What is a Keeper League?
What is a keeper fantasy football league?
A keeper fantasy football league is a variation of the traditional redraft league format. Unlike a dynasty league, where a team’s entire roster carries over year after year, a keeper league still holds new drafts every season. However, unlike a traditional redraft league, keeper leagues allow you to keep a small number of players from your team into the next season.
In many ways, keeper leagues offer the best of both worlds. They aren’t nearly as involved as dynasty leagues, where you’re managing rosters year-round – and need to take into account winning and building out young talent at the same time – but they also involve a lot more strategy than redraft leagues, where you simply show up at the start of every NFL season and start fresh.
Keeper leagues tend to act as a bridge venture for new fantasy football players. Those who have completed a couple of years of regular redraft leagues, and are looking for a little more of a challenge, will likely find the keeper league as a great way to expand involvement without becoming overwhelmed by new responsibilities.
How does a keeper league work?
Starting up a keeper league involves much of the same processes as starting up a traditional redraft league. The first season will involve all players participating in the inaugural startup draft of the league. However, when the year ends, players will then be allowed to decide whether or not they wish to keep a certain number of players from their roster into the next season.
Much like dynasty leagues, there are a ton of different and unique ways to set up keeper leagues. The number of players allowed to be kept, the length of time a player can be kept, and the cost for keeping a player are all things that can vary dramatically, league to league.
One thing that keeper leagues share in common with redraft leagues is that they both entail participating in a standard draft before the beginning of each year. Keeper leagues will still see the majority of the players go back into the general player pool each season, so starting with a (mostly) full-player draft each year is still necessary and a huge part of participating in any keeper league.
After the season is over, teams will disband, but prior to the next season, teams will have to decide on who their specific keepers will be. How that works and other rules pertaining to keeper leagues can be found below.
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What are the rules of a keeper league?
Obviously, the biggest difference between a redraft league and a keeper league is the ability to hold over or “keep” certain players from your squad into the next season. The rules around keepers will also be one of the most impactful settings and decisions a manager can make in l keeper league, so it’s best to understand the different kinds of rules around keepers before playing.
Who can you select as a keeper?
One general rule that applies to all keeper leagues is that keepers can only be selected from your actual roster at the end of the season. If you drafted a player 10th overall but then dropped him from your roster mid-season (and never re-added that player), you wouldn’t be eligible to use him as a keeper the following year. On the flip side, if you picked up a player off the waiver wire at some point after the draft and kept that player on your roster until the end of the season, then he would become eligible to be used as a keeper the next year.
How long can you hold onto a keeper in a fantasy football keeper league?
This rule generally has a lot more leeway and varies a lot between leagues. At the extreme, are the leagues that will allow teams to hold onto players indefinitely. This isn’t the most popular method, though, as it turns the keeper league into more of a dynasty situation where certain players will never be available to be drafted again.
Oct 3, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (25) celebrates his touchdown with teammates against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Most keeper leagues set limits on how long a player can be held as a keeper, and the standard rule usually falls between two to three years.
Penalties for keeping a player beyond one year can be implemented as well. These generally include the loss of extra draft capital, especially in keeper leagues that are tied to the draft position where your keeper was selected. For example, if a player cost you a fifth-round pick in his first year as one of your keepers, a popular penalty would be for the league to charge you a third or fourth-round pick (e.g. an extra round or two) in order to keep that player for a second season.
Do you have to keep players, or can you bypass keepers in a keeper league?
When it comes time to decide on keepers, and you find yourself without any appealing options on your squad from last season, then most keeper leagues will allow you to bypass the keeper portion (e.g. take zero keepers) without penalty. Teams don’t need to use all of their keeper spots either, so if your league allocates three spots (and you only have one player you want to keep), then you can choose to forgo the extra two spots.
Since teams who do max out their keepers will often be giving up draft picks, you can gain an advantage in the new year’s draft by not using your keeper spots. In most cases, you’ll have at least one or two players worth keeping. However, if your keeper league is deeper into existence and you have some limitation periods expiring, then not using any of your keeper spots could be the right play.
