What is a keeper league and why play?

by James Eberspacher on May 1, 2013 @ 11:31:02 PDT


Do you get up at the same time every morning and go through the same morning ritual? Do you take the same route to work, eat lunch at the same time and leave promptly at quitting time only to go home to watch three hours of television before you hit the sack? If so, then you are probably one of those people stuck in a yearly fantasy football league.

Your league probably also utilizes a pick-style draft, too. Want to add a little excitement to your life? While we really can't help you with your daily routine, we can give you some information on keeper leagues and why you should play.

In a nutshell, keeper leagues offer more excitement to fantasy football by making you think a little more and pay attention throughout the season. Keeper leagues are the closest you can come to feeling like real NFL owners, depending on the type of keeper league you utilize.

While we'll go more in-depth on the actual strategy of keeper leagues in other pieces this summer, it is imperative that you remember the goal - even in keeper leagues - is to win now. The most glaring mistake we see done time after time in keeper leagues is teams load themselves with future talent and bypass proven players that can contribute immediately. While it may be cool to brag you don't have a player over 24 years of age on roster in a keeper league, it won't be so cool when the teams loaded with the 30-year-olds kick your butt all season long because they built their lineup to win this year. Balance is key! Build to win today while keeping an eye on the future.

Types of keeper leagues

There really are only two types of keeper leagues: Keeper or Dynasty. While there are just these two types, there are great variances associated within both formats, especially within keeper leagues. Whichever format you utilize depends on the interest of the owners in your league.

Keeper leagues

You've probably heard keeper leagues called a variety of names: carryover, rollover, etc. Whatever you call it, they all rely on one basic concept: the ability to keep a player or players from one season to the next. It's a simple concept but with plenty of variations.

Keeper leagues can be as simple as keeping one player. Some leagues allow a team to keep one player, regardless of position, for the following season. Other leagues allow a team to keep a player from each position or specified positions depending on how many players are allowed to be carried over to the next season. The concept is the same, and the number of players kept from year to year is a matter of preference.

The mission is to find the right amount of players teams can retain to provide the right amount of parity. Parity ... sounds similar to the NFL, doesn't it? If you only allow one, then the idea of a keeper league seems almost moot. If you allow seven players to be retained, it will be more difficult for any of the bottom-feeding teams to get back into contention quickly.

Keeper leagues can remain competitive each season by putting limitations on the years a player can be retained. For instance, if a team has the rights to Player A, that owner can only keep Player A for three seasons (or any number of years decided upon by your league) before he has to be returned to the draft pool or traded to another owner.  

Limitations on the number of keeper players retained per position also can occur. If your league allows three keeper players, perhaps the limitation is no more than one player can be retained from each of a team's quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. However, this would limit a team's ability to continue to benefit each season from a loaded running back squad.

Other variations used are allowing that only players drafted after a certain round can be kept. This rewards the value picks you made in the later rounds of your draft. Draft placement can also be limited in the selection of your retained players. For example, if you carry over a third-round pick, you forfeit this year's third-round selection. Another variation of this rule is to give up early round selections for steals you made in later rounds of last season's draft. This means if you are keeping a player drafted in Round 10 last season, you must give up your fifth round selection this season.

When all of the teams in a league have selected their keepers the rosters are cleared and all of the remaining players are put back into the draft pool. Any player not kept is available in the league's draft.

Whatever rules your league uses, they are put in place to create a balance in a keeper league. The best strategy for an owner is to simply know the rules and follow them.

One of the main benefits of having a keeper league is keeping owners involved all season long. All too often, teams that have horrible record go hand-in-hand with the disappearance of an owner, or worse yet, a bitter owner who unloads his roster to free agency or another team just to screw up the league. The ability to retain players is usually enough of a carrot for a losing team to keep their good players or get something valuable in a trade with a winning team.

