The Playoff Pareto Principles: Wild Card Weekend Preview

by Jakob Sanderson · Strategy

The Pareto Principles took a hiatus this season as I finished with school work, and COVID-19’s Omicron variant made injury reports so unpredictable that even late-week written DFS content was barely actionable.

In my return to PlayerProfiler’s masthead, I recently discussed strategy surrounding playoff best ball contests. However, with the start of Wild Card Weekend on the horizon I’ve returned with a strategy-based analysis of the weekend’s slate.

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

Reduced slates are my favorites to play. With fewer games to analyze, the threshold on playable options increases as you require less ceiling from each play to plausibly wind up in the optimal lineup. With fewer options to construct lineups, popular builds and players are further consolidated by the field. This leads to clear strategic inflection points.

While I will primarily play the six-game slate, in an effort to provide usable advice to any slate you wish to play, I have organized this column around inflection points in each matchup following my strategic overview.

The Slate Economy

If Running Backs Matter, why aren’t there any $7,000 rushers on a twelve team playoff slate?

Kidding aside, it is fascinating to see a DFS slate without top-priced mainstays Jonathan Taylor, Austin Ekeler, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and more. The top-priced options this weekend – Joe Mixon and Josh Jacobs – are rush first options in a game where the pass games project to be more popular.

The highest projected option is Tampa Bay’s Leonard Fournette. He’s priced down to $5,900 after missing the past three contests with a hamstring injury. Injuries have also muddled possibly appealing backfields in Kansas City and Arizona. While Cam Akers‘ return from injury has rendered Sony Michel‘s workhorse role less stable.

While muddled as ever at running back, there is a shocking amount of tight end firepower on a six-game slate. Eight of 2021’s top 10 scorers at the position take the field this weekend. This allows for a rare combination of ceiling and moderate ownership at a position the field often condenses on during short slates. It also imposes a difficult trade off to pay down at the position if you are looking to stuff multiple elite, high-priced receivers into your lineup.

Adjusting Strategy for Playoff Slates

There are a number of subtle changes to your strategy in playoff slates. I will focus on three major ones.

Late-Swap on Steroids

I’ve discussed the importance of late swap in this column plenty this year. However, never does it play more of a role than on playoff slates. If you play the six-game slate, you have chances to make swaps up to five times. This allows you to re-project ownership after each game, and re-optimize your lineup based on incoming results.

If Saturday’s games are efficiently owned based on projection, you should be underweight. There is an inherent edge in maintaining as much flexibility as possible. It gives you the maximum information when submitting lineups. If you play heavy on the first couple games and they fail, there is little you can do. However, if you play light and they succeed, you can attempt to get more unique elsewhere to capture upside you missed out on. The real question is, if everyone thinks this way, may the early games go under-owned tilting the edge back toward playing them?

Lower-Projected Threshold for Winning Players

With just six games, the likelihood of tertiary players finding a winning lineup is much higher. If Zay Jones has 3 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on a main slate, it’s largely irrelevant. With so many games, he is so rarely played it’s unlikely to affect you. As well, there are so many more options at all price ranges you can likely gap Jones in raw points elsewhere.

On this slate, all full-time players will catch some level of ownership. And the threshold of a score necessary for the winning lineup may lower with fewer options to surpass them. Taking a shot on low-projected players with a high ADOT, such as Zay Jones, is more effective in these slates. I would especially use these plays in early games. If you are able to hit big on a low-owned play on one of Saturday’s games, you can optimize your lineup toward more popular plays the rest of the slate.

Enlarge Your Stacks

In traditional slates, stacking hits a point of diminishing returns. Even in a shootout, the third or fourth highest scoring position player on a team is unlikely to produce enough raw points to ever hit an optimal lineup. The shorter the slate the more you pick ‘games’ over players.

In an epic shootout, eight separate Browns and Steelers went over 17 fantasy points of last year’s wild card matchup. Ben Roethlisberger produced over 19 points for four of his pass catchers. All of whom could have been played in a winning lineup.

While we should not project any game to hit that level of ludicrosity, the point stands. If any one game emerges as a shootout, the winning lineup may have five-six participants from said matchup. The advantage of building such a lineup is you are casting a wide enough net you need only be right about the game environment rather than any specific player.

The Inflection Points

I will walk through the driving strategic factor in each game of the six-game slate.

Will Patience Pay Off?

The first game of the weekend is among the most attractive. When these teams played in Week 11, Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, and Ja’Marr Chase all were within the top-played options at their positions. I expect more of the same this weekend. Despite the edge related to preserving late swap options, I expect a steady number of stacks on both sides; Burrow due to his ceiling and Carr due to price ($5,500).

The Bengals are fascinatingly binary. Joe Mixon has seven games above 25 DraftKings points this year. Including Week 11 vs the Raiders. Joe Burrow has joined him in only one of those. While Mixon should catch his own share of ownership, his best games typically result in all of Burrow, Chase and Higgins underperforming.

Joe Mixon’s sky-high ceiling correlates directly to the failure of his teammates; making him a fantastic inflection point

I’m inclined to play this game through the running backs in Mixon and Jacobs. Each have legitimate ceilings as the week’s top RB, and can steal points from other popular options in this game.

