Football Keeper Decisions

As the calendar turns to July, more and more baseball owners find themselves hopelessly out of contention and their attention will gradually shift toward football. We are still a month away from the start of draft season, so the most common discussion at the moment revolves around keeper options.

This article will touch on a number of popular keeper formats and give readers a few factors to consider when making these all important decisions. There are many different formats and no league is the same, so it is always important to understand how the specific rules in your league affect player valuation.

If you have specific questions regarding your league, I would love to discuss it in the comment section. Please remember to add in the keeper rules though, because they matter a lot!

Small Number of Keepers with no Restrictions

In leagues of this type, owners can keep 1-3 players of their choosing from the season before. They can keep these players for as many years as they want and it does not matter where the player was drafted. Each owner simply submits their names before the draft, and those players are taken off the board.

The key here is to keep difference makers. You want the best talent available. Long term upside is valuable, but given the small number of keepers, most owners are reluctant to keep players who have not yet broken out. If you have a core of studs like Le’Veon Bell, Gronk and De’Andre Hopkins, your choices are probably going to be pretty easy.

The challenge comes when you don’t have a keeper core that looks like the one listed above. Many owners make the mistake of mis-assessing their team’s upside and failing to rebuild. There are usually 3 or 4 teams that really distance themselves from the pack with their keeper groups in leagues like this. If you are not one of them, your chances of winning are very slim. You are best served by turning current assets into future assets. There are two basic ways to do it.

Keep high upside players yet to break out, over the boring vets with limited upside. For example, if Golden Tate were my 3rd keeper, I am taking DeVante Parker instead for his long-term ceiling. Maybe, he can be the next Hopkins type breakout.

Keep the players with the most current value, but look to trade those not likely to be core pieces for you in 2-3 years. In those trades, you should try to accumulate possible breakout stars like Parker or Devontae Booker, even if it means overpaying somewhat in the short-term.

Rebuilds can happen pretty quickly in fantasy football, but sometimes you need to accept being bad for a short stretch in order to bounce back and contend in the future. The teams who are able to assemble keeper cores filled with first and second round talent start with a huge leg up on the field. Instead of fighting the uphill battle and risk being mediocre for eternity, consider embracing the rebuild and try to assemble a dream core of your own for the future.

Large Number of Keepers, no Restrictions (dynasty)

In dynasty leagues, sometimes it is less about who you are keeping and more about who you aren’t keeping. Owners typically retain large percentages of their roster each year, and the draft focuses on rookies and players released by other teams.

Player valuation in long-term leagues like these is usually much different. Unproven young players with upside carry much more value than they would in normal leagues. Because you own these players forever, finding the next breakout star is big deal. On the flip side, vets who are on the downside of their career are also significantly less valuable because they will not help you for as long. Depending on where your team falls on the contender/builder spectrum, you may need reliable veteran production or you may be looking to accumulate young talent. Short term goals will obviously affect those difficult keeper decisions.

The key is to try to retain as much value as you can for as long as you can. One way to do that is to release your kicker and/or defense until just before the season starts. Now, I am not one to suggest that fantasy defense does not carry significant value. It surely does. There is no way I am dropping a top-5 unit. Keep in mind though, a K and DST are easier to find than position players. If you are torn on that last drop, consider releasing your kicker and buy yourself a couple extra months to make that decision. Also, owning a top DST is much less important for a building team than for a contender. By the time your skill players are ready to go, the defense is likely to be irrelevant.

If you have more talent than you need, always look for that trade partner who has a few easily droppable names on the end of the bench. Perhaps a 2 for 1 can be worked out where you get a mild upgrade. Remember though, in deals like these, you can’t be greedy. Your trade partner knows that you can’t keep all of your players. You will probably not be able to sell for the same value that you might return during the actual season. If short on talent, you can get some pretty awesome 1 for 2 bargains at this time. It is definitely a buyers market, so don’t be afraid to make some moves!

After all your trade options have been exhausted, sometimes you still have to make that difficult choice. I tend to focus my decisions on long-term upside. If I have to choose between DeAndre Smelter and Rueben Randle, I am going to gamble on the unknown commodity. Players like Randle are a dime a dozen, but Smelter has the potential to be a fantasy starter in the future. If you pass on a guy like him, you might never get another chance.

Leagues with Time Restrictions

Many leagues restrict the length of time that an owner is allowed to keep a player in order to mix things up and ensure that top talent gets reintroduced into the player pool every so often. If your league does not allow you to keep a player for longer than 3 seasons, it can have a significant effect on player value.

