NFL PRESEASON DFS STRATEGY AND RESEARCH
The most important data points for the preseason are drastically different from the regular season. While things like matchups, betting market data, and other more advanced metrics are the focal point of regular season DFS research, during the preseason there is one main data point that trumps almost everything else, at least early in the preseason: snap counts.
Snap counts will be projected based on two main factors: coaching tendencies and beat writer reports (this will be a common trend in preseason DFS.) Coaching tendencies from previous years give a solid foundation for conclusions regarding a coach’s approach to each preseason game. For example, some coaches want to see each unit play a bit in their initial preseason bout (see: Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay), while others prefer to ensure the health of their first team and play them for just a single series (see: Mike McCarthy in Green Bay).
Beat writers for each team will also provide invaluable insight regarding which players are making the most of their opportunities in training camp. These training camp standouts catch the eye of their respective coaches and this can lead to increased playing time along with a more reliable connection with others, boosting their fantasy value dramatically.
During the preseason, the focus should be pointed towards GPPs. Nothing is guaranteed in the preseason, as with sports in general, but the NFL preseason is a time for evaluation. The final score is far from the top of a coach’s list of priorities, which leads to inconsistent playing time for players and vague guidelines for how much each unit and player will play. Due to the inconsistencies in playing time, the inability to accurately project full-game matchups, and a lack of solid information available, the risk associated with NFL preseason DFS is high enough to warrant a GPP focus rather than a cash-game focus.
BREAKING DOWN THE SLATE (5 GAMES)
- Kansas City Chiefs @ Atlanta Falcons
- New York Giants @ Detroit Lions
- Buffalo Bills @ Cleveland Browns
- Miami Dolphins @ Carolina Panthers
- Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints
Patrick Mahomes II II- God bless Andy Reid for disclosing his full plan for playing time in week two of the preseason. In a recent press conference, Reid said his plan is to play the starters for the first half, followed by one quarter each for the second and third units. Reid has always been quite transparent about playing time in the preseason, which for DFS players is truly a blessing. Without much solid information regarding playing time for most teams, hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth in this situation is about as rock-solid as it gets. Patrick Mahomes II, headed into his first season as the starting quarterback in Kansas City, has a lot to prove as well as a lot to improve upon from last year. These reps with the first team are critical for Mahomes to build chemistry with the rest of the first-teamers, and this extended run is the first large sample of live action he will see. Mahomes played the first quarter of the preseason opener, but during that time the Chiefs only possessed the ball for about five minutes and nine offensive snaps. In his second crack at it, the young gunslinger will play twice as long and likely possess the ball for substantially more time.
Davis Webb- Davis Webb sits second on the depth chart for New York behind seasoned veteran Eli Manning. Manning stands to gain very little from the meaningless reps in the preseason as he heads into his 15th year in the NFL. Webb and rookie Kyle Lauletta are in a heated battle for the number two spot on the depth chart, but Webb has shown flashes of being a capable quarterback over the past two weeks. In recent practices, Webb has gotten a little taste of action with the starting unit and he capitalized in the final practice before their second tune-up game. This Friday night, Webb will be put into the same situation as Connor Cook just one week ago: a quarterback battle for the backup position, getting the bulk of the first-half action, going up against the Detroit Lions. Cook came through with 141 yards and a score through the air, and Webb will look to do the same after shining this week in practice.
Christian McCaffrey- Ron Rivera and Norv Turner, Carolina’s head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, have clearly stated their desire to get McCaffrey the ball “25 to 30 times” per game this regular season. At first, this seemed to be a bit of an exaggeration, considering the Panthers just paid C.J. Anderson to come in and fill the spot vacated by Jonathan Stewart. However, the Panthers’ coaches put their money where their metaphorical mouths are in the preseason opener. McCaffrey got 6 touches in his 14 snaps in the first (exhibition) game with Norv Turner calling the plays, which is an outrageous rate of involvement in the offense and will not be sustainable over the long-run. Even if that astronomical involvement rate does not continue, McCaffrey, as most starters are, is poised for more playing time in the second preseason game, and subsequently a high volume of touches.
Marcus Murphy- Marcus Murphy was nearly sent into action last season in the playoffs when LeSean McCoy’s availability was in question against Jacksonville. His services were not needed at that time, but coach Sean McDermott was seemingly very confident in Murphy’s abilities if he was called upon. Instead, Murphy’s chance to show Bills Mafia what he is capable of came in their first preseason game this year against the Carolina Panthers when he ran for 35 yards and a touchdown. Murphy is trending towards securing the final running back slot on Buffalo’s roster, and with a strong performance against the Browns, he could do just that.
