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: QB playing for his playoff life: Aaron Rodgers ($8,800 FanDuel)
Week 17 is always one of more mysteries than certainties with more than half the teams playing for nothing. Whether resting stars in preparation for a playoff run or seeing what the backups can do, there are a multitude of ways that teams handle this last week of the regular season. Therefore, it makes sense to target the teams and players you know will be most hungry for your cash game lineups, the goal being to avoid as many land mines as possible. We'll consider an alternate approach below, but for now, consider that Rodgers is the most expensive QB on DraftKings for good reason. He is being considered an MVP candidate, leads all QBs in fantasy points and passing touchdowns (36) and rates near the top with four rushing touchdowns, despite a pretty serious calf injury that he's dealt with the past few weeks. Green Bay needs to win to get in, so look for Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Ty Montgomery to all be popular plays this week. Detroit is a fantastic passing matchup—not so great for opposing rushers—so you'll want to stack one or both of Nelson or Adams with Rodgers. The discount on Adams is significant, but fairly meaningless if he continues to drop perfect passes from Rodgers. I'm going with Nelson in the spirit of a sure thing.
We're in a salary hole pretty quickly with this start, but fortunately there is ample running back value. I love Jacquizz Rodgers with Doug Martin and Cameron Brate ruled out for a game the Bucs must win to keep their ridiculously long shot playoff hopes alive. He's exceeded value in every game where he's had at least 10 touches and that should be the floor of his involvement on Sunday. I also can't get away from Mark Ingram's $6,100 price tag this week. He faces Atlanta, a top-10 rushing matchup for fantasy, and has put together consecutive high volume, high production performances for the Saints. While New Orleans doesn't have anything to play for here, they like to boost their stats and will almost certainly be out to stop their division rival from locking up that two-seed. Skipping to tight end, I'm torn. Travis Kelce's price has increased in accordance with his recent production, but this is a tougher assignment in San Diego. I love the Antonio Gates home-game-touchdown-record narrative, but again, the Chiefs are fantastic against tight ends and will be surely all over Gates in this game. Jimmy Graham may get more looks with Tyler Lockett off the field, but his involvement lately has been too sketchy for my taste. I could argue for going cheap with C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston's most reliable/efficient receiver, or Jesse James if Ladarius Green is out, but those aren't exactly safe plays because of the low point total or back up QB concerns. That leaves Kelce or Greg Olsen as the safest plays for this lineup. If we pay up at TE, we can save a bit at D/ST and K. The Oakland Raiders not only don't turn the ball over (second-fewest giveaways), they rank second in takeaways this year. They play a Denver team likely to start Paxton Lynch, who for the season has given up the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing defenses. I expect the Raiders defense to step up to help the team make up for the loss of Derek Carr. I don't usually waste time talking about kickers, but Will Lutz is $500 cheaper than Matt Bryant, playing in the week's highest point total game (56) in good weather. He has three consecutive double-digit fantasy games heading into this big one.
Now we have nearly $8K per receiver for the last two slots. I don't often stack a RB and WR from the same team without that QB, but Mike Evans is going to be heavily targeted and he's shown more than once that he can beat double or even triple coverage. Another team with a lot on the line this week is Seattle, and though I mentioned Graham above, the true beneficiary of Lockett's injury should be Doug Baldwin. With the run game a question mark right now, I like Russell Wilson to get Baldwin to value and beyond in a fantasy-friendly matchup with the 49ers.
- B.Or your starting point is: Sneaky top RB: Devonta Freeman ($7,000 DraftKings)
I honestly think Freeman could be the week's top running back for fantasy. Atlanta is playing for a bye against the Saints, who allow the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs. The Freeman-Tevin Coleman home road splits favor Freeman at home (Freeman averages six more fantasy points at home (20.7); Coleman averages nine more on the road). The Falcons have the highest team total and it's not that I don't want Matt Ryan, in fact I don't mind stacking Ryan with Freeman here at all for tournament upside. Sticking with an upside theme, I think this lineup suits the narratives for Antonio Gates and Steve Smith Sr., both playing in what could be their last games (Smith for sure). Both are very affordable, allowing you to work in a quality defense (NE, HOU, DEN, OAK, BUF, SEA…depending on news of rest on that side of the ball) and still have close to $6K for the remaining four spots.
If DeAngelo Williams starts for the resting Le'Veon Bell, he's going into this lineup. Facing the Browns in Pittsburgh is a sweet matchup and although he hasn't played in a long time, if the knee is good, Williams will know what to do and get it done. Using one of the Saints receivers—Michael Thomas over Brandin Cooks for me—makes sense here given the high total and decent correlation between QB and opposing WR for fantasy. Indianapolis is firmly in the category of a team I have no idea what they'll be doing. Playing the Jaguars for absolutely nothing, I'm taking a chance that Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton try to end the season on a high note. Hilton is a high volume receiver that leads the league in receiving yards. His normal volume with two touchdowns easily makes him a top fantasy option with the upside this lineup needs. Round it out with a bargain flex play like Chris Hogan, Victor Cruz (if Eli Manning plays and Odell Beckham Jr. does not), Vernon Davis, or Paul Perkins—all of whom are on high potency offenses and who might get extra looks due to rest scenarios.
- C.Or your starting point is: Contrarian Bears Stack: Matt Barkley ($5,100 DraftKings)
Matt Barkley is going to be playing for a job next year this week, as he has been for all of his five recent starts. Much has been made of his eight interceptions the past two games, but despite them, he has been better than a lot of more expensive QBs. For instance last week he threw five interceptions, but still outscored Matt Stafford, Cam Newton, and tied Drew Brees in fantasy points. He's exceeded 300 passing yards in three of his five games (DK bonus!), and his one terrible fantasy game was because Jordan Howard ran all over the 49ers. The Minnesota Vikings have given up 15 passing touchdowns over their last eight games—a very different story than the first seven games of the season in which they gave up just six total passing touchdowns. Neither team is especially motivated, which to me is advantage hungry Barkley and the Bears. Cameron Meredith has 33 targets and over 300 yards receiving over the past three games plus two touchdowns. He and Alshon Jeffrey are affordable enough to capture all the passing upside of the Bears team in tournaments.
Use some of the money we've saved to lock in David Johnson, who keeps producing and playing almost every snap despite the Cardinals having nothing to play for. The Rams are a fine matchup for him to exploit. We've talked a lot about value but I do want to mention Dion Lewis. This seems like a perfect opportunity to get him a big game before the playoffs. He's been getting double digit carries (18 and 16 the past two games) but very little in the passing game. The upside is there, he just needs to get into the endzone. I think it happens this week.
Going back to some of the guys I like but passed over earlier, I'm locking in Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, and the Seattle defense. I might be alone on this play, but I find myself drawn to Amari Cooper as a final upside play here. I have no idea what Matt McGloin is going to look like out there, but I do know that his best chance to look good is to put the ball in Cooper's hands. Nothing against Michael Crabtree, whom I respect a great deal, but I think if Denver's defense lets up at all, Cooper will be the one to take advantage. Risk/reward is what this lineup is all about.
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 17. 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.
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