NFL

How to Dominate Single-Game Daily Fantasy Football With Perfect Lineup Analysis

FanDuel's NFL single-game offering is a very different way to play fantasy sports, but what can we learn about it when digging into past slates?

I won't lie to anyone here. When FanDuel launched single-game daily fantasy NFL contests, I didn't really know what I thought. I liked it, of course. I always like more fantasy sports to play.

But I wasn't really sure what to expect. I had never examined a single NFL game to such depths before. Sure, I've pored over matchups in painstaking detail, but I hadn't had reason to treat a single game as its own, self-contained fantasy entity.

I quickly learned that I high-key love single-game DFS because it requires you to think about the fantasy football a little differently than what I have learned over the past decade-plus. It's usually pretty easy by Friday in a week to figure out which running back has the best chance at a big game out of 20-plus teams. But in single-game daily fantasy, you really have to dig in and think about the way a game can flow and how it's all connected.

It's fun. Really fun. But I still wanted to find a way to dive into the numbers and see the best ways to play single-game daily fantasy football on FanDuel. So I gathered a whole boatload of data, and now I'm here.

Organization proved to be a bit hard because there are so many things to cover, so I'm just going to start, go over various questions I have about the format, and then wrap it all up at the end.

What Is Single-Game NFL?

It's just what it sounds like: daily fantasy centered on a single NFL game. You have to roster at least one player from each side, choosing between quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers. One of your players is deemed your MVP, and his FanDuel points are multiplied by 1.5.

You still have to adhere to a $60,000 salary cap.

What's the Sample?

I have information and optimal lineups from 124 single-game offerings ranging from Weeks 1 through 16 of the 2019 NFL season. To clarify, "optimal lineup" refers to the best possible line up we could've built within the salary cap. I'll also call this the "perfect lineup" throughout.

We're usually dealing with small samples in examining the NFL, but instead of 16 weeks of main slates to break down, we've got nearly eight times as many to study this way.

There are kind of unlimited questions surrounding single-game strategy, so I'm just going to hop right in from what's probably most basic and then expand from there.

Should You Use All the Salary Cap?

Leaving salary on the table (i.e. not spending all $60,000 of your salary cap) always has some merit in traditional daily fantasy contests because not a lot of people do it to a relevant degree. It's one thing to spend $59,800 of the cap, but that's not really wasting salary. It's another to spend $52,000.

But in a single-game format, there's gotta be some leverage by eating some cash, right? We're picking five players from the same game, so it'd help to think differently, yeah?

Let's find out. Here's the distribution of salary from the 124 perfect lineups in the sample.

Salary Used in
Optimal Lineup
Frequency
$60,000 7
$59,500 12
$59,000 16
$58,500 10
$58,000 14
$57,500 13
$57,000 12
$56,500 11
$56,000 5
$55,500 1
$55,000 or Less 23


It looks like there is some leverage. Occasionally it's a good thing to save a significant chunk of salary while seeking the perfect lineup.

A solid number of perfect lineups (23 of 124; 18.5%) used $55,000 or less of the salary cap, and only 7 (5.6%) used every dollar possible. That being said, 76.6% of these perfect lineups utilized at least $56,500 of the salary.

Be okay being different, but make sure there's a reason for it.

Are 3-2 Lineups or 4-1 Lineups More Common?

You have to draft five players, and you have to use at least one player from each team. That means your lineup combinations are binary: three from one team and two from the opponent or four from one team and one from the opponent.

You'll often hear the term "onslaught" for the 4-1 lineup, something that (anecdotally at least), makes sense in a blowout.

Was that a more common construction over the 124 optimal lineups?

Optimal Lineup
Distribution
Frequency
3-2 Split 63.7%
4-1 Split 36.3%


Nope. Of course, 4-1 lineups are still relatively prevalent all things considered, but the data shows that a balanced approach is more common in the optimals. Again, we're looking at 124 lineups, which isn't thousands upon thousands, but it's also not 16.

