FanDuel: An Early Trip to the Bargain Bin

The fantasy football market place is open and ready for business.

We may be weeks away from games of consequence but the good people over at FanDuel aren’t waiting around. The figures for Week 1 have been released and the daily football marketplace is officially open for business.

The salary cap numbers won’t change between now and the official kickoff, but the value tied to the numbers will. So before the hype train comes barreling down the track, I thought it would be beneficial to take a midsummer stroll through the bargain bin and identify some early values.

I’m going to start by finding the best values at each position, and then optimize lineups accordingly. I generally play GPP (guaranteed prize pool) with big entry numbers and big payouts. Therefore, the floors of my rosters will be low. But the upside can catapult my final score into the 99th percentile.

The tournament in question is the 100k Sun NFL Kickoff. It pays out the top 1,948 teams, with a grand prize of $10,000. Ten dollars buys you a ticket and the cap is $60k. It goes without saying that cashing against such a large playing field is difficult, which is why it’s so important to identify value so we can effectively build high/low lineups.

Value, Vegas and Lineup Optimization

Before highlighting positional values it's a good exercise to unpack the process of how value is determined and how we can use crowdsourcing to gain an edge.

By crowdsourcing I mean Las Vegas and the sharps, which starts with proposition bets. We don’t have any player prop bets from Vegas for Week 1 just yet. Prop bets, for the uninitiated, are a side bet such as the over/under of how many touchdowns, for example, Peyton Manning will throw against his former team on the first Sunday Night game of the year. Prop bets are a great guide as to who Vegas thinks is going to have a big game. We’ll use them every week to help identify values and justify costs.

We do have early over/under and point spreads for Week 1, and Vegas loves the Broncos vs Colts matchup to the tune of 55.5 points, with Manning’s crew favored by 7.5. It’s the highest projected final score of the first week and it tells us that we should start as many players as we can in this game.

Naturally, Manning checks in as the most expensive player with a cap of $10,200. But his price will tax your bottom line, especially if you plan on stacking him with Demaryius Thomas, which was money in the bank nearly every week last year. I’ll demonstrate a high/low roster with these two players in a bit. In the meantime, we need to justify Manning’s cost.  

A little algebra using the over/under and point spread tells us that Vegas believes the Broncos will beat the Colts 31.5 to 24. Basically, given that the Broncos turned 72 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns last year, they like them to score more than three touchdowns against the Colts to open the season. What they don’t tell us is if they believe those touchdowns will come off of Mannings’ fingertips or Montee Ball’s legs. This is where prop bets and projections will help establish lineup optimization.

For now, we know that the Broncos are likely to score a lot of points and they will all be directly tied to Manning. But his salary chews up 17 percent of our cap. Combine him with Thomas and we’re spending 31.5 percent of our cap on just two players. Since we’re going for first place we should assume that we need to score 180 points (150 to cash, minimum). We’re going to need our Bronco stack to combine for at least 57 points. They did that only twice last year.  But the good news is that on average they combined for 42 fantasy points and scored at least 40 in nine weeks of the regular season. That’s the highest combined ceiling you’ll find. I’ll show my work in the table below (this is all based on .5 PPR per the scoring rules via FanDuel):

2013 Peyton Manning FPs Demaryius Thomas FPs Combined FPs
Week 1 46.0 30.5 76.5
Week 2 20.0 7.5 27.5
Week 3 24.0 14.0 38.0
Week 4 29.0 24.5 53.5
Week 5 36.0 7.5 43.5
Week 6 13.0 8.5 21.5
Week 7 25.0 16.0 41.0
Week 8 22.0 16.5 38.5
Week 9 - - -
Week 10 27.0 31.5 58.5
Week 11 14.0 14.5 28.5
Week 12 12.0 12.0 24.0
Week 13 32.0 11.5 43.5
Week 14 31.0 17.5 48.5
Week 15 17.0 6.0 23.0
Week 16 32.0 22.0 54.0
Week 17 26.0 26.0 52.0
Average 25.4 16.6 42.0

This is just a long way of saying that the Manning/Thomas stack could prove to be very profitable, even with a hefty cost. But it should be noted that a ton of teams are going to flock to that exact same stack. They’ll have a heavy market share. So in some ways, it operates as a loss leader in that you won’t miss out on the highest ceiling. You’ll at least cancel out with any other teams with similar exposure should Manning and Thomas combine for 76.5 points like they did to start last season.

