How to build a championship DFS lineup

PFF Fantasy writer Joey Cartolano won $75,000 with his optimal DFS lineup in the Divisional Round. Here's how he built that big winner.

| 1 month ago
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

How to build a championship DFS lineup


With the NFL season at an end, it’s a good time for reflection, especially when it comes to one’s individual DFS process. I’m a firm believer that process is as important as results. After recently having some big results on DraftKings, I thought it would be a good idea to review the process that led me to them. Below is an overview of my general process that goes from the high-level to the more granular.

The relative accuracy of Las Vegas handicappers and the application of their projections to DFS is a source of legitimate debate in the fantasy football community. While I agree that Vegas lines and over/unders should not be touted as gospel, I think it is foolish to ignore them as a resource. Using spreads and game totals to calculate implied team totals is one of if not the first thing I do every week during the season. Not only do these numbers provide quick, simple context for what offenses the sharp money in Vegas thinks will have a good scoring week, they are also a clue-in to what that week’s DFS chalk will be.

Ownership percentage and using it to your advantage is the biggest difference between DFS and other types of fantasy sports. Raw points are important, but those points give you less of an advantage at higher ownership percentages. Figuring out which chalk to play and which chalk to avoid is a crucial part of DFS. Fading a highly owned player who disappoints is one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself from the field. This is, of course, a double-edged sword, because if you are wrong about that player and they do well, the field has an advantage on you. That dynamic is even more prominent on smaller slates, where single players can swing the field in a massive way, making decisions about chalk players even more important.

Just as fantasy points are less valuable attached to a player with high ownership, they are that much more valuable attached to players who are low-owned, also known as contrarian plays. Recency bias runs rampant in DFS, but you can use it to your advantage when choosing what chalk to avoid and what contrarian plays to take a chance on. Is there a player who has been going off in recent weeks but has been doing so at an unsustainable volume or efficiency? Is there a talented player who has recently disappointed at high ownership percentages, making it likely he will be lower owned this week? Is there a lesser-known player who has shown efficiency that you think could see a bump in volume this week? These are the types of questions I ask myself while building my core.

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

While recency bias puts DFS players at a disadvantage when used subjectively, it’s important to keep tabs on how players (and the defenses they are facing) have been performing of late statistically in order to find underlying trends. Don’t just look at a player’s opponent’s seasonal ranking against his position that everyone sees when building lineups that week, dig deeper and look at how that team has performed in that regard over the last month, then compare that to their seasonal ranking. This is more relevant later in the season, when smart players can find matchups that on the surface appear to be unfavorable based on seasonal statistics that are actually favorable in a more recent context (and vice versa).

Once I have gone through these more macro steps to give myself a lay of the land, I start to narrow down my core. During the regular season, my general strategy is to take my three to five favorite quarterbacks, create stacks with different combinations of their pass-catchers, and fill in the gaps around them with my other core plays. While I think it’s important to narrow your focus for offenses/quarterbacks, I always vary the composition of the stacks surrounding them (WR vs. TE, cheap WR vs. expensive WR, etc.). This will give you lineups centered around the same offense but with different salary distributions, which will allow you to make sure there is sufficient cross-exposure between the offense you are targeting with that stack and your various favorite standalone value plays. It also is a nice way of hedging against the randomness of a team’s touchdown distribution in a given week.

In addition to stacks with specific offenses, game-correlation stacks are a huge part of my strategy. If you are betting on one passing offense in a game blowing up, it stands to reason that the other offense in that game will be forced to throw the ball. As a result, pairing on opposing pass-catcher with a quarterback and his own pass-catcher(s) is a great way of maximizing upside. This was my logic when I paired Jared Cook with Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant, and Terrance Williams in my winning Divisional Round optimal lineup. Another correlation stack to be aware of is pairing a returner with his defense/special teams. In that instance, a return touchdown would get you points from both positions. Ideally, that player also plays on offense, like Tyreek Hill or Dion Lewis, who in conjunction with the Patriots D/ST helped my winning lineup “double dip” when he returned a kickoff.

Given how much information is out there for fantasy players to consume these days, it is becoming more and more necessary to get even more granular in your analysis if you want to have an edge on the field. PFF offers some amazing tools that give you the ability to create such an advantage. You can use our signature slot performance stats and WR-CB matchup chart to get an even closer look at where receivers are lining up, what cornerbacks they are likely to face as a result, and how that corner has covered players from that position in the field. You can use our OL-DL matchup chart to determine what running backs should have an easier time finding holes that week. Once you have a firm grasp of the broader landscape in a given week via the initial step in my process, it becomes easier to know which matchups to look for with tools such as this.



Joey Cartolano has been contributing dynasty, redraft, developmental and DFS content since 2013. He also makes regular appearances on PFF Radio's Dynasty Slant.

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