I think this qualifies as a takeaway: lean toward a 3-2 lineup more often than not. For four players to outscore opponents, we need a very specific game flow to occur, and even then, we have to adhere to a salary cap.

What Does the Optimal Lineup Distribution Usually Look Like?

I'm not going to lie, this was probably the thing I was most excited to study, but it was quite a disappointment.

What I wanted to find here is the answer to the question: "How many quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, and kickers is best to roster?"

Well, among these 124 lineups, there isn't a whole lot of consensus. I didn't want to split this section into winning/losing players because then we're getting too granular and nitpicking between a QB-RB-WR-WR-TE lineup based on which team each of the five played on that game.

I straight up just wanted to see how frequently a certain distribution of positions occurred.

Even while keeping this more general and bucketed based solely on position, the most common lineup combination appeared just 13 times (10.6%) across the sample. That was a QB-RB-RB-WR-TE lineup (not adjusting for MVP selection).

I want to pause here, at least, and let it sink in that the most common perfect lineup composition actually had two running backs, which I never would've expected in a single-game format because we usually see opposing running backs have quite a mild or even negative correlation with one another.

The second-most common lineup combination popped up 11 times (8.9%) and was QB-RB-WR-WR-TE.

The most common lineup combination with three of anything was QB-RB-WR-WR-WR. That combination occurred only seven times (5.6%).

There's no clearcut answer of which positions to roster. I think we just need to build the best lineups we can without getting too cute and also not shy away from a double-running back lineup when the game permits.

What Should We Do With That MVP Slot?

FanDuel single-game NFL lineups do not require you to roster any specific positions, but one of your five players must be designated as your MVP at no extra cost.

Usually, that'll be a quarterback, as nearly half of all single-game lineups last year used a quarterback at MVP.

MVP Position Overall
Draft Percentage
Quarterback 49.9%
Running Back 30.6%
Wide Receiver 16.3%
Tight End 2.3%
Kicker 0.8%


Makes sense. Quarterbacks are usually the most expensive players in a single-game contest, and they can easily rack up a high floor of fantasy points. It also tracks that running backs are next on the list in the half-PPR format and that receivers are the only other realistic options for an MVP choice when players are constructing lineups.

But what do the optimal lineups have to say? Here's the breakdown of MVPs by position in the 124 optimal lineups.

MVP Position Optimal Lineup
Frequency
Running Back 37.1%
Quarterback 33.9%
Wide Receiver 24.2%
Tight End 4.8%
Kicker 0.0%*


*One game returned a kicker with an optimal MVP, but this also had an identical-scoring optimal with Michael Thomas fitting in as MVP. No mater how you slice it, kicker MVPs are not good process due to a lack of ceiling.

Moving on: that's the good stuff. Already, we can see that there is probably some leverage to be gained by drafting a running back as your MVP.

There's also some leverage in drafting a receiver as the MVP. Why? Based on the full sample, 24.2% of optimal lineup MVPs were receivers, but drafters picked receivers as their MVP only 16.3% of the time.

Still along with this, quarterbacks have about a one-in-three chance to be the MVP, so it's not like we should fade them outright as the MVP selection. It's more that we should be open to drafting running backs and receivers as the MVP more than the overall sample shows that we actually do.

I'm going to stick with the MVP conversation for now and look at correlations and trends when each of the three primary positions are the MVP. Logic would suggest that when a receiver is the MVP, it's a different type of game flow than it is when a running back is the MVP. Does that hold water?

How Do the Positions Correlate According to the MVP Position?

We know enough by now to have some thoughts forming in our minds. Running backs and quarterbacks are the most common MVP choices.

But we can look at what the average lineup looks like when a given position is the MVP. That's what this table shows.

