Beginner's Guide to Fantasy Football, Part 4: Starting Lineups

Our beginner's series continues with a dive into starting lineups for fantasy leagues

Now that we have the fundamentals of scoring down, let’s take a look at starting lineups. These are the players that will accumulate points for you each week. The lineup has a set number and requirement for positions. Each week, fantasy owners can decide to move players in and out of their starting lineups until those players are locked. That usually happens when those players' games start, though some league rules may lock starting lineups starting with the first game of the week.

One of the biggest challenges in fantasy football is making solid lineup decisions. Usually, you want to play your stars, but there are a lot of factors that go into lineup decisions. Before we get there, though, let's start with the basics. What are the different kinds of starting lineups, and how do these different lineup types affect strategy?

Vanilla

QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, TE, D/ST, PK

This starting lineup features one quarterback, two running backs, two receivers, one tight end, one defense/special teams, and one kicker. Most leagues nowadays feature one more starter, whether it be a receiver or flex position. We will cover that below.

Now for some context. For the purposes of this article, we will assume a 12-team fantasy league with standard scoring. Different scoring systems will change the calculus we discuss here, but the core game theory remains in place.

Now is a good time for a crash course in positional scarcity. This concept should inform roster construction. Positional scarcity is the idea that fantasy value at each position has a varying degree of scarcity, or lack thereof, depending on starting lineup requirements and league size. For example, in a 12-team fantasy league with a vanilla starting lineup, there are only ever 12 quarterbacks starting any given week. That is 12 out of 32 NFL starters who will ostensibly be under center 100 percent of snaps, barring injury. Broadly speaking, you can reasonably expect to get good scoring out of your quarterback if you get one of the top 12 in the league, which means you can wait longer to draft one without negatively impacting your roster.

Conversely, there are 24 running backs starting on fantasy rosters in any given week. Considering there are only a handful of elite backs and maybe another double fistful of solid starters, fantasy scoring can get pretty scarce once you get past the first 15-20 running backs in a draft.

The same might be said about receivers, but there are simply more of them putting up solid numbers in the NFL. Many teams feature two receivers who are going to put up good-to-great fantasy numbers. Think of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders of yesteryear, or Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry coming up in 2019. Because of this, receivers are generally less valuable than running backs in vanilla league types, particularly if it features standard scoring.

The tight end position is similar to that of quarterback, but there is more variance among the top 12 with a steeper dropoff once you get through the top guys at the position. You can still find quality fantasy scoring in the middle rounds from the tight end position, though, especially if you get two quality NFL starters and play the matchups properly.

Value-based drafting revolves around this idea, and it is one of the cornerstones of Footballguys. You can find much more on Value-Based Drafting here. For now, let's take a look at an example of a starting lineup in a vanilla league.

Pos
Player
Team
QB
Dak Prescott
DAL
RB
Ezekiel Elliott
DAL
RB
Mark Ingram
BAL
WR
T.Y. Hilton
IND
WR
Will Fuller
HOU
TE
Zach Ertz
PHI
PK
Stephen Gostkowski
NE
D/ST
New York Jets
NYJ

Three-Receiver

QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, WR, TE, D/ST, PK

This is a variant on the vanilla lineup. It simply adds a third receiver to the mix. But the changes it makes to player values are far from simple.

Three-receiver leagues dramatically change the dynamic between running back and wide receiver in terms of positional value. Now no less than 36 receivers will be starting throughout the fantasy league each week.

Flex

QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, RB/WR, TE, D/ST, PK
QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, RB/WR, RB/TE, TE, D/ST, PK
QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, RB/WR/TE, TE, D/ST, PK

Most flex lineup types take the third receiver slot and convert it into a multi-position starting spot. Flex leagues by nature are malleable, so there can be one flex spot for just WR/RB or WR/RB/TE, or there can be multiple flex spots that allow for different positional variations. The above configurations are the most common out there, but there are plenty of possible variations on this theme. There are even leagues out there where every starting spot except quarterback, defense, and kicker is a flex spot. Creative approaches to starting lineups like that can be fun and daunting all at once.

As you might have deduced, the flex spot throws positional scarcity into chaos. VBD is still absolutely valid, but the calculus is dramatically different, especially across different scoring systems. Fantasy team owners will approach their respective teams with those different values in mind, and roster construction can vary wildly from team to team. Here is an example of two teams from the same draft in a flex league:

Example Team 1
Round
Example Team 2
RB
Ezekiel Elliott
DAL
1st
WR
Davante Adams
GB
RB
Nick Chubb
CLE
2nd
WR
Antonio Brown
OAK
WR
Adam Thielen
MIN
3rd
WR
Amari Cooper
DAL
RB
Devonta Freeman
ATL
4th
RB
Marlon Mack
IND
WR
Chris Godwin
TB
5th
TE
George Kittle
SF
WR
Alshon Jeffery
PHI
6th
RB
Chris Carson
SEA
TE
Jared Cook
NO
7th
QB
Baker Mayfield
CLE

Note the drastically different approaches. Team 1 still values running backs highly while Team 2 went for the jugular at wide receiver. These approaches may be intentional or a product of the draft -- perhaps all the good running backs were gone by the time Team 2 picked in the first round, so the fantasy owner decided to eschew running backs and get a leg up on the receiver position.

Because of all the possible permutations, henceforth we'll refer to the position as a Flex position in lieu of WR/RB, WR/RB/TE, etc.

Two-QB

QB, QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, WR, TE, D/ST, PK
QB, QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, Flex, TE, D/ST, PK

Two-quarterback leagues basically add a second quarterback to the starting lineup. Now instead of waiting at quarterback because the relative value is weak, it becomes absolutely imperative to take quarterbacks early. Again, there are only 32 NFL starters, and now there are 24 starters in the league. With the need to stash at least one more quarterback on the bench, the script on positional scarcity is flipped. You do not want to be the team stuck with an actual NFL backup in your starting lineup during a bye week because you waited too long to fill your quarterback slots.

Super Flex

QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, Flex (QB/Flex), TE, D/ST, PK

Super flex leagues can be one of the most fun lineup types in fantasy football. Combined with creative scoring, teams in these kinds of leagues can find success in wildly different ways.

A super flex league puts together the best of flex and two-QB leagues. There is only one quarterback starting slot, but the flex position can be occupied with a quarterback as well. This means that the quarterback position usually runs dry early in drafts, something to bear in mind when drafting.