If you’re a sports bettor, you know that the crown jewel of sports gambling, for both bettors and bookmakers, is NFL football. Well, the same goes for daily fantasy sports. The vast majority of daily fantasy players are interested in NFL contests, and the prize pools are the largest around.
It’s a testament to the league’s popularity, especially considering there are basically only 17 Sunday game days, aside from Monday and Thursday contests. The number of games pales in comparison to sports like baseball or basketball, where games are being played every night for months.
As of 2014, there are millions of dollars in guarantees every week across multiple sites. DraftKings and FanDuel both offer two huge Sunday million dollar tournaments, plus loads of other guaranteed games.
This article will be a primer on building a winning lineup for daily fantasy NFL contests. We’ll focus on each position and go over a strategy for building for both cash games and tournaments (GPPs).
Fantasy Football Basics
This section will focus on the core elements of building a lineup from scratch and a way to narrow down the large list of players into guys you are considering. There are a lot of things to consider when you’re putting together the “perfect” fantasy football lineup, especially when you’re playing heads up matches on a weekly basis.
If you’re already a sports bettor, then you understand how accurate betting lines are when it comes to predicting the outcome of games. The bookmakers simply can’t get it wrong too often, or it will cost them, big.
That’s why NFL betting lines should be one of the pillars of your research. Look to target players in games with high totals and to generally avoid those games with lower numbers. The key word there is “generally.” This doesn’t mean you should necessarily avoid players with what you think have an excellent matchup or price simply because they are in a game with a low total.
The higher the total, the more opportunities for scoring, and the better it is for daily fantasy. The goal is to look at the matchups and prices of players in those games and determine how those points might be scored. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to profitable weeks when it comes to the NFL. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
I encourage players to not only look at the spread and total. There are many other indicators that may be helpful for daily fantasy. Team propositions and totals and, most importantly, player propositions are excellent tools to determine a player’s chances of a strong game. Look at anything and everything you can find from the bookmakers.
As crazy as it may sound, many players don’t give a second thought to Vegas’ projections. I think this is both a massive mistake and an edge you can exploit. It should be the first thing you look for when you begin to build your lineup.
No one can roster a lineup full of “studs.” Players will need to mix in value plays, along with their higher-priced selections. You’ll find that your value plays, or “salary savers,” will be a crucial factor when comes to profiting each week.
At its core, daily fantasy is about paying less for a player that is going to get you the same or better production as a higher-priced player. If you can fill your lineup with players who are relatively cheap but who look to outperform their low price tag, you can not only benefit from their production, but you can save salary to pay for the higher-priced players you desperately want in your lineup.
By going through and looking for standout value players, you can identify which positions offer the most value each week and where you’re going to need to spend most of your salary. If there are a lot of bargain running backs that you like one week, you’ll have more money to spend at the other positions.
Ones of the easiest ways to spot value is by looking at injury issues. The NFL is a brutal sport on the body, and there are hosts of injury issues every week. Sometimes, these are priced heavily into the following week’s salaries; other times they are not. Injury situations are easy ways to find glaring value in the pricing.
Rules and Site
Understanding the roster and scoring of your chosen daily fantasy site is crucial to maximizing your expected value each week. This isn’t as simple as plugging in guys you like, regardless of the price and rules.
The most common scoring difference between sites is related to points per reception. It’s about split between a full point per reception (full-PPR) and a half point per reception (half-PPR). This may not seem like much of a difference, but it’s one of the most important scoring differences that players need to be aware of when building a lineup.
One of the most popular sites, DraftKings, offers special bonuses when a QB throws for 300 yards or when a running back or receiver rushes for 100 yards or has 100 receiving yards, respectively.
Roster size and position will also vary, with the vast majority of sites being one-quarterback sites. Some sites will have a kicker position although that is something I don’t prefer. The same goes for defenses, but I don’t mind choosing a defense each week.
The key point to remember in regards to scoring and rosters is that you understand how a player might be more valuable on one site compared to the other. Price, of course, is one factor to consider, but the rules and scoring can vault some players ahead of others.
For instance, sites with a full-PPR would give a boost to running backs that catch passes rather than those that don’t and would also help receivers who base a lot of their work on many short receptions instead of big plays.