I nixed tight ends from this because I wanted a nice, crisp conditional formatting vibe, and fewer than 5.0% of these optimal lineups had a tight end as the MVP. Evergreenness be damned, just know that the tight ends who were MVP-worthy were George Kittle (twice), Zach Ertz (twice), Travis Kelce, and Noah Fant (thanks to a 75-yard touchdown).

Moving on.

The correct way to read this table is as such: when a quarterback is the MVP of the perfect lineup, 0.0 quarterback teammates are in it on average, 0.55 running back teammates are in it on average, 1.02 receiver teammates are in it on average, and 0.60 quarterback opponents are in it on average.

MVP
Pos.
Team
QB
Team
RB
Team
WR
Team
TE
Team
K
Opp
QB
Opp
RB
Opp
WR
Opp
TE
Opp
K
QB 0.00 0.55 1.02 0.50 0.17 0.60 0.57 0.74 0.36 0.17
RB 0.57 0.24 0.63 0.15 0.26 0.63 0.78 0.89 0.20 0.22
WR 0.80 0.27 0.17 0.07 0.33 0.60 0.50 0.97 0.33 0.33


I'm going to break down the analysis by position of the MVP.

When a Quarterback Is the MVP
Okay, so, the strongest pair on the whole table is a quarterback MVP with his receivers. A quarterback can have multiple pass-catchers in the perfect lineup with him, and when a quarterback scores enough to be the MVP, it's likely going to happen when his receivers fare well.

On average, when we have a quarterback as the MVP, we get more than 1.0 receivers of his making the optimal lineup (and 0.50 tight ends).

So it's actually more common for an MVP quarterback to share the perfect lineup with an opposing receiver (61.9%) than it is his own tight end (47.6%). We know, naturally, that some tight ends are bigger producers than others, but it's better to build a running back stack with an opposing receiver than it is to spend down for a tight end even when banking on a big game from a quarterback.

An MVP quarterback's team averaged 29.2 points and won 76.2% of the time.

When a Running Back Is the MVP
When we have a running back at the MVP spot, the most frequent pair is unsurprisingly an opposing receiver (in theory, playing catch-up) but then surprisingly the opposing running back (in theory, due to a closer game without a ton of passing production or dispersed passing production).

In the sample, 54.3% of the time when a running back is the MVP, his quarterback is also in the perfect lineup.

An MVP running back's team won 71.7% of the time and was favored, on average, by 0.7 points. The MVP's team averaged 26.5 points, 2.7 points fewer than what we saw at quarterback.

When a Wide Receiver Is the MVP
Receiver MVPs often come with opposing receivers in the perfect lineup quite often: there are an average of 0.97 opposing receivers in the perfect lineup when a receiver is the MVP choice, and 73.3% of receiver-led perfect lineups had at least one opposing receiver in it as well.

Naturally, we see quarterbacks in the perfect lineup frequently when a receiver is the MVP -- but not always: 80.0% of receiver-MVP lineups had that player's quarterback in it as well.

While it's pretty common to see a receiver make the perfect lineup when his running back is the MVP, it's far less common to get a running back picked as a flex when it's the receiver who had an MVP-worthy game. In the sample, we had 30 instances with a receiver as the MVP (24.2%), but in only 8 of those lineups (26.7%) was there also a running back from the same team in that lineup.

Conversely, 56.5% of perfect lineups with a running back at MVP had a receiver from the same team also make it. Basically, consider fading the running back of your wide receiver MVP choice when you do make that kind of lineup.

Shouldn't We Look a Little Closer at the Running Backs?

Yeah, probably, because we did find out that running backs -- not quarterbacks -- were the most common MVPs in optimal lineups.

What's the right recipe for a running back-led squad to pop, and how does that compare to other positions? Keep in mind that tight ends are very rarely MVP picks in perfect lineups (4.8%).

