WHAT IS DAILY FANTASY FOOTBALL?
For the uninitiated, DFS football on FanDuel and DraftKings (among others) is a weekly fantasy football contest in which players select a roster much like that in a season-long league, with a QB, RBs, WRs, TE, FLEX (DraftKings only), K (FanDuel only) and a defense. On FanDuel, you have a salary cap of $60,000. On DraftKings, it’s $50,000. Players at all positions are assigned values, and teams are assembled by staying under the cap.
The goal is to amass the most points within your contest, either a tournament, which could have as many as 200,000 entrants, or a cash game, which features a small number (five, 10, 25, 50) of entries and has a smaller payout.
“Cash” games refer to contests that primarily include head-to-head play or double- and triple-up type games, where a 27-40 percent range of participants win the same amount of prize money. For instance, in a $5 double-up, 100 out of 229 entrants will win, and all 100 get the same $10 – the “double” amount of the entry fee. A triple up might have 9 of 31 entrants winning three times the entry, and so on.
What makes this type of game paramount is making sure all your selections collect points. Unlike the boom-or-bust world of large-entry tournaments (GPP), in cash its safety first. Ownership is not nearly the concern – indeed, if there’s a can’t-miss play, you almost have to use him, lest he go off for 40 points that you can’t make up somewhere else on the roster. It’s not uncommon to have players with 80 or 90 percent ownership in a cash lineup.
Concurrently, it is not the optimal choice to stack players from the same team in a cash game, as opposed to tournaments. It’s the same theory that you don’t want to risk a zero from your players. If you use three players from the same team and they don’t produce, now you’re left in an enormous hole you won’t dig out of. Safety first is the name of the cash game.
Large-field tournaments, such as the DraftKings Millionaire contest, are slates with huge entry levels, in the tens of thousands. There are some that can feature well over 100,000 entrants. They are known as GPP tournaments, because the prize pools in these behemoths are guaranteed by the sites. If you are playing in large-field GPP you are doing everything you can do be different and unique from enough people to fill several NFL stadiums. This can be done by not using all of your salary cap; teams that leave between 3,000-5,000 in salary tend to not be duplicated by others, as the default for the great majority of players is to use the entire salary cap. Another way to differentiate a lineup is finding the low-owned sleeper plays that score big and vault a lineup up the leaderboard. Finding those players requires some work, but research well worth the effort when it hits.
Since January, 2018, the major DFS sites have introduced across all major sports a “showdown” contest which consists of drafting players from one game. In the past, sites like DraftKings and FanDuel required users to incorporate players from at least two games on a slate. With the 6-player Showdown contest, all the players come from the same game. Salaries are adjusted, as well as the scoring values, but the concept is the same as a regular slate: Build a team under your salary cap that scores the most points. In some Showdown contests, there is a single “Captain” slot, where both the salary and the point values are increased by 50 percent, adding an extra bit of strategy to the game. Unlike regular slates on DraftKings, kickers are available in Showdown. Yay, kickers! (FanDuel uses kickers on its regular slates).
INCORPORATING VEGAS ODDS
Daily Fantasy is illegal in Nevada (and a few other states), but the marriage between Vegas odds-making and Daily Fantasy success is critical. In the world of DFS, the point spread and, most important, the over-under are road maps to find the offenses most likely to have success, making individual players in potential shootouts far more valuable than guys likely to take part in a defensive struggle. A point spread of three points or less in a game with among the highest 0/U totals on the board screams of a back-and-forth shootout with multiple touchdowns from both teams. Grabbing as many pieces from a game that shoots out is the fastest route up the leaderboard.
Obviously, because of the salary cap, you can’t just jam in all the best players into your lineup. The question at the heart of all Daily Fantasy games is where to find those players who will exceed salary expectations in a given week.
DFS players and analysts talk a lot about paying off salary, and for the most part in the NFL, what that means is finding players who will score three times their salary in points. For example, a running back costing $8,000 would pay off his salary at three times with a 24-point performance. A $7,000 player would pay off at 21 points. So, finding players in the $5,000 range who are expected to produce over 15 points become hot commodities, especially if the general DFS population is not focused on this particular sleeper.
