It’s finally here! With preseason games kicking off this week, it’s officially football season! The most glorious time on the fantasy calendar should provide plenty of excitement over the course of the next five month. Football is by far the most popular fantasy sport and with that comes massive prize pools on the daily sites. I wanted to write about some key factors in becoming a winning NFL DFS player. So let’s do it!
Volatility vs. Predictability
This is a section I wrote about in the How To Beat MLB article and I think it’s worth mentioning again. As discussed in that piece, MLB is volatile but rather predictable. I would argue that the NFL is both volatile AND unpredictable which makes it one of the harder sports to win regularly. The saving grace is the sheer number of new and inexperienced players who make NFL lineups, but predicting outcomes in NFL is on the harder end of the spectrum.
In terms of volatility, different positions can see more variance than others. Running Back, for example, is consistent in terms of opportunity. Most lead RBs see 20+ carries and for the most part, we know who will earn the carries near the goal-line. Despite the consistent volume, think about all the factors that come together to determine the success of any one NFL play. A Running Back is handed the football and (at least) five players are immediately trying to block for him and five players are trying to fill those gaps. Those are ten different players that can potential impact the outcome of a single rush and none of which are the RB himself. You could have the best RB in the world, but any number of outside factors can influence his production. Compare that to baseball, which is an individual game wrapped in a team sport. One pitcher versus one batter. Over the course of the at-bat there are few outside factors that can change the outcome for your player. Going further, Wide Receiver might be the most dependent position in the league. Think about this. To catch a pass, the WR needs to run a solid route, have his defender beat, have his offensive line protect the QB long enough and have his QB deliver a pass on time and in the right spot. If any of those go wrong, a reception probably does not occur. And that’s for ONE MEASLY COMPLETION!
Unlike other sports, it doesn’t take a ton of opportunity to have a big game. We always talk about opportunity being the gold standard in fantasy and obviously that’s ideal, but football players are not nearly as dependent on opportunity as other athletes. For example, if an NBA player only plays five minutes a night, it is essentially impossible for him to have a fantasy impact. That’s not necessarily true in the NFL. A third string WR can catch three passes for 100 yards and a TD and now he’s returned massive value to his owner. You might be thinking “well that’s rare”, but it’s not as rare as you think. According to my NFL Game Logs, there were six occasions last year where a wide receiver had 89+ receiving yards, at least one TD (two had two TDs) and four or less targets. It’s happened 50 times in the last five years. Continuing to take this further, there were 27 wide receivers last year who scored at least 15 DraftKings points on four or less targets.
Finally, the amount of available information in Fantasy Football is off the charts. There are no secrets in the NFL. With the constant news coverage, Twitter and a full week between games, there are very few opportunities for “secrets”. There are a million outlets covering every injury, every sleeper, every stud, whatever. With the combination of information overload and volatile outcomes, I think football is one of the more important sports to be contrarian in GPPs. Baseball would be the only sport I care more about ownership. Game theory and roster construction will be the most important strategies in your fantasy football success.
One of the more popular strategies for roster construction is called “stacking”. If you play MLB DFS, you’re probably very familiar with playing multiple players from the same team in your lineup. As with baseball, stacking is a logical strategy in football thanks to the nature of the game. There are plenty of scenarios where one touchdown can be awarded to two different players on the same play. The most common strategy is pairing your QB with one or more of his WRs or TE. The logic is obvious. If your QB throws a TD pass to his WR and you own them both, you get double points! Both players are tied together with the massive upside of both scoring multiple TDs and racking up the yards. Our friends over at DFS Gold wrote a blog post sharing each of the 17 Millionaire Maker winning lineups from last season. It shouldn’t be a surprise that 11 of those lineups included a QB and WR/TE stack. Here’s a handy correlation chart that shows which positions help (and hurt) each other on the same roster.