Averages by
MVP Pos.
MVP
Rate
MVP
Team
Players
Opp.
Team
Players
Team
Pts
Opp.
Team
Pts
Total
Pts
Spread
(for
MVP)
Over/
Under
QB 33.9% 3.24 1.76 29.2 18.6 47.8 -2.73 46.4
RB 37.1% 2.85 2.15 26.5 17.8 44.3 -0.74 45.3
WR 24.2% 2.63 2.37 25.5 19.7 45.2 -0.30 47.4
TE 4.8% 3.50 1.50 20.7 14.2 34.8 0.67 46.6


Lineups led by a running back as the MVP are a little more common in a lower-scoring, tighter spread game than when we compare that to quarterback-led perfect lineups.

It also looks like a game that hits the over is more likely to feature a quarterback at MVP (the average score for a quarterback-led lineup is 1.4 points over the average over/under in that game) than a running back (1.0 points on the under, on average).

Nailing the over/under isn't exactly easy, but it could help dictate your MVP position choice.

There's a small boost to home running backs at MVP (54.3% of running back MVPs played at home), but exactly half of running back MVPs were actually favored.

Possible reasons for that? The average MVP running back salary was $12,456, higher than what the average salary is for all players in a lineup ($12,000 if you split the $60,000 evenly among all five players). Only 5 running back MVPs (10.9%) were cheaper than $10,000, and 29 cost at least $12,500 (63.0%). Stud running backs should be considered for your MVP pick regardless of game script.

Do You Have to Stack and If So, How Much?

Stacking, or pairing teammates together, is a common daily fantasy philosophy. The easiest stack to make is a quarterback with one of his receivers. If a quarterback throws a touchdown pass to a receiver and you drafted both, then you have 10 FanDuel points from the touchdown alone (and then 0.5 for the catch and whatever boost for the yardage).

For a quarterback to put up a huge game, at least one of his pass-catchers has to have a touchdown (or two), unless the quarterback ran for all the scores. That's why stacking in a single-game situation makes sense in theory.

Here's the frequency of stacks (quarterback plus pass-catcher (receiver or tight end) only) in the 124 optimal lineups, split by winning and losing teams. This shows the percentage of perfect lineups with a quarterback and pass-catcher stack of any amount of pass-catchers followed by specific number of pass-catchers.

Stacking
Frequency
QB +
Any WR/TE
QB +
1 WR/TE
QB +
2 WR/TE
QB +
3 WR/TE
Winning Team 66.9% 41.9% 22.6% 2.4%
Losing Team 35.5% 21.0% 13.7% 0.8%


So it's evident that stacking is common in optimal lineups. Of the 124 lineups, 106 featured a quarterback-plus-pass-catcher stack (85.5%) of any amount on either the winning or losing team.

To get more granular, 62.9% of the perfect lineups featured a stack with exactly one quarterback and one receiver/tight end, and another 36.3% had a quarterback along with two of his pass-catchers. The onslaught stack was far rarer, as only 3.2% of the lineups included a quarterback with three of his pass-catchers.

Back to the multiple stacks. Should we be pairing both quarterbacks with a pass-catcher to vie for the two-stack lineup? Eh. Only 21 of the 124 lineups (16.9%) had a quarterback-receiver/tight end stack from both teams. It's more likely that a quarterback and two of his pass-catchers will make the optimal than it is that both quarterbacks and a pass-catcher from each make the optimal.

Stacking both quarterbacks together makes a lot of sense, but the primary issue with that is pricing, as quarterbacks are almost always the most expensive picks in a game. A two-quarterback optimal happened 37 times (29.8%).

Stack often, but don't overstack.

What's the Deal With Kickers?

Well, not a single kicker was the MVP of a perfect single-game lineup in the sample, so there's that. But they're often inexpensive fillers who do have a path to a floor.

In fact, there were actually nearly as many kickers in the sample as there were tight ends if we look at all 620 individual players across the lineups.