But in order to make this stack work you’ll need to find high value plays at other positions. In what follows, I’m going to isolate those values including alternate stacks that allow for a more balanced roster.

Value Plays: Quarterback

From an expense standpoint we find the usual suspects atop the ranks. As we’ve already covered, Manning leads the way and is followed up by Drew Brees ($9,700), Matthew Stafford ($9,300), Andrew Luck ($9,200), Tom Brady ($9,100) and Cam Newton ($9,000).

The fact of the matter is that if you’re going to spend $9k on a QB, you’re already handicapping the rest of your roster so you might as well pay up for Manning. Anything less is a huge gamble. Brees, given his matchup and a Vegas O/U of 52, is the only other player on this list I’d even consider. You could stack him with Jimmy Graham for $1,100 less than the Manning/Thomas stack, a savings of 5.8 percent. But you decrease the overall combined fantasy points—based on their 2013 averages—by nearly 10.5 percent. Brees and Graham combined for an average of 37.6 points compared to the 42 point average we laid out in the table above. In short, the $1,100 we could save doesn’t offset the ceiling we’re missing out on (all while realizing that the Manning/Thomas numbers were historical and not likely to be repeated, but I still gravitate to them over Brees/Graham).

If you don’t want to pay capital gains on an elite QB your best bet is to take a discount. I generally avoid the mid-priced tier of play-callers, where possible, and move my investment into the basement. In GPPs, this is where the highest value plays exist.

It’s not easy to pin down an obvious play. We’re basically looking for top-12 QB numbers but nothing less. The low we’ll take at this position will allow for highs at other positions. But we don’t want to be so low that the quarterback becomes our albatross Thankfully, Vegas shines a bright light and at least offers some tangible value.

Jake Locker

The most immediate value, both in terms of expense and exposure, is Jake Locker. At first blush, you may wince when you realize he’s finished as a top-12 QB only four times in his entire career. And you’ll straight up gag when you see that he’s traveling to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. But I’m not alone in thinking that the Chiefs’ defense is in for some serious regression, and that they won’t be able to rely on their front seven to cover up the holes in the secondary.

The Titans’ offense has a lot of weapons in the passing game. Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington, Delanie Walker, and even Bishop Sankey should be enough to keep defensive units busy. You combine that with Locker’s ability to escape and you have a case for a dual-threat, low exposure option at QB. The only thing that scares me about this game is the O/U of 44 and the propensity for low-scoring games in KC. It’s not as if Locker is the cheapest QB on the board either. At a cost of $6,600, considering the implied risk, there are better values.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

It’s normal to have your gag reflex act up when someone spends too much time painting a picture of a Houston quarterback named Fitzpatrick as a high value candidate. But we have a fair number of indicators that suggest that whatever magic he has left could be realized when he, and his stud defense, hosts Washington.

I mention the stud defense because it’s easy to overlook how playing a QB paired with a good defense results in more efficient numbers. Theoretically, the Texans are quite badass from a pass-rush standpoint, and should give their team good field position consistently. This is important because it keeps the playbook open.

But it’s not as if they’ll pitch a shutout. In fact, Vegas sets the O/U at 46.5 and favors the Texans by only 1.5. A close game might result in more rushing attempts, but Fitzpatrick has never had a receiver like Andre Johnson and I wouldn’t be surprised if they connect for a couple of scores. Especially against a team that allowed quarterbacks to toss four touchdowns above the league average of 25.

At a cost of $6,100 his 10 percent cap hit allows us to stud-up and plug elite talent at skill positions. Every high/low roster is going to be flavored with some risk and maybe Fitzpatrick invades your comfort level. But I’ll side with the over in this contest and pencil in Fitzpatrick as more than a game manager.

