If you’ve spent time surfing Netflix this year, it would be hard to avoid Squid Game; the Korean survival game show which became so popular, halloween stores had to emergency order additional costumes.
For those who haven’t watched (change this), one episode involves the contestants being sorted into teams for a tug of war, in which all members of losing teams are ‘eliminated.’
Our main character’s team is initially saddened to realize they are at a strength disadvantage, but in my view this was illogical. You know half the field will be eliminated in this event; would you prefer to face a marginal disadvantage in one event – knowing your competition will then be weaker henceforth – or be more likely to win the first event, but know if you do win you’re now among the weakest players remaining?
The answer of course depends on the odds. How large is the marginal difference in win equity by team in the tug of war? How much greater or lesser is change in win equity based on the strength of your remaining competition? These are the defining questions of tournament DFS.
A Tug of War Gone Wrong
In Week 10, the “strongest” team in the tug of war was playing D’Ernest Johnson, Mark Ingram, and Cowboys or Bills stacks. I looked at this, and saw an alternate team to join. With Ezekiel Elliott, Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook in elite matchups, I decided to join a squad that made my lineup slightly ‘weaker,’ but increased my overall win equity if successful.
In Week 10, this Tug of War primarily resulted with me falling off the ledge to my .. ‘elimination,’ but when the ownership turned over on Sunday I was thrilled with my play strategy. We play a probabilistic game and you have to accept the risk of being wrong.
This week however, presents a new set of calculations. There are once again obvious chalk plays on the slate, but far less palatable options for differentiation. The split between this week’s best games and the rest is a chasm. And with each of the top games presenting a different construction, there is no obvious structural path to get different. Does this mean it’s time to link arms and yank on the rope with the big boys
How can we find opportunities for tournament-winning upside while maintaining unique lineups on an undesirable slate? That’s the question we’ll address in Week 11’s DFS Strategic Preview: The Pareto Principals.
A weekly note: This is not your typical DFS column. We rarely discuss matchups, nor do we debate the ‘best’ plays. This is a column about using game theory to find edges on the field not captured by projections. If this is your first time reading, I encourage you to check out my evergreen, introductory column which covers concepts I re-visit in the weekly editions.
Week 10 Review
I try to alternate my weeks with extensive lineup reviews and there just isn’t anything exciting enough to dig deep into from last week.
I talked last week about the consolidated construction of cheap running backs with premium stacks and why I wanted to diverge from that. This led to two categories of lineup.
1) Mimic the popular construction while substituting Seattle-Green Bay stacks for the popular options
2) Flip the popular build by stacking cheap quarterbacks with high-priced running backs
Of course, neither of these were close to the winning combination. Ironically, the best construction this week was the reverse of option 1. Play the popular stacks with cheap running backs, but insert Rhamondre Stevenson for D’Ernest Johnson or Mark Ingram. I certainly considered this option, but decided I was giving up too much projection to play a slight alteration of the chalk build. While a mistake in hindsight, it’s hard to kick myself too hard for deferring something I considered and decided against for logical reasons.
My biggest regrets are always with regard to mis-projecting ownership, or not considering a winning strategy I would have or should have played if I had. Hindsight is 20 for 100 and two touchdowns.
Christian McCaffrey is on Another Level
My best lineup was a meagre 1.5x minimum cash with a Kirk Cousins – Justin Jefferson –Tyler Conklin stack. Bane of my existence and featured member of the review section, Mike Williams, was stopped at the one, and dropped a touchdown. Why? Because he is Mike Williams and he exists to put me on tilt. I cannot let him win.
I also had Christian McCaffrey in this lineup – at 4-percent owned. McCaffrey, who had one touchdown overturned and another vultured by Chuba Hubbard, scored 26 DraftKings points without a bonus or a touchdown. He was legitimately two decisions away from clearing 40 points. This was truly a missed opportunity, for we will never see McCaffrey at that price or ownership rest of season.