Greg Howell- Kalen Ballage, a late-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins this season, entered concussion protocol on August 14th, however, this has not shown up in the reports of many Miami beat writers. Thankfully, The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson recently pointed this out, which changes the workload composition for the Dolphins on Friday night. Ballage was on the field for 40% of Miami's offensive snaps in the first preseason game and, if healthy, he likely would have seen the bulk of action again in the second. Assuming Ballage is unable to suit up on Friday night, Greg Howell stands to benefit the most of any Dolphins running back. Howell saw the second-most snaps of any Miami running back in the opener and the undrafted free agent sits just behind Ballage on the depth chart. In Ballage's absence, Howell is poised to see extended playing time of all Miami running backs and subsequently the most production of the bunch.
Tyreek Hill- Last week, Tyreek Hill played the entire first quarter for Kansas City which, due to game flow, translated to just eight offensive snaps. In those eight snaps, however, Hill was targeted twice and hauled in both passes. The brief stint in their first game shows a much larger trend: Patrick Mahomes II, as young quarterbacks tend to do, will likely rely heavily upon his most reliable options. In a full half of work, Hill and Mahomes will look to build upon the chemistry they have established through camp as well as the small dose of live action a week ago. Expect Hill to be targeted early and often, as he gets substantially more playing time in the second preseason game than the first.
Greg Little- Recent Cardinals addition, Brice Butler, will be unavailable against the New Orleans Saints for the second preseason game of the 2018 season. Steve Wilks, according to Darren Urban, is still waiting for someone behind Larry Fitzgerald to step up at the wide receiver position, which makes Butler’s absence much more notable. Players like Chad Williams and Greg Little will be battling for the final wide receiver spot on the roster. In practices, Williams has struggled mightily with drops and Little has shined during that time. It is worth noting that Little has failed to make NFL rosters in the past, most notably in Cleveland, due to issues with drops as well. This may be Little’s last chance at making an NFL roster, which is additional incentive for Little to make the most of his playing time in Arizona’s second preseason game.
Tre’Quan Smith- The third-round pick for New Orleans shined in their first preseason game, making four catches on five targets in a team-high 74% of snaps. Given Smith’s performance a week ago, he will likely be one of the most rostered players on the slate. Smith, according to Chris Dunnels, has been the “star of camp” so far as he attempts to fill the void left by Brandin Cooks in the offense. Smith played with the first, second, and third units to get increased reps in his first taste of NFL action. Expect more of the same in the second preseason game against Arizona where Smith can get his first live action with Drew Brees, where he may be one of the rare “cash-game” plays on a preseason slate.
Curtis Samuel- Curtis Samuel, the second-year player for Carolina, was supposed to come in with Christian McCaffrey and be a part of a dynamic playmaking duo. Unfortunately, Samuel’s rookie year was riddled with injuries and he only recorded 4 catches in 9 games for the Panthers. This preseason has been critical to Samuel’s push to gain a significant role in the offense, and in the first preseason game, he laid the foundation for this effort with 4 catches while playing in 36% of Carolina’s offensive plays. Samuel should see similar volume in the second preseason game for Carolina as he continues to work on his transition to a full-time receiver in the NFL.
Travis Kelce- Travis Kelce, like Patrick Mahomes II and Tyreek Hill, played for just the first quarter of Kansas City’s preseason opener. However, in that short time on the field, Kelce was targeted on one-third of his offensive snaps. This target-rate is obviously unsustainable over a larger sample size, but there is no doubt that Kelce’s usage is amongst the league’s highest for tight ends. Kelce, along with the rest of the first team, is slated to play one full half of the second preseason game on Friday night. Tight ends rarely see the volume in snaps or targets that Kelce projects to in this preseason game, and with pricing not being a factor in decision making, he stands alone atop the list of tight end targets on this slate.
Hakeem Valles- Hakeem Valles is another player making a push to secure one of the last spots on the 53-man roster for his respective team. The main skill that has put Valles ahead of the competition for Detroit is his receiving ability, which perfectly suits DFS lineups and contests. In the opening preseason game, Valles was targeted four times and caught two of them, which is no small number for a tight end. Coach Matt Patricia has raved about his knowledge of the route tree and timing with the quarterbacks on the roster, which bodes well for his production in his second preseason game.