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.
ROUND 1: If I'm lucky enough to draw a top-three pick, I'm going to take the best running back available between Ray Rice, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy. The top player in my 2012 Fantasy Football Top 250 Cheat Sheet is McCoy, but it's close between the three. Take whomever you like best.
ROUNDS 2-3: I'm always a fan of taking the best player available. Based on what I've seen in the mock drafts I've done - click here for my most recent 2012 Fantasy Football Mock Draft - I should be able to get players like Greg Jennings, Matthew Stafford, Hakeem Nicks or Ahmad Bradshaw here.
I won't be afraid to go WR-WR. Unlike running backs, wide receivers are generally dependable. Thus, if Ser Stafford is off the board, I'd probably go with Jennings and Nicks to complement my elite running back.
I should note that if I'm in a league that only starts two running backs and two receivers (no flex), I don't think I'd go WR-WR unless they were the top players on the board by far.
ROUNDS 4-5: I wouldn't wait until the end of Round 6 for a quarterback, so I'd think about grabbing someone like Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers or Tony Romo in Round 5. My other selection would be used on the top player available. With luck, Ahmad Bradshaw might make it here. I've seen him fall into the fourth round of several mocks. Otherwise, players like Percy Harvin, Fred Jackson, Jordy Nelson and Steve Johnson would work.
ROUNDS 6-7: If, for some reason, 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.
If I already have a signal-caller, then I'm just filling out my starting lineup and top backup positions. Jeremy Maclin, Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas are wide receiver options. Running back choices include Mark Ingram, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Willis McGahee, Stevan Ridley and Kevin Smith.
ROUNDS 8-9: I'm taking the best running back, wide receiver or tight end available with these two picks. I would love it if I could get Kevin Smith or Darrius Heyward-Bey this late. Malcom Floyd, Torrey Smith, Jonathan Stewart, Titus Young and Donald Brown work as well.
ROUNDS 10-11: I'm taking a tight end here if I haven't already (Brent Celek has been available in mocks). I'm also picking a backup quarterback here if I don't have one.
If I still have a pick left over, I'll be looking at the top running back or receiver available. I'd love to get Evan Royster, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Williams, Greg Little or Kendall Hunter.
ROUNDS 12-13: Nothing but high upside players for me. Check out my 2012 Fantasy Football Late-Round Sleepers (will be posted soon) for a list of players to take. Oh, and don't take a defense or kicker yet. That's just lazy.
ROUNDS 14-16: Round 14 is my final skill-position player - a super-high upside long shot. Round 15 is my defense. Round 16 is my kicker.
ROUND 1: If the top three backs (listed above) are off the board, I'm going for the following guys in this order: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Calvin Johnson and Chris Johnson. Move the two Johnsons ahead of Brady if it's a PPR league.
*** The following assumes I don't take Chris Johnson with the No. 4-7 Pick (if I go with Johnson, it'll be the same as Drafting Early):
ROUNDS 2-3: I'd love to pair Calvin Johnson or my elite quarterback with Andre Johnson. He's been available in the middle of Round 2 of several mock drafts I've seen. Greg Jennings is also an option. Once again, I'm not going to shy away from the WR-WR strategy because they're safe.
Other options include Rob Gronkowski, Maurice-Jones Drew and Matthew Stafford (Calvin version, obviously).
As for Round 3, Ahmad Bradshaw should be there if I haven't grabbed a running back yet. Otherwise, I might be looking at Hakeem Nicks, A.J. Green or Victor Cruz.
ROUNDS 4-5: Best available running back, receiver or Antonio Gates in Round 4. Dez Bryant, Percy Harvin, Fred Jackson and Gates are all strong options at this spot.
If I went the Calvin route, I'm taking a quarterback in Round 5 unless most of the teams drafting after me have already taken a one, in which case it'll be safe to wait until Round 6. Then again, if you know someone in your league is a jerk who spends two early picks on quarterbacks, I'll play it safe.
THE REST: The rest of the draft will follow Drafting Early.
Drafting Late: Picks 8-12:
ROUNDS 1-2: This assumes that McCoy, Rice, Foster, Rodgers, Brady and the two Johnsons are off the board. Otherwise, I'm going with them and following Drafting Middle.
I'm probably going WR-WR here, perhaps Larry Fitzgerald and then Julio Jones. If I can only get one, my second-round pick might be Jones-Drew, Andre Johnson, Jennings or Gronkowski. If I'm in a 3-WR league, it'll definitely be two wideouts. If it's a 2-WR, no flex league, however, then only one choice will be used on a wideout.
ROUNDS 3-4 (Standard): I'm applying the same scenario as Drafting Middle without Johnson. Yes, I'd consider a third wideout here to use as a flex or WR3. For example, my top four picks in an experts' fantasy league (PPR, 3-WR) went: Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Marshall. No one can beat my receiving corps.
Fred Jackson, Harvin and Gates are other players I'd target.
ROUNDS 5-6 (standard league): I'm once again applying the same scenario as Drafting Middle without Johnson. I'm also definitely taking a quarterback at this juncture if I haven't already. Remember what I said earlier about looking at the teams ahead of you to see if they've taken a signal-caller already.
ROUNDS 5-6 (3-WR league): I'm taking my third receiver here unless I'm forced to reach. With my other pick, I'd go with either a quarterback or running back, depending on who happens to be available. Remember to check my 2012 Fantasy Football Top 250 Cheat Sheet.
ROUNDS 5-6 (2-WR, no flex league): I should have one quarterback, 2-3 running backs, two receivers and maybe a tight end after these six picks.
THE REST: The rest of the draft will follow the Drafting Early strategy.