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Fantasy Football Leagues: Formats 101

Some players have proven much more valuable in leagues that reward receptions, like Wes Welker.
Some players have proven much more valuable in leagues that reward receptions, like Wes Welker.

There is no right or wrong way to play in fantasy football leagues. Between the number of owners, the size of starting rosters, the size of benches, which individual positions are used and in what quantities, minimum or maximum positional limits, statistical scoring categories and their weight, any custom written rules and so on, there are virtually countless combinations of fantasy football leagues – the human imagination is the limiting factor.

With that said, people new to fantasy football are bombarded with all of those choices and rarely have a basic understanding of even the common league types. We’ve run into this problem recently ourselves in putting together a Dynasty league, and finding out even many yearly fantasy players don’t have the strongest grasp of how it all works. Here is our attempt to briefly explain some of the widespread formats you may have heard about but didn’t fully understand what each one entailed.

For veteran players, let us know if there’s anything we left out that should have been included or if there is anything that could be expounded on better. And for newcomers, feel free to ask for further explanation, whether that is another league type not found below or a new topic entirely.

Standard Leagues

Standard leagues are the most common and the most vanilla of all fantasy football leagues. It essentially means abstaining from any of the other league types we’ll get to later. The typical standard league starts 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 2 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 flex, 1 defense/special teams, and 1 kicker. Depending on the host of the league there may be an additional WR or flex to start and the bench size can vary slightly. In some places a flex is RB/WR and in others it is RB/WR/TE.

Standard scoring is fairly uniform in the industry with the exception of the QB position. Some sites award 1 point per 25 passing yards and some at 20 passing yards. Passing and rushing touchdowns are typically 4 and 6 points respectively (although this can change league-to-league) while interceptions and fumbles dock their committing players 1-2 points.

The primary problem of standard leagues is that they tend to devalue the QB position, because there are so many good QBs available in the average-sized 10-12 team league. This results in a lot of the same strategy among savvy fantasy players each year: Wait on a quarterback until later in the draft. This is such a problem that many people have even won leagues just streaming quarterbacks off the wire — yikes!

PPR Leagues

A rising challenger to standard leagues, PPR (points per reception) is more of a scoring offset than a true fantasy football league format, but that scoring change has a profound impact so it can feel like a different type of league all together. The premise of PPR is that the act of catching a ball is more difficult than securing a handoff. You can debate the finer details of that topic, though in the end PPR does provide benefits almost anyone can find desirable.

Not only does PPR scoring increase the baseline number of players who can contribute worthy points to a fantasy team, it also increases the potential weekly gap between elite producers and average Joes. It allows specialized players – receivers who catch a ton of passes but don’t score many touchdowns (ie: Wes Welker), or backs who catch a lot of passes but don’t take many handoffs (ie: Darren Sproles) – to have a more prominent place in fantasy line-ups.

Furthermore, PPR shifts the power balance between positions. Traditionally the running back position has been by far the most valuable position in fantasy as they typically score more points than wide receivers and tight ends while also being more scarce and difficult to identify. This has started to change by itself as the NFL continues to become a pass-happy league, but PPR further allows WRs and TEs to close the gap in value. The exception to this is a small handful of workhorse backs who catch an inordinate number of passes.

Since most sites default to standard leagues, most PPR leagues are custom leagues which means roster requirements and scoring rules can be all over the place. The amount of points rewarded for a reception is not set in stone itself. Most leagues reward a full 1 point per reception but many also choose 0.5 points or even lower. In some more advanced leagues the PPR value entirely depends on the position of the player who caught the ball.

Two Quarterback Leagues

Another fantasy football league type with increasing popularity is the 2 quarterback format. When fantasy football was first created, the idea of roster construction was to mimic what actual football looked like and thus only a single quarterback was to be in the starting line-up. However, in doing so this created an issue where the quarterback position is severely devalued in standard formats.

Your average fantasy league will roll out 12 starting QBs a week while the NFL will start 32 of them. With these players touching the ball on virtually every play, there is thousands of yards and hundreds of touchdowns being wasted. Additionally, when you only start the top few players at a position, the gap between the best player and the worst player shrinks dramatically. If you miss out on Peyton Manning you might have to “settle” for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns out of someone like Tony Romo many rounds later.

It just doesn’t make sense for arguably the most valuable position in real life sports to be the least valuable of the four main positions in fantasy football. Requiring teams to start 2 quarterbacks solves this issue. It makes use of more of the available resources and it stretches those resources to a point that creates scarcity and in turn value. Peyton Manning to Tony Romo may not be a large drop off, but going from Peyton Manning and Drew Brees to Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger just about doubles the gap.

A common variation of 2 QB leagues are leagues that feature an “Offensive Player” or “Superflex” spot rather than another strictly QB spot. These spots allow any offensive player to be plugged in, but with the QB position outpacing all others statistically, these leagues essentially remain 2 QB but with more flexibility for injuries and bye weeks. These type of spots become more prominent over a hard-set second QB slot the more players you have in your league, as it gets increasingly more difficult to get two QBs each week the higher you go up in member count.

IPD Leagues

IDP leagues are a niche flavor of fantasy football leagues that start individual defensive players, hence the IDP abbreviation. Football is an 11 on 11 games yet fantasy football, other than the lumped in D/ST position, completely ignores the production of the defensive half of the ball. IDP leagues address that to the extent possible and force owners to test their knowledge of the entire sport.

With IDP leagues being as uncommon as they are, there is very little established in terms of a standard IDP format. The number of IDP spots, whether some positions are grouped along with others, and the fantasy scoring of defensive stats can all vary wildly from league to league. This is a major part of why IDP leagues are not mainstream.

