In tournaments, what factors influence your decision to start a player who will be less than 5% owned?
My main rule of thumb is to target players on great offenses who have secondary or tertiary roles. For example, I look for a WR3 in a great passing offense who has a chance to break a long touchdown. Or I'll play a consistent quarterback who is being faded because of a "difficult matchup."
As Jason pointed out, it's crucial to find the upside. And it needs to be the less-exposed upside, so we're looking for the peripheral options. When the Patriots are on the slate, Rob Gronkowski will almost invariably draw hefty ownership, so he's not an ideal GPP play - you won't gain much of a boost over your competition from a big Gronkowski game. Your advantage would come from a huge eruption from Malcolm Mitchell, or a Patriots blowout which hands their secondary running back an expanded chunk of usage and scoring opportunities.
Defenses are another way to diversify from the pack. Most weeks, defensive ownership is clustered together - it's common to see 3-4 units draw 15-20% ownership - despite the relative unpredictability of defensive performance. Jumping on a defense that faces a suboptimal matchup can swing your diversification wildly; you'll benefit quite a bit from even a better-than-average performance.
In GPPs, it is desirable (if these players can hit) to have some low-owned players. Let's say there are 10,000 people in a GPP and two rosters spots are 3% owned each. And for the sake of this example, let's say these two plays ended up as the most optimal for their position. The probability of owning both is 3% x 3% = 0.9%. In a 10,000 field GPP, approximately 90 lineups would have both of these players.
If you can hit on a few low-owned guys, your roster (even if the rest of plays are chalk) will float to the top based on these two low-owned players who dominated.
I like to pair my running back with my defense in GPPs. Check for situations where a highly ranked defense has a low owned running back and vice-a-versa. The running back/defense combination is based on the defense scoring a lot of fantasy points either by interceptions, fumble recoveries, or touchdowns. This performance then ideally translates into a running back closing out the game (with his team ahead) to drain the clock.
I will tend to agree with David here, as in the big tournaments (2,000+ entries) you need a few lower-owned players to really have a different lineup. Now, I do not consider defenses (or on FanDuel, kickers) as places to differentiate. The choices there can be a little on the random side, so if I am looking for a unique player or two, I am likely looking for a receiver to pair with my quarterback who might hit for a big touchdown and pay off.
Sometimes the uniqueness can come from different areas. One option is to leave more money on the table (do not spend all your cap) - which many owners hesitate to do. If you do the math, even in GPPs, $1,000 of cap money on FanDuel is about three points, while on DraftKings it is closer to four. If you can "make up" 3-4 points by having a different lineup, but one capable of scoring a big number, the $1,000 left on the table will not matter - but it will make you unique.
I agree with Justin that defense is a great way to find differentiation for your lineups. It’s common to see the field flock to a couple of the week’s projected top plays and leave it at that. Taking a little extra time to dig into the defensive matchups can pay nice dividends. For GPP purposes, I’ll optimally find three defenses I’m sold on for the week: one chalk, one value, and one contrarian. The first two are easy to spot, while the third one requires a little digging. Some folks take contrarian to mean an oddball pick that no one will be on. That’s certainly one way to approach it, but it carries a ton of risk. Instead, I’m looking for potentially fruitful matchups which scare off the masses.
There’s a number of offenses that will naturally scare people off. Defenses opposing those clubs will typically be dismissed by most folks, but a little research into things such as recent play can sometimes help you uncover a hidden gem. If you can uncover a lower-priced defense that goes off, it can help you make some noise if all else goes well with your lineup.
Quarterback is another spot that’s pretty easy to diversify by using the same formula: one chalk, one value, and one contrarian. The same rules apply on the contrarian selection here as well. You’re looking for the matchup which appears to be suboptimal at first glance. A little extra work can help you uncover potential diamonds in the rough, and you can drill down further to find a solid contrarian play.
For other positions, one key to finding diversity is uncovering the player whose workload is on the rise before the masses catch on to him. That’s tough to do with all the information out there, but having a clear handle on target/touch distribution by team can lead you to quickly spot trends. Once in a while, you can find a gem or two the fantasy community hasn’t fallen in love with yet.
I love to get exposure to elite players in what are perceived to be bad matchups, coming off of a down week or nursing a minor injury. The top players are always capable of the type of monster weeks that can win you a GPP.
For example, last year Julio Jones was highly owned in a prime Week 3 matchup against New Orleans. He limped around, caught one pass and had 2.6 fantasy points. In Week 4, Jones played against Carolina and a couple of the other top receivers (Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown) had matchups everyone was excited about. With many getting burned by Jones the week before, he came in with ownership of just 4%. Jones promptly put up a 300-yard receiving performance that pushed you towards the top of leaderboards if you owned him.
Another recent example that comes to mind is the 2015 Week 10 Steelers-Browns game in which Antonio Brown had ownership of 3% because Landry Jones was the starter and Ben Roethlisberger wasn't expected to play. After one series with Jones, Roethlisberger came on in relief and threw for 379 yards. Brown had 10-139-2 and made your week in GPPs.