Grand Theft Roto: Early and preseason strategy


Today is my birthday.

As I'm writing this, I'm commemorating that fateful day 36 years ago, when Ma Peters endured more than 20 hours of labor, just before Labor Day, to bring me into the world.

But I'm also celebrating the fact that I've been given a splendid present. I've been handed this little piece of cyber real estate on a weekly basis to help you steal your fantasy football league.

If you played fantasy baseball this past season, you're likely familiar with the semicriminal ethics of the Grand Theft Roto family. But for the pigskin purists who don't sully themselves with horsehide, here are the basics:

In leagues in which you're playing against close friends, family or clergy, I believe that all deals should benefit both teams, the trading partners should seal the deal while singing "Kumbaya", and then both sides should go rescue some puppies from cosmetics testing labs.

In all other leagues, however, I'm here to encourage you to commit fantasy felonies. You won't lie (no telling someone that LaDainian Tomlinson blew his Achilles to drive up the price on Michael Turner), nor will you cheat, but everything else is fair game.

You will use statistics to blind your opponents, injury rumors to spook them and psychology to convince them they are robbing you. It's gonna be fun.

Oh, and one more thing. I have joined several public leagues under an assumed name for the sole purpose of using them as testing grounds for my trade theories. So if I tell you that I think you should sell Laurence Maroney for Thomas Jones and an upgrade at WR, I'm going to go put my Maroney where my mouth is. More on this later.

Casing the Joint

If you're reading this, you are in one of three situations: You're in a league that has already drafted, you're in a league that is about to draft or you are in more leagues than you can count without an abacus, some of which have drafted and some have not.

We love that third group.

If you haven't assembled your team yet, there are a few techniques you may want to employ that will insure you're in position to start trading immediately. The first is something called "cuff-blocking" and I wrote an entire column about it for the draft kit, so we'll move on.

The second technique is designed to exploit gaps in perceived value. This is when two players can be expected to offer approximately the same production, but for some reason, one is being valued much higher than the other. A quick look at the ADP (Average Draft Position) charts so kindly furnished within the ESPN Draft Kit (free to Insiders, he wrote with equal parts, pride and obligation) shows the previously-mentioned Laurence Maroney being drafted 11th, while Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones are being drafted, on average, 17th or 18th respectively. I see opportunity.

Jones has a longer track record of productivity and health than Maroney does, and New England is a team with few fantasy stars because of the way Belichick changes his game plan week to week. Benson, like Maroney, is a young guy with great talent holding down the feature-back role for the first time this year, but he plays in a far weaker conference with a far weaker quarterback. In a 12-team league, however, Maroney is viewed as a first-round back while the others are second-rounders. Personally, I have all three backs pretty close in my projections, so if I can truly improve elsewhere by trading Maroney for Benson or Jones, I'm investigating that.

At least once per draft, you'll have to make a difficult choice between two similar players, only to see that the player you almost took remains undrafted for five, 10, or even 15 more picks. Marques Colston and Donald Driver are a good example of this. I'd have a hard time picking one over the other, but Driver is going a half dozen picks later than Colston in many leagues, and as much as a round later in some.

When this happens, write yourself a note, because what you've got there is concrete proof that you value the two players similarly, but the rest of the league may not. After the draft, you can offer up Colston to Driver's owner and see what else you can get in the process.

Lastly, if you truly want to draft in a way that will spark trade opportunities, you should consider spending the first eight rounds or so picking the best player on the board regardless of position. If you end up with five starting backs, someone else will probably end up with only one-and-a-half, and you've got yourself a trading partner. Just don't try this technique in a truly random public league in which half the owners go inactive by Week 5.

Now a few tidbits for those of you who have already drafted. Your first targets are owners who are relying heavily on a running back that is part of the dreaded "running back-by-committee." If you have the other member of the "RBBC," there is no better time to try and make a move. Push the idea to Adrian Peterson's owner that he needs Chester Taylor so he'll always have the Vikings starter. Just don't mention there's a decent chance the two backs will actually split carries within games for the first half of the season, rendering both unreliable. My hunch says that's the way it plays out for a while, but Peterson ends up being the horse by midseason similar to Addai and Rhodes last year in Indy.

Also, make a quick inquiry to any team that ended up autodrafting when the rest of the league did a live draft. Those owners are almost always unhappy with their team and you might be able to sell yourself as their best chance to fix their team before the season starts.

Lastly, consider making some trades based on early strength of schedule to get guys who will help you win games early while driving up their trade value. Exhibit A is Willie Parker, whose Steelers face the Browns, Bills, 49ers and Cardinals the first four weeks. These were four of the nine friendliest run defenses in the NFL last year, in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing backs. If you drafted Parker, great. But if you think you could overpay slightly to get him now, Fast Willie could get you off to a hot start and then net you even more on the open market down the road.

Pulling the Job

This is the area where I'll list any deals I've done in the previous week and explain why and how I did them. Some will be Grand Theft Rotos, while others won't, but feel free to chime in via ESPN Conversation or send me an e-mail with your take.

I've made a half-dozen offers already despite the fact that most of my time is dedicated to joining more leagues, but so far, no fish have bitten. It's all right. It's a long season, and I've got a whole tackle box full of hooks to try.

Until next week, happy drafting, and don't just win your league, steal it.

Shawn Peters is a fantasy baseball and football analyst for TalentedMrRoto.com and ESPN.com, as well as a regular contributor to The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He can be reached at GrandTheftRoto@TalentedMrRoto.com.