The upcoming NFL season is driving tens of millions of people to make fantasy predictions about how America's most popular sport will play out. But whether you're basing picks on gut calls, devouring every nugget of advice and news or using complex spreadsheets to strategize for your league, there's one basic truth about winning at fantasy football — it's a grind.
It's not really about proving your self-proclaimed expertise. You'll need as many avenues to victory as you can get — and likely some luck. That all starts with getting ready for your draft.
We'll try to help a bit here each week, highlighting players, strategy and the incremental wins and frustrations that come with the grind. We'll also call on some folks who make a full-time living focusing on this stuff.
By the end of Week 16 or 17, hopefully you'll win a title and some decent bragging rights. But honestly, who knows? You don't, we don't — and it's all part of the fun.
DRAFT PREP: KNOW YOUR LEAGUE
It seems simple, but you'd be surprised how many people don't account for their league's unique scoring and roster settings when they put together a strategy for draft day.
At CBSSports.com, for example, only 24 percent of leagues use standard offensive scoring — the rest use some form of customization. The most common modification, scoring points for receptions, is used in just 28 percent of leagues.
So be sure to check if your league doles out points for things like return yardage, milestone bonuses or other plays.
Even default settings are slightly different across fantasy's most popular platforms: CBS Sports scores six points for passing touchdowns while Yahoo, ESPN and NFL.com award four points; interceptions deduct one point from quarterback scores on Yahoo but two points on other sites.
Roster makeup, quirky scoring and the number of owners in each league have significant implications for when players should be drafted or how much auction prices should be.
EVERYONE'S GOT A GUY
By now, your leaguemates probably know about wideout Tavon Austin in St. Louis, a rookie, and tight end Jordan Cameron in Cleveland. Some experts consider them sleeper picks this season.
The problem? Sleepers aren't sleepers anymore if you draft them too early or pay too much at auction. And even players who inspire less excitement in fantasy circles, like Arizona running back Rashard Mendenhall or Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace, become worthy of drafting at the right price.
Here are some players who could be bargains in the right spot:
QB: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis. Projections from several sources aggregated by FantasyPros.com predict Atlanta's Matt Ryan will be less than one point per game better than Luck. But Luck is being drafted an average two rounds later than Ryan in 10-team leagues. And even if Luck gets taken before you think he should, there are still several very serviceable quarterbacks going later.
RB: DeAngelo Williams, Carolina. Williams will likely see a bump in carries with Jonathan Stewart injured but is being drafted on average in the 10th round in 10-team leagues — after some top backups. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week that Stewart might start on the physically unable to perform list, forcing him to miss the first six games.
WR: Steve Smith, Carolina. Smith had a down year in 2010 but put up more than 1,100 yards in 2011 and 2012. FantasyPros projections calculate him to be the 19th best wideout with just under 1,100 yards and nearly six touchdowns, but he's going well after similarly projected Denver teammates Eric Decker and Wes Welker.
TE: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans. Yes, he's the NFL's top tight end. He could still be a bargain. It's highly dependent on your league's setup, and partly on the uncertain status of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Graham is averaging a late second- or early third-round pick in 10- and 12-team leagues, slightly lower on ESPN with an average draft position of 27.8. Yet Graham is projected to be more than 2½ points per game better than every other player at his position besides Gronkowski, according to the FantasyPros consensus.
RINGER TIME: PAUL CHARCHIAN
The most important part of fantasy football, according to the president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association: Correctly deducing which players are going to perform well.
It's more complex than it sounds.
Paul Charchian says he approaches it by spending time in the offseason thinking about every player, then tracking them through training camp and the preseason to continually modify his lists based on new observations, news and instincts.
That lets him ignore default rankings on league websites, which he says significantly skew results in hundreds of thousands of fantasy leagues because they influence players who don't have strong opinions.
"Millions of selections will all be altered because of the rankings that they just present inside their draft rooms," said Charchian, who owns LeagueSafe.com, a website that handles fantasy entry fees.
"Boy, there's a ton of fantasy success to be had by playing against their default rankings and finding the holes," he said.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My first football draft of 2013 started with a big audible — a Starbucks run when the Internet was out at my apartment 15 minutes before draft time. Amid your research and rankings, don't sleep on the logistics of making sure you have things set up properly before your draft — it eliminates distractions.
Still, I was pleased to nab the combination of running backs Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles in reasonable spots in the two-quarterback, points-per-reception league, and Austin with the 121st overall pick. We'll see.
Oskar Garcia is a news editor for The Associated Press based in Honolulu. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia