How to Win Playing Daily Fantasy Football, Part 1: Roster Construction and Spending
We’ve heard the spiel before: daily fantasy sports allow you to create a new lineup every day (or week), providing freedom from your season-long fantasy commitments. And unlike your fake baseball, basketball or football teams, you can win money every single day.
This instant gratification way of playing has allowed the daily fantasy industry to grow quite a bit in popularity over the last couple of years. And perhaps no site has grown with it quite like DraftKings.com.
Our friends over there host an awesome game, with thousands and thousands of contests each week. And they were kind enough to send us some data from last season in order to provide readers with dozens of ways to make some money in 2014.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll cover all there is to cover about daily fantasy football on DraftKings.com. Ever wonder what types of contests are easiest to win? We’ll answer that. How about the amount of cash to spend on particular positions? We’ll get to that, too. Which players to target? We got you.
So without further ado, let’s start digging into this data.
Budget Allocation: A Wide Receiver Foundation?
Like most fantasy leagues, lineups on DraftKings.com in 2013 consisted of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one flex, one tight end, one kicker and one defense – a total of nine players. But because kickers are volatile (perhaps luck-driven), the position is being removed in 2014 in favor of an additional wide receiver. Don’t worry though – the information provided here can still help tremendously with your weekly salary allocation.
You can see all the scoring rules at DraftKings here.
You have $50,000 (fake) dollars to spend on DraftKings when you enter a contest, and understanding how to spend your $50,000 is important. Should you go with a high-end quarterback, potentially sacrificing talent at wide receiver and running back, or is it important to target elite running backs, ensuring points at the position?
The answer can be a little complicated, and the contest you're entering obviously makes a big difference. In this piece, we'll be looking at data from all game types, and we'll dig into tournament-specific examples next week.
To keep things simple, let's break things down by position. Who's ready to win some cash?Defense and Special Teams
The reason to start with defense is simple: you shouldn’t be spending a lot of your budget on one.
In 2013, every single defense finished with at least two top-12 finishes, a usable defense in a traditional 12-team fantasy league. No defense had more than nine top-12 finishes, while 23 finished with between four and eight. In other words, the turnover at the position each week is pretty substantial, and you should take advantage of it in daily fantasy football.
Look, we all know the Seahawks will score a whole lot of points in any fantasy football format. But you’re not choosing the best defense in daily fantasy football. You’re choosing the one that yields the most value based on cost.
In fact, according to DraftKings’ data, Seattle’s defense ranked 13th in terms of win-loss ratio last season. Teams like the Buccaneers, Giants, Rams, Bills and Jaguars ranked better. I’ll reference this win-loss ratio idea a lot throughout this article, and all it shows is the number of wins versus losses a lineup had with a specific player rostered. If Todd’s DraftKings team had Seattle’s defense in it and he lost, the defense would get a loss. Had Todd’s team won, they would’ve been rewarded with a win.
The reason Seattle’s defense didn’t perform well mostly had to do with opportunity cost. The unit was always priced over $5,000, which was significantly higher than other defenses. And when you chose Seattle, you then had less money to spend on other positions, lowering your team’s overall potential at those lineup slots.
Because of the massive defensive turnover each week, there’s not a whole reason to spend on the position. Instead, you should play cheap ones by matchup, using cost-effective defenses that are facing middling offenses.Quarterback
The quarterback position is the other one in the DraftKings lineup that has just one roster requirement (you can technically play a tight end in the flex spot), and it’s the one that usually gets the most attention.
In standard fantasy football, drafting a quarterback late is a pretty common practice. And with so many teams dropping back to pass at least 30 times per game – all but two of them did it last year – spending on a passer in daily fantasy football isn’t always necessary, either.
Take a look at the chart below depicting the top-10 quarterbacks last season on DraftKings in terms of win-loss ratio.
|Win-Loss Ratio Rank||Quarterback|
As you can see, the most valuable quarterback assets last year – and remember, win-loss ratio is a rate statistic, so these players weren’t necessarily the best players week in and week out – were guys who didn’t cost a lot of money.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward. When a quarterback is replaced, you know the passer stepping in is going to have opportunity. And when you know there’s opportunity, you’re a little more confident that he’ll get you fantasy points. Given the fact these replacement-level quarterbacks are cheaper than regular starters, going after them isn’t a poor investment.
The problem is that some of the worst quarterbacks in terms of win-loss ratio were also replacement signal-callers. Seneca Wallace had the absolute worst win percentage of any quarterback on DraftKings last year, while Kellen Clemens, Thad Lewis, Case Keenum and Scott Tolzien all ranked in the bottom eight.
We shouldn’t simply assume a backup passer is worthwhile in daily fantasy, but we do know that they're capable of being incredibly valuable.
But in addition, one thing to note here is that the average quarterback salary in winning lineups last year was lower than what we saw from all lineups, regardless of outcome. Take a look at the table below.
|Average Spent on QB Overall||Average Spent on QB for Winning Lineups|
Though there doesn’t appear to be a significant drop in quarterback spending between the average lineup and a winning one, keep in mind that this data consists of thousands and thousands of entries. The numbers do suggest that spending less at quarterback can bring winning results.
The quarterback position is predictable each week because, as noted, every quarterback in the NFL is going to have a chance to do something with 30-plus passes. That’s why daily players aren’t afraid to start a player like Kyle Orton or Kirk Cousins.
But what’s interesting is that the top-10 chart above shows a mix of low-end starters and elite ones. You’ve got Drew Brees chilling next to Terrelle Pryor. What this shows is that an extreme approach may be smartest at the position, rather than sticking to a player like Andrew Luck. The Colts’ passer will typically have a significant cost, but won’t necessarily give you a Peyton Manning-type performance.