Is the Field Anchored to the Snow Game?

With so many high-octane offenses in play, there are bound to be high-ceiling options which go under the radar. Playing with the lowest implied team-total of all favorites, I expect that team is Buffalo. We all recall the legendary Monday night game when New England passed just three times in a Week 13 win. People may forget that three weeks later Josh Allen put up 33.96 DK points vs the Patriots, propelling both Stefon Diggs and Isaiah McKenzie to over 50 combined. 

With the elevation of Devin Singletary to bell cow status in recent weeks, I expect the majority of Bills ownership to funnel through their running game. But make no mistake, 2021’s QB1 has as high a ceiling as anyone in any matchup. If we can access Allen, stacked with Stefon Diggs at less than 15-20-percent cumulative ownership, that is always an enticing play.

Can Philadelphia Pull Off the Upset?

Since a 2-5 start, the Eagles have been football’s hottest team. Jalen Hurts closed the year 7-2 in his last nine starts riding a creative rush-heavy offense and explosive passing to Dallas Goedert. The fourth-year tight end has developed into one of the league’s best since the trade of Zach Ertz. Goedert’s position-leading 2.93 Yards per Route Run ranks behind only three wide receivers.

Dallas Goedert has displayed Wide Receiver level talent and usage

With Leonard Fournette the most popular option in this game, I want to get creative. Rather than a simple one-off, I will be reserving Lombardi Lenny for mini-correlations with Goedert or full game-stacks. I am especially enticed by the notion of a Hurts-Goedert stack with Rob Gronkowski as my run-back vs. the league’s worst tight end defense.

Giovani Bernard is coming off injured reserve this week, making it at least plausible Leonard Fournette loses some pass-down snaps in his first game back. If the Eagles can pull the upset on an injury-hampered Buccaneers team, Rob Gronkowski may be the preferred option, creating a well-leveraged and correlated game stack.

Pin the Tail on the Cowboy

The closest spread and highest over-under both belong to the 49ers-Cowboys game. While this contest figures to be high-scoring, Dallas is a maddening team to stack in DFS. Not a single pass-catcher sports over a 21-percent target share this season. For this reason I am going all-in or all-out with my Dak Prescott stacks. 

I have no interest in leaving my lineup to fate on which Cowboy happens to fall in the end zone this week. If this game shoots out, I’m bringing everybody with me. Especially in smaller-field contests, I will only feel ‘FOMO’ from fading the Cowboys if this game resembles the aforementioned Browns-Steelers carnival. If that happens, you are best off with a ‘4-2′ mega stack featuring multiple skill players from both sides. If the game merely plays to its total I will bet on another game out-pacing it, leaving my opponents to guess which combination is correct.

I’m more likely, if anything, to play a traditional stack from the 49ers side. Each of Dallas’ coverage options over the middle of the field are vulnerable to attack, which is San Francisco’s preferred throw area. Jimmy Garoppolo provides a lesser-owned spend down option at Quarterback pairable with Deebo Samuel and George Kittle

Can Ben Find Some Magic?

We know Patrick Mahomes will be popular this week, but what about the other side?

Ben Roethlisberger has been a shell of even his recent-years form in 2021, but you know if he falls behind he’ll go out slinging five-yard slants. The best garbage-time stat compiler of all-time deserves to go out in prime form. Any faith in offensive life from Pittsburgh brings either Steelers-weighted game stacks or Mahomes-led super stacks into play. In a game with two condensed passing games, I’m willing to take shots on this game playing out as a sneaky shootout with s surplus of fantasy value on all sides even if the outcome is rarely in doubt.

Beyond target-hog Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool ran a season-high in route percentage last week and has seemingly earned back Mike Tomlin’s good graces. As well, Ray-Ray McCloud is a legitimate target out of the slot if JuJu Smith-Schuster cannot return from injury. Playing both Roethlisberger and McCloud allows you to play virtually any ownership and salary you wish in the rest of your lineup.

The diminutive McCloud is targeted on 20-percent of his routes

Late-Game Adjustments

Kliff Kingsbury loves game-time decisions more than he loves field goals. It seems all three of Arizona’s rushers are heading for the ‘GTD’ label on Monday. And it’s likely we will not have final word until all other games are played. 

Given fear over Cam Akers, Sony Michel may come in less owned than he should at $5,400 based on his role the past month. I plan to lock Michel into most lineups in order to preserve at least one running back slot for Chase Edmonds or James Conner should either get the backfield alone on Monday. If not, Michel remains a strong play in his own right.

Should your lineup be live coming into the night, you can make informed decisions on any changes. You should be able to calculate remaining ownership allowing strong estimates on ownership for each player. If you need to make up ground, there are several lower-owned options with high ADOTS you can turn to; best of all Van Jefferson and Antoine Wesley. Both have the chance to steal points directly from the higher-owned Cooper Kupp and Christian Kirk and do so in bunches given their volatile role.

The Final Word

No matter what contest you play, consider the unique elements of the playoff slate. Take bold assumptions and maximize them to their full potential! It’s the playoffs! Time to go big or go home.