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When To Take a Tight End (And Get Your Quarter Back)


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For me, this is really what your fantasy football draft breaks down to this season. You will hear about strategies to use when picking from a certain position. You will hear that you need to take running backs in the first two rounds. Then you’ll hear that these days, you need to take two stud wide receivers in the first two rounds. Then it’s you should wait on taking a quarterback.

But then these other guys say that you need a stud quarterback. And let’s not even get into the tight end position. You’ll here every piece of advice from “take Antonio Gates early” to “don’t take a tight end until your third-to-last pick”. Guess what? Chicken butt. Ha! Haven’t used that one in at least a hot minute. But seriously, there’s no right or wrong way to execute a fantasy draft. But you need a plan.

Let’s make this easier. When it comes to quarterback’s this year, these are the guys that I would consider for my teams:

GROUP 1

  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Drew Brees
  • Tom Brady
  • Mike Vick
  • Peyton Manning
  • Philip Rivers

GROUP 2

  • Matt Schaub
  • Tony Romo
  • Ben Roethlisberger
  • Matt Ryan
  • Eli Manning
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Josh Freeman
  • Joe Flacco
  • Sam Bradford

GROUP 3

  • Jay Cutler
  • Matt Cassel
  • Kevin Kolb
  • David Garrard
  • Donovan McNabb
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
  • Kyle Orton

So here’s how I draft quarterbacks:

If I can get a quarterback from Group 1, I’m probably not even drafting a second quarterback*. Most likely one of the Group 3 quarterbacks goes undrafted or is dropped early.

If I miss out on the Group 1 quarterback’s, I’m trying to take two quarterbacks from Group 2. This may mean taking quarterback’s with back-to-back picks in the Rounds 7-10 area. I’m okay with that.

It’s highly unlikely I would even find myself in a draft where I didn’t get at least one quarterback from Group 2. Should I only get one quarterback from Group 2, I will take one or two quarterbacks from Group 3. Which quarterbacks I select from Group 3 will depend on who I got from Group 2. If I got a guy with some injury risk (say Matthew Stafford) as my only quarterback, I am going to draft two quarterbacks from Group 3. You need the depth. Should you get a pretty proven, durable quarterback from Group 2 (say Eli Manning) I’ll probably only take one quarterback from Group 3 and it will be a high-upside, high-risk guy like Kevin Kolb.

*If I somehow wound up with Michael Vick, I am going to draft a solid backup quarterback, probably from Group 2. I would do this for insurance but also for trading purposes. Should I hit on the quarterback from Group 2 I would absolutely consider shopping Vick to dramatically upgrade at another position.

Now the trickier part. How do you decide which of these strategies you use? The answer is, you don’t. Not until the draft is underway. What you do will depend on the value available to you when it’s your turn to draft. Let’s consider a couple of things right of the bat:

  • How many points does your league award for touchdown passes? If it’s six points, you’re going to want an elite quarterback if possible. Ditto if there are bonus points for long touchdown plays or yardage benchmarks.
  • How do you feel about Vick? If you think that he is going to repeat what he did last year, he’s worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. If you are somewhat risk-adverse (you like playing it safe) Vick is not for you. This is a fundamental decision that you need to make before your draft.
  • The deeper the league, the more advantageous it is to draft a quarterback early. This goes for leagues with more teams (14 or more teams) or deeper benches (six or more bench spots). In these leagues the quarterbacks available will not be of much help to you.
  • The more you know your league, the better. For instance, in my longtime 14-team league, quarterbacks go very early. Like eight quarterbacks in the first two rounds early. If you want a high-end quarterback in this league, you pretty much have to commit your first- or second-round pick to taking a quarterback. Sunday I was in a 12-team point per reception league (four-point touchdown passes) and Peyton Manning went in the fifth round. In this type of league, there is no value in taking Tom Brady in the second round when you can get Manning in Round 4 or 5.
  • This is not a hard and fast rule, but the higher the quality of fantasy players in your league, the more likely they are to wait on taking a quarterback. There’s always value to be had at quarterback later in the draft, you just have to be OK with going into the season without an established fantasy star(ter) at quarterback. These are the leagues where you see Aaron Rodgers going in the third round.
  • If you know your league very well, you can get a bit tricky sometimes. Say you know that there’s a guy in your league that just has to have Vick. You’re picking fifth and you draft Vick. Not because you love Vick. But because of the value of Vick. If you can flip Vick for say Matt Forte and Matt Schaub, why wouldn’t you do it? Again, you need to know your league. If every trade in your league gets vetoed, I wouldn’t recommend this strategy.

