The Playoff Pareto Principles: Conference Championship DFS Preview

by Jakob Sanderson · Strategy

Last week’s article was the most prescient I’ve written all year in the best and worst way. As expected, the allure of the Bills-Chiefs contest brought extreme ownership to each passing game. Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans, Deebo Samuel and Davante Adams all came in at ownership far lower than their ceiling deserved. At the conclusion of the Rams-Buccaneers game I sat in strong position with stacks of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp with Evans and Leonard Fournette charging to the top of the leaderboard.

In fact, with 18 minutes remaining in the night game I sat in fourth place of The Spy, tending to a 10-point lead. Rest assured it did not hold up. Bills-Chiefs, after a near-three quarter hibernation, erupted into a panoply of offensive domination. Can you find the mettle to avoid stacking this week’s projected shootout at Arrowhead? How else can you make you make your lineup unique? With only two games to choose from on the last multi-game slate of the year there is nowhere to hide from ownership. But rest assured, there are plenty of strategic options at your disposal.

The final Pareto Principles of the year is underway. Let’s go!

A Note: This column focuses primarily on the strategy and game theory elements of DFS. I do not discuss the individual matchups of players. Instead I am basing my stances on what the field is expected to do, and how to capture a similar ceiling with a unique build. I outline my general approach here:

The Pareto Principals: Guiding Principles For Limited Entry DFS

Strategic Overview

My first playoff column began with an overview of strategic adaptions for playoff slates. I will list them below, but please check out the column for an in depth explanation behind each.

  • The sequential nature of playoff slates maximizes the importance of late swap. If ownership is efficient in all games you should be underweight on the earliest games in the slate.

  • There is a lower-projected threshold for players in the winning lineup with less games. Thus, you do not need as high a ceiling with each play in your lineup as in a standard slate.

  • Stacking games with up to five or six players is more acceptable in playoff slates. The lower-projection threshold is coupled with the increased benefit of game-wide correlation in smaller slates.

Each of these elements is heightened even further on a two-game slate. Every player with a significant offensive role will carry ownership, while almost any player with a touchdown is drawing live to be in the winning lineup. The congestion of a two-game slate allows you and forces you to think more creatively.

The Slate Economy

There are haves and and there are have-nots. Economic inequality has trickled down to our DFS slate in terms of offensive fire-power between these games. Regular readers know my tendency is to fade the highest-owned games and players seemingly on principle. However, it’s not that simple.

Embrace the Shootout

In general, especially so with 10-plus games at our disposal, the highest-projected plays are inefficiently owned when you consider the wide range of outcomes of every NFL game and the bevy of options. If 20 wide receivers project within two points of each other, why play the same one as everyone else?

In this slate there are no strong players slipping through the cracks. In fact, I wager the Chiefs-Bengals game may not be high-owned enough. Just twice in the last 12 years has one game outscored the other by two touchdowns or more. As attractive as KC-CIN is, I still expect a wide range of lineups to follow this trend of balance and include 3-plus players from each game, with roughly 25-percent playing Matthew Stafford or Jimmy Garoppolo. However, at 54.5 and 46 respectively, the gap in over-under between the two is pronounced.

Using alternate lines from DraftKings sportsbook, you can calculate the odds of each game hitting the ‘equilibrium’ point (50.25) at approximately +160. If you parlayed this over two games, your implied odds are approximately 17-percent to succeed.

In other words, in over 80-percent of the outcomes, KC-CIN will be the highest scoring game of the weekend. While you won’t generate leverage for your trouble, the odds guide you to play the more popular game from all conceivable angles.

The Inflection Points

As with the last two week, I will centre the column around key inflection points on the slate. For this piece I will go team-by-team rather than game-by-game.

Can we Trust Jerick McKinnon?

When it comes to the Chiefs passing game there is little secret. Patrick Mahomes stacked with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill captures the bulk of their aerial production with Byron Pringle emerging as the third option. Things are less clear in their backfield, now being led by Jerick McKinnon for two weeks despite Clyde Edwards-Helaire‘s return from injured reserve.

McKinnon has seen pass-game usage their 2020 first rounder could only dream of in his two starts. Converting 13 targets into 12 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, McKinnon is a viable stacking option with Patrick Mahomes.

