Four Downs to NFL DFS: First Down

Renee Miller takes you through the progressive process of building an NFL DFS lineup in this multi-part preseason series.

| 1 year ago
Aaron-Rodgers

Four Downs to NFL DFS: First Down


In this preseason series, my goal is to get you ready for the upcoming NFL Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) season. It promises to be the industry’s biggest one yet, with records already being set (e.g. DraftKings’ $2 million first prize offering) and player acquisition efforts in full swing everywhere. Whether you’ve dabbled in DFS in the past or are completely new to this awesome way to play fantasy sports, we will get you ready by Week 1.

In “Four Downs,” I’ll be comparing the DFS lineup construction process to play calling in the NFL. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but here’s why it works: 1) You get a finite number of positions (slots) to fill with the goal of scoring a lot of fantasy points, like teams get a finite number of chances to move the chains. 2) Every week the context in which you fill those slots is different, just as the offense faces different defensive formations throughout a game. 3) Every player you insert into your lineup progressively restricts the options you leave yourself for the remaining slots, just as not all plays are (reasonably) available to coaches on all downs.

If you take away anything from this series, let it be the idea that DFS is a puzzle with a different solution each and every week. If you try to play catch up, chase points, or do what worked last week, you won’t be very successful. The trick is staying ahead of the game and exploiting current opportunities and weaknesses. No one strategy/solution/process works every time. The forthcoming strategy series should serve as a framework for how to think about the game of NFL DFS, and act as a complement to our more specific weekly in-season DFS articles.

First Down

The first play on the opening drive says a lot about how an offense plans to attack the game. Is it a bold 30-yard pass down field? Is it a hard-nosed run up the middle? A sleek play-action pass to the tight end no one thought to cover?

Whatever it is, it sets the tone. It says: This is how we think we can win today. It’s similar to how I feel about making my first lineup decision. Money isn’t tight yet, the best players at each position are available, the choice is all mine. I almost always begin with a quarterback or running back and I’ll lay out exactly how and when I make that decision in a moment.

First, I want to review a couple of general lineup construction processes I adhere to. I research talent and matchups relying on football statistics and fantasy numbers every week prior to even opening the NFL lobby on any DFS sites. Even the players I know better than some distant (or not so distant) relatives, I check stats on.

Early in the season, I use last season’s or the last two season’s worth of data for most players, relying more heavily on the current year as the weeks go by. Defenses are more variable from year to year, so those judgments are more subjective and rely more on projections than past performance. I check the Vegas lines on all the games, noting especially the highest team totals and biggest spreads. Once I have a feeling for the matchups and have identified the specific 5-6 skill players in the best spots at each position, I’ll look at salaries.

When to build around a QB

Your NFL DFS quarterback is like your MLB DFS starting pitcher. He is the player likely to score the most fantasy points and his output is the most reliable and predictable of all the positions. Your research should point you toward a few quarterbacks with plenty of talent facing weak defenses.

The circumstances in which I build my lineup around a quarterback are: 1) he is a proven elite commodity, worth the high salary ~90% of the time, 2) he faces a weak defensive matchup, 3) his game has a high point total, 4) he has healthy and talented receiving weapons, 5) he has rushing upside, 6) the best running backs have difficult defensive matchups, 7) there are second-tier quarterbacks in decent spots to dilute ownership of the top guy, and 8) he is well underpriced relative to his proven skill set and matchup. Numbers 1) and 8) are obviously incompatible; either one in combination with the others is an indicator to build around a quarterback though.

In Week 1, for example, you might be zeroing in on Aaron Rodgers at the top.

