When dealing with the finite limits of a DFS roster budget, it pays to be aware of how one decision affects the course of the lineup construction process. In this article, we'll be looking at a couple of examples from FanDuel and DraftKings of how a lineup takes shape when you start with certain players. The goal here is to emphasize the process rather than provide my favorite lineup; what principles guide your lineup decisions? Some of the statistical factors that we'll consider in this article include implied team totals, offensive/defensive positional matchups, targets and touches, but I'll also be very aware of game theory considerations like predicted ownership percentages.

To set the stage, my personal process goes something like this. I start with Vegas lines to get a feel for the week's lines and spreads, though implied team totals are the most important factor to me. I next move to positional opportunities—noting which defenses are most generous to each position (these are taken with a large grain of salt at the beginning of the season) and what players are facing them. By the time I ever lay eyes on a DFS website, I usually have several high priority candidates for my lineups at each position. It's then time to negotiate the salaries and take a look around the industry to see what everyone else is thinking to get an idea of player popularity and therefore, ownership probability.

  • A.Your first starting point is: #1 Quarterback--Drew Brees ($7,600 DraftKings)

Scrolling past Brees to build cash game lineups is no easy task. Maybe you consider Matt Ryan vs. the Chiefs, with an $800 discount and QB2-3 numbers this season, but at the end of the day, I think you come back to Brees. He's the top QB in touchdowns (30), passing yards, fantasy points and has a miraculous two rushing touchdowns this season. He's at home, so there's that, and he's facing Detroit, so this is a no brainer. Pairing Brees with a couple of solid second tier running backs makes sense for cash games this weekend. LeSean McCoy, who was outstanding with his recently operated thumb last week, continuing what has been a great season for him, should take advantage of the Raiders 10th best (for fantasy) rushing defense. I like Matt Barkley (see next) this weekend, but Jordan Howard gets the premier rushing matchup with the 49ers, who give up a whopping 171.8 rushing yards per game, over 30 yards more on the ground per game than Cleveland, the next worst. Howard has held onto the lead rusher role despite Jeremy Langford's return to the field and should reach value even at his $6,900 salary.

Starting with Brees, McCoy, and Howard will force us to find some values at wide receiver but for cash games, we still want some safety. That comes in the form of target volume and quality. The trio of Tyler Boyd, Tyreek Hill, and Taylor Gabriel (only $4K!) have more in common than first names starting with T. These young players have stepped up and into roles where they can be difference makers for their teams. Boyd was a bit of a let down last week, but the Ravens defense had a lot to do with that—he had nine targets and is in line for equal or more work in a better matchup this week with the Eagles (did you watch Davante Adams Monday night?). Hill is unlikely to repeat what he did in Week 12, but is still being heavily targeted by Alex Smith and also features in a high scoring game with a sub-par defense. Gabriel doesn't have injury to thank for his ascension in Atlanta, but rather his raw talent. He's been making plays for Matt Ryan for four straight weeks now—at least 15 fantasy points per game in that span in which he has five total touchdowns. I don't understand the pricing against Kansas City's good but also good for fantasy (second-most fantasy points allowed) secondary.

I want a solid defense so it's the Broncos in cash games. They get the Jaguars, who have turned the ball over 22 times this season (second-most, tied with the Jets) in what Vegas has as one of the lowest scoring games of the week. I want to be a bit savvy with my tight end slot, because saving here will give us better options at flex. Vance McDonald has led his team two weeks in a row, and against a Chicago Bears defense that has been very good at stopping the run, I like his opportunity this weekend. Averaging 6-8 targets and around 15 yards per catch over the past month, McDonald needs to score to really blow up his value, but won't hurt your lineup if he's kept out of the end zone. The $2,900 price point leaves us more than enough salary to pair Brees with Michael Thomas, who I won't be stupid enough to fade two weeks in a row, though I do think there's a chance Brandin Cooks shows up this week at home.

  • B.Or your starting point is: Value Quarterback—Matt Barkley ($6,000 FanDuel)

Barkley threw the ball 54 times last week for over 300 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. He steps right into a dream second start against the 49ers, who have given opposing QBs the fourth-most fantasy points per game this season. Barkley should be almost as popular as Brees, because from a fantasy point per dollar they're both a lock for about 3.5X this Sunday. Barkley allows you to do a lot with your lineup, starting with a quality running back. I considered starting with David Johnson here, who leads all running backs in fantasy points, thanks to his 13 total touchdowns and league-leading 613 receiving yards. Johnson won't work in every lineup this week (see above) but is the perfect accent to Barkley here. If you're worried about the finger, remember that LeSean McCoy made a strong case last week that playing with a dislocated finger was a good thing.

As a second running back, I like Matt Forte to bounce back on Monday night vs. the Colts, or Spencer Ware to get back in the end zone vs. the Atlanta Falcons, one of our best rushing matchups. Sticking with that high scoring game, either Julio Jones or Taylor Gabriel, who is among the best value plays at WR this week, will make it into my lineup against the Chiefs number two receiver matchup. I'm intrigued by the high total on the Bills-Raiders game and in particular what Sammy Watkins brings to the table. For $6,300, I think he'll be more involved than he was last week, and his 3/80 line in very limited action was still better than a lot of higher priced players (I know, because I used Brandin Cooks and Amari Cooper last week).

Let's divert our attention to DEF/K before we go on. I am comfortable using several defenses this weekend, including the top units of course, but also some of the more affordable teams like New England or Baltimore. I am currently all in on Sebastian Janikowski, partly due to the home game, partly due to questions about Derek Carr's pinky finger and his ability to be as accurate as he'll need to be against the Bills, and somewhat due to the price. It works. At tight end, I'm not touching Rob Gronkowski or Jordan Reed, who sounds unlikely to play at this point, but I'm all about the next guy, Jimmy Graham. Graham is the second-best TE in terms of yards, is third in fantasy points this season and now gets a top-flight matchup with a Carolina defense that has been pretty ineffective vs. the pass thus far. If you want another stud receiver in addition to Jones (Mike Evans?), cheaper tight end options I like include C.J. Fiedorowicz and McDonald. If not, Jordy Nelson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Demaryius Thomas are all high upside plays to close out this lineup. While it carries a bit too much risk to use in cash games, I like it for tournaments and multipliers in Week 13.

  • C.Other Options

I hesitate to build a lineup around a contrarian play, but some guys (like Ted Ginn Jr. last week) that I feel better about than usual about this week include Kenny Stills, Dion Lewis, Golden Tate, Zach Ertz, and the Colts defense. They're merely 'mix in for low-level exposure' plays that could exceed value at low ownership this weekend.


Being aware of your starting point when building lineups at the outset can help you clarify the goals of the lineup and force you to recognize what trade-offs different starting points require. These are just a couple scenarios I've been playing with for Week 13. I recommend you look at Daily Fantasy Café's lineup optimizer to see what other options you can come up with based on these starting points or your own favorite lineup core. Enjoy the football, family, friends and food this Thanksgiving!

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