So here we are in the draft. For me, I’m probably not taking a quarterback in Round 1. Let’s assume this is a standard (non-PPR, running back/wide receiver flex) league. Here’s my first round.

  1. Adrian Peterson
  2. Chris Johnson
  3. Arian Foster
  4. Jamaal Charles
  5. Ray Rice

These are my Top 5 running backs, no doubt. So I’m not taking a quarterback in Round 1 if I’m drafting 1-5.

  • 6. Darren McFadden
  • 7. LeSean McCoy

These are both excellent running backs who are involved in the passing game, as well as being the primary running back on their team. I’m not taking a quarterback with Pick 6 or 7 in Round 1.

  • 8. Calvin Johnson

We’re getting closer to quarterback territory here. In a PPR league, this would probably be Larry Fitzgerald. In this case, the potential of Johnson, combined with his steady play, makes him the way to go here.

  • 9. Aaron Rodgers

It’s Rodgers over Vick for me. Rodgers is safer, attempts more passes and has an easier schedule. In a PPR league this might be Roddy White, but here I’ll take Rodgers.

  • 10. Rashard Mendenhall
  • 11. Maurice Jones-Drew

Mendenhall is not part of the passing game and is coming off of a Super Bowl appearance, something that is historically a bad thing for starting running backs. Jones-Drew has a scary sounding knee condition and the Jacksonville Jaguars look like they could be terrible.

  • 12. Matt Forte
  • 13. Larry Fitzgerald
  • 14. Roddy White
  • 15. Steve Jackson
  • 16. Frank Gore

If I’m the team on the turn (12th pick in Round 1, first pick in Round 2) I’m taking this best running back and wide receiver available, unless somebody falls to me that shouldn’t. After that, White, Jackson and Gore are potential first-round talents, albeit with some injury or targets risk.

  • 17. Drew Brees
  • 18. Tom Brady
  • 19. Peyton Manning
  • 20. Philip Rivers
  • 21. Michael Vick

At this point in the second round I’m taking the elite quarterback. If this were a PPR league, the next group of wide receivers (Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, etc.) would go ahead of the quarterbacks.

  • 22. Hakeem Nicks
  • 23. Reggie Wayne
  • 24. Mike Wallace
  • 25. Michael Turner

Turner falls this far due to his injury risk and lack of involvement in the passing game. Nicks is a bit unproven with a slight injury risk. Wayne appears to be slowing down, but still should have a fine year as Peyton Manning’s No. 1 target. Wallace is here because he is very dependent on the big play. If his targets and catches increase, he would have a shot at being the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy.

So that’s how I would draft the Group 1 quarterbacks right now. Since we’re in a 12-team league here, six of the teams already have their quarterback. So if you’re one of the six teams left, you’re trying to grab two of the nine quarterback’s in Group 2. You will have until at least Round 8 before the first six teams with quarterbacks think about drafting a backup. So you will want to have at least one of the Group 2 quarterback’s before Round 8 starts. Simple enough?

Now how do I pick which Group 2 quarterbacks I want? Here’s how I’ve been doing it:

  • Rounds 1-5 I have been taking running backs and wide receivers. When my pick in Round 6 is there, I’m usually either selecting Jermichael Finley or the best quarterback left. If a running back or wide receiver is available in Round 6 who shouldn’t be, I won’t hesitate to pull the trigger and wait until Round 7 to take my first quarterback.
  • The longer you wait to select your quarterback, the earlier you should select your second quarterback. If I select a quarterback in Rounds 4-6, I don’t need to take a second quarterback until Round 9 or 10 or when there’s very few quarterbacks from Group 2 left. But if I wait until Round 7 to take my first quarterback, I very well might also take a quarterback in Round 8.

It’s just that simple. If I got one of the Top 6 quarterbacks I would be looking to take any of the Group 2 quarterbacks if there were still available in Round 10. If I drafted Vick I might draft a Group 2 quarterback in Round 8.

If you’re in a very deep league you might want to take a flier on a quarterback from Group 3 just to stash on your bench. Don’t do that until you’ve got at least eight total running backs and wide receivers, two quarterbacks and a starting tight end.

So that’s the quarterbacks. Now, on to the tight ends.

