Small Slate Game Theory: Playoff Edition

GPP Tips, Strategies and Ownership Projections for Wild Card Weekend

In this special three-week Fan Duel NFL Playoffs feature, we will take a close look at projected ownership and top plays of the week. We will also spend some time on game theory and discuss ideas on how to build relatively unique lineups that can still score enough points to win GPPs.

We’ll start off with some general strategy ideas and then go through each position and apply the strategies to this week’s slate to identify the top plays given our ownership projections at each position.

Short-Slate GPP Strategy

There is quite a bit of game theory on small slates. The goal is to build as unique a lineup as possible to differentiate from the pack while also putting together a team with a relatively high probability of putting up a huge score that can take down a big tournament. 

While there are many different paths to daily fantasy success in the NFL playoffs, three general principles have served me well when playing small slate GPPs: (1) Get uniqueness on the cheap, (2) Play the studs and (3) Identify the best high-upside bargains.

1. Get Uniqueness On the Cheap

One of the biggest keys to putting yourself in position to win a small slate GPP is getting your uniqueness “on the cheap.” When we use the term "on the cheap" in this context, we are not talking about salary. Instead we are targeting low owned players while trying to sacrifice as little as possible in terms of projected points and realistic upside. This idea is best explained by a quick example. Assume the following scenario:

Player  Proj. Points Proj Own % Price
Quarterback A 20 30% $8,000
Quarterback B 15 10% $8,000
Kicker X 8 30% $4,500
Kicker Y 7 10% $4,500


If it was a cash game, we would simply ignore the ownership and roster Quarterback A/Kicker X and take our projected 28 points. However, in a tournament we would expect approximately 9% (or 9 out of 100) of entries to have the A/X combo and we know there are built-in advantages to a more unique lineup. We can get some uniqueness by removing one of the chalky options and replacing him with the lower-owned contrarian option at the same position. With a combination of Quarterback A/Kicker Y or Quarterback B/Kicker X, we would expect approximately 3% of the entries to have the same combo. In other words, we increase our uniqueness 3x by making the move down to the less chalky option at one of the two positions.

The A/Y combo projects to score 27 points while the B/X combo projects for just 23 points. By downgrading at Kicker instead of Quarterback, we were able to make our lineup 3x more unique while only sacrificing one projected point (27 vs. 28). Whereas taking the contrarian option at quarterback instead was much more "costly," as we are sacrificing five projected points just to build some uniqueness. Whenever possible, we want to get our uniqueness and target contrarian plays that still project highly and/or have realistic upside for big games vs. taking major reaches just to have lineups that look different from the rest of the field. 

As we go through each position below, we will identify some ways to make our lineups unique "on the cheap."

2. Play the Studs

On small slates the ownership levels of the elite players can be extremely high and it becomes tempting to fade the top guys and try to build a highly unique lineup. Don’t give into the temptation. This is a corrolary to our "uniqueness on the cheap" strategy discussed above. There are better ways to differentiate than fading the elite options on the slate. Try to get two of the following four players into most of your lineups: Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, and Odell Beckham Jr, Jr. (especially if you aren't mass entering 100+ lineups). None of these four are likely to come with ownership levels under 30% and we project Le'Veon Bell to see tournament ownership of over 60%. However, bypassing the top players entirely rarely works out. The odds that the winning roster includes none of the four above is slim. At least one is likely to have a big game and odds are high that two or more rank amongst the week's top fantasy performers. In an elimination game, NFL teams are going to stick with what got them to the playoffs and put the game in the hands of their best players.

Let’s look at Bell as an example of why playing the studs is so important. David Dodds projects Bell as the top back this weekend by a full 10+ points over the second tier backs like Zach Zenner, Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi. Bell also comes at a price premium, but there are limited ways to spend the savings that don’t include rostering at least one of the elite receivers. Passing on Bell to play multiple elite receivers is a viable strategy. Passing on Bell just to target mid-priced options is likely a losing proposition. In other words, fading the top players on this small slate is a very “expensive” way to create uniqueness in terms of limiting your scoring upside.

3. Find the Lotto Ticket

The key to winning these small playoff slates is very often in finding the inexpensive, low-owned WR3 who goes off for a big week. That's especially true if you buy into the strategy of playing your studs. In recent years, we’ve seen players like Jermaine Kearse, Corey Brown and Danny Amendola go off for big games in the playoffs. Finding that proverbial needle in the haystack this week will be crucial, especially with ownership likely to be fairly concentrated at quarterback and running back. Buying the right boom/bust lotto ticket can make your weekend.