Trades are another likely benefit for keeper leagues. Trades can certainly shake up a league during the season, especially during a playoff run. A losing team with a stud may trade said stud for a couple of holdover players to build for next season. Also, if your league allows player for draft pick trades, this scenario likely will rear its head during the playoff run. Teams making a run at the championship will almost always entertain trading next season's draft picks for the stud that could put them over the top.

Trades can also become more important in leagues with limitations on keeper players. One team may be loaded with more keeper potential players than they can actually retain while another team may not have enough worthwhile players to hold over. This can lead to stocked teams trading with lesser quality teams to better their squad while giving the lesser team a better selection of players to retain. For example, a team with three dynamite running backs but no receivers could trade their third back to another team who is loaded with receiver options but lacking in the running back department. 

Dynasty leagues

A dynasty league takes a keeper league to the fullest extent possible. The idea of a dynasty league is to allow owners to keep the same roster year to year. Owners are expected to manage their team all year long, not just during the season like all other formats. The mission is to create a dynasty team by making the best short-term and long-term moves. However, if certain parameters aren't in place, parity is almost impossible.

First of all, the rules of a dynasty league are nearly endless depending upon the complexity of the league. Some leagues can be as simple as just retaining your full roster year to year while others can work in salary caps teams must abide by. The rule books are thick, not like the one or two pager you have now, because of the details that are involved in players' contracts, salaries, roster restrictions, etc. Knowing your league's rules is very important. Once you understand them, you will be looking for loopholes more than Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

In complex dynasty leagues, auctions are an inherited part of dynasty leagues. Since players are under contract, they must have salaries. Each team has a salary cap in which they must sign a roster of players to fall under the cap. This is accomplished during the first draft. For more information on auctions, check out our series of auction league articles throughout the summer.

Getting back to dynasty leagues ... Generally, players' salaries will increase each season while under contract. Contract lengths can be bid upon for length, which will cost a team more money. Other variations can include limitations on contract length, players under long-term deals or require percentage escalations in salaries. The goal is to determine which players are worth keeping under contract, while abiding by your cap rules. In dynasty leagues it is almost impossible to have a squad full of high-caliber players for a number of years, since you will ultimately bust the roof of your salary cap.

A valued part of dynasty leagues can be having an Injured Reserve or practice squad. Leagues tend to mix the two, which allows you to have a limited number of injured players or guys you simply aren't using to sit on a taxi squad. Players stashed away here don't count against your cap or total number of players on roster. This allows some flexibility to stash an injured or slumping player on your taxi squad with some protection in order to play a hotter player without having to release/trade the other player to make room on your roster.

Free agency can be a tricky part of dynasty leagues if you're not savvy enough or simply not up to speed on your league's rulebook.

First come, first serve may be the free agency rule, however, the player available will have to be signed to his current salary. That means any team wishing to grab the prized free agent will have to have enough cap space to warrant such a signing. Some leagues use a sealed bid on a free agent, thereby awarding the player to the team with the highest bid. Many leagues also utilize a restricted and unrestricted free agent pool once the contract expires. As with the NFL, the player will be signed by the team that is offering the highest salary. Of course, if the player is a restricted free agent, the right to match any salary goes to the team in which the player is currently under contract. Now you probably understand how this can get a bit confusing for those not up to the task of a dynasty league.

As with all free agency systems, the opportunity to grab a player that can help your squad must be balanced with what you are giving up. This is even more relevant in dynasty leagues. While you may be offering a higher salary for a player to help you now, you may be losing youth and the possibility of having a young, quality player at a lower salary.

Hey, that's a solid segue to the youth movement in dynasty leagues. Youth is an even more vital component to dynasty leagues than keeper leagues. Youth is what will keep your team from having to spend years rebuilding after some success. If you balance your veterans with some youth, you will likely have some success. A team with veterans likely will help you win now; however, they are getting older and will lose a step to the developing players. Those developing players are necessary pieces to keeping your team in the mix.