This might seem obvious, but the shorter the keeper duration, the more you should focus on short-term production. In leagues like this, unproven young players with high ceilings are not nearly as attractive as keepers. The breakout might not happen until the player is no longer eligible to be retained. Highly productive vets like Brandon Marshall make excellent options in short-term keeper leagues. When making those keeper decisions, it is best to focus on short-term production. The cost of missing the breakouts like Allen Robinson is not nearly as high, because you wouldn’t have been able to keep them long-term anyway.

Leagues with Draft Round Considerations

These leagues are my favorite because they really force owners to make difficult decisions and bring a lot more strategy into play. In these leagues, players who are kept are done so by forcing the owner to give up a draft pick in order to retain their player. Each keeper is assigned a draft value, based on where they were selected the previous year. Some leagues allow owners to keep players in the same round they were drafted the year before, while others make the price incrementally higher each year. Check the examples below:

  • A: Same draft round: If you drafted Allen Robinson in the 6th round last year, he would cost you a 6th round pick to retain him this year.
  • B: Two rounds Higher: If you drafted Allen Robinson in the 6th round, keeping him this year would cost a 4th and next year would cost a 2nd.

Many leagues of this type also combine time restrictions with their keepers, and have special rules for players picked up off the free agent list.

The key in these leagues is to find the best values, not necessarily the best players. For example, if you are able to keep Jordy Nelson in the 13th round, that is probably going to be a better value than keeping Antonio Brown in the 1st. In order to figure out which option is more valuable, you need to also consider the opportunity cost of the forfeited pick. We will get back to this example in a moment. First let’s discuss how to determine the value of those draft picks.

The first thing you have to do is try to figure out the types of players who may be available to you in the draft. If each team gets to keep 3 or 4 four players, a 1st round pick probably will not have the same value as it would in a re-draft. If you pick near the beginning of the round, you might still be able to get a 1st round talent. If you go near the end, you might be looking at a 3rd or 4th round talent. These details are very important!

In the example above, if I am picking 3rd overall and I know that Adrian Peterson is not going to be retained by his owner, there is no way I am using Antonio Brown as my keeper choice. At that 3rd slot, I would get to select one of: AP, Brown, or Ezekiel Elliott. Even if I prefer Brown ahead of those choices, the opportunity cost of using that pick to retain my keeper would be far too high. Keeping Nelson in the 13th instead would allow me to own Nelson AND one of the 3 listed above. I might even be able to get Brown back with the actual pick. In this example, I think it is pretty clear that Nelson + Peterson or Elliott will help the team more than Brown + player X drafted in the 13th round.

If picking at the end of the round, the value of that selection is going to be much less. At that point, you might be looking at TY Hilton or Matt Forte as the best available. Those players are certainly quality options, but now the decision becomes much more difficult because the gap between them and Brown is substantial. Personally, I would take Brown over Nelson and Hilton, unless Nelson’s 13th round draft price is locked in for future years also. Then the decision becomes more difficult still.

Sometimes your choices will be obvious. When facing a true dilemma, you will need to do some work. It is always best to wait until right before the keeper deadline to reveal your choices to the rest of the league. By waiting, you might be able to see decisions that other owners are making and get a better idea for who might be available at each of your draft slots. That way, you can more accurately predict the value of the picks that you would be forfeiting. Although first round picks will not normally have the same value as they would in a redraft league, as you get deeper into the draft, the round value will be about the same as a standard league. As each forfeited pick passes, you get closer and closer to standard redraft pick values.

Lastly, many leagues will say that you can keep up to 3 or 4 players, but they don’t force you to keep that many. If your keeper option does not present you with an advantage over the expected value of a player projected to go at that slot, then don’t keep him! Even if you value your guy at approximately the same as what will be available there, it is often best to pass and keep your options open. You don’t want to lock yourself in and risk losing value if somebody unexpected falls in the draft.

Once you have approximated the value of your picks, you simply need to figure out which combination of players provides your team with the best foundation for success. Don’t forget to weigh the opportunity cost of each player you keep though! Failing to do so will cause you to leave value on the table.


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Tommy Landseadel

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Tommy is also known as tlance on the CBS and Sports Hoopla message boards. He has been playing fantasy baseball for 16 years in many different format types and looks forward to helping you with your fantasy baseball questions! You can now follow me on Twitter @tlandseadel