Nonetheless, we should project McCaffrey as the clear-cut RB1 every week he is healthy regardless of matchup. In just 41 snaps, the former Cardinal saw 13 carries and 10 targets; two straight games with a usage-rate over 50-percent. If there is any fear of him losing goal line work to Cam Newton, use that to jam McCaffrey into as many lineups as possible. There is no running back close to his floor or ceiling based on that usage profile. At $8900 this week, anything less than 30-percent is egregiously under-owned.
Week 11 Preview
With a major reduction in the pool of high-projected plays this week, it is much harder to find leverage on the field without sacrificing material projection. In this week’s preview, I sort through each tier of game to identify possible under-played, high ceiling options.
There are three categories of game this weekend; three highly desirable environments (one elite), a handful of projected one-sided affairs. and several games which project poorly for DFS-winning environments. One issue from a differentiation perspective is the two most popular games; Chiefs-Cowboys and Bengals-Raiders offer differentiated structures from one another. Stacking Patrick Mahomes or Dak Prescott requires a large allocation of salary. That is not the case with Joe Burrow or Derek Carr, who are priced down themselves and offer affordable weaponry. This dichotomy makes it more challenging to find leverage through an unpopular construction.
So how do we get different this week? We have to focus at a more micro-level to find our leverage opportunities. Let’s dive into each tier of game in hopes of finding under-owned options in strong environments, or high-upside options despite their environment.
Tier 1 Games: Shootout Central
KC-DAL ; CIN-LVR ; BUF-IND
As is often the case, one of my favourite options in high-owned, high total games is to play the running backs. Running backs in such games often get under-owned. Players stacking one side of the game typically defers the runner in favour of the receiver who correlates higher with the quarterback. Increasingly, DFS gamers prefer to use a pass-catcher from the other side as their bring-back in hopes of ‘speeding up the game.’ When both sides of a game are stacked, it is easy for running backs to come in under-owned relative to the ownership on the game as a whole.
It’s Time to Feed Zeke
Priced up despite a post-bye efficiency dip, Ezekiel Elliott is my favourite play in the KC-DAL contest. At $7,700, Elliott is unlikely to be among the slate’s top-owned running backs. His price is prohibitive to pairings with Chiefs stacks, which are more comfortably paired with the $4,200 Michael Gallup. Elliott, despite a muted role in the pass-game this year, sees his highest snap rates in trailing script, where he is relied on as a blocker and outlet. For this reason, I think he pairs well as a differentiating factor in Chiefs stacks.
I’m also attracted to Elliott as a standalone play. If Dallas is able to control the clock, it could be a boon for his value and a downgrade for the game as a whole. This scenario lets you use him as both a leverage point and beneficiary of Week 11’s premium game.
This is a similar approach I will use with Joe Mixon and Josh Jacobs in the Bengals-Raiders game. In every lineup I don’t stack this contest I will consider using one of the running backs. Both these backs are tied to a game script which favours them and no-one else. Jacobs in particular has boasted fantasy production more tied to game script than any fantasy rusher over the last two years.
Your Week 11 under-owned Shootout
Your shoot for the moon option this week is Jonathan Taylor, who plays in the game I plan to stack most often compared to the field. Playing against the league’s best defense, Taylor may never be less popular than he is this Sunday for the rest of the year. He has proven capable of explosive plays on any defense this year, which not only buoy his fantasy chances but creates fantasy goodness for the entire game. Indianapolis is top-10 in the league in offensive efficiency, and run their offense primarily through just Taylor and Michael Pittman. If they can hold their own against the Bills, this game could be the highest scoring contest on the slate, and you will want access to both sides of this game.
Tier 2: The Onslaughts
TEN–HOU ; CLE-DET ; SF-JAX ; MIA-NYJ
Three games on this slate feature a total of 45 or lower, but with an implied team total of 26 or higher for one side. This makes the 49ers, Browns, and Titans worthy of our attention. I’ve included the Dolphins in this tier of games despite the tighter spread.