Keep in mind that only two quarterbacks last season produced more than five weekly top-6 (highly-productive) performances (Peyton Manning and Nick Foles). There were 33 different passers with at least one, meaning the difference between middle-tier quarterbacks and low-end ones on a weekly basis wasn’t necessarily significant.
Overall, know that it’s not necessary to spend on quarterback. But if you do spend at the position, going for a high-end one would be the way to go.Running Back
Similar to quarterbacks, when a running back goes down to injury, you’ll often find a player to step into a lot of opportunity. It’s not as immediate or obvious as it is with quarterback, but it happens. And it happens a lot.
The main reason you go for running backs early in season-long fantasy football is because, barring injury, top-notch backs give you a larger weekly advantage than any other position. And you’re also trying to play the odds, ensuring you get usable pieces in your lineup each week.
But there are no season-long commitments to players in daily fantasy football, and you can take advantage of this fact at the running back position.
Like the exercise above, here are the top running backs by win-loss ratio last season.
|Win-Loss Ratio Rank||Running Back|
Some of you may be twitching at the sight of Daryl Richardson’s name atop this list, but he’s there because he was priced incredibly low when starting for St. Louis last year. But like the quarterback position, the running back list is full of stars and scrubs. Marcel Reece, Matt Asiata, Joseph Randle and Andre Ellington are all on it – players who didn’t start for their respective teams during the regular season, but got a week or two of production due to an injury.
On the flip side, you’ll still notice high-end options like Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, and Adrian Peterson. That’s because these players totaled 25% of the top-100 PPR performances at running back last year. For reference, a top-100 performance was roughly 22 fantasy points in 2013.
The other noteworthy thing here is that nearly all of the runners listed are pass-catching backs. That’s because DraftKings scoring rewards pass-catchers with a full point per reception. So if you’re going for a cheap running back option – which is a fine thing to do according to some of the numbers – it’s wise to ensure he’ll be getting third-down work. You also don’t want your running back to fall victim to game script.
There won’t always be an obvious fill-in at running back in a given week. The key, in that case, would be to use the information you know about the quarterback position, spending cheap there when you can’t at running back. Because as you’ll see, opting to not spend at wide receiver may get you in trouble.Wide Receiver
The wide receiver position in daily fantasy football may be the most important. Going through the same process as above, here are the top-ranked wide receivers from 2013 in terms of win-loss ratio.
|Win-Loss Ratio Rank||Wide Receiver|
Unlike the other positions, you’ll barely find random backups on this list. Why? Because not only is the wide receiver position inherently volatile each week, but a potential player stepping in for an injured wideout isn’t guaranteed volume.
When it comes to spending at wide receiver, look for targets. Within the list, Julio Jones, Reggie Wayne, Danny Amendola, Nate Burleson and Justin Blackmon weren’t able to finish their seasons in 2013. That leaves us with 15 receivers. Among these 15, only Kenbrell Thompkins ranked outside of the top 23 in wide receiver targets.
You should build your lineup around elite pass-catchers – at least one. In fact, DraftKings data suggests that users who spent more on their wide receivers last year won at a higher rate.
|Average Spent on WR Overall||Average Spent on WR for Winning Lineups|
Among the top players in win-loss ratio at each of the positions on DraftKings, wide receivers had the highest median salary versus the typical salary at the position. In other words, spending at wide receiver rewarded owners a year ago, as you can see from the chart above.
Don’t be afraid to spend your cash at wide receiver.Tight End
You may not be surprised to find that both Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were top-seven options at tight end last year in terms of win-loss ratio, despite costing well over $1,000 more than other tight ends. The players grouped with them included Jermichael Finley, Ryan Griffin, Vernon Davis, Owen Daniels, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas.
Five of the top-eight most valuable players at tight end last season were top-10 in terms of cost at the position. Much of this, like the wide receiver description above, has to do with the natural variance at the position. It's difficult for tight ends to consistently post solid numbers week in and week out due to the fact that they see the least amount of playing time among the starters in the fantasy lineup. So rather than spending a little above minimum salary for a player like Martellus Bennett, it's more reasonable to up the money spent a bit at the position and go for a game-changer like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you should always spend on one of the elite tight ends in the league, as Gronk and Graham are capable of putting up goose eggs, too. We'll get more into this strategy for 2014 later in this series.
The 5 Simple Rules of Budget Allocation
Perhaps you're not interested in the data above, and just want some simple rules to follow when setting your lineup in 2014. Here you are:
1. Never spend a lot of money on your defense. And to this point, you'll probably want to fill the rest of your lineup before choosing which defense you want to play.2. Go big or go home at the quarterback position. The signal-calling position is predictable in fantasy football, and that goes for backup quarterbacks as well. Don't be afraid to use quarterbacks who are stepping in for an injured starter, but remember to evaluate carefully. On the flip side, spending on Peyton Manning or Drew Brees will typically lead to more wins for your team than using someone like Robert Griffin III. 3. Running back injuries are your friend. The running back position is fairly replaceable in real football, which means a backup running back can typically perform like a starter. So when an injury occurs to said starter, don't be afraid to plug the backup into your lineup. He'll be cheap, and should be able to produce. 4. Spend at wide receiver. The natural instability at the wide receiver position tells us that we should spend at the position. Players like Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant should be in your lineup almost every week because they not only provide a safe floor, but they're capable of putting up monster weeks no matter the competition. 5. Spend at tight end, too. Like wide receiver, the tight end position is tough to predict. Not only are they not on the field very often, but they're reliant on quarterback play as well. Because of this, we saw elite players at the position rise to the top in terms of win-loss ratio, showing that they're quite valuable.
Like what you've seen so far? Come back next week for a look at tournament strategies.