Sam Bradford

I’m not going to hide my love for Sam Bradford in the opening week of the season. He’s hosting a team whose ball-gawking defense allowed a league-leading 37 touchdowns to receivers, nearly 12 above the league average. They were second in yards allowed and picked off quarterbacks only 11 times.

I suppose it’s possible that the Vikings defense turns things around under Mike Zimmer, but a quick glance at the depth chart suggests that their secondary will be passer friendly for the duration of the season. And if you’re worried about Bradford, note that he was the 11th highest scoring quarterback in the seven games he played last year.

The O/U in this one is scheduled for 46.5 with the Rams favored to win by six. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings offense makes it a little more difficult for Jeff Fisher’s crew, and I love Bradford’s value as the most economical option among play callers. His $6,000 price tag gives us the flexibility to pimp out our roster with high percentage studs, while simultaneously raising the floor and ceiling of our quarterback.

Value Plays: Running Back

Value deteriorates quickly with running backs. The middle tiers are saturated with committee upside plays, while the basement is full of dart boards and carnival rides. We’re going to have to show the money on at least one running back to open the season. For me that back is LeSean McCoy. The Eagles/Jaguars offers the second highest O/U at 52.5 and it’s not unreasonable to think McCoy could open the year with heavy workload.

It’s in the second running back spot where we need to find value. Here are three options.

Joique Bell

If you read my Eddie Lacy cautions you already know how I feel about Bell. He clocked out as the 14th highest scoring running back in PPR leagues despite playing less than half of offensive snaps. He’s earned more playing time and he’s plenty affordable at $6,800. It’s one of two Monday night games so his exposure will likely be high. But not high enough to prevent us from gaining an advantage and plugging him as an average priced option with above average upside.

Toby Gerhart

We are all expecting Gerhart to be a workhorse for the Jaguars in 2014. We’ll see proof of that in Week 1 as they try to slow the up-tempo pace of Chip Kelly’s offense and rein in Chad Henne, or whichever QB ends up taking over. No matter what, this is a ball-control offense and Gerhart doesn’t have a lot of competition for carries. It’s safe to say that any and all goal line work is his alone. Even though the Eagles are awarded the highest point spread in Week 1 at 10.5, the O/U of 52.5 screams garbage time.

You’re not going to find a running back that is A) a workhorse with no competition for carries or goal line looks, B) has a better matchup, and C) has a price tag that allows you to be aggressive at other positons. $6,100 may be the cheapest we’ll get him this year. It’s in our best interests to buy the stock when it’s low.

Fred Jackson

I would love nothing more than for Jackson to retire so the Bills would have no choice but to give C.J. Spiller the football until he pukes. But until that day, the 33-year-old running back is a good bet to get the majority of carries, especially in goal-to-go situations.

The season opens with the Bills on the road in Chicago against a Bears team that allowed 7.2 rushing touchdowns above the league average of 12.8 in 2013. Even as that defense regresses towards the mean, I like the Bills to threaten them with speed over the top and counter with Jackson up the middle in a high scoring contest.

Value Plays: Wide Receiver

There is usually more value at the wide receiver position than all other positions. But since we have to start three, it can be very difficult to isolate who is in line for a big week. For that reason I’m more inclined to take a discount elsewhere and pay up for two of my pass-catchers. This is a fluid approach, however. As the weeks go and as the matchups vary, the strength of schedule will become more apparent and we’ll gain confidence as to where the money should be invested. It goes without saying that Week 1 will be the hardest to crack.

Eric Decker

Alessandro Miglio carved out a nice outlook of what we should expect from Decker in his first year as a Jet. In it he notes that defenses won’t have much to focus on so it should be easy to box him out and challenge Geno Smith and Co. to beat them in other ways.

And that may actually work during the course of the season, but not for the Oakland Raiders in Week 1. They’ve had a black hole in the secondary since the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha and managed to tie the Cowboys in allowing the second most passing touchdowns with 33, which is right in line with their four year average of 30.3.

Of course, they’ve made some key additions over the offseason in hopes of improving conditions. But it’s by no means a unit to shy away from. If anything the O/U of 39.5 is the biggest red flag. Even so, I like Decker’s price of $6,400 in a matchup that he could thrive against.

