DFS: The Profits and Perils of Stacks and Loss Leaders

To win big tournaments in daily fantasy football we need a little bit of luck. To get a little bit lucky we need to do whatever we can to put the odds in our favor. Stacks and loss leaders are the key to that.

Is it better to be lucky or to be good? When it comes to large tournaments in the land of DFS, I maintain that you’ll need to be both.

However defined, however gratified, however simplified, luck is the dark matter of fantasy football. It’s the invisible force that is all too easy to run into. When we build lineups we often walk the narrow line of risk and reward. Risk taking, by nature, lays us at the mercy of luck. The only question is can we put it in our favor? The old saying goes “luck favors the prepared”. For our purposes, luck favors the courageous.

Loss Leaders, Exposure and the Thursday Night Fade

Regardless of the format you play, gaining an edge by any means necessary is the difference between profit and loss. For big tournaments we try to isolate value while fading popular plays. In head-to-head matchups we‘re a little bit less aggressive in the name of equality but still need to identity value where others aren’t.

It goes without saying that in GPPs we need to make our lineups as unique as possible. But ignoring massive value because it will be a popular play is a bad strategy. We need to know when to use said play as a loss leader.

The concept of loss leaders is simple: a vendor sells a product at a less than profitable price in exchange for exposure. When the customer comes into the store seeking a discount they are tempted to buy other things. The vendor hopes that selling a product under market value will bring in both volume and visibility.

We can apply this to daily fantasy football when buying players that offer a ton of value, but because of their value, have a high percentage of ownership. In large tournaments, where being a contrarian is so important, we still need to protect our lineups. So even though Jimmy Graham, as an example, is going to be in 80% of lineups Week 1, we use him as a loss leader in our lineups. Meaning, we know that because of his high exposure he offers little value—everyone is making the same play so we equal out regardless of outcome.

The goal is to identify players that will be in a lot of lineups and use our best judgment to know when to fade those players and when to play them.  This applies to big tournaments more so than head-to-head but it’s a strategy that should be considered in every format.

For this reason you should enter in at least one lineup that includes the Thursday night game. By doing so you get an early look at ownership percentages, at least on some sites, when lineups lock Thursday night. The percentages will change by the time Sunday rolls around but we get an idea of which players are being heavily exposed. We can use that as a guide when we set our Sunday lineups.

And since we’re playing in the Thursday game we need to determine whether or not to use the players playing in the Thursday game. It’s common knowledge that the early contest doesn’t favor fantasy football.

David Dodds alluded to this in his blog last year.  And Jonathan Bales nailed the point home in his book “Fantasy Football and Baseball for Smart People – How to Turn Your Hobby into a Fortune”, which I recommend regardless of your experience in the world of DFS.

 In it Bales says this of Thursday games:

“…people love to see their players on television, so they’ll frequently add players from games that are on national TV, perhaps even if it’s not the right move. When you join a Thursday night football GPP, for example, you’ll run into dozens of lineups that are stacked with players from that night’s game just because people want to watch their players”.

He continues: “Overall, there’s right around 10 percent less total fantasy production in Thursday night games as compared to all others”.

The evidence suggests that we should play in contests that include the Thursday night game but fade the players involved. By doing so we eliminate the risk associated with a game that has a history of being bad for fantasy football (and real football for that matter), while also gaining an advantage over players that rush out lineups so they’ll have something to cheer for.

Stacking For Profit

It’s common practice to stack players from the same team when the matchup is favorable. Most notably, pairing a quarterback and his No. 1 wide receiver offers huge upside in the event that these two players live up to, or hopefully surpass, expectations.

But knowing when to stack and when not to stack is just as important as who you stack. To assist us in making these decisions we’ll use the point spreads and over/under set by Vegas. Identifying high scoring matchups and stacking the players involved is a great strategy that we will discuss every week in this space.

I’ll use the same example here that I used earlier this summer when we took an early trip to the bargain bin. According to Vegas the Broncos and the Colts are in for a barn-burner and we want to get as many players from this game as we can. The first combination that should come to everyone’s mind is Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas.