For obvious reasons, pairing a QB with a RB is not always advisable. There are very few situations where they can score points at the same time. If the RB is handed the ball, obviously the QB has no chance to score points on that play. As with anything in life, there are exceptions to this rule. There have been examples of stacking entire offenses in games with a very high Vegas total. A prime example of that is this lineup that won the Milly Maker in Week 13:
That lineup included a full stack of QB/RB/WR1/WR2 and paid off in a big way. You’ll also notice the Steelers defense in there! Now, this is certainly an anomaly when it comes to scoring, but I want to show it as a way to be ultra-contrarian. The Steelers dropped 45 points on the Colts that week and while that specific lineup was a surprise, the outcome shouldn’t have been. This game had a massive 50.5 over/under set by Vegas, which was the highest in the league that week. The owner of this lineup took the opportunity to take a contrarian approach to a chalk lineup. The Steelers were heavily owned that week but few owners pulled the trigger on a four man stack.
The other exception to never stacking a QB with a RB rule is when you have the opportunity to roster a RB who can haul in receptions. With the full point PPR scoring on DraftKings and 0.5 PP on Fanduel, a RB who can catch is extremely valuable. Obviously, the goal is to find a RB who will receive the bulk of the running workload and tack on a few catches as well. This isn’t always easy to find.
For example, Danny Woodhead led all RBs in receptions last year, but didn’t always get enough carries to become playable. I’m thinking back to Matt Forte’s 2014 season in which he broke the reception record for RBs with 102 (4th most of all players in the league) and also ranked 5th in rushing attempts that year. He would have been a prime target to pair with his QB to be contrarian.
Finally, one of my favorite “sneaky stacks” is to pair a return man (who also plays a skill position) with his team’s defense. This is also hard to find because there are few players in the league who can make an impact offensively and are also tasked to return punts/kicks. Obviously, you get points for return TDs on DraftKings for both the position player and the defense. If you own both, you’ll rack up double points when that event happens. It’s certainly rare, but not unheard of. There are a few obvious targets depending on their workload.
Jarvis Landry was a popular option last season. Landry was a PPR machine, hauling in 110 receptions and made a great play most weeks last season. The added bonus was that he also returned 36 punts and 13 kickoffs. That’s 49 extra chances to score a touchdown last season or 3.06 per game. Three free chances to score a TD each game! If the Dolphins Defense was in a plus matchup, it would have been logical to pair them together. Looking forward to this season, Tyler Lockett could be the prime example of this type of player for 2016. Lockett was on full duty of returns last year, lining up for 33 kickoffs and 40 punts. Lockett’s stock rose at the end of last season, building a solid rapport with QB Russell Wilson. Keep an eye on his role in the offense this season because the Seahawks defense will likely be an elite option most weeks.
Not All Players Created Equal
This is something I really like to stress for every sport. When looking at different players on paper, a lot of them look similar in terms of scoring averages. However, if you take a closer look, you’ll notice how different two players can actually be. Let’s take a concrete example from last season. Here is Eric Decker vs. Emmanuel Sanders:
First off, I got these numbers from my NFL Data Tools which are updated weekly and make available to subscribers. Both players finished the season with just over 17 DraftKings points per game. If you saw that, you might think “wow, these two guys are very similar, it doesn’t matter which one I play”. You couldn’t be more wrong. While their averages are similar, they got there in much different ways. Sanders was much more volatile, posting games of 2.7, 4.2 and 4.5 while also exploding for games of 23.9, 28.7, and 39.5. Decker, on the other hand, never scored less than 11.7 DraftKings points, but never scored more than 21.1.
Knowing this comes in handy when trying to construct a roster. Decker would have been the perfect cash game WR since you knew he was a very good bet to reach value. He would rarely explode for a massive night, but you don’t need that in a cash game. Sanders on the other hand, would have been a much better GPP play. Sure, he could burn you and lay an egg, but he offered the type of upside that allows you to win a GPP.