Cash Games vs. Tournaments
What type of contest you’re playing makes a big difference when it comes to the type of players you want in your lineups. I think it’s always best to enter your cash game lineup in one GPP, just in case it goes off, but for the most part, your cash game plays should be different than those you’re playing in tournaments or GPPs.
In cash games, we want a high floor of points because we only need to finish in the upper half of the league, in 50/50s, or beat a single opponent, in head-to-head contests.
When I say “floor,” I’m speaking of a baseline of points that a player is expected to get, rather than their best case scenario for that day. A player who is going to get a lot of touches and be heavily involved in the game is going to have a much higher floor than a player who is dependent on making a few targets or attempts count.
Essentially, the difference between cash games and tournaments is how much you need to win in each contest and the strategy to do so. We need to focus heavily on maximizing our floor in cash games, while we need to look to maximize our ceiling when it comes to tournaments and GPPs.
How highly owned a player is in a given week is an important factor to consider. Fielding a lineup that is mostly filled with low-floor, highly owned guys is not going to be enough to win larger GPPs. Looking for guys that will be low owned and taking a contrarian approach is what is needed to win larger-field tournaments.
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Picking Position Players for your Fantasy Football Lineup
A lot of factors go into choosing players to add to your roster. Below, we’ll examine each position and offer tips for both cash games and tournaments. This is one of the most important things to consider when putting together your lineup, especially when there are much favorable matchups for different positions.
Quarterbacks are going to be the foundation of your lineup. Most sites only offer one quarterback spot, so missing with your quarterback is going to be tough to come back from. The QB spot is going to be your most consistent position each week.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out what we should be looking for when it comes to choosing QBs. Basically, the gist of it is to look for games with high totals, along with pass-oriented offenses facing bad defenses. We can look even further at stuff like how often a team passes in the red zone as well.
Another aspect to consider when choosing a QB is their mobility. Don’t get me wrong. Pocket passers are perfectly fine options, and in most cases will be the preferred option each week, but QBs that have some running ability can add another dimension to the game and to your fantasy contests.
Rushing yards are worth more than passing yards and so are rushing touchdowns. Quarterbacks with dual-threat ability can add a lot of extra points to their totals with 30–40 extra rushing yards, let alone if they explode for a big total on the day.
The vast majority of sites reward just four points for passing TDs and six for rushing touchdowns. Likewise, 10 rushing yards is equal to 25 passing yards on sites like DraftKings. 40 rushing yards adds up to an extra 100 yards passing.
Cash Games: Going with a higher-priced QB in a strong matchup is usually the way to go. There is going to be times when a lower-priced QB is criminally underpriced in a cake matchup, but normally, you want to pay up for someone with a higher floor.
A poor performance from a quarterback can absolutely ruin your lineup. You’re going to need a nice floor of points to succeed at cash games, and the best way to do that is by paying up at the QB position.
Tournaments: Here’s where you can go a little off board. Targeting inconsistent or high upside QBs in plus matchups is a great starting point. Even higher-priced guys in tougher matchups are an option here. You’re looking for high upside and guys that won’t likely be owned by the masses.
Running backs are also extremely consistent as a whole. When it comes to RBs, the matchup is important but perhaps just as important is the number of touches they will receive in each contest. More touches equals more yards and touchdown opportunities – it’s that simple.
Most starting running backs average around 15 touches per game. Heavily used running backs can easily eclipse 20+ touches, especially if their team gets a lead. Running backs on teams that are large favorites are always in play because they may be utilized in a clock-killing fashion if the favorite should put up big numbers on the ground.
Another important factor when rostering RBs is how often they catch passes. This goes twofold for sites where it is full-PPR. Running backs who can add receptions to their repertoire are especially valuable in these contests.
Ideally, we want running backs that are getting all or most of the goal line carries, but this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker if he’s getting a lot of touches overall, especially in the passing game.
Cash Games: Running backs are second only to quarterbacks when it comes to consistency. For this reason, paying up for consistent producers is a strong strategy for cash games. When it comes to choosing your flex spot, going with a running back makes the most sense due to their consistency. Remember, it’s all about maximizing your floor.
Value plays are also excellent, provided the price difference still amounts to decent volume. Injuries to running backs are constant in the league, so there is usually plenty of value to be had here.