But there are two problems with this stack. The first is that it swallows 31.5 percent of our cap. Considering that in a GPP our goal is to score 180 points, their price tag means we’ll need these two players to combine for at least 55 points.

The second is that Manning/Thomas will be a popular play and therefore a loss leader—an expensive one at that. I would suspect their ownership percentages to be well over the 50 percent margin and possibly in the high 70s. So the question we have to ask ourselves is if they’re worth the cost.

For the answer, we turn to history.

In the table below I’ve calculated the average combined fantasy points for popular stacks in 2013. I identified 12 combinations that were successful last year and should be popular this year. I chose these players based on the top scoring wide receivers that also have high ADPs entering 2014. I eliminated players that are no longer on the same team. So Eric Decker, even though he finished as the ninth best wide receiver, isn’t on this list. Neither is Andre Johnson since he has a new quarterback throwing to him.

I’ve sorted this group by the highest scoring average based on a full one point PPR. I also included the number times they had at least 50 points in a game and the number of times they had at least 45.

2013 PPR2013  
 Average50+45+
Manning-D. Thomas 46.9 6 10
Manning-J. Thomas 42.9 3 5
Brees-Graham 42.3 6 7
Rodgers-Cobb 41.3 1 2
Rodgers-Nelson 39.8 2 3
Dalton-Green 38.8 3 7
Stafford-Johnson 38.0 3 7
Roethlisberger-Brown 37.5 3 4
Brady-Gronkowski 36.9 1 1
Romo-Bryant 36.3 1 2
Cutler-Marshall 36.2 0 1
Cutler-Jeffery 32.2 1 1

A couple of things to note is that due to sample size, the Rodgers stacks and Cutler stacks are slightly skewed. The same goes for Brady/Gronkowski. These players missed significant time, which isn’t reflected in their averages. But it gives us an idea of what they’re capable of.

It goes without saying that Manning and his offense put together a historical 2013 that will likely not be repeated. The key word in that sentence is “likely”. Manning threw 55 touchdowns, 18 more than he did in 2012 and topped his career high of 49 set back in 2004. Our projections credit him with 41 for 2014. That’s still a lot of points, but we need to temper our expectations to the mean. Regression will be in full force this fall.

All of that said, Manning and his receivers should make for great stacks all season long. It’s no surprise that Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are at the top of this list. In fact, you could make an argument that starting all three in a GPP is a fine way to score about 75 points between three positions. But like with all stacks, we need to be aware of the risk involved. Even the almighty Broncos offense can stutter. We saw proof of that in Week 15 last year (and more proof to avoid Thursday night games).

Speaking of risk, a point of interest is the average of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. That was not a successful stack last year. They gave us only one game of 50+ points and that was in Week 5 when they combined for 72 against the Broncos. I know a lot of people are banking on how horrible the Cowboys defense looks to start the season. But let’s not forget that they were historically bad last year, and that Romo and company were playing from behind often. In Week 1 they’re going to cost us 28 percent of our cap. As tempting as these players are, I’m more tempted to fade them in the early part of the season.

Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham clocked in as the third highest scoring combination. That’s what 16 touchdowns will do for you. This tells us that we should favor QB/TE stacks more than QB/WR. When Gronkowski is healthy he and Brady are a lethal combination. We got some good news from the Twitter machine regarding this:

A healthy Gronkowski gives us three solid QB/TE options for Week 1 and I recommend grabbing at least one of them. Brees/Graham have the most favorable matchup but cost slightly more than Manning/J. Thomas on FanDuel. Brady/Gronkowski check in as the most expensive QB/TE stack and therefore I can’t advise them. We don’t know how much Gronkowski will play and I’m not confident that Brady is going to provide us with enough points to justify his salary. Manning and Brees are much safer plays, though overly exposed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to just look at weekly averages and not offer the bigger picture. In the next table I sorted these 12 combinations by the highest scoring weeks in PPR.