Reggie Wayne

It’s easy to cast off players returning from a serious injury like Reggie Wayne is, especially when said player is about to turn 36-years-old. But let’s not forget that many forgot about him in 2012 and let him slip all the way to the seventh round in redraft. He rewarded his owners with 1,355 yards and five touchdowns, good enough to finish as WR15.

Last year, before getting hurt, he was the 17th highest scoring wide-out while averaging 14.5 fantasy points per game. We already know that Vegas loves the Broncos/Colts matchup, and we already know that Andrew Luck loves his veteran wide receiver. By plugging Wayne we’re getting a crafty veteran that should see at least 25 percent of the target share in a proposed high scoring matchup, all at a reduced cost ($6,200).

Marques Colston

2013 was the first season Colston fell short of 1,000 receiving yards since 2008, and only the second time in his eight year career. Maybe that’s why he’s slipping to the seventh round in redraft leagues. Regardless, if you’re looking for a discount in the Jimmy Graham department and want a taste of one of three O/Us that eclipse 50 points, then Colston fits you perfectly. You won’t find a better value at receiver for a cheaper price ($5,800).

Value Plays: Tight End

Paying up for tight ends means buying one of three guys: Graham, Rob Gronkowski, or Julius Thomas. They’ll have maximum exposure every week so fading them will always be a risky game. If you can design a lineup that includes their services without excessively truncating the threshold of your ceiling, then I’m all for it. But as you might guess, that’s a lofty task.

Likewise, fading them is equally treacherous. Missing out on their ceilings while batting around salary caps could mean missing out on paydays. I’m of the opinion that this is one of hardest parts of building lineups without the benefit of flex positions.

Vernon Davis

Vernon Davis put up WR1 numbers and collected 13 TDs for the second time in his career (plus two more in the playoffs). He enjoyed 37.5 percent of the 49ers’ red zone targets, the highest total of wide receivers and tight ends. To open the season he gets to chew into a secondary that allowed the fourth most points to tight ends last year, and may have actually gotten worse in the offseason. At a modest price tag of $6,300, I’ll have Davis in every lineup.

Jared Cook

Stepping up a rank in the points allowed to tight ends department, we find Jared Cook at home waiting on the Minnesota Vikings. I’ve already declared my love for Bradford so why not go down down in a Range Rover?

I know the pain runs deep when I mention Cook. If he could get out of his own way and let his talent do the talking, he might end up in the conversation with Graham and Gronk. He’s that gifted. But as things stand, he will likely be overlooked in most lineups due to his inconsistency. For that, be thankful. His cost of $5,700 is screaming value despite his floor.

Levine Toilolo

There is no replacing Tony Gonzalez, at least not with another tight end. The Falcons will mostly likely scheme around the absence of the future hall of famer, and in doing so might leave a dry spot in the tight end slot for fantasy owners.

Still, I can’t help but think that perhaps Levine Toilolo is an all-time swing for the fences play in big tournaments. There are 155 tight ends priced at $4,500. Aside of from Toilolo, the only others I’d consider are Zach Ertz and Joseph Fauria. His floor and his ceiling are complete unknowns. But if Vegas is correct, his opportunity to play a big role in a high scoring game at least justifies his risk.

Value Plays: Kicker

I won’t waste your time. But I’ll also warn against just throwing a dart at the cheapest kickers available. A minor amount of logic tells us that red zone inefficiencies lead to more field goals. All we need to do is identify offenses that can move the ball but stall when they’re in scoring position. Then apply that thinking to salary caps and pray the dart lands somewhere near the bull’s eye.

Greg Zuerlein

In spite of my public display of affection for Sam Bradford, I have to be a realist and note that the Rams converted only 51 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns last year. Part of that most definitely can be attributed to Bradford’s injury, but the other part is the fact that they didn’t have the appropriate cast of players. Furthermore, in Bradford’s four years as their quarterback, the Rams have an average conversion rate of 44 percent.  

