This article is part of our DFS Football 101 series.
Once a virtual unknown to the average NFL fan, Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) became one of the biggest stories of the 2015 season, with an uptick in popularity thanks to ubiquitous television advertisements that also led to increased scrutiny from local legislators.
Although no longer operable in some states, most DFS sites have maintained (or even increased) the sizes of their largest contests, showing the product remains in high demand. NFL, of course, is the most popular sport, with six and seven-figure prizes regularly up for grabs.
While the allure of those big prizes is undeniable, DFS has mostly thrived because of its entertainment value to those in low buy-in games, building off the ever-increasing popularity of the season-long fantasy game. DFS gives fans a rooting interest when their favorite team is suffering through a miserable season, and it also provides a chance to get some stock in the players you wish you'd drafted or claimed for your fantasy squads (regret not going $2 higher for David Johnson?).
Whether a DFS rookie or veteran, it's important to review strategy before the season starts. First, we'll go over the basics for those new to DFS football, then we will jump into some strategies that have proven valuable in recent years.
Most DFS sites have similar scoring structures for football contests, the main differences being half or full point for PPR, the presence/absence of kickers and bonuses (or not) for 100 rushing yards and/or 300 passing yards.
Sites assign salaries to players each week, using formulas that account for past performance, recent performance and opponent. Some sites adjust salaries more aggressively from week to week, while others gradually change prices over time. Fantasy owners then fill out a roster without exceeding the site's salary cap.
Types of Contests
50/50s - The top half of entrants win while the bottom half lose. The prize is typically 80 percent of the entry fee; a $5 buy-in would return a profit of $4.
Double Ups - The winning prize is double the entry fee. Unlike 50/50 games, fewer than 50 percent of entrants win.
Head to Head - Two lineups face off, with a winner and a loser. The prize is typically 80 percent of the entry fee.
GPPs - These large tournaments with "Guaranteed Prize Pools" are the main draw on most DFS sites. They typically pay out just 20-25 percent of the field, but there are huge prizes available for lineups in the top 1 percent. GPPs also provide the occasional opportunity to profit from overlay, which is what happens when a guaranteed contest doesn't fill up. Sites are still required to run the contests, even if they have to account for some of the money in the promised prize pool.
Determining Your Bankroll
First and foremost, never deposit more money than you're comfortable losing. DFS is supposed to be enjoyable, not overly stressful.
Even if you're just starting off with a tiny investment, be sure to take advantage of the bonuses sites offer after your initial deposit (some run deposit bonuses periodically during the season). These bonuses are usually earned over time, trickling into the account as a percentage of entry fees. It may not seem like much at first, but the extra money can add up over the course of a season.
Next, consider how much to risk. Typically, 20 to 50 percent of your budget makes sense, spreading the money across the weekend, Thursday to Monday.
But which contests are the best use of your budget?
This is an interesting argument in the DFS community, and the truth is it's probably different for each person. Some play only GPPs and risk little to potentially win big. The top prizes are huge in these contests, but you're more likely to lose money than win money in any given week. Cash games, on the other hand, offer a better chance to win, but the best you can do in one week is doubling your investment.
Roster Construction & Strategy
Cash games and tournaments require different strategies for building rosters. In cash games, it's best to build a balanced lineup that's unlikely to crash and burn, while in tournaments the goal is to shoot for the moon.
There are many tools to use to construct a cash-game roster, but these are key:
Las Vegas Lines - Consult point spreads and over/unders to see if a game is expected to be competitive and whether it's expected to be high scoring. Target players in high-scoring games, and look for running backs (and defenses) from heavily favored teams.
Individual Matchups - Some teams will struggle to defend a certain position throughout the season, and others will be temporarily vulnerable because of injuries. Even the toughest defenses typically have an exploitable weakness.
Spend Up at QB - High-priced quarterbacks are the most reliable producers, making them a good starting point for cash-game lineups. Cam Newton rarely disappointed last season, finishing as a top-three QB on eight occasions and as the No. 1 QB five times. Just as important, he established a steady floor, finishing in the bottom 9 only twice.
Save Money at TE/D/K - Saving money at positions that are less likely to have big scores allows you to target higher-priced quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. The lower-scoring positions also tend to be less reliable, with kickers and team defenses notoriously fickle.
Tournaments require a different strategy than cash games, as the goal is to create a high-upside lineup that could potentially finish in the top 1 percent of a large field.
Use Teammates - Given the positive correlation between a quarterback's production and that of his receivers, it's almost always a good idea to roster one (or occasionally even two) of your QB's favorite targets. Another popular strategy is to use a running back and defense from the same team, figuring that both are likely to put up strong scores in the event of a comfortable victory.
Stacking Games - How many times have you seen a quarterback or receiver have a huge first half, only to do little in the second half as his team relies on its defense and running game to protect the lead he provided? These types of performances might be just fine for cash games, but true fantasy gold is found in back-and-forth contests that go down to the final minutes. The idea behind "stacking" is quite simple; you're looking to strike big on a close, high-scoring game in which both passing attacks stay active for 60 minutes (and if we're lucky, into overtime). If you already have two or three players from the same team in your lineup, consider using a wideout or tight end from the opponent.