Player Combo and WeekOpponentStandardPPR.5 PPR
Stafford/Johnson Week 08 DAL 67.6 81.6 74.6
Manning/D. Thomas Week 01 BAL 74.4 79.4 76.9
Manning/J. Thomas Week 01 BAL 69.3 74.3 71.8
Romo/Bryant Week 05 DEN 66 72 69
Manning/J. Thomas Week 05 DAL 61 70 65.5
Brees/Graham Week 03 ARI 58.2 67.2 62.7
Manning/D. Thomas Week 10 SD 57.9 64.9 61.4
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 10 DET 57.8 64.8 61.3
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 03 CHI 54.5 63.5 59
Cutler/Jeffery Week 05 NO 52.8 62.8 57.8
Stafford/Johnson Week 07 CIN 53.8 62.8 58.3
Rodgers/Cobb Week 02 WAS 53.7 62.7 58.2
Brady/Gronkowski Week 03 ARI 53.5 62.5 58
Dalton/Green Week 16 PIT 53.3 60.3 56.8
Stafford/Johnson Week 11 PIT 53.8 59.8 56.8
Manning/D. Thomas Week 04 PHI 49.7 58.7 54.2
Brees/Graham Week 04 MIA 54.7 58.7 56.7
Manning/D. Thomas Week 16 HOU 50.3 58.3 54.3
Rodgers/Nelson Week 02 WAS 53.5 56.5 55
Brees/Graham Week 17 TB 51.1 56.1 53.6
Manning/D. Thomas Week 17 OAK 49.9 55.9 52.9
Dalton/Green Week 07 PIT 49 55 52
Dalton/Green Week 01 BAL 45.7 54.7 50.2
Brees/Graham Week 09 NYJ 44.8 53.8 49.3
Rodgers/Nelson Week 08 MIN 46.8 53.8 50.3
Manning/D. Thomas Week 14 TEN 46.6 53.6 50.1
Brees/Graham Week 14 CAR 46.6 52.6 49.6
Romo/Bryant Week 15 GB 41.6 52.6 47.1
Brees/Graham Week 08 BUF 48.9 51.9 50.4
Manning/J. Thomas Week 16 HOU 45.8 51.8 48.8
Rodgers/Nelson Week 01 SF 44.6 51.6 48.1
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 14 MIA 46.5 51.5 49
Cutler/Marshall Week 06 NYG 41.2 50.2 45.7
Rodgers/Cobb Week 01 SF 43 50 46.5
Dalton/Green Week 14 DAL 43.3 49.3 46.3
Brees/Graham Week 02 TB 38.8 48.8 43.8
Stafford/Johnson Week 02 ARI 42.8 48.8 45.8
Dalton/Green Week 06 CLE 42.5 48.5 45.5
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 08 NE 43 48 45.5
Brady/Gronkowski Week 05 CHI 40.8 47.8 44.3
Manning/J. Thomas Week 10 SD 44.7 47.7 46.2
Manning/D. Thomas Week 05 DAL 42.5 47.5 45
Manning/D. Thomas Week 08 WAS 40.4 47.4 43.9
Manning/D. Thomas Week 13 KC 44.4 47.4 45.9
Dalton/Green Week 10 KC 39.3 47.3 43.3
Stafford/Johnson Week 03 WAS 40.1 47.1 43.6
Cutler/Marshall Week 02 MIN 39.8 46.8 43.3
Brady/Gronkowski Week 06 NE 40.5 46.5 43.5
Dalton/Green Week 08 DEN 43.5 46.5 45
Manning/J. Thomas Week 14 TEN 41.3 46.3 43.8
Manning/D. Thomas Week 03 OAK 36.2 46.2 41.2
Stafford/Johnson Week 13 GB 40.1 46.1 43.1
Stafford/Johnson Week 10 CHI 40 46 43
Cutler/Marshall Week 10 DET 38.9 45.9 42.4
Romo/Bryant Week 04 SD 39.4 45.4 42.4
Romo/Bryant Week 02 KC 36.3 45.3 40.8
Rodgers/Nelson Week 17 CHI 35.3 45.3 40.3
Manning/D. Thomas Week 07 IND 40.5 44.5 42.5
Cutler/Marshall Week 15 CLE 37.2 43.2 40.2
Romo/Bryant Week 08 DET 40.1 43.1 41.6
Cutler/Jeffery Week 04 DET 38 43 40.5
Brees/Graham Week 05 CHI 33 43 38
Cutler/Marshall Week 01 CIN 34.7 42.7 38.7
Brees/Graham Week 10 DAL 37.6 42.6 40.1
Manning/J. Thomas Week 07 IND 36.4 41.4 38.9
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 04 MIN 28.1 40.1 34.1
Dalton/Green Week 17 BAL 35.6 39.6 37.6
Cutler/Jeffery Week 15 CLE 34.6 39.6 37.1
Manning/J. Thomas Week 03 OAK 36.5 39.5 38
Brees/Graham Week 12 ATL 34.5 39.5 37
Stafford/Johnson Week 12 TB 32 39 35.5
Rodgers/Nelson Week 06 BAL 35 39 37
Rodgers/Nelson Week 07 CLE 33.8 38.8 36.3
Rodgers/Cobb Week 17 CHI 36.7 38.7 37.7
Cutler/Marshall Week 05 NO 34 38 36
Dalton/Green Week 15 PHI 28.5 37.5 33
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 16 GB 31.5 37.5 34.5
