I've been playing daily fantasy since 2012 and there's one thing that's been abundantly clear with each season that passes: The game moves so fast from week to week and year to year that you must constantly evolve and look critically at your own play. Sure, there are some things that will be as true today as they were in seasons passed, but if you get too stuck in your ways, you're going to become a dinosaur and find it almost impossible to win.
There are some tactics that have stood the test of time. Finding players with the opportunity for an increased workload paired with a positive defense versus position matchup equals easy points, and stacking correlated players (a quarterback to at least one of his pass-catchers) will lead you to daily fantasy success.
Identifying the players you want to select is something you should take very seriously. Let's be honest: You're going to be investing your hard-earned cash into these guys on Sunday, so if you don't take it as seriously as your opponent, you're already coming in at a disadvantage. With that in mind, I will provide a framework for what to look for at each position and how to allocate your DFS salary every week.
'How should I go about building a cash game lineup?'
While there's no surefire key to winning, there is certainly a path that has worked for me over the years.
First, I'm going to look to save money at quarterback. The difference between the QB1 on a week and the QB10 that same week is a much smaller difference than the scoring gap between the top scoring guy at the other skill positions. Basically, your quarterback isn't going to win you a week, so look to a cheaper option that has a positive matchup. The strategy here in daily fantasy is akin to the strategy of streaming quarterbacks from the waiver wire in season-long leagues. If a quarterback is a potential streamer in your friends and family league, he is probably someone I'm going to be considering using in my DraftKings head-to-head lineup that week.
Running back is definitely a spot where I want to spend, but it's not blind spending; there's a method to the madness. I'm looking for volume, and there are three boxes I want to check off on my list before picking a cash game running back.
First, I want someone I can project to eclipse 20 touches, with the possibility for more. This is pretty straightforward, but an important consideration if you are spending big and might be enticed by big-play backs who simply don't get the right amount of volume.
Second, DraftKings is full PPR scoring, so I also want to pick out running backs who have some involvement in their team's passing game. Backs that play first and second down but don't rack up any catches have a much tougher path to reaching value. That doesn't make it an impossibility, and I don't think anyone played LeGarrette Blount more than I did last season -- which seems to fly in the face of this advice, but he was a massive outlier and was priced incorrectly most weeks. If you were to analyze my lineups from week to week in 2016, you would have found a ton of players such as Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, Melvin Gordon, Devonta Freeman, LeSean McCoy and others of that ilk.
Lastly, I require the backs I play to get the lion's share of their team's carries inside the 10-yard line. Carries, yards and catches give you a nice floor, but the touchdowns are what push players to their ceiling. I guess this accentuates why I liked Blount in 2016, but I'm not planning to roster him a bunch in 2017. His role was stable on a top-scoring team, and he was constantly underpriced for a player who could score multiple touchdowns in any week. All of the other names I mentioned above also held a solid market share of red zone targets and carries.
At wide receiver, I'm looking to hoard targets (passes thrown intended for a given receiver). I want to stack up as many projectable targets as I can from my three starters. Volume is key at wideout, just like running back, but you'll find that many of your opponents will pick players who might only see four or five passes come their way in a game. This is a key mistake.
Sure, a player might catch two passes for more than 100 yards and a touchdown. Donte Moncrief had a game a couple of years ago in which he caught three balls on four targets for 134 yards and two touchdowns. It was an absolutely huge game that certainly won some people a tournament that week. But if that's something you're counting on happening all the time, you're going to lose more often than you're going to win on DraftKings. Basically, it's bad process. I'll take three wideouts that get 30 total targets over three that get 15 for my opponent every time. I won't win every single one of those matchups, but I'll be a winning player against that guy by the end of the season.
I also want to take advantage of matchups, so reading Mike Clay's WR/CB matchup article is a must for me every week and a key part of my research. Volume alone isn't enough if it's going to come in a very difficult matchup.
Tight end is a position that you can spend up for a great player such as Rob Gronkowski, but I prefer to save a little money here. Gronk isn't on the main Sunday slate in Week 1, so Greg Olsen sits on top of the salary list at $6,200. I'll look down the list and not see all that much difference in his projection and that of Delanie Walker or Zach Ertz, who are $2,000 to $3,000 cheaper. Save that money and spend it at running back and wide receiver.
I'm still looking to find someone on a team that projects to score a lot of points and has a solid market share of his team's red zone looks. I'm just trying to do it on the cheap, and the pricing at DraftKings typically allows for that.
An easy way to quickly identify value is to use the consensus ranking from the experts here at ESPN and then compare them to the price list at DraftKings. If you find someone who's listed as a top-10 or top-15 player at his position that week but priced way lower than that on the salary list, he is undervalued/mispriced and someone you should definitely target.
'How different is a tournament lineup from a cash game lineup?'
The strategy in tournaments is different than in cash games because instead of having to beat one person in a head-to-head or just finish in the top 50 percent of a double up to win money, I have to shoot for the absolute top, where the bulk of the prize money sits.
This means that you're likely going to have to outscore hundreds or thousands -- and in the case of the Millionaire Maker, hundreds of thousands -- of other lineups to take down the top prize. It's going to be impossible to do that without maximizing scoring output from all of your players.
First, you're going to want to have a lineup built with players who work together. Pick a quarterback and a wide receiver from the same team to correlate their scoring. If the wideout has a huge day, it's likely his quarterback did, as well. Another correlation strategy is to pick a pass-catcher from the opposite team to maximize the possibility of a back-and-forth, where a very low percentage of your opponents in the tournament will have the combination of all three players in one lineup.
Being contrarian also is key. If you feel that a player is going to be super popular that week, you can choose to avoid (commonly referred to as a "fade") that player in tournaments because of the volatile nature of the NFL. If a player selected by 40 percent of the lineups in play rolls his ankle, gets a concussion or simply doesn't produce points that week, you've just eliminated 40 percent of the field from the competition by simply avoiding him due to the projected high ownership. Be careful though, because that sword cuts both ways: If the player owned by 40 percent of the field scores 30 DraftKings points, you'll have to hope to play catch-up at another spot in your lineup.
'I don't want to play in tournaments against people with 150 lineups. How can I avoid that?'
The lobby at DraftKings is filled with all different sorts of contests. Some are single-entry (where every entrant only gets to submit one lineup), three-max or 20-max, and of course there are the ones that allow people to enter 150 lineups. Game selection is a key part of being a successful DFS player, and it really comes down to getting in where you fit in.
If you're not good at making and managing 150 lineups, stick to single-entry or three-max contests. Those games have a great opportunity for a return on your investment, but due to the smaller entry limits, they won't have that huge $1 million first prize sitting up top. I have an old friend who always used to say, "If you want a big boy car, you're going to have big boy payments," and it still rings true for me in this scenario. There are plenty of ways to play and have fun in daily fantasy NFL tournaments at the lower prize pool and restricted buy-in tournaments; but if you want to play for a chance at the biggest weekly prize in fantasy football, you're going to have to deal with the rules of that competition.
DraftKings also has done a great job over the past year or two of helping the newer players remain segregated from the entire player population, if they so choose. I'd suggest that if you're new, don't let your ego get the best of you. Stick to the beginner and casual games as long as the site will allow you (there are specific numbers for total money won and contests won that will keep the more experienced players out of those games), until you really understand the ins and outs of how the game is played and feel confident enough to get out there and compete against those who have been doing it for years.
I'm excited to get started on another season of daily fantasy football, as much for the games and the action as anything, but I'm also excited to learn more about myself as a player and how I can continue to be successful. Here's to another great season!