FAAB to even look for it. Well, now you know! And once you consider the two systems, there’s no argument against FAAB.
Remove Randomness From the Playoff Hunt
If an NFL team loses a game 54-51, it means that its defense played spectacularly poorly. If your fantasy team loses a game 140-135, though, you likely didn’t do anything wrong—you just happened to play against Jenna, who picked Todd Gurley and got Patrick Mahomes for $3. What the hell were you supposed to do? It seems patently unfair that you lost while Greg won 78-46 against Cam, the Jets fan in your league who used his first pick on Sam Darnold and then logged out, letting autodraft saddle him with players who were hurt or holding out. (Cam started Le’Veon Bell all year.)
This is why I believe leagues should have recourse for teams that perform well all season long, but get screwed by the randomness of their schedule. I have two proposals:
- Fantasy leagues could adopt what we’ll call the doubleheader system. This was initially floated by my colleague Danny Kelly, so congrats to whichever of Danny’s friends actually came up with the idea. Here’s how it works: Each week, fantasy teams compete for two wins: one for outscoring their opponent, and one for ranking in the top half of their league in scoring. Win your matchup and record a high enough score, and you’ll go 2-0 in that week. Win your matchup solely because your opponent sucked, or lose your matchup because your opponent had a great week, and you’ll go 1-1. If you lose and deserved to lose, you’ll go 0-2. This method requires extra legwork. Each week you will have to track which teams finished in the top half of the league in scoring, and you’ll need to maintain a set of alternate standings all season.
- Leagues could adopt what we’ll call the wild-card system. If six teams make your league’s playoffs, give the first five spots to the teams with the best records, and the sixth to the team outside of those five that has the most cumulative fantasy points for the season. It’s possible this will change nothing; it’s also possible that this tweak will save a team that had a great season but truly terrible schedule luck. Both ESPN and Yahoo showcase total points scored prominently on their standings pages, so this should be easy to track.
Neither of these setups are available on ESPN or Yahoo, so fantasy commissioners would have to manually edit which teams make the playoffs. I think it’s worth it. There is, after all, a reason head-to-head matchups have become the predominant format for fantasy sports over the rotisserie formats that were popular in the early days of fantasy gaming. It’s more fun to play against your friends week after week than it is to see who has the most cumulative points at the end of the year. We want to say we downed Jenna’s Gurley-Mahomes dynasty; we want to yell at Greg about how trash his team is; honestly, we even want to keep Cam around, even though he’s come in last place during seven of the past eight seasons. (It would be nice if he followed through on the booby prize one of these years, but whatever.) Both of these revamped playoff systems maintain the head-to-head nature of the fantasy regular season while ensuring an enhanced level of fairness.
Introduce the All-Superflex League
This next suggestion is not an example of a league that I, or anybody I know, has been in. It’s just a thing I’m spitballing about. Maybe it would work. Maybe it would be an unmitigated disaster.
Some fantasy leagues have adopted a superflex position—a spot on a roster that can be occupied by a quarterback, running back, wide receiver, or tight end. Owners can deploy a QB as their superflex in most weeks, but can also start any other position if no quarterbacks are left. The superflex is one way to increase the value of quarterbacks in your league without committing to a true two-QB lineup. What I’m proposing is to take things a step further: Create a league in which every position is a superflex. I’m talking about completely apositional fantasy football. (No kickers, of course.)
Almost all fantasy analysis is based on positionality—the key isn’t drafting the players who will score the most points, but the players who will score the most points relative to the other players at their position. This is why Mahomes, who had the second-most non-PPR fantasy points of any player in NFL history last year, has an average draft position in the third round in 2019. An all-superflex league—featuring six or seven roster spots in which owners could slot any player—would throw that out the window. Mahomes, the reigning MVP, would be the first player off the board. The goal would be simply to draft the players who are going to score the most points.
Quarterbacks would be intensely hot commodities, since even awful ones average 12 or so points per week. That’s good! Quarterbacks are extremely important! You should spend your Sundays freaking out about QB play!
But there’s strategy here, because this wouldn’t be purely a quarterbacks league. In PPR formats last season, only two of the top 10 players and 18 of the top 50 players in average points per week were quarterbacks. If players in an all-superflex league focused too heavily on QBs, other owners would win with the best running backs and receivers. I suspect that all 32 starting quarterbacks would get drafted in this format, but some running backs and receivers would remain among the most valuable players on the board. You wouldn’t have to worry about who the 10th-best tight end is—he wouldn’t matter in this league, behind so many players who are actually famous.
I’m proposing the all-superflex league because I think fantasy football has grown too formulaic. Most of us accept default roster and scoring setups without giving them a second thought. Doing a ton of draft prep doesn’t help that much—the popular league formats have been analyzed so thoroughly that all anybody has to do is Google “fantasy football auction values” five minutes before the draft and they’ll be only fractionally less likely to succeed than their leaguemates who have spent months tinkering with mock drafts. (Maybe I’m just getting Mad Online that I haven’t won either of my fantasy leagues since 2013 despite having a full-time job writing about football while my friends have regular day jobs.)
If you’re still reading this, odds are that you’re a fantasy obsessive. You, like me, have probably spent at least a couple of minutes this summer wondering whether Justin Jackson or Austin Ekeler is the Chargers running back best positioned to take advantage of a potential Melvin Gordon holdout. Maybe we’re just asking the wrong questions. Instead of devoting so much time to thinking about how to improve our teams, let’s consider how we can make our leagues better. Plus, by trying something new, we can prove once and for all just how much better we are than Jenna, Greg, and Cam.