Trading draft picks in a keeper league
Unless you are playing in a very basic keeper league, where keeping players doesn’t cost you draft capital, trading draft picks in a keeper league is a fairly common occurrence. Since teams will often be without picks in certain rounds, and many teams will be holding over at least a couple of players from the previous season, trades during the draft are common.
What are the different types of keeper leagues?
A no-cost keeper league
A straight-up or no-cost keeper system is the simplest way to run a keeper league. In this scenario, each team gets allocated a specific number of keeper spots (usually between two to five) and can keep whomever they like for the upcoming season. There’s no penalty or lost draft capital associated with the keeper selection. That means that teams will be free to go after and keep high draft picks from last season at will, as there is no penalty involved for selecting the best players. These types of leagues don’t add much to a traditional redraft league format other than making who you take in the league startup draft of extra importance.
Prior year draft spot keeper league
This is the most popular and widely used method. A keeper rule that is tied to last year’s draft spot sees a team forfeit their draft pick in the upcoming year’s draft based on where they selected their keeper in the prior season. So if you selected D’Andre Swift in the seventh round in 2021 and were intent on making him your keeper in 2022, you would lose your seventh-round selection in the 2022 draft.
- Team A selects D’Andre Swift, Michael Pittman, and AJ Dillion as their 2022 keepers
- In 2021 they selected:
- Swift in the seventh round
- Pittman in the 10th round
- Dillion in the 12th round
- For 2022 that team would gain the ability to keep Dillion, Pittman, and Swift on their team but lose their seventh, 10th, and 12th round picks in the new draft.
- In 2021 they selected:
Keeper leagues where the cost is tied to the prior year’s draft involve a lot more thinking as teams will have to weigh the draft cost (e.g. what level of draft pick they are giving up) vs. player potential. In some cases, it might be worth it to keep a player who costs you a 2nd round draft pick, especially if that player is projected to be a top 10 player in the league for the upcoming season.
However, the biggest boost you can get in a keeper league, where forfeiting draft capital is involved, is when you select a player extremely low in a draft who is then projected with a much higher ADP the following year. That allows you to keep a potential high-end fantasy producer for the new season and hold onto your high-round draft capital – which you can use to pick up more high-end players.
In a lot of ways, getting to keep a player who has seen his ADP soar in the following year is like being able to go back in time and buy a $100.00 stock at a much cheaper price. While there’s no guarantee that the player will work out in the future season, it still provides you with a great cost-for-capital scenario and one that sets your team up for success down the road.
Jan 23, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis (13) celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFC Divisional playoff football game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Undrafted free agents
In leagues where the loss of draft capital is used as a penalty for keeping players, undrafted players can offer up a lot of appeal. If a player goes undrafted, and you end up picking up that player off the waiver wire and keeping him until the end of the season, that player would be eligible for keeper status the following year.
In order to keep things fair and stop teams from ravaging the free agent pool late in the season, most keeper leagues will assign undrafted free agents some kind of token draft position before the season starts. Typically a lower slot like the 12th round is given to undrafted free agent pickups. This still makes undrafted free agents a great value proposition in many cases but also keeps them from wrecking the league as they’re not entirely free.
Since players in the NFL can go from obscurity to relevance in the span of a game or two keeping an eye on who is on the waiver wire becomes an important part of your keeper strategy. Finding future breakout candidates from the waiver wire to replace your own draft busts or injured players throughout the year can become a great way to get access to some low-cost keepers and put yourself ahead for the following season.
ADP keeper leagues
These kinds of keeper leagues assign value to your keeper through their current year ADP. For example, in an ADP keeper league, if you were planning on keeping Najee Harris for 2022 (current Underdog fantasy ADP of 10.4), you would have to forfeit a first-round draft pick in order to keep him.
Since ADP keeper leagues work off current year rankings, they take out the advantage gained when you selected a player with a low draft pick in the previous year. If there are players whose ADP is lower than you think it should be, keeping that player could provide you a small advantage in ADP leagues. However, these kinds of advantages aren’t as beneficial as the ones that can be gained in a league that uses prior year draft positions, where players can often be kept for a small portion of their current year draft value.