Tournaments: Nearly every player is available when it comes to tournament running back selections. One angle to consider is highly priced RBs in what most would call poor matchups. They won’t be heavily targeted that week but still have potential to explode, even with a tough front seven in front of them.
Players will normally need to fill two or three of their roster spots with WRs. Obviously, targeting skilled wide outs in strong passing offenses is ideal, but price is going to be an issue.
Targeting poor pass defenses seems obvious, but make sure that’s what you’re looking at, not overall defensive statistics. There are many defenses that do perfectly well stopping the run, but have a poor secondary.
Receivers on teams that may be losing should also get a bump. Just as you would target a running back on a team that was expected to win, it makes sense to target receivers on a team that is likely going to be throwing because they are playing from behind.
Digging deeper into the matchup is crucial when selecting receivers. Which cornerback will be on the receiver that day? Will he be double-teamed? How will an injury to another wide receiver affect his targets? Instead of running backs versus linebackers or a defensive line, we can boil wide receivers down to one-on-one matchups.
Cash Games: I’m not here to persuade you to not pay for elite wide receivers if you think they’re worth it, but with usually three spots to fill, searching for mid-tier and bargain WRs is usually the best option for cash games. You’re just looking for receivers who are getting a lot of targets and receptions. Of course, if they have big-play ability, that’s a nice bonus, but it’s not necessary.
Tournaments: We want the exact opposite for tournaments. Wide receivers are more unreliable than quarterbacks and running backs, but when they have huge days, they can propel you to a victory. In tournaments, we want to go heavy on wide receiver, even using them at the flex position. Go for the big-play guys. We’re looking for the classic “boom or bust” options. Pairing a QB with his receiver is also a strategy that many like to use in large-field tournaments.
In terms of overall consistency, there’s no position more unpredictable than tight end. Few tight ends are featured prominently in NFL offenses. As a whole, they see much fewer targets than wide receivers, which as I mentioned above, are also inconsistent from week-to-week compared to other positions.
With that said, there are some tight ends that are elite playmakers that garner a lot of targets and draw fear in opposing defenses. In these cases, it may be worth treating them as wide receivers in terms of allocating your salary appropriately.
Cash Games: Unless you have a player in mind you’re targeting or are going expensive at TE, the tight end position can be one of the last spots you fill on your roster. There’s rarely a must-play at tight end, and it’s one of the best positions to “punt” to save money on the rest of your team.
It’s usual that players will have two tight ends on their roster, but it can make some sense in rare situations. If you’re paying up for an elite level TE, adding another one in your flex spot may allow you to save salary at other positions. Despite their inconsistencies, tight ends are cheap and can be a nice source of value if used in the right matchups.
Tournaments: We can sort of use the same strategy when it comes to receivers in regards to tight ends. Their inconsistency does create a problem for cash games, but those with high ceilings make them great tournament plays. As always, look for guys that are contrarian and that are likely to be under owned.
Defenses are sometimes an afterthought for DFS players. While they normally won’t make or break your lineup, if you can choose a defense that gets you value each week, you’ll be able to add valuable points to your roster. We’re looking for something safe when it comes to cash games, with the higher-risk defenses coming as upside plays for GPPs.
Betting odds are especially helpful in helping to pick out a defense. A large favorite in a game with a smaller total is an ideal candidate for defensive selection. However, you will usually have to pay up for defenses that fit these criteria.
One important thing to remember is that defensive points in terms of fantasy, usually, come from passing game disruption. A team that is run-heavy and that sticks with it the entire game is still a good target if they have a poor offense, but one that goes to the pass quickly is probably a better option. Teams that pass block poorly and have turnover-prone quarterbacks are ideal targets when it comes to picking defenses.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, an average of 40 million Americans participate in fantasy football every year. Figures from the same group indicate that fantasy football owners spend an average of 9 hours a week on fantasy-specific tasks, like research and roster shuffling.
Football is not just the biggest sport in the country in terms of TV viewership, it’s also the most popular fantasy sport. It’s really not all that surprising since NFL betting alone (whether its online or in Vegas) is a multi-billion dollar a year industry!
Back to the Basics – Fantasy Football Edition!