Jerick McKinnon Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

Because I am willingly stacking the game with the most ownership, my goal is to capture every single touchdown. While many Mahomes or Joe Burrow stacks will default to Elijah Mitchell and/or Cam Akers as they attempt to balance their lineup, I will include both Joe Mixon and a Chiefs rusher in almost all lineups. This generates a unique over-stacked construction. While McKinnon is my preferred option in Mahomes stacks, I prefer Edwards-Helaire in Burrow lineups. He was subbed in for a goal line series despite McKinnon dominating touches, and impressed on his carries. Projecting (rightly) for half his team-mate’s ownership, I will play Edwards-Helaire as leverage off Mahomes in hopes of stealing a touchdown or two on the ground.

Chase-ing The Ceiling

While Joe Burrow has three excellent wide receivers at his disposal there is little doubt as to which possesses the highest ceiling. In his last outing vs. the Chiefs, Ja’Marr Chase posted the highest-scoring game of any wide receiver this year.

Despite his herculean feat last month, I doubt his ownership separates from his teammates if it surpasses them at all. The Bengals have deployed Chase as their primary deep threat with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd occupying more work underneath this year. Given the state of Kansas City’s weakened secondary, many are expecting prevention of the big play as their primary goal.

We need only look to last week for a reason to play Tee Higgins. While Stefon Diggs was limited to just seven yards, secondary option Gabriel Davis was allowed to roam free vs. reserve corners for more touchdowns than Diggs had receptions. Higgins is $1,000 less expensive than Chase, but Boyd – at just $4,200 – is one of the best point per dollar options on the slate. For that reason, if I am avoiding any Bengals pass catcher it has to be Boyd. In a two-game slate, raw points are ultimately more important than salary-adjusted production and Boyd’s 18.4-percent (No. 47) Target Share and 17.4-percent (No. 74) Air Yards Share do not carry the type of ceiling I fear missing out on at high ownership.

If I am playing a super-stack of this game, I should play for the explosion play which kick-starts a shootout and Chase is most likely to provide that. Any chance to use a player at his caliber at reasonable ownership compared to his teammates is one we have to jump all over.

Trust the Volume

If there is a running back I’ll play at or near the field’s ownership it is Cam Akers.

At just $5,000, Akers is egregiously underpriced coming off a workhorse role in the divisional round. If Sean McVay was willing to to offer him such an expansive workload off a torn Achilles, I find it doubtful a fumble will tame his enthusiasm for the young running back.

It will be virtually impossible to play Cooper Kupp at $8,600 in a high percentage of my lineups while trying to build high-powered game stacks of KC-CIN, so I need to steal touchdowns somehow. Ideally, Akers shoulders the load and finds the end zone in a low-scoring affair.

If you are looking to stack this game, or adding cheap exposure at the end of your lineup my favourite option is Van Jefferson. Despite being among the league’s least effective receivers vs. man coverage, Jefferson has been a force against zone which bodes well for this matchup. If you do stack with Mathew Stafford, Jefferson’s 13.3 (No. 11) Average Target Distance makes him an ideal pick to score the long touchdown necessary to speed up this game.

Elijah Mitchell: Empty Calories

If you keep up to date with me for season-long or dynasty you know I LOVE me some Elijah Mitchell, and I always have. The conference championship is no time to cling to summer romance. Since returning from injury in Week 17, Mitchell has just six catches in four games for 18 yards. He also has just one score in that time, losing high-leverage carries to Deebo Samuel and all passing downs to Kyle Juszczyk. His high carry total provides a floor but not an insurmountable one if he’s kept from the end zone.

As one of two running backs with locked-in role security, I expect Mitchell’s ownership to sky-rocket. This will only be compounded by people’s proclivity to stack KC-CIN through the air leaving Mitchell as the natural choice from the 49ers. He could certainly burn me, but you have to take stands in a small slate like this and fading Mitchell is likely mine this week.

If you are looking for a low-owned option from the 49ers I am interested in Jauan Jennings this week. His role is sizeable including a two-touchdown performance vs. the Rams in Week 18.

Some projection sources have discounted Jennings with the return of former starting slot receiver Mohamed Sanu. Based on word from the 49ers beat I would not worry. Feel free to add Jennings at $3,200 as the lowest-priced option on the slate with a legitimate role this weekend.

The Final Word

Writing this column all year has been an absolute blast! As we move into the off-season you can expect much more dynasty, draft, and general strategy content from me over the next several months. I hope you join me for a great off-season of content and have a fun weekend of football and DFS!