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The beginner’s guide to fantasy football draft success

I've been in the fantasy sports business for the last 13 years, giving advice to the masses for fantasy baseball, basketball and of course, football. But since I've moved to NFL.com, I have to admit that I'm less of an "expert" in some of the other major fantasy sports. My focus is on the NFL and fantasy football, after all. Sure, I can tell you the entire New York Yankees roster from top to bottom (yes, I'm a die-hard fan of the Bronx Bombers), and I know the value of the big-name players across the league. However, I couldn't tell you who is part of the Arizon Diamondbacks rotation outside of Ian Kennedy.

So when I participate in fantasy baseball drafts, well, I sometimes struggle to figure out who to pick in the middle to late rounds. I'm not up on all the sleepers, players to avoid, potential breakouts, etc. During my two most recent fantasy baseball drafts, I couldn't help but think to myself, "What did I do to prepare for this draft? What pieces of content did I print out and use to help me figure out who to take once the obvious players were off the board?"

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Since these are the same sort of questions you might be asking yourself as you prepare for your fantasy football draft, here's a list of what I did to help me in the baseball drafts.

Print out rankings for all positions

There are no "perfect" rankings (no one had Cam Newton or Victor Cruz listed anywhere near the top of their positions in 2011), but most preseason cheat sheets are going to value the best players pretty closely overall. Aaron Rodgers is going to be the top quarterback on most sites, Arian Foster will be a surefire top-three pick in Top 200 lists and you'll see either Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham listed as the No. 1 tight end. Where the real value in picking experts' rankings that you like and trust is in finding good players in the middle to late rounds. I worked with Tristan H. Cockcroft for several years at CBS SportsLine.com, and I don't think there's a better fantasy baseball mind in the business. So when I need help, I print out his rankings.

NFL.com has six different lists of player rankings, one from each of myself, Dave Dameshek, Adam Rank, Jason Smith and Matt "Money" Smith along with a cumulative list of all our rankings. You can print these out and keep them by your side on draft day. The rankings are updated daily as needed, so there's no concern over having an outdated list from a print publication, for example. You can use these rankings not only to find out who you should draft, but also as a check list to cross off players who have been taken off the board. Click on the headshot to sort by that expert, too.

Keep a list of potential sleepers

In my fantasy baseball leagues, I sometimes need a little help in determining which sleepers or breakout players I should target. For anyone who was smart enough to draft Matthew Stafford, Darren Sproles or Jordy Nelson last season, well, you know how these players can be the difference between a good team and one that contends for a fantasy league championship. In my fantasy baseball research, I saw Edwin Encarnacion listed as a potential sleeper. So when the late rounds hit and I had no idea who the heck to draft, I took him in the 16th round. Right now, Encarnacion is the fourth-best third basemen and the ninth-most productive hitter overall in the league. Not all sleepers or breakouts pan out on that same level (I also took Justin Upton in the first round of that league), but had I not done a little research I'd have never known to even consider Encarnacion.

In your quest to find potential sleepers in fantasy football, check out the NFL.com 2012 draft kit. You'll find tons of sleepers, breakout candidates, busts and much, much more from the NFL Fantasy LIVE crew.

Read the experts' "perfect" draft

If you have never heard of the "perfect" draft concept, here's the 411. Basically, fantasy experts are slotted into a specific position in a draft and pick the players they'd most like to select in a best-case scenario. No, that doesn't mean drafting Drew Brees in the 10th round! That's about as realistic as "Madea's Witness Protection" doing better at the box office than "The Dark Knight Rises." Instead, this sort of feature is a useful look at what players you'll be able to target in each round of your own draft. If you're unable to land a specific player in an expert's perfect draft, you can always go after a player at the same position with similar value using player rankings.

NFL.com has six different perfect draft scenarios to use for research purposes. If you end up with the No. 1 overall pick, take a look at Dameshek's perfect draft. For those fantasy owners with a mid-round pick, Rank offers his ideal situation. In the event that you end up picking last in a 10-team league, go ahead and check out what Jason Smith prognosticated in his perfect draft. Again, chances are you won't be able to duplicate these drafts completely. But at least you will have an idea of which players or positions to target.


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Know your league's scoring system

If you enter your fantasy football draft without an in-depth knowledge of the scoring system, it's like going on a blind date and having a George Costanza moment ("She's bald, Jerry!"). How are you supposed to know who to draft and when to draft them, when you don't even know who's value rises and falls based on points? If you're in a standard or PPR league, our rankings can help you out immensely. But if your league rewards points for yardage bonuses, for example, you shouldn't use the rankings as the be-all, end-all decision tool. If your league rewards six points for touchdown passes (NFL.com standard is four), well, quarterbacks are going to be more valuable. What if yardage is eliminated and you're in a league that only gives points for touchdowns? That's going to change the whole ball game.

So, how do you find out about your scoring system? If you're playing in a standard league on NFL.com, all the details are right here on our site. If you're a member of a custom league, simply ask your commissioner to send you a list of the scoring categories. You can also find this information by going to your league's home page and clicking on "settings" in the top navigation area.

Don't draft with only your heart

I get it. You're a New York Giants fan and you want Victor Cruz on your fantasy team. Or maybe you're a lady playing fantasy football for the first time and you want to draft a heartthrob like Tim Tebow (ask my NFL AM buddy Nicole Zaloumis about that). Fantasy football is supposed to be fun, and if drafting your favorite players makes it more enjoyable then by all mean do it. But if I can throw out one suggestion, it's that you shouldn't reach for a player. You're a Chicago Bears fan and you want Jay Cutler, that's great. But don't draft him in the second round!

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Alright, so you're probably saying, "Come on Fabiano, how am I supposed to know when my favorite players will be drafted?" 

Well, you won't (just being honest). But one way to get an idea is a helpful tool called average draft position. ADP, as it is also known, is a list of all positions and players along with the round they're being selected on average in NFL.com drafts. So if you really want Cutler, well, take a look at his average draft position (Round 12) and go from there. I'm not saying you can't use your heart to a degree, but don't keep your brain out of the equation.

I can't help you if you draft Andrew Luck in Round 2 (I'm looking at you, Indianapolis Colts fan!).

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!

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