My Top Fades at Running Back
It is difficult to generate excitement for the 49ers or Browns in DFS. Both will feature a popular running back (Nick Chubb – $7,800 ; Jeff Wilson – $5,100). As a matter of process, I tend to fade non-pass catching running backs when popular. Their sensitivity to Game Script makes them fragile, and the high-bar on yardage and touchdown efficiency required from such a profile makes them tolerable fades even if they hit.
I’m more likely to ignore these games altogether in tournaments unless they project for less ownership than I anticipate at time of writing, or I have a sufficiently diversified lineup around them.
If you are fading a popular back, it is worth considering paths to leverage off that decision. I cannot justify a full stack of either team given the limited volume of their passing offenses, but that does not leave us without options. George Kittle is my favourite play on the entire slate. Since returning to the lineup, he leads the 49ers with a 26-percent Target Share. He presents leverage off Jeff Wilson, as well as Deebo Samuel. With Darren Waller and Travis Kelce playing in the slate’s highest total games, Kittle has an array of factors driving his ownership downward. It is fully within the range of outcomes for Kittle to be the slate’s highest-scoring tight end with a huge performance that leverages off multiple popular plays.
If I do play a full stack among this tier it would be with the Titans or Dolphins. Miami has proved pass-heavy in all scripts this year and bring a consolidated target tree into a matchup with the pitiful Jets pass defense. My only hold-up with this stack is the potential popularity owing to the simplicity of structure pairing Tua Tagovailoa with Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki. Given the Jets yearlong struggle against pass-catching backs, I will attempt to differentiate the structure of my stack by including Gaskin with Tagovailoa.
The lesser owned option is to return to Ryan Tannehill – A.J. Brown stacks fresh off a disappointing week 10. I’ll happily fade the popular spend-down options in Marcus Johnson and D’Onta Foreman in favour of Brown, who is just one week removed from a month-long stretch of games over a 30-percent Target Share.
Tier 3: The Rest
BAL-CHI ; WAS-CAR ; NO-PHI ; MIN-GB ; ARI-SEA
I won’t break down each game in this tier, but I do think there are attractive options in each.
As mentioned in the Week 10 review, Christian McCaffrey needs to be lock-buttoned into lineups until the market proves they are willing to play him appropriately. I do no think this is the week they do. Cam Newton is underpriced, but I would prefer to save my quarterback spot to facilitate a higher upside stack. If the market gravitates towards Newton, I will happily leverage off his goal-line projection with McCaffrey..
One standalone play I will sprinkle in this week is Miles Sanders; if activated. The Eagles have embraced a run-first identity since the game Sanders’ suffered his injury, and he now possess major upside if he regains his role. Given the number of higher-median options to spend down with at running back, I will take shots at Sanders to differentiate and access his explosive upside.
Facing Down Quadzilla
The most interesting game among this group is Green Bay-Minnesota. At $6,200, A.J. Dillon projects as the slate’s highest rostered running back. James Conner, at a similar price, averaged 22-percent ownership on last week’s slate with two elite free-square backs, and several top-end backs in great matchups. I would be stunned if Dillon comes in at a lower rate.
The upside in this game is much higher than discussed for the 49ers and Browns with their chalk running backs. With a 1-point spread and a 47-point total, both sides of this game present viable stacking options. The slow-pace of the Packers combined with Minnesota’s proclivity to establish the run creates risk, but the presence of explosive playmakers Justin Jefferson and Davante Adams offer paths to a shootout such as Week 1 of 2020’s 77-point affair. It is at least an open question to what extent A.J. Dillon takes on Aaron Jones‘ role in passing situations, creating a path for effective leverage.
I will prioritize Aaron Rodgers stacks brought back with Dalvin Cook or Justin Jefferson this week. However, in lineups with sufficient leverage elsewhere, I’ll play Dillon who projects as an elite play.
The Final Word
Week 11 is a challenging slate, but as the title states; where there are less options, there are more opportunities for us to create an edge on the competition. I am excited to see how this week plays out.
For those who read me every week, you know I’m a law student heading directly into exam season. Sadly, this will be my last edition of the column for a couple weeks as I address my real life priorities. I will be back for certain to finish out the season and take you into the playoffs. Until then, have fun and good luck!