The Impact of Vegas
Sports in general are very hard to predict, but Las Vegas is the best in the world at it. Why would we not use information available to us before a game to try and help determine the actual outcome of the game?! Using Las Vegas odds allows us to do just that. Of course, they aren’t perfect but they are very good and in terms of fantasy points, there is a clear correlation to fantasy scoring and Las Vegas lines. For the purpose of this discussion please direct your attention to the interaction chart below.
This might look confusing at first because there is a lot going on, but take a long look at it. We are comparing the DraftKings points per game scored over multiple groups of Vegas lines. The numbers I am using for this are the team total lines, NOT the overall game over/under. The chart is broken down by position since some positions benefit more from better lines. The colored, horizontal lines indicate the average fantasy game for that position for the entire season. After looking at it, you’ll notice that QBs are the greatest beneficiary of being on a team with a large projected total. So it should be no surprise, that WRs also benefit greatly since they are closely tied to their QBs. The fluctuations are much smaller for RBs and TEs but it’s clear that it’s a benefit to be on a team with a high projected total. The tipping point for below average versus above average is almost in the 22.25-25 projected points group. RBs don’t quite hit it there, but it’s close.
This is something I don’t stress too much in other sports, but NFL is an exotic bird. It’s by far the most popular fantasy sport, so the contest lobbies are dripping with action. Unfortunately, there are only 17 weeks to the regular season giving you only a few slates to make your money. With a season this short, ANY ONE can win or lose over 17 slates. As a more informed, better player, you’re going to want to give yourself as many opportunities as possible to battle it out. That means you should not shy away from the all week contests (Thursdays included), the Sun-Mon slates or even the Mon-Thu slates. Being able to enter more contents should allow your edge to prevail more often.
Also, slate selection and ownership go hand-in-hand. For example, on all week slates, the Thursday night players are always more owned than they should be. A common strategy is to play these slates, but avoid the Thursday players all together. Also, the Thursday Night games tend to be more low scoring than other games around the league. You can argue it’s lack of preparation or recovery time for teams, but players averaged fewer fantasy points on Thursday nights than Sunday or Monday last season.
Finally, actually choosing the right contest is one of the most overlooked aspects in DFS. Most people understand the importance of limiting your exposure in cash games so that a shark cannot scoop all your heads ups. Most people understand diversifying their buyins to a lower stake to improve the chances of getting an inexperienced opponent. However, it’s GPP contest selection that continues to baffle the average owner. Can you describe the payout structure of your favorite GPP? Have you ever looked at it? All the buzz is around the first place prize. Hell, DraftKings even puts it in the title of the contest. But what about the other payouts besides first place? In these big contests like the Millionaire Maker, the payout structures are usually garbage to commit to a massive first place prize.
For example, in the Week 1 Millionaire Maker you need to finish in the top 1% of the field to make 3.3x your buy in (that’s 19,000th place by the way). If you do the same in the $2 $100K Safety, with a much flatter payout structure, you’ll earn 6x your buy in. That might not sound like a lot, but doubling your results when trying to grind it out is a massive difference. Of course, you don’t have the upside of winning for life changing sums, but the odds are astronomical against you anyway. I will play very little Millionaire Makers this season and expect to have a negative ROI in them. For me, they are lottery tickets. I will grind out my winnings in better structured tournaments.
The best place to start with research is to formulate a baseline for what to expect from a full NFL season. I have been collecting every game log for every player over the last few seasons and always look back to the prior season to identify trends. The best part about raw data is that it’s raw. There is nothing keeping you from getting all the answers to your questions. You can find out how Cam Newton did in games that the Panthers were favored by 6+ points. You can find out how WRs fared in games with an over/under below 45.5. Whatever question you can think of, the data will answer! All of my research you read in this article and for the upcoming season has come from my game logs, which are available here.
Win. That’s what’s next. I am stoked for another excellent NFL season and looking forward to sharing all types of tools, projections, spreadsheets and articles with you along the way. We are going to take this season very seriously, but have some fun at the same time in the form of freerolls that I create for Pro Members. Sign up below for the membership that best fits your needs and looking forward to talking to you all season!