Fantasy Football 2021: A guide to starting and playing in a keeper league

·11 min read

By Brandon Niles, 4for4

Special to Yahoo Sports

A keeper league is arguably the best type of fantasy league. If you haven’t tried at least one, you’re missing out. This article examines the joys, benefits, and pitfalls of keeper leagues.

What is a Keeper League?

By definition, a keeper league allows fantasy managers to carry NFL players over from one year to the next.

A keeper league is in many ways the antithesis to DFS, where managers only project one week at a time. In a keeper league, a long-term outlook in terms of strategy and team-building becomes paramount to sustaining success.

The unique experience of a keeper league is the closest most of us will ever get to being an NFL GM. You get to put all your years of fantasy knowledge to use by scouting players, outwitting opponents, and balancing the short- and long-term benefits of each player on your roster. Keeper leagues are more work, but also more fun than other fantasy formats because of the level of detail and investment involved.

Depending on your league settings, this creates a huge offseason decision: Which players do I keep?

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If you only have three or four players to keep from your roster, you have to be particularly deft in deciding which players are not only vital to your current team but also have enough long-term value to warrant hanging on to.

You also have to decide who might be available in the draft, as typically, all released players become draft-eligible, along with the new NFL rookies.

The keeper format seems simple enough but you'll have many interesting decisions to make during the process.

The Pros & Cons of a Keeper League

Pros:

  • You'll feel more like a real NFL general manager while retaining plenty of coaching decisions.

  • Your team is a reflection of you and gives you a sense of being a true manager.

  • Keeper leagues often create long-lasting friendships and extra bragging rights.

Cons:

  • There will be more work and preparation required than in a traditional redraft league.

  • One bad draft can hurt you for years.

  • After your initial draft, NFL rookies become very valuable.

Additionally, as both a pro and a con, you can acquire your favorite players and hang on to them year after year, instead of relying on your position in the redraft to determine whether you get to root for your favorite running back every Sunday. On the downside, if your favorite player ends up assigned to another manager, you may have to wait years to have a chance at snagging him.

Do the pros outweigh the cons for you? If so, you might just be ready for a keeper league (and a subscription to 4for4)!

Keeper League Rules

Your keeper league must have detailed rules. When the league is initially formed, the commissioner has the chance to state clearly what the rules are, and any disagreements can be settled with a league vote. Also, keep in mind that changing keeper league rules can often lead to problems. My advice: Once you get a robust system, keep it stable.

Specifically, you should rarely change starting lineup requirements. If you do, you change the approach that managers — who are thinking long term — have taken when drafting and choosing their keepers. Changing lineup requirements could cause years of strategy for someone to go out the window.

Spend plenty of time thinking about your keeper rules before starting. Make sure everyone has been able to give input and that you have a good solid basis from the beginning. This can help you keep things stable for the future, and help avoid angering managers later with rule changes that hurt their existing strategies.

If you must make changes to the league, do it collectively and give ample time for the new rules to go into effect. For example, if the league decides to change to a superflex format, make the rule change go into effect two full seasons after the decision is made. This will allow managers to adjust their strategy over time. Remember, long-term leagues require long-term planning.

Optimal Keeper League Size

What is the best size for a keeper league? Like most other league types, 10 or 12 teams is ideal. The more the merrier is a nice phrase, but having more than 12-14 managers dilutes the supply of NFL talent. When this happens, some keeper league managers can lose interest.

It’s essential to keep your league small enough for usable talent to be available for waiver wire pickups during the season, and for enough good players to be available in the draft each year. Otherwise, managers may become frustrated quickly and not return.

Conversely, if a league has only six or eight teams, there may be too much talent available, and managers may put less effort into their waiver pickups and lineup choices, knowing they’ll have star players at every position in most cases.

For more information on optimal league settings, including league and roster sizes, check out 4for4’s guide on how to play fantasy football.

How to Decide Which Players Managers are Allowed to Keep

There are a few tried and true methods to decide what players should stay on teams and how rosters will be managed:

  • Salary cap based on years. Each team has a maximum roster of 16 players with a 32-year salary cap. After the draft is complete, you will assign years to your players. Be very careful assigning years because injuries and bye weeks will inevitably force you to make a move during the season. Solid planning and foresight are key to salary cap leagues. You want to have flexibility with your cap so you aren't forced to cut someone to get a starting lineup filled for a given week. At the end of the year, you are allowed to sign one player on your roster to an extension for as many years as you want. Here's a strategy tip: Sign young stars to long-term contracts while signing backups and aging stars to one- or two-year contracts. Also, leave one year available on your salary cap for flexibility and allow an Injured Reserved spot so you can carry 16 active and one inactive player.