We will look at some specific "lotto ticket" names in the positional breakdown below. However, in broad strokes, we are looking for a guy with a favorable matchup who has a reasonable chance to score at least one touchdown. There is added GPP value in the big-play threats who can beat the defense over the top and potentially win you a tournament on one play.

Positional Breakdown

The Ownership Projections below are based upon an in-depth analysis of a number of factors, including: the general "buzz" around each player, projected scoring around the industry, and the pricing structure and typical roster construction decisions most owners are facing when trying to fit players in under the cap. 

Quarterback

Quarterback Own %
Ben Roethlisberger 36
Aaron Rodgers 29
Russell Wilson 12
Eli Manning 11
Matthew Stafford 6
Brock Osweiler 2
Connor Cook 2
Matt Moore 2

Ben Roethlisberger: The Steelers have the highest implied team total on the slate (28), 2.5 points higher than any other team. Since 2014, Roethlisberger has been incredible at home, averaging 339 yards and 3.0 passing touchdowns per game. Roethlisberger’s ownership is likely to be north of 30% and a huge percentage of those lineups will stack both Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. As mentioned above, it makes sense to “play the studs” on these small slates despite the high ownership. Even though the Ben-Bell-Brown stack is going to be extremely chalky, it’s still a fantastic play. The key to playing a chalky stack like the “3 Bs” will be to try to pick up as much uniqueness as possible at other positions. If this is the direction you take, make sure to be a bit more aggressive in trying to create some uniqueness at other positions (especially defense and kicker) to break free from the pack.

Russell Wilson: Aside from the two elite options up top, Wilson makes sense as a GPP upside play at projected ownership of less than 15%. The Seahawks have the second-highest team total on the slate at 25.5 points. With a running game that has struggled mightily down the stretch (Thomas Rawls has topped 70 rushing yards just once all season), Seattle will need to rely on the arm and legs of Wilson. Jeff Haseley noted how Wilson has a relatively low floor, but has been able to put together a number of the big 300-yard, three-touchdown performances that often win GPPs.


 

Running Back

Running Back Own %
Le'Veon Bell 64
Lamar Miller 32
Zach Zenner 26
Jay Ajayi 18
Paul Perkins 12
Ty Montgomery 12
DeAndre Washington 10
Thomas Rawls 9
Rashad Jennings 7
Latavius Murray 7
Jalen Richard 2
Aaron Ripkowski 1

Paul Perkins: Down the stretch of the regular season, the Giants started to ramp up their usage of Paul Perkins and their struggling run game showed signs of life. He averaged 15.5 carries per game over the New York's final four games. Perkins has averaged nearly a full yard more per carry than Jennings this season (4.1 to 3.3) and almost twice as many yards per reception (10.8 to 5.7). Despite his bargain price ($5,900) and indications that he is likely to be the starter for the Giants this weekend, he is still flying a bit too much under the radar.  If anything, my projected ownership (12%) may even be a little high on Perkins. He should go fairly under-owned. He is exactly the type of big-play threat as both a runner and receiver who it makes sense to target as an inexpensive "lotto ticket" at the position if you decide to bypass the more expensive RB2 options to fit studs in at other positions. 

 

Wide Receiver

Wide Receiver Own %
Antonio Brown 43
Doug Baldwin 35
Odell Beckham Jr Jr 32
Jordy Nelson 30
Davante Adams 20
Golden Tate 18
Sterling Shepard 15
Jarvis Landry 14
Eli Rogers 13
Kenny Stills 12
Michael Crabtree 10
DeAndre Hopkins 6
Anquan Boldin 6
DeVante Parker 6
Will Fuller V 5
Jermaine Kearse 5
Paul Richardson Jr 5
Geronimo Allison 5
Amari Cooper 4
Victor Cruz 4
Marvin Jones Jr 3
Seth Roberts 3
Cobi Hamilton 3
Sammie Coates Jr 3

Sterling Shepard: While Shepard may not qualify as a true "lotto ticket" play if his ownership is above 10% as projected here, he is exactly the type of WR3 we want to target this weekend. We probably need a touchdown out of each of our receivers to win a large-field tournament, so we want to target players with reasonable touchdown equity. While Shepard may not fit the prototypical view of a big red zone threat, he has been one of the Giants go-to options around the end zone. In fact, Shepard has scored a touchdown in six of his past nine games (67%). The Giants are second in the league with 50.3% of their total points coming via passing touchdowns (and dead last with just 11.3% of points coming via rushing touchdowns) and Beckham is likely to draw extra attention from the Packers defense.

