Chances are you’ll be delving into the daily fantasy pool at some point this season. Popularity of the games has taken off over the last year, evidenced by the ubiquity of their commercials during sports programming. There’s no way to guarantee success in such leagues, but there are a handful of strategies that can eliminate the guesswork from the equation.
All prices referenced are for Week 1 games on FanDuel.
It All Starts With Stars
Every daily fantasy lineup will be able to handle at least a pair of star players, defined here as anyone who costs $8,000 or more (33 such players in Week 1). There may be weeks where you go the full stars-and-scrubs route, and squeeze in four of those players, and there could be others where you find a balance that allows you the luxury of getting a third superstar on your roster, but you’ll be able to get a minimum of two into each lineup, regardless of format. When I’m filling out my lineups, typically the first players I select are the ones who will be the backbone of my team.
Understand that position doesn’t really matter here. You’re going to have to find bargains at certain spots (more on that in a bit), but you can be flexible with your stars. It’s possible to craft winning lineups with two of the best running backs, two top receivers, one of each, an elite quarterback and running back, or any other combination that includes two stud players. Don’t get too hung up on position. Just make sure you’re getting star players in plus matchups.
Running Backs Are the Foundation...
Think of building a daily fantasy lineup as akin to building a house. You need your house to be on solid ground, and that bedrock is represented by running backs in the daily fantasy world. Foundational running backs are key to any successful daily fantasy lineup. While matchup is always a consideration, two other factors are equally as, if not more, important: volume and expected game flow.
If you’re going to succeed in daily fantasy, you need a running back who you know will carry the ball at least 20 times per game. Volume typically equals reliability in fantasy leagues, and daily games are no different. Players need to have the ball in their hands to make an impact, and even the best receivers in the league are going to have games this year in which they get just four or five catches. The league’s best running backs are going to carry the ball at least 16 or 18 times every single week. Let that volume be your friend.
Second, you need to think about the fantasy implications of the way you expect the game to unfold in real life. Positive game flow is critical for every position, but it’s perhaps easiest to predict for running backs. The best circumstances for a running back are to be on a winning team in a comfortable game. That gives a back the best combination of scoring opportunities and touches, especially against an exhausted defense in the fourth quarter. When you’re selecting your backs, make sure you consider how you think the game will play out before finalizing your roster.
...but Receivers Can Put Your Team Over the Top
While someone like Antonio Brown or Dez Bryant can be just as reliable as a top-tier running back, the inconsistency of touches makes it a bit harder to count on a receiver. What the receiver position does do more often than any other, however, is win daily fantasy games, for two main reasons. First, receivers make more splashy plays than players at any other position. Second, the multitude of options ensures that the ownership rates for receivers are much lower than those at other spots.
Let’s start with those splashy plays. Last year, receivers accounted for 252 plays of at least 40 yards. Running backs had 80 such plays. Those are the kinds of plays that can swing the outcome of a daily fantasy game, especially since they frequently go for touchdowns, making them worth at least 10 points in a typical daily league. Receivers make those plays at a much higher clip than any other position.
Second, there will be more divergence at receiver than any other position in a normal daily fantasy league. There are 50 receivers who are more expensive than Brian Quick, a popular late-round flier, in Week 1. Quick will be owned in nearly every fantasy league, and yet he’s as close to being free as possible in a daily game. That diffusion of ownership creates an opportunity for the savvy fantasy owner. No matter the format in which you play, you won’t be the only person who rosters Odell Beckham Jr. or Jamaal Charles when you decide to select those players. You could, however, be the only person with Quick on your team. If you hit on the right receivers with low ownership rates, you’ll be one step closer to succeeding in the daily game.
The only thing better than one of your players scoring a touchdown is getting double points for the same trip to the end zone. That’s why pairing up a quarterback with one of his receivers, or stacking, is one of the most popular daily fantasy tactics.
The allure of the stack is easy to see. If you think, say, Andrew Luck is going to have a great game against the Bills in Week 1, it would follow that at least one of T.Y. Hilton or Andre Johnson will, as well. Believing in a quarterback is also at least a tacit endorsement of his receivers. If you’re confident in the signal caller, you could be leaving points on the board by not stacking him with one of his receivers, as well.
Stacking isn’t necessary for every lineup, but it’s something you’ll want to explore every time you enter a daily game. You shouldn’t make your quarterback selection based solely on a stacking opportunity, in part because you aren’t going to hit on your quarterback every week. In games where you’ve ultimately made a poor choice at the quarterback position, stacking almost guarantees at least two subpar performances on your team. In other words, you don’t always want to put all your eggs in one basket. At the same time, the stack pays off so well when it works that you have to look into it for all of your daily lineups.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to go for the most expensive players in a stack. You may want to team up Luck with one of his pass-catchers, but it doesn’t have to be Hilton. You can go for Johnson, or even look to Dwayne Allen or Coby Fleener at tight end. You may not want to spend $8,900 to pair Beckham with Eli Manning, but you can get Manning’s second receiver, Victor Cruz, for just $6,300. Frequently the second receiver is the better way to go in a stack. Not only is it cheaper, it allows you to diversify your investments with a star from a different team at the same position. That way, if your quarterback has a bad game, at least he didn’t also take down one of the elite players on your team.
Know Where You Can Go Cheap
No matter what style of daily fantasy you’re playing, you will have to go cheap at a few spots on your roster. The first two should be obvious. There’s never any reason to pay up for a kicker or a defense. You should immediately scroll to the bottom of those positions, then look for a player or team with a good matchup. Performance at both positions is volatile, and the scores they provide just don’t move the needle very much.
Defensive success, at least from a fantasy perspective, is almost always based on matchup. No one would argue that the Colts have a better defense than the Texans, but their Week 1 matchup with Buffalo is ripe for exploitation. On top of that, only 11 defenses are cheaper than them. That’s exactly what you’re looking for in a defense. The worst move you can make as a daily fantasy player is to pay a premium for Stephen Gostkowski or the Seahawks defense. Those are dollars that are much better spent on the positions that actually matter.
From there, you’ll want to at least explore the bargain bin at running back, receiver and tight end. You’ll likely have to go cheap at a minimum of one receiver spot, and you may have to do the same for one of your running backs, too. The depth at receiver makes it easy to find cheap players worth backing every single week. In Week 1 alone, you can get Eric Decker for $6,000, Charles Johnson for $5,600, and Davante Adams for $5,500, all of which are well below the average price per player in a full lineup.
The names of the bargains may change from week to week, but they’ll always be present. It’s not quite as easy at running back, especially since you want guaranteed volume, but low-grade starters are typically in the $7,000 range, which also isn’t much to pay, especially in the right matchup. Tight end, meanwhile, is an easy spot to save some money, assuming you aren’t going for Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. You’re going to want to use those guys from time to time, but in weeks you don’t, you’ll likely be able to roster an extra superstar somewhere else.
Photos: Christian Petersen/Getty Images (Lynch), Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images (Charles), Matt Rourke/AP (Quick), Darron Cummings/AP (Fleener), Al Bello/Getty Images (Adams)