A Beginner’s Guide to Fantasy Football Keeper Leagues
By John Lowery
Autumn dew begins to cling to the grass a little longer each morning, traveling carnivals spring up overnight like pleasant wildflowers, and golden buses crawl out from summertime hibernation and scurry along brisk streets: football fans recognize the telltale signs of the dawn of the NFL season. With it, keeper and dynasty league football fans begin to mull over preseason decisions that are particular to these increasingly popular variations of fantasy football.
Both fantasy football dynasty leagues and keeper leagues can provide an even greater level of gratification than the standard (or, redraft) fantasy leagues for fantasy football fans seeking to sit in the general manager’s chair and make decisions that more closely resemble the delicate balance of short and long-term considerations that lead to sustained success. Even a losing season becomes more enjoyable in such leagues, as a manager who finds him/herself out of playoff contention may begin to consider trading older blue-chip players for younger players with greater long-term potential. Discovering star rookies and young talent, of course, becomes far more lucrative in these leagues.
In order to properly limit the scope of the discussion here, it is necessary to address the question of nomenclature: is there a difference between a “keeper” and a “dynasty” league? While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, generally a keeper league allows its participants to select a designated number of N.F.L. players to keep on a fantasy roster each year (most commonly, 3-4). On the other hand, a dynasty league requires participants to continue each season with the same fantasy football roster held at the conclusion of the previous season. Consideration of dynasty strategy, which typically involves analysis of obscure players and rookies, will be limited here for the following reasons: dynasty leagues are more rare than keeper leagues, perhaps because of a few noteworthy drawbacks.
- They require a number of highly committed managers who are exceptionally difficult to replace by dint of the format (try convincing someone to take over the perennial last-place team with little hope of improvement over the next few years, particularly if money is involved).
- The annual draft is arguably less exciting because it is limited to rookies.
- There is less parity. One mistake or a poor initial draft can cripple a manager’s team for years.
- Trading is typically more infrequent because underperforming stars or rookies can more easily be held on a roster for many seasons.
Conversely, a keeper league in which owners keep 3-4 players each year:
- Tends to have a more interesting draft because of the larger talent pool.
- Garners preseason enthusiasm each year when owners must cut rosters down to size.
- Generally has greater parity on account of the difficulty of one manager amassing a super-team with such a limited number of keepers.
Trading, drafting, and the longevity of a given league are all paramount to the enjoyment of our fantasy pastime, and so beyond keeping our discussion primarily concerned with the keeper league format in this and subsequent articles, I would personally recommend the keeper over the dynasty format if you are just getting started.
What this means in practical terms for a preseason discussion of draft strategy is our analysis and rankings will not extend to the far reaches of N.F.L. benches, and player age will not be weighted as heavily in ranking players as it would be in a dynasty league where it is easier to hold young talent until a player performs.
Furthermore, because there are numerous variations within the keeper league format based on what penalties, if any, a fantasy team incurs each year for keeping players (see, for example, the section “How Can We Incorporate Player Costs?” in this helpful introduction to keeper leagues), advice here will remain general and primarily be offered in the form of an explanation of how I value (i.e., rank) players along with an accompanying preseason keepers rankings table. Since most keeper leagues consist of 10-12 teams and keep 4 players or so (top 40-48 players), I will rank 100 players to give an idea of how I might assess value in such a league. Hopefully I can continue to revisit and expand this list in the future to chart rising and falling values throughout the season and assist readers who may be trying to gauge the value of their players against others for trades. Because I generally do not advocate keeping quarterbacks if a league limits a manager to four keepers (discussed below), I do not rank many in the top 50 of my table.
For those seeking advice on getting started in a keeper league, Yahoo’s resources as well as Brandon Niles’s article are helpful.
The Relevancy of Player Age and Position in Determining Value
With the long-term prospects of a player taking on greater importance in the keeper format, it is important to consider the age of a given player when establishing a pre-draft roster through the designation of keepers and trading. However, an obsession with youth can be counterproductive; often players peak or continue to perform beyond their physical apex. Indeed, fantasy managers newly introduced to the keeper format will quickly find it is nearly impossible to win with a roster entirely comprised of players under the age of 25. Playing experience is an important factor in point production, particularly for certain positions. What is the correct balance?
As a rule of thumb, one must consider a player’s position when making generalizations about age and trying to anticipate a looming decline in production. A series of articles published a few years ago by Pro Football Focus surveying players over a 42 year period found a few helpful facts, which should not be taken as steadfast rules considering the changes in the game during that time span, but are nevertheless helpful. This data will be collated with other more recent studies, especially those by the analysts at FantasyPros.com (links below).
Quarterbacks can maintain a high-level of play for many years, with prime years falling somewhere between the ages 25-35. Generally age should not be a major consideration when considering the value of quarterbacks in keeper leagues. However, I would caution against keeping a quarterback considering the general depth of the talent pool at this position year in and year out. Unless a particular quarterback consistently outscores the field, I tend to focus on talented young wide receivers and running backs as keepers.
