Fantasy football is a ton of fun, but getting started can be daunting for some. We hope the words below help you — or someone you are trying to encourage to play — learn how to play fantasy football and provide a basic road map for navigating a season from start to finish.
No one will confuse me for a professional golfer anytime soon.
I’m not a terrible golfer, but I’m also not a great golfer. Usually, a few shots per round keep me motivated to come back for more.
While there is plenty I don’t know about golf, there’s one thing I do know: People who are good at golf like to tell you all about their game.
And if you haven’t played golf before, the thought of starting and being so far behind those-who-are-Tiger-Woods-in-their-own-minds can be daunting.
“Where do I start?”
If you’re reading this and you feel the same way about playing fantasy football for the first time, great. You’re in the right spot.
While there is a certain level of skill and attention that can influence your fantasy football fortunes, the reality of the game is good luck can often overcome however many hours of lineup prep your leaguemates put in before each draft or each week during the season. You just need to know the basics.
For the next 2,500 or so words, I’ll be your fantasy football chauffeur: I’m here to take you from the point before you draft until the end of the season with a helpful how-to for fantasy football.
We won’t — and don’t need to — cover every last detail, but consider this your fantasy football Rosetta stone. Bookmark this page, reference it in the future when needed. Hopefully a year from now you’ll be passing it along to someone who is in your shoes.
Let’s begin with the basics
Joining a league: All right, so you want to play fantasy football. How do you get started? First, we’re going to find a league for you: public or private. Many people who play fantasy football get started via an invitation to a private league. A league full of family members, office mates or high school friends typically makes for good banter. Your commissioner will send you an invite to join and you’re in. If you’re looking to play and don’t have a group to do it with, there are endless public leagues available to join on ESPN: a simple sign-up link on the ESPN Fantasy Football home page will lead you there.
What type of league? The two most basic elements that matter in your league are size and scoring type. A league of 10 teams is rather common, but you can go smaller or bigger. Anything smaller than eight may feel a little light, while more than 14 leads to some roster crunches. As far as scoring goes, ESPN’s default setting is Points Per Reception (PPR), in which a player receives a point for every catch he registers. Non-PPR is the other introductory option and you get no points for a catch.
Let’s talk rules: I’ll use the most generic of settings for ESPN as my template. Each week, you’re setting a lineup that includes: one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex player (RB/WR/TE), one kicker and one defense/special teams. You will also have seven players on your bench. Scoring is as follows in a basic PPR league:
1 point for every 25 passing yards
4 points for every passing TD
1 point for every 10 rushing yards
6 points for every rushing TD
1 point for every 10 receiving yards
6 points for every receiving TD
1 point for every catch
2 points for a 2-point conversion
1 point for kicking an extra point
3 points for a field goal
Defense/special teams start at 10 points and can lose points (based off points/yards allowed) or add points (for sacks, turnovers forced, return TDs, etc.)
So, how do I build a team?
OK, so how do you get players on your team? That’s where the draft comes into play. You and your leaguemates must agree on a time to conduct a draft, or you can choose to have all teams autodrafted by the computer. Let’s discuss a handful of basic strategies for the draft:
Running backs and wide receivers are most valuable: If you spend a little time crunching some numbers with the scoring above, you’ll think quarterbacks are most valuable because they have the best chance to score the most points. While your QB is often your highest-scoring player, this is a supply-and-demand dynamic: Really good running backs are hard to find, while there is typically good depth at quarterback. Wide receivers are, generally, the second-most valuable position on your roster.
Build depth: It will be tempting to fill out your starting lineup with your first eight picks, especially as you see your roster fleshed out in the draft room. Don’t be overly concerned with that. Your depth at RB and WR is valuable, sometimes more valuable than your starting QB or TE.
When in doubt, trust the rankings: My buddy Mike Clay works extremely hard on his projections, and there’s data backing up the practice of deferring to the projections when in doubt during the draft. The projections in the draft room are incredibly valuable.
Autodraft isn’t advised, but …: All right, I’d prefer you take part in your draft actively — the draft is a ton of fun! But if you must, using the autodraft feature is OK. As mentioned above, the team you’ll build through autodrafting will likely be a solid one, as it is derived from Mike’s projections.
You should wait to pick your kicker and defense: Heck, just wait until your final two picks. I’m telling you.