  • Keep 3-4 Players. This option is much easier if you don't want to keep track of salary caps and possible cap violations. Before the next season begins, managers determine which 3-4 players to keep from their 16-player roster. This method is good for keeper league beginners. It's easier to manage and redrafts will have more available talent. Plus, total domination by one manager/team will be much more difficult to achieve when you limit your keepers. More often than not, parity in the league is a good thing.

  • Round penalties. Keep a set number of players, or as many players as you want to, but each player counts as a draft pick in your draft. Typically, a player drafted in the fifth round the previous year would then count as a fourth-round pick the current season. This makes keeping players a value proposition instead of a simple choice of who the best players are on the roster. It also limits the number of players that can be kept who are drafted in the first few rounds every year. This system is a favorite for many keeper league managers because it tends to reward managers who hit big on late draft picks, and tends to allow the top players in the league to shuffle a little more season-to-season, increasing parity while rewarding those who really know their stuff.

Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs hands the ball to teammate Clyde Edwards-Helaire #25
Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a prime keeper-league pick in 2020. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Determining Keeper League Draft Order

Your first draft order will be randomly determined and should follow the snake draft pattern. Conversely, you could hold a salary cap draft.

Following-year drafts typically reward the worst teams in the first two rounds: The worst team will get the first pick of Round 1 and first pick of Round 2. After the first and second rounds are complete, Round 3 will start the snake draft. So, the champion of the league would get the last pick in Rounds 1-2 and the first pick in Round 3. To discourage people from purposely losing games to get the top pick in the draft, you may want to implement a draft lottery such as the following:

  • The worst record gets 30/100 chances.

  • Second-worst gets 24/100 chances.

  • Third-worst gets 19/100 chances.

  • Fourth-worst gets 14/100 chances.

  • Fifth-worst gets 9/100 chances.

  • Sixth-worst gets 4/100 chances.

The draft lottery determines which non-playoff teams will get the first three picks. Once that is resolved, the draft will go in order of worst regular-season record. For playoff teams, the draft order will be determined by where they finished in the playoffs. Regular season records should be used as a tiebreaker.

Other leagues may simply slot next year’s draft from worst to first, and I’ve also seen leagues reward the winner with their selection of which pick they want in the draft. No matter how you do it, coming up with a method that is equitable and agreed upon by all managers is important before the first draft. If you wait until later, you may find it much harder to get managers to agree upon a method for slotting when they have something on the line.

Keeper League Waiver Wire/Free Agency

You can restrict or promote drops and pickups as much as you want for your keeper league, but it’s often best to allow free rein to make unlimited cuts and pickups during the year.

You will also need to establish rules that govern keeping a waiver wire mid-season addition. If your keeper league has round penalties for keeping players, and a manager wants to keep a player acquired off the waiver wire the season before, there needs to be an agreed-upon penalty for these players. Sometimes, leagues put a standard mid-round pick on waiver additions. In other leagues, strategic managers who work the waiver wire all year are rewarded with the ability to keep waiver additions by surrendering only the last round selection in the draft. However you decide to handle waiver wire additions, ensure that all managers are in agreement before the first season begins, and 4for4 offers subscribers waiver wire advice every week to help you navigate your rules.

Tips for Trading Keeper League Draft Picks

Often, trades are more important in keeper leagues than in redraft leagues. In keeper leagues, you can often ride one good decision for years.

Keeper leagues provide you with a little more flexibility when it comes to trading, as you now are able to trade future draft picks.

In most cases, no one player is worth more than one first-round pick. Future first-round picks are very valuable commodities because they enable you to grab potential superstar rookies and solid veteran players. Conversely, middle- and late-round picks hold less value in a keeper league. Most keeper leagues will have, at a minimum, the top 36-48 veteran players off the board before the draft begins. This means that drafting early is often about nabbing the top rookies. Usually, beyond the first couple of rounds, you’re in boom-or-bust territory with rookie picks.

Never overestimate a player's worth. Imagine a manager wanting a player so much they trade three future first-round picks to acquire him? It does happen. Although you may love a player and even own his jersey, don't go out of your way to mortgage your team's future to get him. Production is what matters. Remember, you're a general manager, so run your team like one.

Also, keep in mind that retirement, injuries, and declining fantasy productivity will constantly alter the dynamics of your keeper league. Fantasy teams who were once strong may become the laughingstock of the entire league, and weaker teams may suddenly become dominant. Good management and talent evaluation are crucial in keeper leagues.

Keeper League Strategy

The beauty of keeper leagues is that there is no one right strategy. However, there are three tried-and-true strategies managers can look to:

  1. Some managers go all out and try to win now with more veterans at the expense of the future.

  2. Other managers prefer to stockpile younger assets with the aim of winning in the future.

  3. Managers can also employ a happy balance of acquiring both future talent and current stars.

This article is updated from an original article written by guest contributor Marc Hess and originally appeared in its full form on 4for4.com

Brandon has been a regular contributor to 4for4 since 2006. He's an experienced writer with a background in communication, business, and alcoholic beverages.

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