Manning/J. Thomas Week 04 PHI 33.4 37.4 35.4
Romo/Bryant Week 12 NYG 28.3 37.3 32.8
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 12 CLE 30.8 36.8 33.8
Manning/J. Thomas Week 02 NYG 30.7 36.7 33.7
Brees/Graham Week 01 ATL 32 36 34
Dalton/Green Week 09 NYG 24.5 35.5 30
Cutler/Marshall Week 17 GB 29.4 35.4 32.4
Manning/J. Thomas Week 17 OAK 30.2 35.2 52.9
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 15 CIN 29.3 34.3 31.8
Romo/Bryant Week 03 STL 30.2 34.2 32.2
Manning/D. Thomas Week 11 KC 29 34 31.5
Romo/Bryant Week 07 PHI 25.9 33.9 29.9
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 05 NYJ 24.9 33.9 29.4
Cutler/Jeffery Week 10 DET 24.9 33.9 29.4
Stafford/Johnson Week 04 CHI 29.9 33.9 31.9
Romo/Bryant Week 09 MIN 27.7 33.7 30.7
Cutler/Marshall Week 04 DET 26.5 33.5 30
Romo/Bryant Week 16 WAS 29.2 33.2 31.2
Manning/J. Thomas Week 08 WAS 29.8 32.8 31.3
Brees/Graham Week 16 CAR 27.4 32.4 29.9
Romo/Bryant Week 13 OAK 25 32 28.5
Brady/Gronkowski Week 04 MIA 27 32 29.5
Stafford/Johnson Week 06 CLE 28.5 31.5 30
Rodgers/Nelson Week 03 CIN 23.5 31.5 27.5
Dalton/Green Week 03 WAS 27.3 31.3 29.3
Dalton/Green Week 13 SD 25.8 30.8 28.3
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 07 OAK 21.5 30.5 26
Rodgers/Cobb Week 05 DET 26.5 30.5 28.5
Manning/J. Thomas Week 06 JAX 26.3 30.3 28.3
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 13 BAL 25.3 30.3 27.8
Manning/D. Thomas Week 02 NYG 25.2 30.2 27.7
Manning/J. Thomas Week 11 KC 27.2 30.2 28.7
Stafford/Johnson Week 01 MIN 25.2 29.2 27.2
Brees/Graham Week 15 STL 27 29 28
Rodgers/Nelson Week 05 DET 24 29 26.5
Brady/Gronkowski Week 08 BUF 27 29 28
Manning/D. Thomas Week 06 JAX 25.9 28.9 27.4
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 17 CLE 18.8 27.8 23.3
Cutler/Jeffery Week 02 MIN 26.6 27.6 27.1
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 09 BUF 21.6 27.6 24.6
Manning/J. Thomas Week 15 SD 23.5 27.5 25.5
Cutler/Jeffery Week 01 CIN 22.5 27.5 25
Brady/Gronkowski Week 01 ATL 19.5 27.5 23.5
Manning/D. Thomas Week 15 SD 23.1 27.1 25.1
Manning/D. Thomas Week 12 NE 23.1 27.1 25.1
Stafford/Johnson Week 15 BAL 21.1 27.1 24.1
Cutler/Jeffery Week 16 PHI 21 27 24
Cutler/Marshall Week 16 PHI 23 27 25
Cutler/Jeffery Week 17 GB 24 27 25.5
Dalton/Green Week 02 CLE 20.3 26.3 23.3
Cutler/Jeffery Week 06 NYG 24.7 25.7 25.2
Romo/Bryant Week 14 CHI 23.3 25.3 24.3
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 02 CIN 19.3 25.3 22.3
Brees/Graham Week 11 SF 19.2 25.2 22.2
Rodgers/Cobb Week 03 CIN 19.6 24.6 22.1
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 06 BAL 18.2 24.2 21.2
Cutler/Jeffery Week 03 PIT 16.6 23.6 20.1
Romo/Bryant Week 01 NYG 19.6 23.6 21.6
Roethlisberger/Brown Week 01 TEN 18.1 23.1 20.6
Brees/Graham Week 13 SEA 20 23 21.5
Cutler/Marshall Week 03 PIT 16.7 21.7 19.2
Dalton/Green Week 05 MIA 16.1 21.1 18.6
Dalton/Green Week 04 JAX 13.6 20.6 17.1
Romo/Bryant Week 06 WAS 13.4 18.4 15.9
Brees/Graham Week 06 NE 17.5 17.5 17.5
Dalton/Green Week 12 OAK 14.4 16.4 15.4
Cutler/Jeffery Week 07 WAS 12.2 16.2 14.2
Romo/Bryant Week 10 NO 13.5 14.5 14
Stafford/Johnson Week 05 GB 14.4 14.4 14.4
Stafford/Johnson Week 16 NYG 11.1 14.1 12.6
Stafford/Johnson Week 14 PHI 10.7 13.7 12.2
Cutler/Marshall Week 07 WAS 7.6 13.6 10.6
Brady/Gronkowski Week 02 TB 10.8 12.8 11.8
Stafford/Johnson Week 17 MIN 12.7 12.7 12.7
Rodgers/Nelson Week 09 CHI 8.7 12.7 10.7

