Divisional Round contrarian plays
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Highlighting one of the greatest but seemingly least-heralded components of daily fantasy sports (DFS) is the social benefits it offers. During my time playing DFS and writing this article I’ve met a number of friends who are just as passionate about this game as I. Many of them play professionally or, at least, are successful enough to be lumped in with that category. Only recently had I noticed an interesting commonality among them. A large percentage seem to come from either a professional poker or personal finance/investment background. I meditated upon this for a while, until I found what I think is the common thread between those two professions and DFS, and that is, strong risk-management skills.
These players are good, and were good at their past professions, because they are able to manage risk wisely. In DFS, if a player they project to be highly owned is less attractive of a play to them than the rest of the public, they’re not afraid to fade them completely. Amateur players may second-guess their original assessment and load up on shares anyway. Sharp players understand the risks inherent to the game and they know that, like poker, it’s a game of percentages. If you think you have an edge, you take it. You might not always be right, but over a large enough sample size, you will be – and you’ll profit because of it.
I thought I was being smart last week by mostly-fading Jordan Reed. The only time I did roster Reed was when I was also rostering another tight end in the flex spot. This worked when I rostered Travis Kelce there, for instance, but every other lineup without Reed was pretty much dead in the water. Do I regret the outcome? No, it was a positive learning experience. Did I regret the decision? Maybe. I had Reed as the top tight end of the week in my projections. On a small slate where there is a smaller player pool available to you and less room for error, I should have had more shares given my projections.
Given the small slate, I think I also tried to force too many contrarian plays into the article. That’s partly why I’ll be abandoning the format we followed throughout the regular season and stick to writing up only one player per position this week.
The most-owned players on this week’s slate will likely be: Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, David Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, Demaryius Thomas, Julian Edelman, Travis Kelce, and Greg Olsen.
Our favorite contrarian plays are:
Peyton Manning – Manning struggled earlier in the season and now has to shake off a fair amount of rust in his first start since Week 10. Still, Manning is almost a lock to be the lowest or second-lowest-owned quarterback on this week’s slate. If Manning manages to outscore the other quarterbacks this week, it could give you an edge on close to 85 percent of the field. Outside of his obvious contrarian-appeal, there’s another reason to think Manning might be able to pay dividends this Sunday; he’ll be up against the softest pass defense on the slate. This regular season, the Steelers allowed the 11th-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks. By contrast, every other defense on this slate ranked in the bottom-10, with four ranking in the bottom-five.
Pittsburgh’s pass coverage as a whole ranks as PFF’s No. 10-lowest graded in the league. Their biggest weakness has been to wide receivers (the strength of Denver’s passing attack), where they had allowed the second-most fantasy points per game to the position. Manning is finally healthy, he has played in 24 postseason games in his career, he has the easiest matchup on the slate, and is one of the cheapest starting quarterbacks on both sites. With likely more than 75 percent of the field rostering one of Palmer, Brady, Rodgers, Newton, or Wilson, if Manning hits, he can propel your team atop the leaderboards this week. I’ll likely have several lineups with Manning stacked to both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Steven Jackson – If I had to bet on who this week’s Chris Thompson might be, I’d argue the case for Jackson. According to Patriots’ beat reporter, Mike Reiss, Jackson will be the lead power back over Brandon Bolden throughout the playoffs. In the article, Belichick also mentioned his potential to contribute more as a pass-catcher. Like Manning, he is another older player with a fair amount of rust. Unlike Manning, unfortunately, he has a very difficult matchup, this Saturday, against the Chiefs. While this is a reason he won’t be on anybody else’s radar this week, it also makes his high dollar-per-touch projection less palatable. There are several reasons to think he’d be worth GPP-exposure, however, in spite of the matchup.
In the Patriots’ Week 17 win over Miami, which was in fact a meaningful game for the team (they needed a win to clinch the bye), Jackson earned the start and led all Patriots running backs in snaps, carries, and red zone carries. He should again command all of the team’s red zone carries this week (Bolden had struggled in this department all season) and if he is to be used more in the passing game as Belichick had hinted, it shouldn’t be too hard for him to reach value at his low-price. White will likely command the majority of the targets, but there could still be room for Jackson. Over the last five weeks of the regular season, White had 32 targets while Bolden’s target count was still respectable at 15. He’s by no means a cash play, but as one of the lowest-priced running back on the slate, with Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski all ailing, he’s at least worth consideration.
Emmanuel Sanders – In games Manning started and finished, Demaryius Thomas was targeted 11.5 times per game. In games Brock Osweiler started and finished, Thomas was targeted only 9.6 times per game. In addition to the Manning-bump, Thomas will get to play a football game in front of his mother for the first time ever. This has been highly publicized and the narrative that he will now play harder or that Manning will target him more has been running rampant among the DFS community. These combinations, I feel, should leave Sanders underowned, as most owners will only roster Thomas.
I, however, will try to roster both wherever I can. Typically this would be a negatively-correlated move if you weren’t already rostering that team’s quarterback, however, that wasn’t really the case this year with these two receivers. In games Thomas had scored over 20 fantasy points, Sanders averaged 19.8 fantasy points. With less wide receivers to choose from, rostering both seems like a strong play while also giving yourself a unique lineup.
Although Manning only played in one of these games, Sanders has 19 receptions, 347 yards, and two touchdowns over his last three games. One of these games was against the Steelers just three weeks ago, when he caught ten passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. Sanders also has the benefit of having the softest matchup among all wide receivers on this week’s slate. Although he moves around a lot, he projects to spend more time against Steelers’ left corner, Antwon Blake, than any other Denver receiver. Blake has been terrible this season, allowing the second-most touchdowns (8), the most yards (1,074), the most receptions (76), while playing on the 29th-most snaps among corners. Blake, who probably shouldn’t leave the bench for the remainder of the season, played on 85 percent of the team’s snaps last week against the Bengals. Sanders is a strong play this week, even if Thomas is too.
Heath Miller – This week, with DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown out, and Roethlisberger reportedly suffering from a sprained AC joint and torn ligaments in his right throwing shoulder, Miller sets up nicely as a strong contrarian play. It looks like over half of the field will be paying up for Greg Olsen or Travis Kelce, so paying down for Miller will give you a unique roster construction and help set you apart. With Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, he may be forced to abandon the deep ball and stick mostly with the short to intermediate throws – where Miller excels. Of Miller’s total targets, 76 percent have come in the short area of the field (nine yards or fewer from the line of scrimmage).
Although Roethlisberger picked apart Denver’s secondary in their last meeting, they were also the only team to throw for more than 262 yards on them. Denver’s secondary has been tremendous all year, but especially against wide receivers. In the regular season, they allowed the fewest fantasy points per game to opposing wide receivers. However, they were much more susceptible to tight ends, allowing the 11th-most fantasy points per game to the position.