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Improving Your League, Part II: Draft Keeper Leagues

So, what is the point of fantasy football?

If someone were to ask you to answer this, what would you say? Chances are, your response would include some kind of connection to how running a fantasy football team was, in some way, a game that allows owners to fulfill their dream of running an NFL team. You might even point out that some fantasy players are so committed to their team and league that they root against
their own NFL team in the name of fantasy success.

However, that comparison does not fully hold until keeper and dynasty leagues are considered. And, in thinking about these leagues, a new question arises. Although, some might consider fantasy football the equivalent of running an NFL team, why is it the case that draft day is usually the most enjoyable day of the year? After all, there is no equivalent to fantasy football draft day in the NFL thanks to those pesky sheets of paper known as contracts.

So, which is the way to go? Is it the traditional single-season leagues, where every team starts draft day with a blank slate (and, in an auction, an equal chance)? Or, is it the keeper/dynasty leagues, where owners get a closer taste of the NFL experience, the best format despite sacrificing some of the fun of draft day?

The Keeper Problem

What I perceive to be the single biggest problem with keeper leagues is that the systems generally in place for these leagues keep the top NFL players out of the draft pool. What is the point of a draft where Carson Palmer, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Jacobs represent the best available players at their positions? A dynasty league has a more pronounced version of this same problem. To successfully run these kinds of leagues, the owners must be far more committed than the average fantasy player. From my experience, these kinds of owners are hard to find and even harder to keep.

How, then, can such leagues be constructed with your average, every day owner? Today is a chance to see that there is a way to both run a great dynasty league while maintaining the draft day excitement that exists in single-season formats. My league experimented with a keeper format several years ago and tweaked it over time to become a full-blown dynasty format today. Critically, we maintained the excitement of draft day that single-season leagues love, while still remaining true to the dynasty concept. Here is part one of these ideas, aimed at leagues using a draft format.

The General Solution

The one main goal must be to allow everyone a reasonable chance at acquiring the big stars of NFL football each summer. This means that in no way can someone like Peyton Manning be restricted by his former owner from going into the open draft or auction. However, the key is to also reward owners who intelligently plan ahead for the future. This means that in no way can there exist some rule that forces an owner to dump a player like Kevin Kolb back into the pool when he has been patiently waiting on him for years.

For draft leagues, there is a very simple answer. Basically, the cost of a keeper must equate to the price of the acquisition. So, in order to keep a player in the next season, an owner must lose a draft choice equivalent to the draft choice used to originally acquire the player. However, to allow guys like Manning to remain available, there should be some kind of “accelerator” to prevent him from being kept. These “accelerator” rule tweaks, if well thought out, can allow dynasty leagues to retain the excitement that single-season leagues enjoy on draft day. Here are my five suggestions for the cost of keepers in a draft league:

Rule 1: Unlimited keepers allowed, but lose the pick one round above the original.

This means that a player drafted in this year’s fifth-round would cost a fourth-round pick next summer to retain. A 10th-round pick would cost a ninth. This is an easy and widely used idea.

Rule 2: For each consecutive year a player is retained, the keeper cost increases by one round.

This means that a player who cost a fourth-round pick to be kept in the previous summer would cost a second-round pick in the next one. If a player has been kept in the past two years, the cost would be three rounds above the previous summer’s cost. Again, not very complicated.

Rule 3: Place some kind of limit on the consecutive years a player can be kept.

The benefit to this rule is that, for example, a 16th-round selection that reaches stardom will, with no limit in place, be the property of his original team for six years (costing 15th-, 13th-, 10th-, sixth- and first-round picks in each successive summer). Although, owners making smart late selections should be rewarded, those early keeper prices seem to be reward enough. I suggest a three-year limit (meaning no more than two straight summers where a player is kept out of the draft).

Rule 4: If two or more players have the same keeper price, the owner can retain them at a cost equal to or greater than the current price.

This means an owner who has two players that cost a fifth-round pick can keep them for a fourth and a fifth. Or, I suppose, a trade can be made to acquire an additional fifth-round pick. If an owner has traded away a pick needed to keep a player, the cost rises by a round. This is a rule that should be discussed with your league to work out the specific details.

And the most important (and complicated) rule …

Rule 5: Determine a minimum threshold for each position that determines whether they have played enough to justify a cost increase. If not, disregard Rules 1, 2 and 3.

Now, what in the world does that mean, you ask? Good question. I mentioned Kevin Kolb earlier in this article because he represents to me the type of player that makes a dynasty league far more interesting than a single-season league. Basically, in every dynasty league in

last year, someone had Kolb solely for this season (and beyond). Maybe, the owner was in a rebuilding mode and determined Kolb to be a major piece of his future success. Or, possibly, the owner had someone like Brady or Manning and realized that a true backup was an unnecessary luxury. Regardless, in dynasty leagues, waiver-wire players like Kolb become draft targets, and that’s important.

Now, go back to the “General Solution.” I said that an important goal was not to punish owners who took chances on the future. However, without Rule 5, someone would keep Kolb, year after year, and watch as his price increased while he never took the field. This increasing cost is, in my mind, the punishment that leagues should seek to avoid. The threshold lessens this effect.

There are two ways to construct the threshold. The first is to use a playing time metric. A threshold based on NFL playing time can work but can also be ambiguous. Did a certain wide receiver start, or did he not? Does a player who gets hurt on the first snap really play, or should his limited participation be taken into account? These questions are annoying and avoidable if production metrics are used.

My suggestion is to set some kind of fantasy points figure that serves as a minimum. For example, it could be decided that a quarterback must score 100 fantasy points in a season (make sure to set different numbers for each position). If he does not reach this number, his keeper price is unchanged in the next season and re-signing him does not count toward the consecutive years limit (Rule 3). The benefit of this is that rookies and backups can be stashed away on rosters and serve as valuable trade targets late in the season for rebuilding teams. But, it does not hurt owners who are keeping players that might be a year or two away from contributing to fantasy football.

That’s my five-point plan for draft leagues. Following those rules, your league can have the excitement of chasing big names on draft day that single-season leagues enjoy while also allowing for the many different short and long-term strategies that are seen in dynasty leagues.

In my next article, I will explain how these rules need to be tweaked for leagues that utilize an auction format. If you like the idea of a rookie draft, be sure to check in for that.

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