The Role of Slot Receivers in Daily Fantasy Football

Are slot receivers really best for optimal lineup construction in cash games?

If you have dipped your toe -- or dove head first -- into the water that is daily fantasy sports (DFS), then you know that the daily variant of fantasy football is a completely different beast from season-long leagues.

Lineup construction is a constantly evolving practice. Your typical team is actually anything but typical as your lineups change week to week, requiring an ability to mine for value among inexpensive, unassuming players so that you can afford to pay for near-lock high performers.

Many DFS veterans advocate a “high floor” strategy when approaching cash games (50/50’s or head-to-head leagues), where, particularly on PPR (point per reception) DFS sites such as DraftKings, a premium is to be paid for pass-catching running backs. The logic (and much supporting data) behind this is that running backs tend to bring more stability and predictability to their point scoring than the other pass-catching positions.

This is a sound strategy for attacking DFS cash games, so I won’t argue against it. But putting a premium on expensive, pass-catching running backs (lookin’ at you, Le’Veon Bell) by necessity requires finding good value among your less-expensive receiving corps.

Knowing this, I wanted to find out whether those receivers who typically occupy the slot receiver position on their teams averaged a better bang for your buck (using DraftKings as the pricing barometer) than the usually more expensive, high-performing wideouts. To do this, I utilized the services of one of Pro Football Focus’s signature stats, slot performance among wide receivers. I also utilized for data on historical week-to-week daily fantasy pricing and performance from 2014.

Any receiver with over 75 total targets with at least 50% of their total routes run in the slot position qualified for this analysis. While the target cutoff might seem arbitrary, much of the art of DFS is aimed at identifying opportunity, a euphemism for targets in DFS circles.

Next, I took the top 20 wideouts in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP) generated from receptions. NEP is numberFire’s proprietary metric for analyzing on-field performance of players based on their performance above or under expectation. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary.

Three receivers, Randall Cobb, Anquan Boldin, and Golden Tate, fit into both of my analyzed categories as slot receivers that finished in the top 20 among all wide receivers in terms of Reception NEP. Since their primary roles in their respective offenses were that of slot receivers, they remained in the slot receiver group for the purposes of this analysis.

Finally, games in which any of the slot or non-slot wide receivers did not play were not factored into their averages for any of the numbers I've analyzed.

So what are the numbers telling us on the value of slot receivers versus the league’s elite wideouts in DFS? Let’s take a look.

Slot Receiver Value

Slot ReceiverAverage PointsAverage SalaryPoints Per $1,000Standard Deviation
Eddie Royal11.58$3,9312.948.90
Jordan Matthews13.20$4,5312.9110.16
Golden Tate17.13$6,0942.818.81
Robert Woods10.56$3,7692.807.81
Jarvis Landry11.59$4,1382.806.01
Randall Cobb19.40$7,1312.727.71
Anquan Boldin13.91$5,1382.717.47
Allen Hurns10.04$3,7882.659.45
Doug Baldwin10.83$4,1132.637.20
James Jones11.10$4,2942.596.67
Greg Jennings10.58$4,1692.544.92
Marques Colston11.51$4,8062.405.27
Mohamed Sanu11.58$5,0252.308.92
Kendall Wright10.74$5,0252.148.57
Larry Fitzgerald11.31$5,3212.138.44
Reggie Wayne9.74$4,9561.977.26

Elite Wideout Value

Elite ReceiverAverage PointsAverage SalaryPoints Per $1,000Standard Deviation
Odell Beckham26.42$6,2004.2612.83
Emmanuel Sanders21.81$6,8503.1811.08
Antonio Brown25.81$8,2383.137.92
Mike Evans16.94$5,6133.0210.50
DeAndre Hopkins15.25$5,3812.8310.78
Demaryius Thomas23.18$8,2132.8211.38
Jordy Nelson21.81$7,7882.8011.08
Julio Jones21.29$7,6072.8011.61
Eric Decker13.75$5,0132.749.55
T.Y. Hilton18.50$6,7732.7311.59
Jeremy Maclin18.05$6,6692.7111.73
Dez Bryant20.50$7,6252.699.64
DeSean Jackson15.17$5,7332.659.30
Kelvin Benjamin14.74$5,6062.638.36
Alshon Jeffery16.91$6,7632.508.14
Sammy Watkins13.19$5,2942.4910.32
Calvin Johnson18.59$8,4312.2112.71