In addition to this lack of uniformity, preventing an action is inherently harder to quantify statistically than completing an action. A cornerback like Darrelle Revis who locks down his opponent but doesn’t see the ball coming his way often receives no fantasy point reward. Likewise, a defensive tackle like Vince Wilfork who eats up blocks that allow his teammates to make the tackle or sack does not get credited in IDP leagues either. This is not to say that IDP leagues aren’t fun and challenging, but there are some inescapable flaws.

Keeper Leagues

Keeper leagues can be any of the above variety of fantasy football league as it is only a change in the longevity of the league and the longevity of the rosters within it. While the majority of fantasy leagues dissipate after the season is over, keeper leagues have no fixed life span. Barring complications, the league and each owner is held over from the previous season. Where the name “keeper” comes from is each team is allowed to keep part of their squad from year to year.

Generally the number of keepers teams can retain is 5 or fewer, and there are usually rules dictating how long each player can be kept – either by directly disallowing the player to be kept after a certain number of years and/or by making the player no longer attractive to keep by increasing the cost to do so. The cost inflation of keepers varies and it can either be a flat rate, a percentage-based hike, some mixture of the two, or something more creative like a franchise tag system that forces fair market value after a period of time.

Another point of inflation with keeper leagues is the inflation of players that are not kept. With many great players presumably being retained every year, there are fewer impact players left in the pool of draftable players which increases their value greatly. Higher draft slots in a snake become even more valuable and in an auction each remaining stud is worth significantly more in dollars.

The best fantasy football league we’ve ever played was a keeper league, combined with many other aspects. Hybrid leagues of different formats and features are always the most fun, because they break up the monotony of standard leagues.

Dynasty Leagues

Dynasty leagues are simply a more extreme form of keeper league. All that changes is the number of players teams keep every year and the rules governing that process. In dynasty leagues, teams are usually going to be keeping either the majority of their roster or all of it from year-to-year with minimal or no restrictions. As the name suggests, the owner is tasked with building a dynasty by shaping the initial roster they end up with. It is not all that unlike being the GM of an NFL team.

With the ability to own a player for their career, there is an emphasis in dynasty leagues on young players with elite talent. Someone like Andrew Luck for example will probably not only be a fantastic QB in Indianapolis for 15 years, he could do the same for the fantasy team that was lucky enough to draft him. This is why you will see rookie drafts garnering so much attention in the offseason as dynasty owners are preparing to make decisions that could change the fortunes of their franchise for years. For the same reason, it is important to know the career span of each position. Running backs rarely make it far beyond 30 for instance.

While many dynasty leagues do not inflate the cost-to-keep prices of players, there are some that do in a similar way to keeper leagues. This adds another strategic element to your keeping process each year, and can add quite a lot of fun if you want that extra barrier up to prevent teams from steam rolling for too long, and create better parity in your league. Additionally, there are dynasty leagues that operate under salary cap restrictions where the dollar value of a roster cannot exceed a certain limit. Salary restriction leagues are also fun because they allow you to trade player contracts, and there’s a whole other metagame involving cap management that many GM-heads enjoy.

Salary Cap Leagues

Salary cap leagues are leagues that revolve around squeezing the most fantasy points you can out of a set salary cap. These fantasy football leagues are usually large groups and run on a weekly basis instead of yearly, and rather than each player only belonging to one team, every player in the NFL is available to anyone concurrently for a certain price.

The salaries of players and the cap itself is largely up to the individual league manager or host site’s discretion, but the way each player’s cost is determined is not unlike Vegas betting lines in the way is derived from expected performance. If Adrian Peterson is playing against a bad run defense and expected to have a huge game, he would naturally come at a hefty percentage of the salary cap budget. An owner would have to choose whether or not the extra money for Peterson was worth sacrificing other positions. Maybe to that owner Peterson isn’t worth it, but maybe another owner has some bargain receivers in mind that makes Peterson a worthy purchase. There is a lot of strategy involved.

With the minimal investment of 1 week out of a 17 week NFL season, salary cap leagues make for great fun but also a great way to make some money on the side. The fantasy football industry has been booming over the last few years in large part to the rise of popular salary cap leagues that you’ve probably all heard of by now.

The top of the food chain in salary cap leagues is currently FanDuel, which you can either join for free and practice or pay into specific games and win money for putting together a top roster. As a tip, using the promo code “GOMAD” on FanDuel when you sign up will double the first deposit you make, up to $200. Codes like this one make it easy to start on money salary cap leagues, because the doubled money gives you an excellent opportunity to learn the ropes without risking any money of your own.

Developmental Leagues

Developmental leagues, often called “devy” leagues are an interesting take on typical fantasy football leagues, and it’s rising in popularity. has a great what-is section on devy leagues, but I’ll break it down here as well. In short, developmental leagues allow owners to draft the rights to prospects before they enter the NFL draft (some even going as far back as high-school), which makes for a very peculiar type of game with both its pros and cons.

The big upside to devy leagues is that they really reward owners for doing scouting work of their own, and adds an additional element of risk-reward during draft day that makes fantasy football leagues in general so much fun. Devy leagues allow people to draft top-flight prospects before they become top-flight picks, however if your prospect burns out before the NFL, or doesn’t go as high as you projected, then you may end up wasting a pick. It’s all about strategy in devy leagues.

If there is a downside to devy leagues, it might be that it devalues certain positions, like quarterback where it’s often easier to predict years in advance who will be a top NFL draft pick at the position. Another downside is that devy leagues require a lot of time, effort and player evaluation to stay competitive with the best in the league. While that may not be a true negative for some, it’s certainly worth considering when deciding on what’s right for you in fantasy football leagues.

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  • boomNation

    I have wanted to but it has been hard for me to find one that does not die in a few weeks

  • SBRodgers2011

    PPR leagues are my favorite. With four WRs. I think it makes things a lot more fun.