How to Become a Successful Keeper League Coach

How do you have and maintain a successful keeper league side? It’s a question at the Coaches Panel we get often asked. Multiple variables go into making a successful keeper side, so I wrote a list of eight tips to help you be a top-keeper league coach. 

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Player Value | Understand your league rules 

This should be basic, but knowing the rules and framework of your league could be the difference between nailing your initial draft or making some horrible decisions. Know your draft order, how big the squad is, how many coaches are in the league & how many players are on the field. It’s simple, I know, but potentially profound. 

As an illustration, knowing how many players you have to place on the field can drastically change the value of a player or a position. If your in a 16-team league, the value of a good ruckman is substantially higher than in an 8-team league. Knowing this can inform how you draft, trade and value a player. Someone like Tim English might now be a second-round selection, whereas he would drift further into a shallower league. 

To further highlight this, the 16th-best ruck in 2022 averaged 71 last year. However, the 10th averaged 85 points per game. So in a shallower league, a ‘good ruck’ is relatively easy, even with a later pick. However, in a deeper league, you might need to invest a little earlier to avoid giving up points in a certain line. 

Knowing and understanding your league rules is a way to give yourself a headstart on the rest of your coaches. It will also help you fully evaluate the value of players both in a trade sense and their draft capital. Nail this, and you’re already on the way to being a strong keeper league coach. 

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List Spots | Know your ‘Keepers’ rules

It is one of the biggest keys to success or failure in a keeper league. I’ve participated in keeper leagues for the better part of a decade, and nearly every league has a different stated number of keepers. Some vary from as little as 10-12, while others are much more of a ‘dynasty’ style league and have squad retention of 35 players. 

Knowing how many you keep as you enter the draft will determine who you select and where you select them. Additionally, based on the variable of ‘keepers’, it will inform the type of players you keep on your list at lodgement time. 

For an example, let’s use Neil Erasmus from the Dockers. He was a highly touted junior and has shown fantasy pedigree in the WAFL colts as a junior & the WAFL last year. But so far has been unable to break into the AFL side. If your league retains only 10-12 players on your list annually, you might struggle to justify retaining him. As good as he could be, he’s unlikely to improve your team’s output in the next year or two, let alone break into the Dockers side as a regular. 

As a result, the ‘keepers’ lodgement might force your hand if you want to be competitive most years. However, if you keep 20 or 30 players annually on your list, you can afford to be more patient with these players, who should be excellent fantasy prospects but aren’t going to help you in the immediate future. 

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Free Agents | The pool is a gold mine 

Successful coaches are constantly mining the player pool for free agents. Every year I’ve seen players that start the year in the player pool transition to becoming highly valued assets. 

For example, nobody wanted to own Darcy Cameron entering the 2022 season. However, an injury created an opportunity, and he became one of the year’s top pickups. The pick has now been even further rewarded with the departure of Brodie Grundy. As a result, Darcy’s now the #1 ruck option at the club. Certainly, elements of luck are involved, but good coaches are always hunting the pool.

The player pool can also be a gold mine because other coaches lose patience or make a poor evaluation and drop a player of value. Therefore, scouting the pool constantly and watching other coaches’ moves might pay off. 

If you keep an eye on the AFL games, role changes and injury lists, you’ll also start to see some hidden value. I’ve already used Darcy Cameron as an example of an injury creating an opportunity. But what about a role change? Enter Ed Richards to highlight this point.

In the first fifteen games of the season, he had just one score north of 90 and played a much more defensive role. However, in round 18 against the Saints, he became a rebounding option and saw his marks and disposal tallies rise. If you noticed that, took the punt, snagged him out of the player pool, and didn’t wait another week or two to confirm it, you’d have been rewarded. Richards scored 106, 108, 90, 88 & 92 in the final five games. To put that into context, he was a top-10-averaging defender in that run of games. 

Sometimes it pays to jump on the potential upside of a player from the pool. It might only be a one or two-week bump before returning to poor scoring. But, on the other hand, it could also be the next keeper on your side emerging.

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Trading | Don’t burn your bridges

One of the great joys of having a keeper team is the feeling of becoming a virtual talent scout and list manager. It’s where you can live out your dreams of creating a super team and put some of the AFL knowledge into practice in a tangible way. 

A mistake I often see coaches early on in keeper leagues is the mentality of how they approach trades. They look for ways to ‘win’ and other coaches ‘lose’ or intentionally screw over another coach. A few years ago, a trade went down in one of my leagues where Dane Swan was traded early in the season. The mistake that was clearly on the coach’s trading to gain his services was that he didn’t realise he was injured, an injury that would later result in Swan having to retire. The news of Swan’s injury and it’s nature wasn’t hidden, but in his excitement to own a gun fantasy prospect, he leapt at the chance. Unfortunately paid a high price. As a result, he felt like an idiot and has not traded with that other coach since. 

To quote the great Michael Scott, always look for a ‘win, win, win’ in negotiations. After every trade, you want to feel like you’ve improved in achieving your objectives, and the same for the other team. As a result, you create a rapport and confidence that future trades will benefit each other. 

