Personally, I always try to prepare >12 mths beforehand for award redemptions. So it doesn’t sound too early to me. I would research all possible routes that I am willing to take and dates that suits.
I would find out when the seats for when the date I would like to travel on will be open for booking. Usually, I check this by checking how far in advance I can book a normal revenue/ award ticket today. Find out the number of days (e.g. 330 days) in between that date in the future and today. Then say you want to fly on the 1st of June 2018, you minus the days (e.g.330 days) from the 1st of June 2018, which is 6th July 2017. Note: This is just an example of the methodology I use. You have to check for what is specific for your situation.
List in preference of route and days. and work your way down the list once the days/flights are open for booking. It is important to be flexible. If you are after more than 1 seats, try 1 seat if you couldn’t find 2 at the start. Since you are dealing with Velocity, book the flights 1 way because it is not cheaper to book in return and the inbound flight is usually not open for booking when the outbound flight is.
To minimise point costs, aim for “Reward” seats. Anything other than this cost many times more in points. If you really want to minimise out of pocket costs, pay the tax with points. However, this is usually low value use of points. Personally, I prefer to pay the tax in cash. However, if I have millions of points, I would choose to pay the tax with points.
Award seats to US is very popular-> there would be many people going after the same flight as you so be prepared to accept your lower preference.