Youth is so important that a rookie draft is held every season. Players are generally selected via a serpentine draft or a straight draft with the order determined from how teams finished the year before - the worst team would have the highest pick with the league champion having the last pick. Generally, rookies selected are set at a rookie salary. However, there are leagues that weight the salaries according to the selection number and round they were drafted. For instance, a rookie drafted as the first overall pick will have a higher salary than someone selected as the first pick in the third round.

Dynasty leagues are an interesting, enjoyable way to stay on top of the NFL and college ball all year long. To effectively manage your team, you must have a course of action. Keeping abreast of other teams, monitoring the waiver wire and scouting college players are all necessary for you to field a winning team both short- and long-term. You will have to make big-time decisions that can affect your team a couple of years down the road.

Dynasty leagues definitely require your attention and aren't for the casual fantasy player. If you aren't willing to put forth this kind of effort or are new to the game, we wouldn't recommend this type of league for you.

Auctions and keeper leagues

We already mentioned how auctions are associated with dynasty leagues in terms of contracts and salary caps. Auctions can also be utilized in conjunction with your rookie draft, if your league decides to go that route rather than a straight-pick style draft. Auctions are also utilized in dynasty leagues that require teams to dump their taxi squads at the end of the season or for those free agents that haven't signed with any team. This brings an interesting concept to the table for dynasty owners. Do you forgo a bid on a free agent hoping he makes it to the auction, thereby running the risk of losing that player to another team? Of course, there are necessary rules to make this work. That's why the rulebook in dynasty leagues can dwarf the baseball encyclopedia.

Auction formats can have an affect on traditional keeper leagues, too. Leagues that utilize an auction draft will have salaries and caps. The implications on the carryover players' salaries can be numerous. Leagues will require carryover players to have higher salaries with each additional year he is kept by the same team. For instance, if Player B is purchased at $25, the team may have to add $3 to his cap the first season ($28), $5 the second season ($33) and $10 every season after that ($43). This will limit the number of years a team can have the rights to a player as the salary will be far higher than the player is worth in an auction. Even a steal in a draft will eventually be worth less than his salary.

Another variation is the use of a franchise tag, similar to that of the NFL. This rule allows a team to designate one franchise player to be paid at the average of the top five highest paid players at his position. The tag is placed on the player at the expiration of his contract and is good for one season. It is a sound option if the player is of value at this price. 

The secrets of a successful keeper league

Probably the single most important component of a keeper league is a commissioner that is involved. Having a commish that is fair, organized and knows what he/she is doing goes a long way. The commissioner must stay on top of all transactions, monitor the rosters, make fair, impartial decisions, be an effective communicator and be willing to levy sanctions against even the closest of friends. If you don't have this rolled up in one person, designate two people to act as co-commissioners. A league with a dirty commissioner (real or perceived) or someone who is unorganized will ultimately collapse under poor leadership.  

The second most important factor is the involvement of the owners. Most of us have been in a league where an owner ignores his/her team or drops out completely. There is nothing more frustrating in fantasy football than the uninterested or uncooperative owner. In all leagues there are winners and losers. If it happens to be your unfortunate time to be one of the losers, then do it graciously and continue to be competitive. If you can't be competitive, try to build for the future.

Lastly, introduce the keeper idea in advance. Don't be one of those dictator commissioners who noticed his/her team was stacked this season and decided that next season was a five-player keeper league. Rather, decide on the number of players to be kept, any rules associated with the keepers and how it affects your waiver system (if at all) ahead of time - be sure all owners are informed of the rules. That way, they can prepare their draft accordingly. By introducing the idea in advance or even starting completely fresh, you can eliminate any notion of foul play.

If you are one of those fantasy football owners stuck in a year-to-year, redraft rut, then a keeper league might be just what the doctor ordered. It will keep you more interested and is simply a more interesting way to play the game. For those really looking to replace the bologna sandwich with prime rib, the dynasty league is probably where you want to feast. 

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About James Eberspacher

James Eberspacher has been Commissioner of a "high performance" fantasy football league since 1994. He has created an entertaining and challenging league by designing a unique scoring system and a creative sense of writing and style. He has been a KFFL Contributor since 2003.

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