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Strategy | Know it & stay the course

As you enter your initial draft or every trade and redraft period, you must have a plan and a strategy. Without a plan, you’ll flake around yearly and never truly be a premiership contender. So before entering any of these periods, do the following. Create a plan, set a course of action, and follow through.  

Your strategy for entering the draft could be securing as many high-scoring midfielders as possible and avoiding forwards in the first ten rounds. That strategy could be sound if you need more confidence in the bulk of the top-end forwards. As a result, you’ll likely spend most of the season taking flyers from the player pool or playing the matchups for an on-field forward.  

The key with any of these plans is that while you need to follow through with the execution, you cannot get such a tunnel vision that you miss a player that’s sliding. For example, if a clear top-tier forward is available at your 7th or 8th pick, you might need to evolve what you’re doing. I’m a big believer in rankings players per position by tiers, not just a numerical order. So in the illustration, you might get a ranked tier-one forward where you’d normally get a fourth-tier midfielder. 

During every offseason, fellow panellist Kane & I create our top fifty rankings of players for keeper leagues. It’s an exclusive for our Patreon supporters; you can access these podcasts here. In almost every podcast episode, you’ll hear Kane reflect, ‘every selection in your draft should support the next pick.’ In essence, he’s preaching that your strategy & execution should be in full alignment. 

For example, if your drafting heavily players aged between 22-27 with your first 5-6 selections, don’t go and get a 32-year-old with your next pick. Or if you’ve selected a few midfielders with injury concerns, you should be looking to protect those picks by drafting an extra midfielder.  

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Self Reflect | Know where you’re really at 

If you don’t know where you are, you won’t be able to get to where you want to be. But, just like an AFL list, if you correctly identify where your side is, it can inform the way you trade and the type of players you draft or move on. For example, is your side strong enough to compete for a premiership? Are you fighting it out to make the finals? Or are you well and truly in a rebuild?

Each position means that certain players and draft positions have significantly varying values. For example, as great as he is, Scott Pendlebury will not help a side that’s currently rebuilding, but he’s a helpful piece for a team fighting for finals or in premiership contention. Equally, new draftee George Wardlaw won’t help a team right in the premiership window, but he’s a huge asset for a rebuilding club. Knowing where you’re at immediately clears the way for the right strategy and helps you value players and picks accurately. 

The hard part isn’t the knowledge; it’s being brave enough to pull the trigger and execute. I’m in a keeper league with many of the Coaches Panel crew. I was lucky enough to be in the finals hunt for 2018-2021 and even jagged the premiership in 2020. However, after a failed attempt to go back to back, I realised that my side wasn’t going to get back towards the top four without significant luck. So I decided to rebuild and made some significant moves. 

Players like Nat Fyfe and Andrew Gaff were moved on for multiple top-15 draft selections before the redraft. Furthermore, I traded out Toby Greene, Shannon Hurn, Todd Goldstein, Brandon Ellis, Sam Menegola & Jack Billings during the year. 

In return, I picked up players like Jason Horne-Francis, Neil Erasmus, Tom Powell and a bounty of early picks. So in the space of one 12-month window, I changed the feel of my entire side. I gave up plenty of valuable talent, but none were top-end. However, I now have some of the best first & second-year players available. So in another season or two, I’ll be positioned for an extended run at the league’s top.

It could backfire, but I’d rather give myself the best chance for a premiership than float around the pack with a bunch of guys at their peak 4-5 years ago. 

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Mistakes | You’ll make many 

Mary Tyler Moore said, ‘Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow.’ Not only is that true in life, but it’s 100% accurate in how you manage your keeper side. Over the years of managing a team, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. It might be in a trade you make, a player delisting back to the pool or even on draft day. At some point, you will make a mistake, multiple of them. 

In one league I’m in, someone dropped Clayton Oliver in his debut year after not playing a game early. I was fortunate enough to have the waiver wire priority and swooped him up. That coach learnt that you need to be patient with new talent. Every 100 he delivers must be a painful reminder of that mistake. But the important this is that coach learned from it. He’s since ensured that when he spends capital on a new draftee, be patient. Mistakes happen, and that’s OK. Just be sure to learn from it. Avoid making the same mistakes annually. 

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; that’s one of the ways how you learn. The key isn’t just to learn from your own, but also to learn from the mistakes of others. 

Redraft | Look for the upside 

After lodging and finalising your list of spots for the year, the redraft is where your league heads back to the draft board. The person that taught me how to maximise the redraft is fellow panellist Jimmy. Every year in a keeper league with him, he’d often spend most of his selections on players with substantial upside. While I was redrafting for bench depth and getting the ‘best-known scorer available.’  

So one day, I asked him about his redraft philosophy over a beer. He said to me, ‘always redraft looking for the upside.’ Chase for the player with breakout potential or a possible role change. His thought process behind it is this. I need 1-2 of these selections to stick and become keepers in the redraft, and I’ve won the day. So rather than picking a pack of plodders who I know will average 70, I’d rather select for possible upside. At best, I get a guy capable of being a top 20 performer in his line of positional eligibility. At worst, I threw them back into the player pool mid-season, and it’s a bust. 

Ever since that interaction, it’s changed how I redrafted and has seen me miss on multiple players but also seen me nail plenty. So, sorry, Jimmy, I’m telling everyone reading this about your philosophy. That next beer is on me.