It comes as no surprise that Manning and the pair of Thomas are heavily represented in the top half. In fact, the average week for all combinations was 39.3 points. Manning and D. Thomas had 11 weeks above that, and J. Thomas had seven.

It’s only fair to note how much the Manning offense raised the average. If you were to remove all Broncos players from the above chart the average drops to 37.9. That’s a significant amount. Still, a score of 38 is a fine median to hang our hat on.

But the most interesting thing about this chart is what it tells us about Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. You see them clustered at the bottom with four of the lowest scoring weeks. So even though they had seven above average weeks, they also tanked our lineups more than half of the time. The moral of the story is that owning Johnson is great but pairing him with Stafford is not.

The same story can be told about Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Brown was a PPR monster last season. But they combined for only five games above the 39.3 average. The only benefit is Roethlisberger’s price, which is thousands less than your top tier quarterbacks. But if you’re looking to take a discount on a QB you should avoid the middle tier altogether and just head straight for the basement.

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green managed eight above average weeks. But when they were bad they were really bad. They had four weeks where they combined for fewer than 27 points. That’s not going to get it done in any contest. Dalton, like Roethlisberger, is priced accordingly so you get a discount on a QB with a stud wide receiver. But the risk of stacking them isn’t worth the propensity for failure. And under no circumstances should you start Dalton and not start Green.

Summation

  • Target quarterback/tight end combinations where possible. The top tight ends will always cost less than the top receivers and there’s evidence that QB/TE is a better play.
  • Play the Thursday night game but don’t play the Thursday night game. It’s good to get an early feel for the crowd but fading the players in the Thursday game is recommended most of the time.
  • Loss leaders are your friend. We can’t afford to ignore value in the name of contrarianism. When the price and play are right fading them to be different is a losing strategy.
  • Be creative and courageous with your lineups in big tournaments. This is the only way to put luck in your favor.
  • When stacking players we need a 40-point return, regardless of salary. We can use Vegas to navigate us towards the teams that offer the best odds for a game changing combination.