Keeper League Strategy
Much like in a redraft league, your strategy in a keeper league should be focused on the present and winning the upcoming season. Keeper leagues do allow us to carry over some talent but it’s only a few players, in most cases, so a dramatic change in your draft strategy isn’t necessary.
One area where keeper leagues do differ from redraft leagues, though, is in the trading of draft picks. Since keeper leagues often use draft capital as payment or penalty for keeping a player, teams will often go into the yearly league draft down multiple draft picks. This allows for some potential flexibility to make trades during the draft portion. There’s no set strategy for trades in a keeper league, but generally, you should be emphasizing higher draft picks. The waiver wire can always be used to fill out rosters and benches, but we only have a few true shots at drafting true studs.
If an opportunity arises in a keeper draft to make a quality (high draft pick) for quantity (multiple lower draft picks) trade, it will often be worthwhile to take it. Getting an extra shot at landing on a player who could produce a legendary type of season is almost always going to be a better proposition than acquiring a bundle of later-round picks where the player upside is limited, and the bust factor is much higher.
How to pick your keepers
Undoubtedly, the biggest route to success in any keeper league is actually nailing your keepers. Deciding which players to hold over onto your new team can have a massive impact on how your team will perform on the field and can also have a big impact on your draft, depending on how your league’s rules around keepers are structured.
Determining the worth of your keeper
Since most keeper leagues tie value to your keeper and his previous draft position, you’ll need to decide if it’s worth giving up a draft pick in order to hold over your player on the squad for the new year. You’ll also need to consider the impact your keeper expects to have in the new year.
A 15th-round running back keeper who is going in round 10 or 11 in the new season sounds nice on paper, but if that player is still projected to be in a backup position or not get a huge bump in usage, then other more impactful players may hold better value. On the flip side, a starting wide receiver who was selected by you in the 8th round of the previous season but is now going in the fifth round in the new season AND got himself a quarterback upgrade over the offseason (a la Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton in 2022) may have more appeal.
Value and Opportunity
When looking at potential keepers then, you’ll need to weigh both value (what is this player costing me in draft capital vs. what he’s going for this season) and opportunity (what is his potential upside for the new season). A good rule of thumb when deciding on keepers is to start by looking at your most impactful players and then working your way down your roster.
Players with upside to carry rosters and end the year as a top-five player at their position – who are also available to be kept at multiple rounds below their current ADP in the new season – should hold the most value.
If you don’t have an abundance of those types on your roster, then you can start looking for players whose gap between their current year ADP and where you selected them the previous year is the biggest. Even if a receiver or running back projects as more of a WR2 or WR3, if you are only expending a late-round pick to continue holding that player, then the draft capital you save still makes them a very strong keeper.
One last keeper strategy to consider is the hoarding method, whereby you hold onto your best player or players simply because you have no reason to think they’ll be experiencing a regression in the new season. If you spent a higher draft pick on a player like AJ Brown or Nick Chubb in 2021 and they are projected to fall in a similar spot in next year’s draft, then simply keeping them over throwing them back into the draft pool is perfectly fine. As long as you are bullish on the player and his chances of outperforming his ADP for the new season, then making an equal value exchange can be something to consider if you have no better options.
Using the waiver wire in a keeper league
One important difference between redraft and keeper leagues is how big an asset the waiver wire can become. While redraft leagues allow you to pick up potential fill-ins and handcuffs that can be used in-season, the waiver wire in a keeper league offers even more appeal as free agents, and players with lower draft picks attached to them will often be available as the season wears on.
While you don’t want to get carried away and focus simply on next season, as the league winds down, looking for younger players who may be in line for a bump in usage next season should be a focus. Studying a team’s depth chart and even their salary cap situations can lead to unearthing some great finds on the waiver wire.
How to join a keeper league?
Here are your options:
Join a startup league
- Can adjust settings to league preference
- Often will be playing with people you know and trust, which will make the experience more personal.
- You can start your team from scratch and get a solid group of sleepers to build off of for future years.
- If you are starting and managing the league, finding 11 other committed players can be challenging
- The league will have to agree on rules for keepers, and there may be some compromise involved.
- Like dynasty leagues, keeper leagues are ongoing, so ensuring the league has a rule in place and a way to help new owners for orphaned teams (e.g. free or reduced dues for a year) is key in the setup process.