GROUP 1

  • Antonio Gates
  • Jermichael Finley
  • Vernon Davis
  • Dallas Clark
  • Jason Witten

GROUP 2

  • Owen Daniels
  • Marcedes Lewis
  • Kellen Winslow
  • Rob Gronkowski
  • Jimmy Graham

GROUP 3

  • Tony Gonzalez
  • Greg Olsen
  • Zach Miller
  • Chris Cooley
  • Jared Cook

Let’s deal with Gates first. He’s a singular, Hall of Fame-level talent. But Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd return. Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews occupy the backfield. And Gates still has plantar fasciitis. It’s not going away. This is going to be a problem all year. Gates is going somewhere in Rounds 2-4 right now. That’s too rich for my lips. Let somebody else take the risk.

I can’t quite trust Clark because he’s really got quite an injury history. Not to mention that Jacob Tamme showed last year that he can fill in for Clark just fine. Clark is going just after Gates which makes the injury risk too great.

Witten is a nice PPR guy, but he doesn’t catch many touchdowns. Not to mention that Dez Bryant and Mile Austin are going to get the ball. A lot.

Which brings us to Finley. He has the potential to score more points than Gates. He could score more points than Greg Jennings. Will he stay healthy? Nobody knows. But you can get him rounds later than Gates. If you take Finley, you probably need to grab a Group 3 tight end as insurance.

Davis is the most boring pick here. He has the worst quarterback, he’s on the worst offense. But he’s been consistent with Alex Smith at quarterback, and he’s stayed healthy. Based on the health concerns, you could pry argue Davis as the No. 1 tight end. I’m not, but there’s a legit argument there.

So those are what I consider the Top 5 tight end’s. If I get a quarterback in the first five rounds, I’m not getting one of these tight ends unless they slip to Round 6 or later. You can’t come out of your first five picks with only three total running backs and wide receivers. You have to have at least four running backs and quarterbacks after five rounds. Capice?

For me, the dream is Finley in Round 6. In any format or scoring system. His potential is tantalizing, and he’s part of one of the best offenses in the league. I’m usually not seeing any of the other four elite tight ends falling to Round 6. But Finley will sometimes.

There is the occasional scenario where say I get two running backs and two wide receivers with my first four picks. In that scenario, I might take one of the elite tight ends in Round 5 if there are no Group 1 quarterback’s left on the board.

If I whiff on the Group 1 tight ends, I simply want to secure one tight end from Group 2 and one tight end from Group 3, so long as I have the bench space. If I only plan to carry one tight end, I will be more likely go for a tight end towards the beginning of Group 2, like Daniels or Winslow. 

If there is tremendous value on the board at other positions, it’s not the worst thing in the world to walk away from your draft with two Group 3 tight ends, so long as the rest of your team is awesome. If you do completely miss on the first two tight end groups, you need to get two tight ends from Group 3. There’s enough risk with that group to require you to carry a backup tight end, at least for the first week or two until you see how everything shakes out.

And that’s pretty much it. Let’s condense the whole thing into some short rules, just for the sake of brevity.

  1. It’s OK to draft a stud quarterback early if he’s the best player on the board
  2. If you don’t get a stud quarterback early, wait and try to grab two high upside quarterback’s late
  3. You need to get at least two wide receivers and two running backs with your first five draft picks
  4. Consider an elite tight end in Round 5 if you have the requisite running backs and wide receivers and there are no Group 1 quarterbacks on the board.
  5. Pray for Jermichael Finley to be there in Round 6.
  6. If you plan on taking a backup tight end, you can wait longer to select your first tight end
  7. You would like to have a Group 2 and a Group 3 tight end

That’s the short, short, short version. One random thought on the tight ends. What? about Jimmy Graham? The Graham hype train is out of the station and barreling down the tracks. He’s going before some of the Group 1 tight ends in some drafts. He’s a nice, athletic young player. He’s a former basketball player at tight end, playing with Drew Brees. So naturally everybody on the planet thinks that Graham is the next Antonio Gates and wants to get in on the ground floor. Graham is a nice player. But he’s still learning the position. He’s only expected to be on the field for about half of the snaps on offense. He’s struggling with drops in camp. This is a promising young player, but to take him before say Kellen Winslow in a PPR league is nuts. Graham should not be your only tight end and you certainly should not draft him while there is established talent on the board at the position. If you don’t know, now you know.