  • He faces a weak defense in the Bears (allowed the second-most fantasy points to QB, per ESPN)
  • Has elite receiving weapons (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb)
  • Was the second-best fantasy quarterback last year (and in fact, has been top 10 every year since he joined the league and played a mostly full season)
  • Rodgers rushed for 269 yards and two touchdowns last year (ranked sixth in both categories), and has produced frighteningly similar rushing stats every year prior (e.g. 257/3 in 2011 and 259/2 in 2012)
  • Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Eli Manning are all viable next-tier options in good matchups, and a number of people will be saving some salary dollars by going with one of them
  • Elite running backs Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Matt Forte all face difficult matchups in Week 1. That does leave Eddie Lacy as a top back in a good matchup, but you’re wise to choose between Rodgers and Lacy – data from Rotoviz.com shows that these positions are negatively correlated for fantasy scoring

Talent also needs to be considered in the context of site-specific scoring systems. If your DFS site offers a bonus for 300 yards passing, for example, Rodgers becomes an even better play (he had nine such games last year). Not only are you scoring more fantasy points for the increased yardage, you get the bonus points. In Week 1, I have no problem starting with Aaron Rodgers, but unless all of the circumstances align, that’s not going to be the case every week.

When I build around a RB

My lineups will most often feature one elite back and one pass-catching RB2. It’s a spend-and-save approach to the position that takes advantage of my preference to play on PPR sites. With quarterback and running back your most consistent, predictable sources of fantasy points, it only makes sense to lock in the best available options there.

When I start my NFL DFS lineup with a running back, I’m looking for 1) an elite talent with proven volume and goal line work, 2) a generous run defense, 3) a strong pass defense and/or a suboptimal passing game on his own team (due to competence or injury issues), 4) no clear-cut, top-tier quarterback to rely on, and 5) that he plays for a team that’s a heavy favorite.

The two backs that jump out at me in Week 1 are Jeremy Hill and DeMarco Murray in terms of skill and matchup. Hill averaged 5.1 yards per carry (YPC) and 0.53 fantasy points per opportunity (PPO) and Murray was 2014’s top running back, averaging 4.7 YPC with 13 TDs and 0.54 PPO. Both face putrid rushing defenses in Atlanta (Murray) and Oakland (Hill). The Raiders allowed the most fantasy points to opposing running backs, while the Falcons were third in that department. Both play for the team that will be favored to win their games.

The reason I’m not forcing either into my Week 1 linueps (though I fully expect there to be room for one at their prices on DraftKings) is that they’re both part of a competent passing offense that faces no defensive challenge either. That means that the burden to score won’t rest fully on their shoulders as I prefer it to when I take this approach to starting my lineup.

Remember that it’s first down here. I’m looking for the highest percentage play(er) to start my lineups with and for Week 1, it’s a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers. Using him will restrict how I proceed with building the rest of my lineup … which is what we’ll explore as this series continues throughout August.



Renee Miller is a neuroscientist and fantasy sports enthusiast. She's played NBA and NFL DFS since 2011/12 and added MLB to her addiction this summer. Recently, Renee combined her knowledge of the brain with her love of football in an eBook, "Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?". You can find the book on her website www.unbiasedfantasysports.com. She'll be writing this weekly NFL DFS strategy column.

  • xscottx

    thanks Renee as i am looking forward to your insight. Last season i discovered you around December so just curious if most of your plays are with the aforementioned DK or another site?

    • Renee Miller

      Thanks! Looking forward to another great season! I play mostly on DK and DraftDay, some on FanDuel. I will gear most of my in-season content here toward DK, though I apply the same general process regardless of which site.

  • Wayne

    Also would love it if you if you tracked and showed us how you’re playing, what levels and the results, as well as bankroll management.

    • Renee Miller

      I’ve written a lot about game selection and bankroll management at ESPN and elsewhere. Hit me up on twitter if you’d like a link or two!

  • J

    I’d argue that AP doesnt have that bad of a matchup. Remember this 49ers team doesn’t have Willis, A Smith, Borland, and Justin Smith. Thats 4 major losses in their front 7.

    • Renee Miller

      The matchup is fine, I agree.

  • Dorakin Warhammer

    What are your thoughts about looking for that value player first? Do you have success going with that type of scenario? Assuming you are going for GPPs of course. Does it seem like the GPP cashers are ones that have that value RB or value WR?

  • Tod Burros

    A great start to this series with some real good basic blocking and tackling if you will excuse the pun approaches to be systematic. Importance of being systematic is more for when you fail than when you succeed so you can analyze and adjust. Can’t wait to find time to read the second one….. Do you have an app for that Renee :-)