Account for Ownership - A huge performance is far more valuable when a player is only in a small percentage of lineups. If the most popular play of the week has the huge game that everyone expects, a large portion of the field will benefit from his points. It's often wise to pass on this player in favor of a lesser-owned option with similar upside. If the popular play turns in an unexpected dud while your overlooked player has a big game, you'll have a huge leg up on the large field of lineups against which you are competing.
Consider Many Players - A large portion of the player pool is worth considering in a GPP, given the unpredictability of the NFL week to week. For example, Josh McCown led all players in Week 5 last season with more than 35 fantasy points in what appeared to be a difficult road matchup in Baltimore. The few DFS players brave enough to take McCown thus received 35-plus points from a cheap, low-ownership player. Note that McCown's favorite target, tight end Gary Barnidge, caught eight passes for 139 yards and a touchdown in that game.
Player Matchups - Good matchups are less important than in cash games. In fact, it's sometimes quite profitable to take a good player in a difficult matchup. Last season's prime example was Antonio Brown, who memorably shredded the Broncos and elite cornerback Chris Harris to the tune of a 16-189-2 receiving line in Week 15. Also consider that a difficult team matchup can be offset by the corresponding need to pass more often. Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball against a tough Denver defense and thus attempted 55 passes while playing from behind. Ben Roethlisberger had 380 yards and three touchdowns despite managing just 6.9 yards per attempt.
Target Players Coming Off Bad Games - Many are hesitant to use players coming off poor performances, even if the price, talent and matchup suggest the player is a good option. With a full week to mull over our choices between NFL games, we often overestimate the predictive value of a player's most recent results. Don't let recency bias cloud your judgement; instead, take advantage of it by rostering good players at reduced ownership levels. Perceived slumps are often caused by nothing more than a run of tough matchups and/or poor luck.
Early Lock vs. Late Swap
Some DFS sites lock lineups when the first game of the contest starts. For example, in contests stretching Thursday to Sunday, lineups will lock at kickoff Thursday. That means if a player in your lineup is injured before Sunday's game, he can't be replaced. On the other hand, late swap, as the name suggests, allows users to replace a player until his game kicks off.
Let's look at a running back situation from last season to determine how best to use early lock and late swaps:
The Seattle Seahawks lost at home to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10 after trailing 22-7 at halftime. Because of game flow, Marshawn Lynch (eight carries, 42 yards) and Thomas Rawls (two carries, 19 yards) were not used much. The following week, Lynch was questionable to play against the 49ers. He did not practice all week, but coach Pete Carroll said Lynch was more on the positive side of being questionable, leading DFS owners to believe he would play. (Note: it won't take much participation in DFS to realize coaches rarely tell the truth about their players.)
With the Seahawks playing a late Sunday game, Lynch's status would be unknown before the early games kicked off. But it would be even riskier to use Rawls, considering a healthy Lynch received the majority of the work Weeks 8 and 9 (48 carries combined), with Rawls scoring 5.1 and 1.0 fantasy points, respectively, in most formats.
So what to do?
For cash games, it would have been unwise to use Lynch on a site with 1 p.m. EST roster lock. Taking a zero or a low score from a running back is almost certainly a recipe to lose, especially if the player comes at a high price. Rawls was cheaper, yet still not worth the risk, as he hadn't been getting many touches when Lynch played.
On the other hand, it was reasonable to use either Lynch or Rawls in a GPP with an early lock. Why? Because Lynch's non-participation in practice resulted in low ownership, even though everyone knew he was capable of having a huge game if he played. Likewise, Rawls would have been a great upside gamble, given that he already had two 100-yard games under his belt and would easily receive the lion's share of carries if Lynch was inactive. Even with the early lineup lock, both players were good options in GPPs.
Of course, a late-swap site makes these decisions easier. As soon as it was announced that Lynch was inactive, he was simply replaced. Rawls, meanwhile, became a top target for both cash games and GPPs, starting (likely with plenty of carries) against San Francisco's vulnerable defense while still carrying a backup's price.
The result was a huge payoff for Rawls' owners when he tore apart the 49ers to the tune of 254 scrimmage yards, three catches and two touchdowns. He totaled more than 37 fantasy points on most sites and was the the top player at any position that week.
Using early lock and late swap wisely can give DFS players a competitive advantage against the field.
This has become a popular warning preached to DFS players. It works two ways – jumping on a player after a great game and ignoring a player after a bad game. DFS players are often easily swayed by these performances (especially if a player's price is still low following a big game).
Once again, the contrarian option tends to be superior. A player's skill can improve or decline over time, but, generally speaking, he's the same player week to week. Mediocre players can pop for a big game and good players can turn in clunkers without any change in skill or role. Don't allow recent performances – good or bad – cloud your judgment, especially in a league as fickle as the NFL.