Kickers are volatile, so identifying value is difficult. If you want to pay up for the likes of Stephen Gostkowski or Phil Dawson, so be it. But recognize that Zuerlein is just as likely to put up similar numbers, which is the truth regarding all kickers. As the season turns we’ll play matchups but to a larger degree we’ll mostly play the weather.

Value Plays: Defense

Defenses, much like kickers, are volatile from year-to-year and week-to-week. You can gain a major edge here if you know when to pay up and know when to take a discount.

To open the season we’re doing a little more than guessing. Vegas lines, again, are our only known and even those are subject to change. Simply stated, if you’re confident in forecasting the strength of schedule for each team in August, you might look into picking lottery numbers. Not to say that there isn’t a scientific equation we can use to project which teams might struggle against certain other teams, but without a fitting glove we don’t really have a case.

Thankfully, there is a scientific equation to help us forecast the defensive future.

New York Jets

There was a time when the Jets were one of the best defensive units in the game. But turnover is just as true in football as it is in the White House.

I name the Jets here on the simple principle that Vegas grades hosting of the Oakland Raiders as the lowest probable scoring contest. With an O/U of 39.5 we can use the same equation that predicts the Broncos to score three touchdowns against the Colts. Simple algebra says that a Jets team favored by 4.5 points beats a Raiders team 22-17.5. Allowing that many real football points means scoring only one fantasy football point. But what we bank on is Matt Schaub throwing us interceptions.

For $5,000 the Jets come cheap. If I had to pay more I’d plug the Denver Broncos, and if I wanted to pay less I'd plug the New Orleans Saints. Both offenses are powerful enough to make their opponents one dimensional and in the process manufacture turnovers and sacks, even if they allow a lot of points.

The Saints might offer the best value as they gave up only 20 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks, five touchdowns below the league average, and ranked fourth in fewest points allowed. Unfortunately their defense didn't score any touchdowns. A few of those would have would have easily catapulted them into a top-12 finish. For $4,800, it's worth starting Rob Ryan's crew against Matt Ryan's crew, and see if "Matty Ice" shows us why he's thrown the eighth most interceptions of all quarterbacks since coming into the league in 2008.

Final Thoughts And Lineups

I say final but reserve the right to revisit these lineups over the next four weeks. The most important thing to recognize, whether you play head-to-head or large field tournaments, is that the strategy will change every week. There is no finite clause that states you should always discount QBs or double down on defenses. We have to be fluid in our approach and let the market dictate our strategy. Here are three lineups that employ high/low concepts but still cater to a palatable balance between ceilings and floors.

Position Player Salary % of Cap
Quarterback Sam Bradford $6,000 10.0%
Running Back Toby Gerhart $6,100 10.2%
Running Back Fred Jackson $5,800 9.7%
Wide Receiver Calvin Johnson $9,200 15.4%
Wide Receiver Demayrius Thomas $8,700 14.5%
Wide Receiver Dez Bryant $8,500 14.2%
Tight End Vernon Davis $6,300 10.5%
Kicker Greg Zuerlin $4,500 7.5%
Defense New Orleans Saints $4,800 8.0%
    $59,900  
Position Player Salary % of Cap
Quarterback Jake Locker $6,600 11.0%
Running Back Adrian Peterson $9,300 15.5%
Running Back Fred Jackson $5,800 9.7%
Wide Receiver Demaryius Thomas $8,700 14.5%
Wide Receiver Dez Bryant $8,500 14.2%
Wide Receiver Marques Colston $5,700 9.5%
Tight End Vernon Davis $6,300 10.5%
Kicker Greg Zuerlin $4,500 7.5%
Defense Detroit Lions $4,600 7.7%
    $60,000  
Position Player Salary % of Cap
Quarterback Peyton Manning $10,200 17.0%
Running Back Toby Gerhart $6,100 10.2%
Running Back Fred Jackson $5,800 9.7%
Wide Receiver Demaryius Thomas $8,700 14.5%
Wide Receiver Dez Bryant $8,500 14.2%
Wide Receiver Justin Hunter $4,800 8.0%
Tight End Vernon Davis $6,300 10.5%
Kicker Greg Zuerlin $4,500 7.5%
Defense New York Jets $5,000 8.3%
    $59,900