This is just your initial roster! This is essential to remember: While a perfect draft can likely carry you far, any eventual championship team will require a bit of maintenance that can’t be ignored. Trades and waiver claims are essential to fantasy fortune, and we’ll get into what goes into those coming up soon.
The draft is over — now what?
It’s time to set your lineup
Well, not literally, unless you are reading this sometime in September and football is back. (Just the thought of that day gets the juices flowing. Come back soon, NFL.) But let’s talk about that process. We mentioned your starting lineup will be made up of nine players (QB, RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2, TE, Flex, K, D/ST), but here are five tips on setting your lineup.
1. It starts Thursday: Let’s not forget that each week during the regular season there is at least one game played on Thursday, so it’s a good habit to go into your ESPN Fantasy app and set an initial lineup at some point before Thursday evening. You don’t want one of your highest-projected players left on the bench because you forgot about the Thursday game.
2. You can adjust your lineup all the way until a player’s game kicks off: The deadline to make a decision on a player is the moment his game begins, but not a second later. If you have a pair of players you are deciding between for your flex spot and both of them play in the Sunday night game, you have time on Sunday to deliberate. Lineups do not lock at 1 p.m. ET when the main slate of games begin.
3. When in doubt, trust the projections: Sensing a theme yet on these projections? They’re there for a reason! Mike works tirelessly to account for a million factors throughout the week (player, role, weather, opponent, injuries, specific matchups, etc.) to make these projections, so if you’re stuck and can’t decide which player to start, there’s nothing wrong with following Mike’s lead.
4. Always look at the injury designations: ESPN is constantly updating a player’s health status during the week, which will be denoted by a small red letter next to his name. The three primary designations you’ll see are: Q for questionable, D for doubtful and O for out. Here’s the important part: Questionable can mean a lot of things. Basically, if a player is anything less than 100%, the team is required to note that, and that can lead to a Q next to his name. However, a player can be 50-50 to play in a game and also be listed as questionable; it’s quite a wide-ranging scale to cover. You can always click on a player’s name to see an in-depth explanation of just how severe — or not — the injury is. Another key: Ninety minutes before every game, a team must designate up to seven players as inactive, which means you’ll know by then if a player is able to go.
5. Keep an eye out for bye weeks: Every team has one week off during the regular season, so make sure you’re keeping an eye out for when that happens. While starting Travis Kelce is a great idea 17 weeks of the season, it’s not so smart during his bye week! Let him enjoy that deserved rest week and find another tight end option.
Managing your roster during the season
The waiver wire
One aspect you’ll love about fantasy football is that it is minimally labor intensive once the season begins. Each NFL team plays once a week and (excluding a couple of rare occasions) those games take place on three days: Thursday, Sunday and Monday. But there is some work that goes into managing a roster that involves more than just setting your lineup, which includes player additions and subtractions. The most important tool is the waiver wire, so let’s break down what it is and how it works.
Every player that is not on a roster in your league is on waivers and eligible to be added during certain points of the week. The first time during a given week that players on waivers are available to add is overnight Tuesday into Wednesday. The process works as such:
1. Every team can attempt to claim any player.
2. The team with the worst record has highest priority and will be awarded a player if multiple teams try to claim him. If your team is struggling, the waiver wire is here to help!
3. To enter a claim, you simply go to the “Players” tab, add a player of interest and submit a corresponding move you will be making in the event that you are awarded that player when waivers run. If you have a player collecting dust on the end of your bench, that’s a prime candidate to drop. Early in the season, do not drop a star player who is struggling. We’ll talk about trades later, but please do not act hastily with slumping stars you took early in the draft. Ride the wave!
4. You can make multiple waiver claims. If there are five players of interest and you have five players not pulling their weight, feel free to make as many claims as possible.
5. By the time you wake up Wednesday morning, the first run of waivers will be complete. At that point, you can add any other player that is still available. Because waivers have passed, you can make further add/drop transactions at any time until that respective player’s game begins. However, you cannot drop a player once his game for the week has begun. As an example: If you add a player Friday morning, you are not able to drop a player who played Thursday night, even if you did not start that player.
Waivers can be helpful to add players who are performing well, to replace struggling starters in your own lineup and to plug gaps when your usual starters are on a bye. Follow waivers weekly if you can. It makes a difference.