Wide receivers can begin contributing respectable fantasy point totals early in their careers. In the past three years several rookie and sophomore wide receivers have even made major contributions (e.g., Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham Jr., ). Interestingly, while it may not correspond to an N.F.L. wide receiver’s physical peak, the prime years of fantasy football scoring for wideouts tends to be somewhere between 25 and 31 years of age (see articles in ProFootballFocus, FantasyPros, and ApexFantasyFootball). Keeper and Dynasty league managers tend to assume it is younger, and so this represents a buying opportunity for the shrewd manager (see below). Don’t give up on promising wide receivers who have yet to perform as WR1’s in their first few years. Furthermore, considering the possibility of such a prolonged period of value, a young highly productive wide receiver (e.g., Mike Evans) must be considered exceptionally valuable in this format, particularly if his N.F.L. team appears to have competent quarterback options for the foreseeable future. Having only turned 24 in August, and being the beneficiary of a young, talented quarterback, a fantasy manager can probably expect Mike Evans to occupy his or her WR1 slot for another seven years. In his entire career, Evans may contribute a decade of WR1 value for the lucky fantasy manager who discovered him. Running backs will rarely offer such an extended period of value.
While age is a helpful indicator of value for running backs–specifically, decline tends to begin at 27–the truly obsessive owner will consider career touches as well. Running backs approaching 3,000 career touches generally suffer a sharp decline in production (link). The takeaway: the less mileage the better. Mike Tagliere wisely suggests looking to move your high performing keeper running backs at age 27, while the player can still can bring a valuable haul from another fantasy team. You may miss out on a few years of high production, but if you can get a rising star in return it will be worth it. Recent trends suggest that running backs selected early are going to be given the opportunity to shine, particularly if they’re capable blockers. N.F.L. rookie running backs that were drafted early in the pro draft are worth serious consideration as early picks in your fantasy keeper drafts.
According to research by Jonathan Bales, tight ends take the longest amount of time to reach their prime, and then have the smallest window of high-level production (roughly between the ages of 26-31). Correspondingly, it is rare for a tight end to be a top performer at his position prior to the age of 25. Rookie tight ends should be avoided. In practical terms a small window of productivity decreases the overall value of tight ends in keeper leagues, as players of this position generally retain value for less time. As in the case of running backs though, this should not deter you from an elite talent. Consider tight ends in their mid-to-late twenties who historically receive a large target share to be the safest bets for retaining value, and the best targets in your draft.
In sum, when assessing player value in keeper leagues it is important to keep in mind the relevance of age and experience as it relates to each position. With the exception of a few quarterbacks who so vastly out-produce their peers in fantasy production, the quarterback position can safely be addressed in the draft without reference to age. Generally a young top-five wide receiver with a stable quarterback should command premium value in a keeper league. It’s worth taking a risk on high-upside and young running backs (particularly this year), as their prime years are early in the career and conclude sooner than other positions. The tritely familiar tight end that is frequently targeted by his quarterback may be boring, but is probably the best value and can often be drafted rather than kept.
The information on age is particularly helpful for executing trades with a fellow manager whose perception does not match reality when it comes to future production. That is, if a manager in your league believes that wide receivers are not as productive at age 28 or 29, exploit the misperception by buying Julio Jones (age 28) for pennies on the dollar. In this case, you can probably expect two or three more years of elite production.
Again, with a keeper league it’s important not to get carried away with youth. Since a manager can reshuffle rosters in a keeper league with greater ease than a dynasty league, don’t shy away from the highly productive veteran nearing the end of his prime in favor of a relatively known commodity that is less productive but young. In my opinion, two exceptionally productive years are more valuable than four above average ones. Admittedly, I tend to not follow my own advice on this point, thereby fielding a perennially above average team that never wins the championship. But today’s victory is better than tomorrow’s hope of it! Accordingly, in my own player rankings while I still attach value to expected production beyond three years, I try to assign the most value to the expectation of production over that more limited time span. High upside rookies (particularly running backs) who can provide immediate prime years of value also receive a boost in value. While these rookies tend to miss as often as they hit, in my opinion it’s worth taking a risk on them early in the draft.
A Few Final General Trade and Draft Tips
While it perhaps goes without saying, it is important to keep in mind that a fantasy draft pick’s actual value in your league generally corresponds to the number of keepers. In other words, if your league permits owners to keep four players, you are essentially beginning your annual fantasy draft with the talent that approximates the fifth round of a redraft league (with the addition of high-end rookies). The first round of your draft will have a few players that would not fall to the fifth round in a redraft league, including the rookie crop, but beyond this initial round the talent pool quickly diminishes. Trade accordingly. If another owner is offering his/her future “second round” fantasy draft pick and expecting a hefty return from your current roster, remember that it is probably only equivalent in value to a redraft league’s sixth round pick.
Of course some owners will be forced to cut talent that would typically not fall to the fifth round of a redraft league. In this case, if you are participating in an auction league, don’t be afraid to spend a large percentage of your auction money in the opening round of a keeper league draft. For example, if by necessity or error in judgment a manager drops the New Orleans wideout, Michael Thomas, a player that would normally go in the first round were you drafting a keeper league from scratch, don’t be afraid to bid ¾ of your auction money when the rest of the talent pool is significantly worse.
Above all, have fun! Happy drafting!