Fantasy football 101

The National Football League has become the true passion of sports fans across the United States over the past decade, so it's no shock that the popularity of fantasy football has also increased at an enormous rate. An estimated 30 million people participated in leagues last season, and the overall numbers should continue to rise. In fact, there are some fans that have not yet been introduced to the fantasy football phenomenon but are very interested in learning more about how it all works and how to get involved in their own league.

But before we delve into our version of fantasy football 101, let's take a quick look into how it all started.

On a dark and rainy night in a Manhattan hotel back in 1962, Bill Winkenbach, Scott Stirling and Bill Tunnell created the concept for what we now call fantasy football. Winkenbach, who then was part owner of the Oakland Raiders, was credited with the development of the first ever fantasy sport, golf, in the 1950s. The rules of fantasy golf were simple: Owners were each required to "draft" their own team of professional golfers, and the team with the lowest combined score at the end of the week's tournament would win.

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Based in part on the concept of fantasy golf, Winkenbach, with Stirling (an Oakland Tribune columnist) and Tunnell (the Raiders' public relations person) all huddled together in a hotel room at The Milford Plaza and built the foundation for what would become the first-ever fantasy football league, which was an eight-team format that was called the GOPPL (The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League).

GOPPL's list of owners included Winkenbach, Stirling, Tunnell, Bob Blum (Raiders play-by-play announcer), Phil Carmona (Raiders season ticket seller), Ralph Casebolt (Raiders season ticket seller), George Glace (Raiders ticket manager) and George Ross (Oakland Tribune sports editor). The first-ever draft was held at Winkenbach's rumpus room, but later drafts would be held at different Oakland-area establishments.

The scoring system rewarded 25 points for a touchdown pass, rush or reception, 25 points for a field goal, 10 points for an extra point and 200 points for a punt, kickoff or interception that was returned for a score. Owners were each required to draft two quarterbacks, four halfbacks, two fullbacks, four offensive ends, two kick or punt return men, two kickers, two defensive backs or linebackers and two defensive linemen. A weekly starting lineup included one quarterback, one fullback, two halfbacks and two offensive ends. As in fantasy golf, the winners in fantasy football leagues are based on the performances of each team's players.

While the GOPPL continued to be a popular hobby for Winkenbach, Stirling, Tunnell and its owners, fantasy football itself didn't explode onto the scene until the advent of the Internet and software that would allow people to put away the pen and paper and have their league's statistics run online with little work at all. It makes the entire process much simpler and allows owners to run and participate in leagues with little effort.

In fact, you can visit NFL.com's fantasy football page right now and start your very own league!

Once you've made the decision to follow in the footsteps of million and millions of NFL fans, its then time to decide on which sort of league you'd like to join. There are public leagues that allow you to compete against other fantasy footballers around the world, as well as private leagues that will allow you to play against your friends and customize your own rules, roster sizes and scoring system. Each league also requires one owner to serve as the commissioner, who will be involved in setting up the league and establishing all of the rules and the scoring system. Furthermore, the commissioner will oversee regular-season moves such as trades and will also serve as a decision maker when controversies arise and in-season disputes need to be settled.

After a commissioner is chosen, one of the most vital parts of a fantasy football league is the establishment of a scoring system (much like Winkenbach did for the GOPPL). It might make more sense for new owners to utilize NFL.com's standard scoring format, which rewards six points for all touchdowns, one point for every 25 passing yards, one point for every 10 rushing and receiving yards and basic points for field goals, extra points and defensive statistics such as touchdowns, fumble recoveries, interceptions, sacks, safeties and yards allowed.

Owners in customizable leagues can also add a number of different categories such as completions, total pass attempts, rushing first downs, rushes for 20-plus yards, receptions, average per reception, field goal and extra point attempts, safeties, tackles, blocked punts and blocked field goals to name a few options.

Getty Images
Fantasy owners who wait on a quarterback until the middle rounds can still draft a solid player like Matt Hasselbeck.

The next step in the development of a league is the event that owners consider to be the most fun - the player draft. A fantasy draft follows the same rules as the actual NFL draft, as owners make selections in a pre-determined order to fill out their entire roster. The one main difference between an NFL draft and a fantasy draft is that the latter utilizes a snake system in most cases. In that system, the owner who picks last in the first round will then pick first in the second round, last in the third round and so on and so forth.

Once you have your research materials in hand, it's now time to compile some sort of draft plan or strategy based on your league's scoring system. For example, owners should remember that versatile running backs, wide receivers and tight end will have added value in leagues that reward points for receptions. Due to the importance of running backs in fantasy football, owners will no doubt target the position in the first two to three rounds. In fact, don't be shocked if more than 80 percent of the first 24 players selected are runners. Once at least two runners are secured in the first two to three rounds, its then time to turn your focus on the quarterback and wide receiver positions and make educated decisions based on the flow of the draft.

The flow of the draft describes the number of players taken at a position vs. the number of solid options still available at the same position. For example, if stud quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Marc Bulger and Donovan McNabb are all still on the board in the third round but the list of elite wide receivers is down to the likes of Reggie Wayne and Anquan Boldin, it then makes more sense to take the wideout and wait another round or two to choose a No. 1 quarterback since the depth is still evident.

Owners also need to remember that the value of kickers and defenses can be hard to determine from one season to the next, so it's important to pass on those two positions until late in the draft and instead focus the attention on constructing a solid starting lineup and building depth at the vital offensive skill positions.

When the draft is completed and the regular season starts, owners will then be required to set a starting lineup each week. A typical lineup will include one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one defensive and special teams unit. Of course there could be different lineup requirement options -- some leagues require three wide receivers or a flex starter, which can be a runner, a wideout or a tight end, while others require two quarterbacks or put tight ends into a receivers position.

We have now covered two of the most important components in the world of fantasy football -- an in-depth knowledge of the scoring system and the draft -- but another vital aspect is the regular inspection of the league's waiver wire. Injuries will occur, depth charts will be altered and players will gain or lose value during the season, so free agents can become valuable tools on the road to a fantasy championship. In fact, studs such as Vince Young, Travis Henry, Maurice Jones-Drew and Marques Colston were all available on the waiver wire last season and went on to became integral parts of countless fantasy football teams. The bottom line is simple - if you want to win it all, the utilization of the waiver wire can be a terrific asset.

Much like the NFL, owners can also make trades after the draft and throughout the regular season. The best way to make trades is to determine your team's strengths and asses the weaknesses of other owners. For example, someone who drafted Willie Parker and Frank Gore last season and was also able to land Henry and Jones-Drew from off waivers but lacked a solid wideout should have examined other teams that needed a back and had an elite wideout. Once a compatible team has been found, it's then time to make an offer. If no team is compatible, simply make offers to those owners with players you covet and look to strike a deal.

With the draft, free-agent moves and potential trades already on their plates, it can be difficult for owners to cover all the news from the 32 NFL teams and know how these moves will impact their fantasy football teams. But we here at NFL.com can help with what will be our most comprehensive preseason and regular season content and video coverage ever. From sleepers, risers, fallers and strategies for the draft to the top waiver-wire moves and the best matchups to take advantage of in-season with Start 'Em & Sit 'Em, NFL.com will have it all covered each week in our quest to help you reach the top of that fantasy football mountain.

After all, there is nothing like the feeling of holding that championship trophy over your head at season's end!

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