Four Downs to NFL DFS: Second 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.
Last week I discussed the importance of the quarterback position and outlined the circumstances that would lead me to build around a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, who fits the criteria for the upcoming Week 1 DFS contests. Once I’ve decided to start with a quarterback, the position I turn to fill next is wide receiver. Toward the end of this installment of Four Downs, I’ll discuss where I go next when I start building my lineup with a running back.
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Wide receiver is a position with a ton of potential for DFS. Wide receivers have had about three times more 40+ yard plays than running backs and tight ends combined over the past three seasons (per ESPN stats). Hitting correctly on the two or three wide receiver slots in your DFS lineup can be the difference between winning and losing.
With great upside, however, comes increased variability. Among the top-15 running backs, receivers, and tight ends, wide receivers had the greatest variance around their mean fantasy points per game, while tight ends had the least. That means that the range of outcomes for even the very best wide receivers is wider than it is for the other positions. Projecting the top wide receiver weeks is critical to your DFS success.
When I start my lineup with a quarterback, the first wide receiver in my lineup is that team’s WR1. So by using Aaron Rodgers in my lineup, I know I want Jordy Nelson too. Even if you’re locking in a cheaper quarterback (per last week’s criteria), like Cam Newton, you should next slot in his top target, Kelvin Benjamin.
I’m trying hard and failing to find an argument for not using a QB-WR1 tandem in every DFS lineup. Last season, RotoViz.com compiled a correlation matrix of fantasy points for each two-position combination. The QB-WR correlations are highest, which makes perfect sense. If you have every reason to believe a certain QB will have a great day, he’s most likely going to do it with his top receiving weapon(s) (note that for at least two teams, New England and Seattle, the top weapon is actually a tight end).
It’s rare that I predict enough production from one offense to justify rostering two receivers from the same team. That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen … plenty of unpredictable things happen in sports, which is why they play the games, right? Thus, the other wide receiver slots in my DFS lineups are independent plays – anyone is fair game. In general for wide receivers there are a few things I look for.
- Targets: The highest percentage of a team’s targets last season went to Andre Johnson (30.6%, just beating out Demaryius Thomas who had 30.5% – thank you to @ProjectRoto for that bit of Twitter trivia). It’s not only the percentage of targets that’s important but also the absolute number of targets. It’s worth spending some time familiarizing yourself with target logs, in order to see absolute number of targets per week, average targets, and the weekly variability.
- Vegas total: You want receivers in games likely to be close and high scoring, and you’re looking to get a key piece of the highest-powered offenses. T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas are probably the stand-alone wide receivers most likely to be involved in a shoot-out. Hilton in particular has often been priced in the second tier of wide receivers.
- Production: Workhorse players like A. Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, Steve Smith Sr. (e.g. old guys) tend to be overlooked in NFL DFS in favor of the shiny new guys like Jarvis Landry, Martavis Bryant, Kenny Stills. I am so guilty of it myself, but it’s worth overcoming this bias. Experienced players with proven hands, their quarterback’s trust, in a possession role are typically cheap and provide great value in PPR formats, especially early in the season.
- Upside: I want one receiver in my lineup that has a reasonable chance to catch an 80-yard touchdown pass. You know the types: DeSean Jackson, Torrey Smith, Hilton, Stills … all speedy downfield guys. It’s worth also looking at quarterback stats here, especially as some of these players are in new situations this season. How often does the potential upside receiver’s quarterback throw deep? Andrew Luck led all quarterbacks with 93 attempts of 20+ yards last year (per PFF). How accurate is he on such throws? No one was more on target than Matt Ryan last season (54.2% accuracy, per PFF). I look for smart, logical upside, not just random, “it could happen” upside. Using the quarterback deep passing stats in conjunction with the depth charts is also a good way to identify true sleeper upside receivers priced near the minimum.
I talked last week about how if I don’t see a clear-cut quarterback to start with, I will start with a running back, and I listed some criteria that would have to be met in order for that to happen. Supposing it is a week where there is no better player to build around than Le’Veon Bell, Demarco Murray or Marshawn Lynch, where do you go next?
One of the reasons I sometimes start with a running back is that there are a bunch of equivalent quarterbacks on the slate – no one guy stands out in terms of talent, weapons, matchup, game flow and price. So I won’t rush to lock one of them in, especially because I’m not likely paying top dollar at that position.
If I know I’m saving at quarterback, I will lock in a second top-tier running back and/or the top tight end, usually Rob Gronkowski. Both of these options provide the safety net I want if my quarterback situation is proving more volatile. Remember, the variability around mean tight end production was the lowest of the three skill positions.
For Week 1, then, using these scenarios I’ve created, we could have one lineup that starts with QB Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Larry Fitzgerald and another that starts with RB Demarco Murray, then adds Jeremy Hill and Jimmy Graham. Next week, we’ll continue with considerations for non-top-tier running backs, third wide receivers and how to handle the flex spot.
Renee Miller, Ph.D. has been playing DFS since 2011. She writes about daily fantasy football for PFF and ESPN.com and is a faculty member of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at University of Rochester.