Will Fuller V: Fuller is the perfect example of an inexpensive, high-upside "lotto ticket" WR3 play. At just $5,000, he allows you to fit in many of the top players across the rest of your roster. At projected ownership of only 5%, he instantly differentiates your roster. Beyond those factors, what makes him so attractive is his big-play ability. A single long touchdown can make him a tournament winner at this price point. He was easily the fastest wide receiver at the 2016 NFL combine, running a 4.32 forty yard dash. He flashed his upside early in the season, with 323 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his first four games. Knee and hamstring injuries slowed his progress for much of the rest of the season however. While he is admittedly a bit of a longshot for a big game, the matchup is a sneaky good one for him. The Raiders starting corners both stand 6'3 and will match up well with the larger DeAndre Hopkins. Oakland has given up the league's second-most long passing plays however and have been burned by smaller speed guys all season (Ted Ginn Jr, Brandin Cooks, Tyreek Hill, etc.).  

Tight End

Tight End Own %
Jared Cook 25
C.J. Fiedorowicz 17
Jimmy Graham 17
Ladarius Green 16
Eric Ebron 13
Will Tye 7
Dion Sims 4
Clive Walford 1

Fading an elite receiver with a tight end: None of the tight ends stand out as especially strong plays compared to projected ownership. So let's use this section to discuss a little bit of game theory instead. One way to play correlations in your lineups is to use lower-priced players to fade a higher-owned player who you are not rostering. For example, if you are playing a Green Bay-Giants game stack, one way to differentiate your lineup is to play Ladarius Green. While a big percentage of the Green Bay-heavy rosters will have Jared Cook, you create some uniqueness by not rostering him. But more importantly, there is a correlation play because in not rostering Antonio Brown and/or Le'Veon Bell, you are betting on neither having a big game. With that assumption built in, it increases the odds that at least one of the touchdowns in that game goes to a secondary target like Green. 

Defense 

Defense Own %
Houston Texans 28
Seattle Seahawks 20
Green Bay Packers 14
Pittsburgh Steelers 12
Oakland Raiders 12
NY Giants 6
Detroit Lions 5
Miami Dolphins 3

Detroit Lions: As a big road underdog, the Lions are understandably going to be one of the lowest-owned defenses on the slate. The fact that they got torched in prime time on Week 17 by Aaron Rodgers will depress ownership even beyond what is reasonable however. Any defense on a four-game slate with ownership of 5% or less is a good play based upon the percentages and the randomness of defensive touchdowns. There is some sneaky upside here for the Lions as well. The forecast calls for a wintry mix of rain and snow at kickoff, which could lead to a very sloppy game. Seattle's running game is broken. Even the league's worst run defense (San Francisco), held the Seahawks to just 87 rushing yards last week and lead back Thomas Rawls averaged just 1.6 YPC. Seattle will likely be forced to drop back and throw a lot with a shaky offensive line. 

Kicker

Kicker Own %
Steve Hauschka 25
Mason Crosby 22
Chris Boswell 17
Nick Novak 13
Robbie Gould 9
Andrew Franks 6
Matt Prater 4
Sebastian Janikowski 4

Sebastian Janikowski: In terms of adding uniquenss on the cheap, Janikowski stands out as perhaps the best play on the entire slate. He's the most expensive kicker on the slate and playing for the team with the lowest implied team total. Very few are going to want to pay up for him and that's exactly what makes him such an attractive tournament option. While he is projected to score 2-3 points less than the top kickers, if he comes at one fifth of the ownership, that's a fairly cheap price to pay for adding that much potential separation to your lineup. On top of that, we know kickers are tough to predict and there is much more randomness as to who has a big week. Janikowski also has some sneaky upside. He has the fourth most attempts from 50+ yards in the league (8) this season. With the cold temperatures in the three other games, he will also be kicking in by far the best conditions to hit some long field goals. 


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