Finder's Keepers - Keeper League Strategy Part 1
By Jeff Tefertiller
June 2nd, 2010

The vast majority of fantasy footballers participate in redraft leagues. Dynasty leagues are gaining in number and prominence. There is also a growing population that love keeper leagues. Keeper leagues offer the fantasy football enthusiast the best of both redraft and dynasty leagues. The keeper owner has the ability to draft well and build a strong nucleus, just like with dynasty. They also allow an owner to quickly recover from a bad draft the year before and re-build a struggling team. One of the most difficult things for keeper owners is how to interpret the rankings. The rankings are for redraft and dynasty, so one of the first things the keeper owners must do is look at both sets of rankings to get a feel for player values. This article is the first in a two-part series that will address the issues and strategy of keeper leagues.

Keeper leagues are leagues where an owner is allowed to keep a certain number of keepers from one year to the next. Keeper leagues range from teams keeping one to keeping eight players. The fewer keepers, the more the owner should look at redraft rankings and projections. The converse is true with the larger keeper leagues looking more like dynasty leagues. Keeper leagues offer the year-around appeal of a dynasty league with the ability to draft well and make a bad team into a contender in one year as with redrafts. For keeper owners, it is the best of both worlds. There are many types of keeper leagues, representing the gambit of keeper owners.

There are only two goals of keeper leagues. Everything a keeper owner does is with one of these goals in mind.

Win the championship and upgrade your keepers.

Many keeper leagues trade more often than redraft or dynasty leagues because owners are trying to either load up for a title run or make quantity-for-quality deals after the season to improve their keeper pool. Some trades involve “selling” players that will not be kept for draft picks. One key point that surprises many new to keeper leagues is that each keeper league has its own economy for trades involving draft picks and players. It is impossible to compare values across leagues. Many trades happen right before the keeper deadline. As the deadline approaches, the expected return of picks for players traded declines as similar players are offered to the teams without good keepers. The stocked teams try to pawn off their non-keepers onto the lesser talented teams for draft picks or player upgrades. It becomes an issue of supply and demand.

There are three primary types of keeper leagues:

  • Keep less than three players
  • Keep more than three players
  • Give up a draft pick assigned per keeper

In leagues that keep three players or less, the key is whether the players kept would be drafted in the same number of rounds of a redraft league. For example, if a 12-team league keeps two players, each player should have an ADP of 24 or higher. In the leagues that keep three or fewer players, keeping a quarterback or tight end is a bad idea, even if their names are Brees, Manning or Rodgers. Why is this so? Most teams will keep at least two running backs, depending on starting lineup requirements. If every other team keeps two or three running backs, and you do not pick early in the first round, you will lose all chance at having a top 20 running back. You are already behind the curve. The supply of elite running backs and wide receivers is as low as it has ever been while there is increased depth at the quarterback and tight end positions.

One general rule of thumb is that you should try to keep (depending on your choices) as many running backs as you are able to start each week. If your league starts two backs, plus a flex player, you should try to keep three running backs. The ability to start a back in the flex while some start a receiver is a big advantage for you. This is assuming the back has an ADP equal to the pick given up to keep the player. Other than being behind the curve finding running backs, value is another reason to keep as many backs as possible. The supply of viable fantasy starters will dry up quickly. There will be some teams whose best keepers might be positions other than at running back. If so, there will be an even heavier burden on finding quality backs early in the draft. Only the top wide receivers should be considered as keepers. The ADP data bears this point out. Plus, receiver depth is easier to find than at the running back position. Each year, there are several wide receivers available outside of the top ten that will produce similar numbers to the stud receivers.

If you are in a keeper league that keeps three or fewer players, you should try fervently to improve your keepers each year. This comes from quantity-for-quality trades, working the waiver wire, and drafting well. In leagues that keep just one player, that player kept is of the highest importance. You should always try to trade for a stud running back in these leagues. If you acquire a top back, you would be wise not to consider trading him. In a keep-one player league, the top player (Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson) has more value than in dynasty or redraft. His owner gets to keep him indefinitely like a dynasty league. Plus it allows the owner to draft well each year and start each year with a huge advantage. Most games, the top backs will outscore their opponent's keeper by several points. This advantage is not easy to overcome for the other teams in the league. The advantage is like drawing the first or second pick in a redraft every year. But, the difference is that a team could have Chris Johnson and still draw a top drafting spot, adding even more wealth.

In the best case scenario, an owner is wise to keep a wide receiver if the league keeps four player or more. Quarterbacks should be kept in leagues that keep six or more players. Many times, it is still best to only keep running backs and receivers in leagues that keep six or seven players. There are viable tight ends and passers that are great value each year which are not kept. To keep a total of six strong backs and wide receivers gives a huge advantage over the teams that feel like they must keep their starting lineup. It goes without saying that defenses and kickers should not be kept unless the league keeps at least eight, and probably not even then. In these larger keeper leagues, it is very important to draft well and improve the keepers. With most of the better players kept, poor teams need to have great drafts in order to compete. In these keeper leagues, non-elite rookies are invariably drafted much too soon. Interestingly, many highly drafted rookies will not be kept the following year. For this reason, each rookie drafted has to make an impact. If not, it is a huge waste of a pick trying to hit a home run. Solid, steady veteran players are often overlooked in these keeper leagues. Most owners want to take a chance on striking gold and forget that there are veteran players available with upside. These established players have the advantage of solid statistics and a proven track record behind them.

In the leagues where keepers are kept at the cost of a draft pick assigned to the player, running backs are usually in great shortage. These leagues have Ryan Grant, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Ray Rice, Brandon Jacobs, Marion Barber, Mike Wallace, Marques Colston, and Jermichael Finley locked up at a very cheap price. This is why many times it is wise to take chances on high upside players later in the draft. If you hit on a late round pick, he is yours indefinitely at a very reasonable price tag. With these good players already on rosters, the talent drop off in the draft will come sooner than normal, especially at the running back position. This makes the higher picks more valuable. There are always late round steals that make worthy keepers (especially if they only cost the draft pick used). Keeper league drafters should evaluate the upside of the player's situation in the middle and late rounds when looking for a potential keeper. Some players taken in those rounds will be good one-year options while some might have longterm viability at a cheap price. This is where a backup running back like Tim Hightower, Jamaal Charles, and Fred Jackson paid dividends last year. This season, some options include: Tashard Choice, Ahmad Bradshaw, Ben Tate, Javon Ringer and Michael Bush.

So, the big question is how to interpret the rankings into a keeper league. First of all, know your league’s rules inside and out. This is true for any league. To get a feel for value, next input all of the rules into the Footballguys Draft Dominator or VBD. The rankings that are derived will be tailor-made for your league. Also, the Draft Dominator allows an owner to input keepers. The Draft Dominator even allows for keeper leagues to input a draft pick to be given up to keep the player.

This is the first of a two-part series on keeper league strategy. Part two will look at strategy for leagues that keep three players or less, which is the majority of keeper leagues. These articles hope to inspire thought on keeper league strategy. Not every keeper league and keeper team is created equally. These are general principles and strategies to make your keeper team into the dominant team year after year.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to