On the flip side, keep watch for players who might be on the verge of breaking out. Injury or lack of opportunity can stymie a skilled player. When his situation improves (through health or opportunity), he can be a profitable DFS play, especially if you recognize his breakout before the crowd.
The prime example of this last season was Jacksonville's second-year receiver Allen Robinson. In his rookie season, Robinson showed the physical traits, athleticism and skills to be a top wideout, but he was slowed by injuries and didn't do much. After catching one pass for 27 yards in Week 1 last season, he wasn't really on the DFS radar for Week 2, yet proceeded to catch six passes for 155 yards and two scores. Many flocked to him for Weeks 3 and Week 4 based on that performance, but he somewhat disappointed with 6.8 and 8.0 fantasy points in standard formats. However, he had 17 targets in those two weeks as the clear No. 1 receiver for a pass-happy Jaguars team. After that, he was one of the most consistent fantasy contributors the rest of the season, ultimately riding 1,400 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns to a No. 4 finish among wide receivers.
Evaluating a player's skill, opportunity, health and matchup will help to keep his recent performances in perspective.
Every season there are weeks in which rookies determine DFS winners and losers. They can pay dividends early in the season, especially, because of their discounted prices. Taking a risk on a rookie like Ezekiel Elliott or Corey Coleman in Week 1 could be the key to winning a big GPP, with upside, price and low ownership all potentially working in your favor.
DFS players should also track rookies throughout the year, as they can pay off in a big way during the second half of the season. As they learn their offense – plays, pass routes, blocking schemes, pass protection – their snaps, targets and/or carries often increase. Injuries to teammates can also help them get on the field.
Rookie running backs made serious noise in DFS late last season. Thomas Rawls, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Jeremy Langford and Javorius Allen each led the position in fantasy points once in the last 10 weeks. Rookie wide receivers didn't fare as well last season as in 2014, but at least a few are fantasy-relevant each year.
At quarterback, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson made immediate DFS impacts in recent years and were often the centerpieces of winning GPP lineups. In 12 games last season, rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota twice finished second among quarterbacks in addition to third- and sixth-place showings, providing incredible value those four games considering his price was always below average.
Bottom line, track rookies throughout the season and don't get caught sleeping when they first come upon opportunity.
Start Research Early - If your weekends are busy with commitments like work, family, church and chores, it's probably smart to start research early in the week and then adjust your picks as Sunday nears. There's an obvious advantage to taking time to gather info, as opposed to rushing to make a lineup a half an hour before kickoff on Sunday. Also, you can enter free contests early in the week to ensure a lineup will be entered and it won't be forgotten.
Adjust Lineups Before Kickoff - Be ready to adjust lineups before rosters lock. That means being at a computer or on an app before kickoffs so you can react to injuries and anything else. Inactive lists for Sunday's early games come out 90 minutes before kickoff, and every season players get hurt in warmups or are listed as active but then end up being scratched. Getting a zero from a player in that situation can be the difference between winning and losing, especially if it's a star player taking up a generous portion of your budget. This goes double for being available to make adjustments if the site allows late swaps, as discussed above. Especially with the Sunday and Monday night games, switching players could be the last shot at winning.
Many sites offer apps for the phone or tablet, making late moves easier for those with scheduling conflicts. If you are going to use an app, though, become familiar enough with it before Week 1 so that on gameday you have no problems completing tasks such as exporting lineups, quick player swaps and filtering the different kinds of contests.
Dig Into Data - Use the various data and tools available on RotoWire to construct a cash game or tournament lineup. After the first few weeks of the season, it's useful to look at defensive rankings according to fantasy points allowed to each position. Even a brief glance at RotoWire's depth charts can alert you to under-the-radar injury situations that may be exploitable. The latest notes for each player will also alert owners to any recent change in health or role.
Use Twitter - There is no faster way to get information these days. Beat reporters, football sites and fantasy experts on Twitter can be invaluable resources for DFS players. It's amazing in any sport (but perhaps football most) how much information breaks within 30 minutes of game time. While DFS players may find this frustrating, coaches will continue to withhold information for as long as possible to keep opponents guessing. Twitter can provide last-minute updates about gameplans, weather and roles.
Consult Prop Bets - In addition to the aforementioned Vegas game lines, a more complex way of using Vegas handicappers to gain a DFS edge is to consult prop bets every week. Prop bets set the bar on the likelihood of a player achieving certain feats – scoring a touchdown, catching passes, passing for multiple touchdowns, etc. Most commonly, they offer an over/under total for a player's rushing, passing or receiving yardage. It is a good way to see how much production is expected from an individual player.
Look for Contrarian Plays - The growth of DFS football has spurred a massive amount of advice, as every fantasy site offers weekly picks and pans. Those pieces can also be a useful tool to gauge which players will be commonly targeted in cash games and GPPs. Going against the grain is best in GPPs, and reading up on cash-game players might alert you to a good option you previously overlooked.
This article appears in the 2016 RotoWire Fantasy Football magazine. Order the magazine.