By the same token, a $9,000 QB facing a lockdown pass defense but is expected to garner roughly 20 percent ownership, is a player we will “fade” (not play).
As the season progresses, taking advantage of statistical trends helps identify those players who are primed to exceed expectations in a certain week. Which defenses funnel passing production over the middle to tight ends and possession receivers? Which teams stop the run, but give up huge swaths of production to running backs as receivers, making pass-catching running backs hugely valuable and downgrading those teams’ ground-and-pounders? The trends are what will make or break your weekly matchup.
Tracking ownership numbers is another key data point in determining which players to use in certain contests. In cash games, ownership percentage is not nearly as important, but in large-field tournaments, with so many entrants and a myriad of possible lineup combinations, identifying players who will be lesser owned can be critical to success. To wit: A QB that is 20 percent owned and does poorly will bring down 1/5 of the pool, while using a QB that is 2 percent owned who hits for a big number will shoot those owners ahead of the field. The optimal outcome is using several low-owned players who exceed salary expectations while several high-ownership players bust.
Another strategy that lends itself to large-field tournament play is stacking your lineup with multiple players from the same team or both teams in the same game.
The most basic and most common form of stacking in NFL DFS is to take the quarterback and top wide receiver from the same team. In recent years, it was almost commonplace to pair Ben Roethlisberger with Antonio Brown or Matt Ryan with Julio Jones. Sometimes, the play with a team’s QB is the running back, if you believe that QB-RB combo is likely to soak up all the team’s touchdowns. Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara or Dak Prescott-Ezekiel Elliott were prime sources of multiple touchdowns.
But the stacks that can really break a slate are three- or four-man stacks of the same offense. Think Kansas City last season, with Pat Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt often lighting up the scoreboard all within the same game. Or Brees, Kamara and Michael Thomas in New Orleans. When the production is narrowed down to a select few players, the stacks can be devastating. Think DeShaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller when all three were healthy together.
By stacking and collecting all the points those players produce in the same game, players can soak up enormous amounts of points all at once. The only challenge is that often the best stackable stars are also the most expensive on the slate, leaving all other positions vulnerable. Finding the low-priced stack, as was often the case with the Josh Allen-led Bills passing game late last season, is always a winning formula.
In the same spirit as stacks are correlation plays that let game theory dictate a lineup. If a player can correctly map out how a game is going to progress, using that game theory can be applied to roster construction. For instance, if you stack the Chiefs’ offense because you believe Mahomes is likely to throw four or five touchdowns, it stands to reason the opponent will also be throwing heavily to stay in the game, so adding the opponents’ top receiver to your Chiefs stack makes sense.
Another popular stack is to pair a workhorse running back with that team’s defense. If the defense is expected to dominate, that team’s running back is likely to be called upon to run the clock out quite literally, leading to extra carries, yards and touchdowns. Understanding game scripts and what Vegas’ odds say about them is huge resource.
Yes, folks, there’s preseason DFS and in some ways, because of all the unknown commodities that get a chance to make big plays, it’s the most exciting time of the year. The key to preseason football DFS, especially in Weeks 1, 2, and 4, is forgetting everything you know about regular-season play and pretty much do the exact opposite. If you’ve attended an NFL preseason game or actually watched one on TV from beginning to end, you come to realize quickly that other than the Week 3 “dress rehearsals,” the stars who stir the DFS drink during the regular season barely see the field in preseason games.
So playing first-teamers like Tom Brady or Le’Veon Bell are recipes for disaster in a large-field tournament, unless you get lucky with a turnover and short field that leads to a touchdown on that one series the regulars might play before hitting the safety of the sidelines.
Conversely, it’s the guys battling for roster spots who often play the entire second half, and often three full quarters, and in preseason DFS, volume = victory. Find those players who are slated by the coaching staff to play large chunks of games, especially at quarterback. This also requires doing a bit of homework, especially on game days. Twitter is a tremendous source of information, as writers and insiders often have pregame updates on which skill players are expected to play featured roles.
Not that the starters are completely off limits. Some coaches will give their first unit an entire quarter or even two quarters, especially in Week 2. But don’t go crazy on them, as sometimes a bad start by an offensive line can lead to a pulling of the two-quarter plug.