Take over an existing team.
- The league is already functional, and you will just be joining in on the fun, so no decision-making about setup will be required.
- Often there are incentives for new players to take over orphaned teams
- Taking over a keeper league won’t come with a huge handicap
- Unlike dynasty leagues where most orphaned teams are quite weak
- You’d be joining a league that is already established, and you will be at the whim of the rules in place.
- Your keepers for the first year would be based on what is already available.
- If there were a bunch of other teams in the league already with strong keepers, the first year could be a struggle.
What platform is best to play on for keeper fantasy football leagues?
Keeper leagues aren’t as intricate as dynasty leagues, so they are supported by most of the popular fantasy football sites. Below are some of the most common places you set up or find keeper leagues to join.
Sleeper fantasy rhymes with keeper and is a fantasy football hosting site, to boot, so it would almost be criminal if they didn’t support keeper leagues. Sleeper has developed into one of the most intricate and user-friendly fantasy football platforms in the industry, with the ability to host redraft, dynasty, and keeper leagues.
As you can see from above, Sleeper fantasy makes it insanely easy to set up a keeper format when creating your league. Once you’ve made the decision to set up a sleeper league, the commissioner can also set up the value for a sleeper in terms of draft picks forfeited.
Teams will also all have the ability to set their keepers at the end of the season.
One more advanced feature that keeper leagues being hosted on Sleeper will enjoy is the ability to trade draft picks on the website and app. This makes trades during the draft very easy to complete and can add a lot of fun to a keeper league.
Sleeper is an emerging site in the fantasy football space and is continually updating its offerings. They have a very modern interface, good customer support and should be one of the first sites you check out for keeper fantasy football league hosting.
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As one of the most popular host sites for traditional redraft fantasy football leagues, ESPN does also allow leagues to set up as keepers.
As a site, ESPN isn’t as intricate as Sleeper as it’s mainly geared to redraft play and casual football leagues. Their league settings only allow for between 0-3 sleepers to be kept, per team, but they do allow for managers to set the value of a sleeper to the round they were taken in the previous season.
The full list of rules and settings for ESPN sleeper leagues and setup can be found here.
Much like ESPN, Yahoo is one of the most popular sites on the internet for traditional and casual fantasy football redraft leagues. It gives league managers the option to set up keeper leagues in the settings and provides a lot of different tools aimed at giving leagues flexibility in their keeper settings.
Options like trading draft picks and setting up keepers based on the previous season’s draft position are all available on Yahoo. Their rules and info can be found here.
Ultimately, choosing between these three sites will come down to preference. Sleeper undoubtedly has the best tools and nicest looking interface, but it’s also a less popular platform than the other two and would require some getting used to. If you are looking for a more advanced platform, though, Sleeper is a pretty clear top pick for setting up new keeper leagues and even allows for the migration of existing leagues from other sites.
Most people who play fantasy football will have used Yahoo or ESPN at some point, so choosing between those two will really come down to personal preference.
Dynasty vs Keeper Leagues
Keeper fantasy football leagues mostly function like redraft leagues with the exception that they allow a small number of players to be held over and “kept” into the new season. Many keeper leagues allow up to three or more keepers, but the number can vary depending on the league setup.
Dynasty leagues, on the other hand, are a completely different beast in that once the startup draft is complete, the only way to make roster moves is through free agency, trades, or the annual rookie draft. Unlike keeper leagues, all of your players flow over to next year’s squad without penalty. Dynasty leagues then offer year-round play, which means you must be much more involved as a manager.
Main differences between a keeper fantasy football league and a dynasty fantasy football league:
- They allow a minimal number of players to be held over into the new season (usually two to five)
- Keeper leagues can vary in regards to keepers
- Most charge draft capital based on where the keeper was picked the previous season
- Keepers start each season with a new draft to fill out squads around keepers
- Players can choose not to keep any players and draft a completely new team if they wish
- The entire roster carries over year over year and involves year-round management
- Dynasty leagues have a startup draft and then only draft from the pool of new rookies at the start of every season
- Once the startup draft is done, all player movement is done through free agency, trades, and the rookie draft