Predictability vs. Long-Term Production

On average, the top performing wideouts in terms of NEP are more likely to return greater value than slot receivers on a points-per-$1,000 basis over the course of the season. Even factoring in that four of the top 17 non-slot wide receivers in the league were rookies, and thus subject to a wider fluctuation in pricing because DFS sites couldn’t predict their glory with no initial track record to base it on, the general trend still held true.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story in terms of lineup construction for DFS cash games. The standard deviation column in each of the tables above is essentially a measure of what level of volatility each player brings to the table in their week to week scoring as measured against their season-long average performance. The higher the standard deviation, the higher degree of fluctuations in scores away from the player’s-season long average the player exhibited on a week-to-week basis.

As you can see, the elite wideout group brings massive upside to the table while sacrificing consistency, whereas the slot receiver group is prone to more stable performances. Nine of the slot receivers in the table listed above had lower standard deviations than that of the most predictable elite wideout, Antonio Brown. The average standard deviation for the slot receivers above was 7.27, whereas for the elite non-slot wideouts it stood at 10.50. In other words, the top 17 slot receivers from 2014 were more predictable in terms of expected production than were the top 17 non-slot wideouts from week-to-week.

Remember that creating a high floor of dependability is your number-one goal in cash games. Let’s look at the respective daily fantasy performances of the top 10 running backs (in terms of Rushing NEP) from 2014 with at least 150 carries to understand why paying up for running backs is a safer strategy in DFS cash games.

Running BackAverage PointsAverage SalaryPoints Per $1,000Standard Deviation
C.J. Anderson23.3$5,889 3.968.59
Jeremy Hill18.3$5,189 3.529.36
Le'Veon Bell24.1$7,788 3.0911.14
DeMarco Murray24.5$8,419 2.916.85
Justin Forsett16.4$5,700 2.877.59
Lamar Miller14.5$5,131 2.836.82
Marshawn Lynch20.0$7,206 2.779.94
Mark Ingram15.8$5,677 2.777.19
Arian Foster22.8$8,269 2.769.23
Jamaal Charles17.2$7,647 2.259.69

As you can see, it’s clear that the most likely scenario for achieving predictable value in cash games is by paying up for running backs. With each running back in this group aside from Jamaal Charles exceeding 2.75 points per $1,000 in salary, high-end running backs achieved production on par with elite wideouts on average, with a much greater level of predictability. With an average standard deviation of 8.64, this group of running backs was 22% more consistent in terms of week-to-week production as measured against their season-long average than were the elite wideout group.

Lineup Sunday

So what does all of this tell us about optimal lineup construction for cash games? It doesn’t tell us that slot receivers are always the go-to wide receiver targets for DFS cash game lineups. Circumstances from week to week, including injuries and suspensions, often require tweaking your original strategy if dependable value with potential upside is readily available.

Case in point: go ask a Jeremy Hill owner from Week 9 whether they were sad they had the available cash to afford Antonio Brown’s $9,100 price tag because Hill’s price sat at $4,000 on DraftKings. All Hill did was score 32.3 DraftKings points in Gio Bernard’s absence due to injury. And all Brown did was rock the Baltimore Ravens for 34.4 points.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to look that dumb either.

But all else being equal, slot receivers tend to be your safest bet for securing predictable outcomes so that you can afford, consistent, high-floor, high-ceiling, pass-catching running backs for your cash game lineups.

The tough choices nature of DFS can often have your heart and brain at war with each other. But riding in a boring car becomes a lot more exciting when you know it’s headed toward the bank.