Fantasy Football Keeper Leagues: How To Play, Rules, and More

Keeper leagues are a middle ground between dynasty and redraft. For those unfamiliar, how do they differ from traditional fantasy leagues?

The most popular fantasy football format will always be a redraft league. Due to a surge in popularity over the past decade or so, dynasty is probably second. But there is a format that lies between the two: keeper leagues. What is a keeper league? What are some common rules? And how does it differ from traditional redraft or dynasty leagues?

What Is a Fantasy Football Keeper League?

If you are active on fantasy Twitter, just about every bit of analysis and information you consume will either be about redraft or dynasty. As a result, modern fantasy football managers will often jump straight from redraft into dynasty when they feel ready. In the olden days, there was a stop along the way: keeper leagues.

Even though dynasty has really overtaken keeper leagues as the second-most popular format, keeper leagues are still quite popular. So, what are they?

In a redraft league, each season has exactly zero bearing on the next. Managers start completely fresh every year.

In a dynasty league, each season has a 100% bearing on the next. Managers retain their entire rosters, the draft order is based on the previous year’s finish, and the draft consists exclusively of rookies.

Keeper leagues are right in the middle. Each season has some bearing on the next. Managers don’t carry over their entire rosters but also don’t start from scratch each year. In keeper leagues, managers select some, but not all, of the players from their previous season’s roster to “keep” into the following season.

Much like any other fantasy football format, there are no objective rules for how a keeper league should work. Before drafting for the 2024 fantasy football season, each manager must designate a specific number of players they will carry over from their previous season’s team (2023) into the new year. How many players that may end up being is determined by your league rules.

Say you drafted Christian McCaffrey third overall in 2023. While keeper rules across leagues may vary, I struggle to think of a scenario where you’d be allowed to keep McCaffrey but would choose not to. Assuming you keep the best running back in the NFL (and fantasy) when your 2023 draft begins, you already have McCaffrey on your roster.

MORE: Fantasy Football Terms and Abbreviations You Need To Know in 2024 Include ADP, PPR, and FAAB

With each of your fellow managers keeping players, the draft pool obviously won’t have everyone. Instead, it will be limited to the veterans not kept and this year’s rookies.

This style of play provides a nice middle ground between redraft and dynasty where you still get to draft some new players but also benefit for several years where you get something correct.

Common Rules for Keeper Leagues

Much like any fantasy league, the rules need to be clear from the start. Whether you are creating a new league or converting an existing one, the decision to make a league keeper needs to be known well before your draft occurs. It is important for managers joining the league to enter the draft knowing that what they do matters beyond the upcoming season.

I only bring this up due to experience. I want to share all the potential issues I’ve encountered, whether personally or secondhand, so you don’t make the same mistakes others have.

If it seems ridiculous that leagues would convert to a keeper format on a whim midseason, good! It should! But I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances how their league would want to move to a keeper format, and instead of starting the next year, they would just allow managers to keep players from what was supposed to be a redraft league. This isn’t the right way to do it.

If opting to start a keeper league, allow a full draft and season to take place. This way, managers can strategize midseason or take a few more risks on younger players they might not otherwise target in a traditional redraft fantasy league.

One of the first rules to be hammered out is when managers must declare their keepers. As with any rule, there are commonly accepted practices, but there’s no objectively correct system.

Typically, managers must declare their keepers at a date shortly before your league’s draft. This can be the day before the draft, or even a week or two earlier. I am partial to sooner, as it enables managers to strategize based on the players they know to be available in the draft pool. But even one day, in theory, should be enough to come up with a plan.

While the keeper deadline matters, it’s not going to fundamentally change anything about a league. Arguably, the most important rule for a keeper league is deciding on the cost of a keeper. This decision will dictate how managers decide which players to keep and how many trades you can expect to occur.

The first decision you must make is whether to associate any cost with keeping players. In my first keeper league, the rules allowed each manager to keep a maximum of three players. There were no further restrictions.

This format is simple but also quite straightforward and, in my humble opinion, bland. Without any cost connected to the kept players, there’s very little strategy. Every team will do the same thing: keep its three best players.