The game of fantasy football puts players in the front office, drafting players, creating rosters, arranging trades, and staying up late at night worrying about interceptions. Players join leagues (made up of friends, an office pool, or even total strangers), participate in a draft, and compete against the other fantasy owners in the league based on real-world NFL statistics.
Fantasy Football Rosters
Though private and custom leagues can (and often do) change these rules, there is a standard roster makeup for fantasy football. Generally, rosters are made up of 16 players, broken up into the following positions:
1 Flex (RB/WR)
1 Team Defense
7 Bench Spots
You’ll notice right away that this roster alignment favors the passing game – five of a player’s sixteen roster spots are taken up by positions that either throw or catch the football. That’s a symptom of the modern pass-happy NFL, and it’s also why top receivers are so heavily-valued in the fantasy world, often more than they are in the pro game.
Some private and custom leagues are known to include defensive positions and scoring for defensive stats – this makes for a much more complex fantasy season and requires a lot more research, not to mention a deeper draft and even more potential roster and injury concerns. Playing in a so-called “defensive league” is best left up to owners with a little experience.
How Does Fantasy Football Work?
Several popular platforms exist online that offer fantasy football in what is essentially a point and click interface. These platforms (Yahoo, ESPN, etc.) offer public leagues made up of strangers as well as the ability to create a private league.
Players get special invitations to join private leagues, otherwise all play is against the general public. Fantasy sports these days are played for fun, though there is a growing interest in playing for cash. In some cases, big private leagues or existing fantasy sports betting services reward hundreds of thousands of dollars to champions.
Step One – Join a League
Because there are so many types of fantasy football leagues, choosing the league that’s right for a player’s individual needs is important. We discuss rule and scoring variations below, to help beginners understand what type of league they’d be interested in joining.
Step Two – Prepare for the Draft
The draft is the highlight of the fantasy sports year. A good draft requires a lot of preparation. Fantasy owners need to deal with the impact of their draft position. They need to have a working knowledge of the skill sets of about 175-200 NFL players. They need up-to-date information about trades, injuries, and roster shuffles at the professional level. Few fantasy owners do all the homework mentioned above – the ones that do tend to be more successful.
Step Three – Complete a Draft
We said the draft was important – we think it’s so vital that we’ve turned it into two distinct steps. Taking part in a fantasy football draft for the first time can be intimidating. Fantasy mock drafts will prepare even the greenest owner for the way an actual draft moves. Staying calm and confident should take care of the rest.
Step Four – Compete
This step makes up a good chunk of the actual time spent “playing” fantasy football during a season. In fantasy football leagues, teams face off head-to-head on a weekly basis, with stats compiled from all players on a fantasy owner’s roster. The owner whose roster earned more real-world points wins the week. Like in the real NFL, the object is to win as many weekly contests as possible for a chance at the fantasy playoffs.
Step Five – Improve Your Team
The only way a player is going to make it through the entirety of a 13-week fantasy season (and the three weeks of playoffs after that) is if they learn how to improve the team they drafted. Even the best draft will have soft spots, especially in leagues with more than 10 teams.
Knowing how to gauge when a player is underperforming is one thing – knowing how to drop that player and replace him is another. Improving a roster can also mean dealing with injuries or players who lose their starting role. Maintaining a roster is probably as important as pulling off a good draft.
Fantasy Football Strategy
Because fantasy sports are such a rich blend of real-world statistics, private bartering, and independent strategizing, endless tomes could be written on the subject of how to perform better and win more often in your fantasy NFL league.
A beginner’s attempt at fantasy football strategy should include plenty of time for researching the players they believe will be a part of their league’s draft. It should also include the use of mock draft software to put themselves in different positions on the selection board and go through the fake draft to see how other owners will pick.
Beyond that, keeping up with the real-world game (the best fantasy owners watch hours of football and coverage on a weekly basis) and reading up on strategy and advice should keep newcomers to the hobby competitive, regardless of their league. Fantasy sports are difficult to master, but getting started doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. This is particularly true if fantasy football remains a hobby, something people do for fun.
As long as owners keep track of their rosters and do a little research on the side (including regularly reading up on fantasy football advice and strategy), they should enjoy their time as the owner of a fantasy NFL roster.