Position Perfect Lineup
Frequency
Average Salary
Quarterback 24.5% $14,780
Running Back 24.4% $11,099
Wide Receiver 32.6% $10,554
Tight End 10.5% $8,600
Kicker 8.1% $9,120


Only 8.1% of the 620 players in the optimal lineups were kickers, and again, none were MVPs. It makes sense, as there isn't significant upside in a kicker, who can score only through attrition. Tight ends may actually be better punt plays.

That being said, 46 of the 124 lineups (37.1%) featured at least one kicker, compared to 47.6% that had a tight end. Only four perfect lineups (3.2%) featured double kickers.

When there was a kicker in the lineup, the average over/under was 47.3 points but the average point total was just 43.1. By contrast, lineups without any kickers had an average point total of 46.5 despite an average over/under of 45.6. Games that we think will hit the under should be when we target kickers as cheaper differentiation plays.

Overall and MVP Draft Percentages

I don't know if anything presented thus far has been groundbreaking, and I'll never try to claim that I'm the smartest guy in the room with the coolest article in the business, but I do think that -- if nothing else -- we're about to get to a big, important takeaway.

So far, we've figured out that running backs and quarterbacks are the most common MVP picks and that you don't roster three tight ends and a kicker to get a huge leg up or anything wacky like that. But we can easily get a boost by being willing to think differently just in how we construct our lineups.

Here is the draft percentage rates for the MVPs in the perfect lineups -- broken down in buckets of popularity.

Perfect Lineup MVP
Draft Percentage
Frequency
40.1% or Higher 17.7%
30.1% to 40.0% 6.5%
20.1% to 30.0% 10.5%
10.1% to 20.0% 19.4%
10.0% or Lower 46.0%


This is the good stuff.

A near majority (46.0%) of MVPs from the perfect lineups were drafted as the MVP in fewer than 10.0% of all lineups. Basically, unpopular MVP selections are frequently the optimal lineup's MVP.

That being said, 17.7% of the optimal MVP choices were popular (rostered on at least 40.1% of all lineups).

Let's look at this another way: MVPs from perfect lineups were rostered as MVPs 18.8% of the time, on average, but they were rostered as flex plays 32.0% of the time.

That means that MVPs from the perfects were drafted, on average, on 50.2% of rosters for that game. So, optimal MVPs aren't always chalky, but even the unpopular MVPs are actually popular overall. Effectively, we should look for situations where a running back is expected to be drafted on 40.0% of lineups but isn't really getting MVP consideration. That's super common based on the data.

Summary and Important Notes

There's a lot to try to remember, so I wanted to throw some of the biggest takeaways into a tidy list and also throw in some random things I came across that didn't make the cut above.

- 76.6% of the perfect lineups used at least $56,500 of the salary cap.
- 18.5% used $55,000 or less of the salary cap.
- 63.7% of the perfect lineups featured a 3-2 lineup split, compared to 36.3% for a 4-1 lineup.
- The most common lineup combination (disregarding MVP choice) was QB-RB-RB-WR-TE, but that occurred in only 10.6% of the lineups.
- 49.9% of all lineups rostered a quarterback at the MVP spot, but quarterbacks were MVPs in only 33.9% of actual perfect lineups.
- Conversely, 37.1% of the perfect lineups had a running back at MVP, most of any position, but they were drafted as MVPs only 30.6% of the time across all lineups.
- Receivers are more common in the perfect lineup's MVP slot (24.2%) than they are drafted as MVPs (16.3%).
- We really shouldn't consider tight ends for MVP -- and especially not kickers.
- 85.5% of the perfect lineups had a quarterback-receiver/tight end stack of any type, but it's rare for there to be three pass-catchers from the same team in the perfect lineup.
- Only 29.8% of the perfect lineups had two quarterbacks (i.e. one from each team).
- Exactly 50.0% of MVPs came from the home team.
- 75.3% of MVPs came from the winning team.
- 57.2% of MVPs came from the favored team entering the game.
- 37.1% of the perfect lineups featured at least one kicker.