Daily Fantasy Football: Analyzing the Impact of FanDuel's New Flex Spot

How should we utilize FanDuel's new flex spot in NFL DFS this season? And should our strategy differ in cash games versus tournaments?



Wherever you are, I believe that the heart does go on.

You're not alone if you've got Celine Dion buzzing in your eardrums with the news that FanDuel's making a change for this upcoming football season.

Clearly, this is heartbreaking news for some of you as people have never, ever complained on Twitter about having to use a kicker. But I'm sure you can soldier on now that the iceberg in our NFL DFS waters has been cleared, giving way to a new flex position.

If our kickers are going away, it is our duty as citizens of this planet to ensure that they did not die in vain. And to do so, we have to cherish that flex position and use it wisely.

A flex spot has existed on other sites previously, so you likely have experience being able to choose between adding an additional running back, wide receiver, or tight end into your roster. But things are a bit different on FanDuel with its half-PPR scoring rules and site-specific salaries. As such, we need to know how we should be handling this flex position when we're filling out our rosters and whether we should favor one position over another.

Clearly, this is going to be dependent on the slate. In some instances, the value at wide receiver will be tempting enough to push us to add an extra pass-catcher into that flex spot, and the same can be true at running back. But in general, how should we handle this position, and does it differ in cash games versus tournaments?

Let's try to figure that out today by looking at data from the 2017 season. This was a down year for receivers, and we need to keep that in mind. Things could be drastically different in 2018. But we should still be able to draw some interesting conclusions from looking back at what transpired.

Running Backs Have Both Floor and Upside

We'll circle back to the discussion around wide receivers and their poor output in a second. But when you look at the data straight up, it was clear that running backs ran the show in 2017.

Throughout this piece, we'll be looking at players who carried at least 0.5% ownership in the FanDuel Sunday Million in a given week (information that is available each week to numberFire premium users). This is to weed out players who were in the player pool but injured or who didn't have a role so that they're not skewing the sample one way or another.

Because there were three wide receiver slots compared to just two for running backs and one for tight ends, the sample on them will be much larger, and it's possible that their performance will be weighed down by a dillution of the player pool. But as we dig further, it will become clear that that's not the only issue in their way.

When we look at just players who had 0.5% ownership in the Sunday Million in a given week, we're left with a sample of 475 running backs, 786 wide receivers, and 319 tight ends. The table below shows how often those players fell into specific scoring ranges based on FanDuel's scoring rules.

Total Points Running Backs Wide Receivers Tight Ends
30+ Points 2.11% 1.27% 0.00%
25 to 29.9 Points 5.47% 1.91% 0.00%
20 to 24.9 Points 8.00% 4.20% 3.76%
15 to 19.9 Points 11.37% 12.09% 6.58%
10 to 14.9 Points 25.47% 20.48% 16.61%
5 to 9.9 Points 29.05% 26.08% 29.47%
0 to 4.9 Points 18.53% 33.97% 43.57%

And if we change it up to see how often they exceeded a certain point total, this is what you get.

Total Points Running Backs Wide Receivers Tight Ends
30+ Points 2.11% 1.27% 0.00%
25+ Points 7.58% 3.18% 0.00%
20+ Points 15.58% 7.38% 3.76%
15+ Points 26.95% 19.47% 10.34%
10+ Points 52.42% 39.95% 26.96%
5+ Points 81.47% 66.03% 56.43%
Fewer than 5 Points 18.53% 33.97% 43.57%

You expect tight ends to lag here because it's a lower-usage position. But wide receivers? Woof.

Prior to seeing this table, it would have been logical to think that you'd want running backs in cash games. They get more raw touches, which means their output is easier to predict and less volatile. We see that in the chart above with 52.42% of running backs scoring at least 10 points compared to 39.95% of all wide receivers. There, the narrative matches the data.

But the argument for wide receivers is that they should have more upside. You don't see many running backs have days similar to what Julio Jones had last year with 253 yards and 2 touchdowns. That would seem to indicate that we should want to flex wide receivers in tournaments.

Not only did wide receivers hit the higher thresholds less often than running backs from a percentage perspective, but there were also just fewer high-upside games from wide receivers even when you look at raw numbers. In our sample, there were 10 running backs and 10 receivers who exceeded 30 FanDuel points. There were 36 running backs and only 25 wide receivers who exceeded 25 points. If we lower that to 20 or more points, the ratio is 74 running backs to 58 wide receivers.

Based on this data, it would seem as if running backs have both a higher floor and higher upside than wide receivers, requiring us to favor them -- when possible -- for both cash games and tournaments. This one goes counter to the narrative.

