Particularly since the introduction of big NFL Best Ball contests and tournaments across the industry, it’s been a fairly hot debate about when you actually should be drafting. Draft too early, and you invite quite a bit more injury risk and uncertainty while possibly missing out on some new values that pop up in training camp and preseason. Draft too late, and you miss on some of the best value of the entire draft season in terms of average draft position (ADP).
I’m sure plenty think they have the perfect answer, but the truth is there isn’t one. There is merit to drafting at all sorts of different times, and it’s largely up to each individual to assess their risk tolerance and potential edge at different parts of the draft calendar. There are also a few different factors to consider when evaluating when to draft your Best Ball Tournament teams, whether that be on Underdog Fantasy, Drafters, DraftKings or elsewhere.
The first thing to consider for when to draft your teams is the format that you’re playing in. Most best ball tournaments are what I’d call the “playoff format”, where you play in a 12 team league against the teams you drafted against, and if you advance from that group you have to win against other advancing teams in 3 individual weeks (Week 15-17). This is what we see on Underdog, DraftKings and FFPC.
The other format is what I would call the “cumulative format”, which is what we see on Drafters. In this format, you simply draft your team and then compete against every other team in the entire tournament to accumulate the most fantasy points over the course of the entire season. While in the playoff format, those final 3 weeks are where all the money is made, in the cumulative game week 1 is worth just as much as week 17. They’re extremely different games.
Due to these differences, there can be different approaches to timing of drafts, as well. Jack Miller from Establish The Run did an awesome study earlier this offseason about this subject, and the key takeaway was that teams drafted later score more fantasy points on average. They also score more fantasy points at some of the top percentile outcomes. This all makes a ton of sense when we consider that players inevitably get hurt during the offseason (and sink teams drafted earlier), and we learn so much more about roles, depth charts, etc. the closer we get to the season. All of that information allows us to draft more strongly projected teams that avoided the offseason landmines like Cam Akers or Michael Thomas.
Because of that, I would lean a bit more heavily in the cumulative format on later drafts. Personally, I would not entirely ignore the early drafts in this format because I would want to have access to at least a few “lottery ticket” type teams before ADP settles and the offseason chaos ensues. It gives you shots at what I like to call a “Super Team” that largely just gets lucky and benefits from the chaos of an NFL offseason and best ball draft cycle. However, I would lean more heavily on later drafts because of the large boost in projected points. You are obviously going to need to hit on most of the “league winners” from that season, but the added boost of ensuring you’re getting much stronger projections right out of the gate is extremely important when the early weeks count the same as every other week.
In the playoff format, I think more of a barbell approach (something I wrote about last year) makes a lot more sense. When you have a tournament that is open for such an extended period of time, you end up having unique combinations of players that can only get drafted during certain pockets of time. The pockets that are the smallest in terms of unique combos are at the very start and near the end of the draft season. When the tournament opens, we have new or stale ADP, so the sharp players from the market swoop in and drastically shift the inefficient ADP to more efficient levels. When the tournament is near closing, we are gaining a lot more new information from training camp, preseason, etc. that swings ADP because we now can more accurately project many situations. We typically see a bit weaker competition (more casual players) piling in closer to the start of the season, so there’s also theoretically a skill edge at that point.
(One note from my experience last season and talking to other players is that later drafts on Underdog and Drafters did not seem to have any real skill edge like we had hoped, but that skill edge in late drafts on DraftKings was MASSIVE.)
On top of that, in the playoff format, it’s important to consider the true end goal. As crazy as it sounds, our goal is not to score the most fantasy points. Our goal is to win this crazily formatted game that requires us to do 4 very low probability things in a row. Just because later teams score more points does not mean they give us our best shot at winning this tournament. They raise our projection, but they raise the projection of every other team too. If we draft smartly and target the right archetypes of players, drafting early can give us access to “Super Teams” that not only project better than nearly every other team in the tournament, but they are significantly more unique. We might be able to get a strongly projected team later in the year too, but simply by drafting earlier in the offseason, we probably get a projection edge, and we have access to a huge uniqueness edge.
Risk of Ruin
Of course, a huge part of this decision for each drafter is your own personal risk management. Naturally, the earlier you draft, the greater risk of ruin each team you draft has. Early in the offseason, we simply do not have the information that we will have later on depth charts, playing time, and usage which can lead to some picks we may look back at down the road and laugh about. You’ll almost certainly have drafted some players that got cut.
You also have to deal with the natural chaos of the NFL off-season. Typically that revolves around injuries, as we saw last year with someone like Cam Akers. If you drafted him before his injury, that team was obviously pretty much dead. We also do see other situations arise like suspensions and trades that totally shake up the landscape, and there are a few different situations this year that fall in the bucket.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a more risk averse approach and waiting until closer to the season so that you can avoid many of these potential landmines. It’s just important to know that these tournaments with top heavy payout structures, 10+% rake and plenty of strong opponents are probably not for the super risk averse. If you’re playing them for fear of losing, it might just be best to stick to the standard 12 team league. We’re all playing this shooting for the 7 figure top prizes, and to reach that goal you’re going to need some insanely good luck. So you’re going to need to embrace some level of risk.
Multitude of Tournament Options
Last year at this time, we would have laughed at this, but we saw in 2021 that the thirst for best ball tournaments is absolutely exploding. We saw Underdog launch their Best Ball Mania II tournament and proceed to fill not one, not two but three $5 tournaments later in the offseason, as well as a $250 tournament. DraftKings filled several, and so did Drafters.
We as players now have more options than we could ever want, especially as Best Ball continues to grow, to balance out our portfolio. If you tend to lean more towards the risk averse side or just generally prefer the benefits of drafting later, you are going to have tournaments like we saw with the “Puppies” on Underdog last year that are opened AND filled later in the draft cycle. There is such an extensive menu of options for tournaments now with multiple tournaments on every site (and at different price points), that I think it really benefits drafters to dabble in multiple different timings of drafts no matter their general belief on which is more “optimal”.
Plus, drafting is fun. Who wants to sit on their hands until August when so many people are having fun drafting and arguing about running backs vs. wide receivers?