The trade block
Until recent years, the NFL lagged behind its counterparts in pro sports in terms of trade activity. That’s no longer the case, as landscape-altering trades have piled up and defined recent offseasons, making for a ton of entertainment for fans in all corners of the football world.
And let me tell you, trades are one of the great joys of playing fantasy football as well. The stakes are just slightly lower than doing something like trading four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, but trades produce an unmistakable adrenaline rush for both teams involved. I don’t think I need to outline too many rules as it pertains to trades in fantasy football — it’s no different than any negotiation in life — but here are a few suggestions to serve as a reminder:
1. Try your best to be fair: The worst kind of offers in fantasy football are the obvious low-ball offers. They’re a waste of time more than anything. The conceit of a trade should be to help you and the other manager involved, not to fleece someone.
2. What you need may be different than what your leaguemates need: If you’re well stocked at running back and other teams in your league are well stocked at wide receiver, that’s an easy way to talk shop. It helps.
3. If you can’t find middle ground, table it for later: Negotiations can be tough (ask the Jets and Packers), so if you can’t seem to bridge the gap, it’s OK to press pause and agree to revisit later … or not revisit at all.
One last note on trades: There is a trade deadline in your league. Check in with your commish on when that deadline is, so you know the final day to complete a deal.
Consult your toolbox
One of my favorite pieces of advice to share about fantasy football is a mere reminder: Your team is your team, so you always have the right to adjust your lineup and strategy as you see fit. But the beauty of our ESPN Fantasy platform and the app is that we do our best to make decisions as easy for you as possible.
Among the various tools you have at your disposal that I encourage you to consult:
1. Preseason and weekly rankings: Throughout the offseason, we are constantly tinkering with our rankings — both positional and overall — to prepare you for drafts. During the season, we offer weekly rankings that are adjusted in perpetuity to account for injuries and other in-week dynamics. When in doubt, always check the ranks.
2. Projections: These are the cousin of the rankings and the byproduct of Mike Clay’s endless work. If you are trying to decide between two players at different positions for your flex, projections are a great tiebreaker. They also help in same-position decision-making, functioning like the rankings do.
3. Weekly ESPN.com content: We are always churning out quality content. During the season, this scribe writes a column called Field Pass that dives into what’s hot around the NFL, while other weekly offerings provide advice on how to approach the waiver wire and which matchups are favorable (or not) for players that may be on your fantasy team.
4. Player pages: When you want a deeper dive on a player and his outlook, clicking on his name either on the website or in the app is a way to get curated content — game logs, projections, player news, injury info and more.
5. Fantasy Focus and Fantasy Football Now: If you’re interested in content to consume in audio or visual form, the Fantasy Focus is our five-day-a-week podcast that also streams in the ESPN Fantasy App. Fantasy Football Now airs each Sunday morning on ESPN2. This is where we get you as ready as you can possibly be with the latest analysis each week prior to kickoff.
Playoff odds and (the) ends
You’ll continue to set a lineup each week of the regular season from Weeks 1 through 14, piling up a win-loss record based on how you fare. If you compile one of the best four records in your league, you’ll advance to the fantasy playoffs in Week 15. The semifinals run for a two-week period of Weeks 15 and 16, while the two-week championship runs during Weeks 17 and 18. (Note: this is if you use ESPN’s default settings. The number of teams that qualify for the playoffs and the start/finish date of them can be adjusted by your commissioner.)
There is nothing sweeter in fantasy football than a playoff run in your first time playing. Let me tell you: beginner’s luck is real in this game — you can do this!
My hope is that this piece is the springboard to a successful fantasy football season, but regardless of how it goes I’m here to encourage you to keep hammering away with your effort. The reality is that the most successful fantasy football leagues are those in which everyone is invested enough.
And if I can leave you with one lasting message about fantasy football, it would be this: We are competitive by nature, and winning your league would be an unquestionably cool accomplishment, especially if this is your first time playing. But I will never hesitate in saying that my favorite part about fantasy football is the community it forms within a league.
Be it a league of high school friends, college friends, co-workers and colleagues, family members, neighbors, a group of people that met by joining the same public league online, or a group made up of people who met on social media — the community and bond formed in playing in fantasy football leagues makes it all worth it, regardless of how your team performs on the field.
Let’s have a great season!