And this doesn't seem to be the product of a down 2017 for wide receivers, either. Over the past 3 years, 6 running backs have scored at least 40 FanDuel Points, according to Pro Football Reference, compared to just 2 wide receivers. At 35 points, it's 16 running backs to 15 wide receivers, and at 30 points, running backs are favored again, 50 to 47. The idea that wide receivers have more upside seems to be more myth than reality.

As for tight ends, they have scored 30 or more points just once in this span. If you're flexing a tight end in tournaments, you're likely losing money. It can work, but those occurrences will be rare.

From a raw points perspective, we should favor running backs in both cash games and tournaments for the flex spot. That's an actionable takeaway when you're comparing two pieces at the same price.

But we also do need to discuss salary. Because the workload distribution at wide receiver is flatter than at running back (meaning a team's secondary option is more viable than the same role at running back), we have to factor in salaries to see if this can move the needle in favor of wide receivers and tight ends. Even then, though, things still look good for the backs.

Running Backs Generate Value

A common way to account for salary in DFS is by looking at a player's "value." Value is simply the player's fantasy point output divided by his salary and mulitplied by 1,000. So, if a player scored 16.0 points at a salary of $8,000, they would have generated 2x value.

Doing this is certainly an imperfect exercise (you need less "value" out of a higher-priced player than one who is a bargain), but it does help us account for salary. Tight ends will always be cheaper than running backs, making this a necessary exercise.

Even doing that, though, can't save tight ends. Below is the same chart as above, except looking at how often players at or above 0.5% ownership in a given week scored in certain value ranges. Once again, running backs hold the edge.

Value Running Backs Wide Receivers Tight Ends
4.5x or Higher 1.89% 1.40% 0.63%
4.0x to 4.49x 3.16% 0.89% 0.94%
3.5x to 3.99x 2.74% 1.91% 0.94%
3.0x to 3.49x 6.53% 4.58% 2.82%
2.5x to 2.99x 8.42% 7.38% 6.27%
2.0x to 2.49x 11.16% 11.20% 8.78%
1.5x to 1.99x 19.16% 14.25% 17.55%
1.0x to 1.49x 20.00% 17.05% 15.36%
0.5x to 0.99x 17.26% 22.14% 17.24%
0.0x to 0.49x 9.68% 19.21% 29.47%

And again, he's a look at how often players at each position met or exceeded a certain value level.

Value Running Backs Wide Receivers Tight Ends
4.5x or Higher 1.89% 1.40% 0.63%
4.0x or Higher 5.05% 2.29% 1.57%
3.5x or Higher 7.79% 4.20% 2.51%
3.0x or Higher 14.32% 8.78% 5.33%
2.5x or Higher 22.74% 16.16% 11.60%
2.0x or Higher 33.89% 27.35% 20.38%
1.5x or Higher 53.05% 41.60% 37.93%
1.0x or Higher 73.05% 58.65% 53.29%
0.5x or Higher 90.32% 80.79% 70.53%
Less than 0.5x 9.68% 19.21% 29.47%

Running backs in our sample hit at least 2.0x value 33.89% of the time. It was just 27.35% for wide receivers and 20.38% for tight ends. This is the value threshold you generally want in cash games, meaning we should value running backs in this game type.

For tournaments, you want a bit more bang for your buck, but even accounting for salaries, the running backs still come out on top. They hit at least 3.0x value 14.32% of the time compared to 8.78% at wide receiver and 5.33% at tight end. The split exists the higher you go, as well.

Again, it's worth reiterating that 2017 was a weird outlier for passing games, and we should expect wide receivers to rebound in 2018. But the results from last year are just dripping in blood.


With the departure of our beloved kickers, we now have an extra decision to make each week when filling out our rosters on FanDuel. But at least based on what happened last year, it seems like we should be favoring running backs to fill that void for all game types.

For cash games, the data backs up the narrative with running backs holding a better floor. We can buy into that even when assuming wide receivers will be better as a whole this year.

For tournaments, running backs still hold an edge at the top end, and they maintain it if we include data from 2015 and 2016, as well. If wide receivers fully rebound this year, it's possible they would be on the same level as running backs for tournaments. As such, it's far from being egregious to flex a wide receiver if he has upside. But at least for right now, running backs should hold the advantage here, as well, pushing us to add a third running back onto our rosters.

As for tight ends, it's hard enough to find one tight end who won't flop. Finding two seems borderline impossible. Even when it helps you squeeze in another high-priced stud elsewhere, it's likely best to avoid this position in the flex in all formats.

As mentioned at the top, this is an equation that will change from one week to the next. Sometimes, we're not going to want a third running back out there, in which case we should follow our gut and plug in another receiver. But for the most part, the data does seem to say that we'll want to go with the position with the better floor and the comparable ceiling on most occasions.