Fortunately, most keeper leagues appreciate the value of strategy. As a result, keepers come with a price tag. This cost almost always correlates with when a player was drafted. A keeper will either cost the same round pick for the following year, or there will be some sort of increase, either by a round or two.

For example, if you drafted Michael Pittman Jr. in the seventh round last season, you could sacrifice your upcoming sixth-round pick to keep him. When your draft begins, your sixth-round selection is already Pittman.

Assuming your league does choose to go with a progressive increase in keeper price, this inevitably leads to the question of what to do with first-round picks. After all, there’s no such thing as a zeroth-round pick.

KEEP READING: Explaining How Zero WR Strategy Works for Fantasy Football Drafts

There are two ways to handle first-round picks. You can opt to allow first-rounders to be kept for first-rounders. This would prevent any team from keeping more than one player from the first two rounds unless that team trades for a second first-round pick.

The other option is to not allow players taken in the first round to be kept at all. There is value in this option because it guarantees a handful of elite players returning to the draft pool each year.

How Many Players Do You Keep in Keeper Leagues?

There’s no hard rule on how many keepers you must use. As I mentioned above, my first keeper league had us keep up to three. I’m also in a keeper league where we keep up to six. Another up to five. In a previous version of one of my keeper leagues, the only limit was your draft capital.

Keep as many plays as you can afford. Ultimately, it all depends on how extreme you want the impact to be and the size of the league.

If you’re unsure how drastic of an impact you want keepers to have on your fantasy league or are worried about super teams being formed, opt for fewer keepers. In a 10-12-person league, three keepers are a solid middle ground. It should also be noted that managers are not forced to keep the maximum, or any at all. They would be starting the season with a clean slate.

How Long Can Players Remain on Your Roster in Keeper Leagues?

Not to sound like a broken record, but, again, this is entirely up to you. If you want to set a limit, you can, but you don’t have to. In the first keeper league that I keep referencing, there was a three-year limit. So, any player you draft in 2024, if kept in 2025 and 2026, would automatically return to the draft pool in 2027.

The above system artificially limits how long a team can keep a player. I prefer rules that make it more organic. If you were to implement a progressive cost structure, which is most effective in an auction format, eventually, in theory, players will simply cost too much to keep.

This system is not without its flaws, though. Say you drafted Puka Nacua in the 13th round last year. When you really smash a pick that well, it’s going to be very difficult for the price structure to force you to ever put that player back.

Even if the cost goes up by two rounds each year, Nacua wouldn’t reach third-round value until 2028. If he continues to perform like he did as a rookie, he’s going to be a no-brainer keeper for another five years.

Now, I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It’s just something you need to decide regarding how keepers work in your league.

In fantasy baseball keeper leagues, the prevalence of elite late-round values, the duration of careers, and the larger rosters make time limits almost essential. Imagine drafting the baseball equivalent of the aforementioned Nacua in the 19th round. You would have him quite literally for the rest of his career.

KEEP READING: Dynasty vs. Keeper Leagues

In fantasy football keeper leagues, it’s not as important. Sure, there will be Arian Fosters and Alvin Kamaras that pop up, but they’re few and far between. For the most part, the elite players are the elite players.

Even when you find that late-round gem you know will be keepable his entire career, that career isn’t usually that long. Look at 2023 Kyren Williams. He sure looks like that type of guy, but the odds are against him being this good for more than a couple of years.

As a league, you must balance the desire to reward managers who get something very right like that against the inherent advantage that comes with having a high-end player locked onto a roster for a very low price.

Keeper leagues create a bit of a conundrum for commissioners. The goal of each individual fantasy manager is to create a super team, but super teams are inherently bad for the league. One or two managers dominating a league for years with no real end in sight is how leagues fold.

I could go on for thousands of words talking about all the various iterations of fantasy football formats. Hopefully, you have enough of an idea as to how keeper leagues work to get started if the format is something you feel you might enjoy.

As the 2023 NFL season comes to a close, the 2024 NFL Draft is on the horizon. Pro Football Network has you covered with everything from team draft needs to the Top 100 prospects available. Plus, fire up PFN’s Mock Draft Simulator to put yourself in the general manager’s seat and make all the calls!

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