The following is a round-by-round blueprint of how I plan on drafting in my fantasy football leagues this summer.
Keep in mind that depending on the circumstances, you might not be able to completely follow this strategy once your draft begins. There could be a run on a certain position; an unexpected player could fall; or another owner may take one of the key sleepers early. You have to be able to play a lot of it by ear, but having a strategy going into the draft helps a lot.
Also, most of this assumes a 12-man league with two running backs, two receivers and a flex (ESPN standard). If your league makes you start two quarterbacks or three receivers, you'll need to adjust (though I've made some notes for three-receiver leagues below).
Drafting Early: Picks 1-5:
ROUND 1: If I'm lucky enough to draw a top-five pick, I'm going to take the best running back available between Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and Frank Gore. That's a no-brainer in any scoring system.
ROUNDS 2-3: Ideally, I should be able to get a running back and a receiver here. Running backs I'll be targeting are Shonn Greene (Round 2 - unlikely available), Ryan Mathews (Round 2), Jonathan Stewart (Round 2; Round 3 in PPR), Ryan Grant (Round 2; Round 3 in PPR), Pierre Thomas (Round 3) and Knowshon Moreno (Round 3).
As for receivers, I'd love to get Miles Austin-Jones in the second round, but I'll settle for Roddy White, Greg Jennings or DeSean Jackson. One of those guys should also drop to the early third round. If not, I'd consider Steve Smith of the Panthers (and Steve Smith of the Giants in a PPR) in Round 3.
Note: In leagues that force me to start three wideouts, I think I'd go receiver-receiver in Rounds 2-3 if I could get two of the following: Austin-Jones, White, Jennings and Jackson.
Also, if I'm in a league that only starts two running backs and two receivers (no flex), I'll go after a quarterback with one of those two picks if I can get Peyton Manning, Tony Romo or Drew Brees. The lack of a flex spot makes those running back and receiver positions a bit less important.
ROUNDS 4-5: Unless a top quarterback magically falls to me, I'm going with the same running back-receiver combo again. By the time I've taken my fifth player, I should ideally have three running backs and two receivers, or two backs and three wideouts. There's no way I'm picking a tight end here.
ROUNDS 6-7: If I don't have a quarterback yet, I'm definitely taking one in these two rounds; waiting until the bottom of Round 8 is way too risky.
Whether I'm taking a quarterback in Round 6 or 7 really depends on the situation. If the few guys drafting after me in Round 6 don't have quarterbacks, I know they're going to take one, so I'd rather take my pick in Round 6. If they already have quarterbacks, then I can wait until Round 7.
As for the other selection, I'd love to get Ben Tate or Michael Bush here. I completely agree with Michael Lombardi that Tate has a great shot at winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. As for Bush, he had the first-team snaps in minicamp, and because Al Davis is no longer calling the shots, Bush will get a fair chance to start over Darren McFadden, who sucks.
I've been able to get Tate in Round 6 and Bush in Round 7 of my mock drafts, so even though I have them highly rated, I'm confident I can get them here. If not, it's the best running back or receiver available. Again, I'm not taking a tight end unless either Antonio Gates or Dallas Clark miraculously falls to me.
ROUNDS 8-9: If I waited until Rounds 6-7 to get my quarterback, I'm taking another one here. If I spent an early pick on Peyton Manning, then I'm waiting until much later to get my backup.
Assuming one of these picks is spent on a quarterback, the other will be used on the best running back or receiver available. Again, no tight end unless I can get Jermichael Finley.
ROUNDS 10-11: Finally, a tight end. Here's why I'm waiting on a tight end: There's Gates, Clark, Finley, Vernon Davis, Brent Celek, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Zach Miller, Jason Witten, Chris Cooley, Visanthe Shiancoe, Kellen Winslow Jr., Owen Daniels and John Carlson. Those are 13 starting-caliber tight ends. Unless there are two brain-dead owners in my league who draft backup tight ends in the first 10 rounds, I'll be able to land one of those two players in Rounds 10-11.
The other pick will be used on a sleeper running back or receiver. Starting in Round 10, I'm only drafting high-upside guys. There's no point in taking a mediocre talent like T.J. Houshmandzadeh. I know what I'm getting out of him, and chances are Houshmandzadeh will be dumped by Week 4 anyway.
Oh, and I'm not even considering a defense yet.
ROUNDS 12-13: Best running backs/receivers available, and only those with upside. If I took Manning or Rodgers early, I'm grabbing my backup quarterback here. Again, NO DEFENSE.
ROUNDS 14-16: Round 14 is my final skill-position player - a super-high upside long shot. Round 15 is my kicker. Round 16 is my defense.
As far as defenses are concerned, I love playing matchups. For example, I can draft the Dolphins (at Bills), Chargers (at Chiefs) or Cardinals (at Rams) here, and chances are that those defenses will outscore some of the highly rated defenses in Week 1 like the Jets (vs. Ravens), Vikings (at Saints) and Eagles (vs. Packers). I'll have more on this later this week or next week.
Drafting Middle: Picks 6-8:
ROUND 1: If the top five backs (listed above) are off the board, I'm targeting Andre Johnson in the middle of the first round unless I can only start two receivers (no flex). The receiver position is so scarce this year that having Johnson will be a big advantage. If some bastard takes Johnson, I'll go with Michael Turner or Shonn Greene, and if so, I'll just follow the strategy I listed in the Drafting Early portion.
The following assumes I take Johnson with the No. 6-8 Pick:
ROUNDS 2-3: I'd love to pair Andre Johnson with Calvin Johnson, especially in leagues where starting three receivers is required. Either way, I'm taking the best available running back and receiver with each selection.
It's unlikely, but if Peyton Manning is available in the middle of Round 3, he might just be too good to pass up.
ROUNDS 4-5: Once again, best available running back and receiver. If I have two running backs going into Round 4, I may target two wideouts and vice versa.
THE REST: The rest of the draft will follow the drafting early strategy.
Drafting Late: Picks 10-12:
ROUNDS 1-2: In a traditional scoring system, I'm taking Aaron Rodgers if he falls to the bottom of the first round. I'm not a fan of drafting quarterbacks early this year, but Rodgers is just too good to pass up at Pick No. 10 or later.
If I'm in a PPR league, I'm probably doubling up on receivers in Rounds 1-2 unless I can get Jamaal Charles or Shonn Greene with my second pick. I know Greene might catch only five balls this season, but that won't matter if he scores 14 or so touchdowns (and 14 is a conservative estimate).
ROUNDS 3-4: If I took two receivers earlier, I'm definitely grabbing two running backs here. Otherwise, I'm picking the best players available at running back and receiver. If my league forces me to start three wideouts, I'm making sure that I have at least two by the time I'm out of Round 4.
ROUNDS 5-6: Unless someone really tempting drops to me (Tony Romo, Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates, Matt Schaub, Philip Rivers, etc.) I'm going with the top running back or receiver available once again.
ROUNDS 7-8: If I don't have a quarterback yet, I'm probably taking two with these selections.
THE REST: The rest of the draft will follow the drafting early strategy.